Ever shrinking space for free thinking
Tuesday, 08 January 2008

The conviction of four Rajshahi University teachers on charge of instigating student protests on the university campus on August 21 and 22 in violation of the Emergency Power Rules has one ominous message: the space for freethinking is fast diminishing.

THE Dhaka University Teachers Association, at an emergency meeting on December 7, resolved that it would 'take up tough action programme, if the teachers and students of Dhaka and Rajshahi universities who had been detained over the August 20-22 campus protests were not released by December 12. The association also chalked up a two-day programme -'its members would wear black badges to work on Sunday and bring out a silent procession from Aparajeya Bangla on the Dhaka University campus on Monday - to press home its demand. The resolution was passed in the wake of the conviction of four Rajshahi University teachers - Moloy Kumar Bhowmik, Dulal Chandra Biswas, Selim Reza Newton and Abdullah al-Mamun - on charge of instigating student protests on the university campus on August 21 and 22, in violation of the Emergency Power Rules. The association has drawn the battle line.

The military-driven interim government has thus far shown little tolerance to any kind of dissent, however genuine the reasons are and whoever it comes from. When the farmers agitated against unavailability of fertilizer during peak cultivation season, the law enforcers were sent in to disperse the 'unruly' crowd. When the students at Dhaka University protested against the manhandling of students and a teacher by some members of the armed forces, the law enforcers once again intervened, indiscriminately charging batons, lobbing teargas shells and spraying rubber bullets. And recently, it did not even hesitate to have the police detain 12 persons for demonstrating against shoddy relief operation in the cyclone Sidr hit areas in the coastal district of Barguna.

Then, of course, cases were filed against the protesters on charge of violating the Emergency Powers Rules. Well, it will be naive to expect a government, which operates under a state of emergency, to appreciate criticism. However, in case of the government of Fakhruddin Ahmed, the expectations were a bit different. After all, it did assume power with the self-professed objective of upholding and consolidating '-the democratic system through ensuring a congenial political and social environment.'

The chief adviser has also waxed eloquence when urging 'the people to carry forward the beloved motherland toward the path of peace and progress by working shoulder to shoulder.' In a televised address to the nation on August 22, he said: 'You [the people] are our [the government's] source of inspiration. Your spontaneous .and absolute support and blessings are our driving forces.'

Curiously, the government seems to have been more eager to drive a wedge between itself and the people. It has, on the one hand, slowly but surely isolated itself from the public and encroached upon, on the other hand, whatever little space the people had to have their concerns and grievances heard. Nothing seems to have gone the way the interim government said it would. More people are losing their homes and jobs, crimes, both petty and serious, are rising, the cost of living is going way out of the reach of the common people; the list may go on and on. All this while, the people have been reminded time and again that, under the state of emergency, their democratic rights to the freedom of thoughts, conscience and expressions, to hold meetings, to bring out processions, etc are kept in abeyance indefinitely.

Are these reminders working? Perhaps not. At least not as prohibitively as the interim government would have wanted them to. Even after the government's strong armed tactics to rein in the agitating farmers at Nachole, farmers are still taking to the streets over shortage of fertilizer. In fact, as recently as on November 29, farmers of Nabdiganj and Kalyani Bunions in Pirgachha upazila blocked the Rangpur- Kurigram highway for about two hours. It took intervention by the police and the joint forces to clear the road. And, now the Dhaka University Teachers' Association has threatened the government with 'tough action programme' if the detained students and teachers of Dhaka and Rajshahi universities are not released by December 12.

To say the government has more often than not gone about addressing public grievances the wrong way would be stating the obvious. Its take on the August 20-22 protests, which started from the Dhaka University campus and later spread across the country, could not have been any farther from reality. The protests were an explosion of 'pent-up public grievances. Period Of course, it started over what the government termed a 'trival matter'.

When the people are forced to bottle up their resentment and frustration for so long, even the faintest of provocation is enough to trigger a wildfire-like protest. In this case, the provocation was
 anything but negligible. Then, to even suggest that it was part of 'a plan to destabilize the situation and undermine the government' is an affront to the people's inherent urge to be heard in general and the students' inherently dissenting nature.

What the people in the corridors of power seemingly refuse to acknowledge is that a university - any educational institution for that matter – is a space for freethinking. Here, teachers are expected to instill in their students the sense of individual independence and collective freedom. Naturally, therefore, teachers are expected to rebel when the space for freethinking is being infringed upon, be it in the name of a state of emergency or otherwise. In fact, they would have been doing injustice to their profession had they not taken a stance against the sustained infringement on the space for freethinking during the campus protests between August 20 and 22. Also, teachers are custodians of their students. It would have been morally unjustifiable had all of them looked on as the law-enforces and security forces went about indiscriminately beating up the students, spraying rubber bullets and lobbing teargas shells on them. The convicted teachers of Rajshahi University and the detained teachers of Dhaka University may have done just that.

Seemingly, the government is not conditioned to the concept of freethinking and thus prefers branding any protestations of dissent as 'plan t destabilize the country and undermine the government and any protesters as 'conspirators’, 'instigators’, 'evil forces,' etc. Again, it would be rather naive to expect otherwise. What is, perhaps more worrisome is when court of law endorses such schizophrenia. The court of the additional chief metropolitan magistrate, which sentenced the four Rajshahi University teachers to two year in prison and fined them Tk 1,000 each, displayed complete lack of historic* and political perspective in passing its judgment.

In reinforcing the government denial about the existence of genuine grievances among the public in general and the academia in particular over the perpetuation of the stat of emergency, it may have paved the way for encroachment of whatever space of freethinking that the people are left with now. In an educationally impoverished country such as our teachers, especially those of the universities are the main stay of public intellectualism. They are the ones who, by and large, significantly express the public will. The four Rajshahi University teachers spoke, and perhaps acted against the perpetuation of the state of emergency and the repression on their students. Regrettably, the court, and the government misconstrued their genuine concern over an increasing infringement by the state 01 the space for freethinking which universities and other educational institutions represent, as a design to destabilize the country. What can be more crippling a blow to the very concept of public intellectualism?

This article is written by- Mir Ashrafuzzaman 

Comments Add New
Write comment
  We don't publish your mail. See privacy policy.
Please input the anti-spam code that you can read in the image.