The guest control law is still in effect, but that really doesn’t matter. Not everyone is bound to follow the law in this free country. And if it’s just a post-Eid tea gathering, that law certainly doesn’t apply. After all, the tea wasn’t for a few hundred people, just around 15 in all. And the guests too were no commonplace people. They ranged from a former president who now is a party chief, to other nationally renowned personalities. They were all upholders of secular democratic politics. One was an awarded freedom fighter. In fact, all present had significant roles in the country’s liberation war. The host himself was a valiant student leader in his youth, one of the top leaders of Swadhin Bangla Chhatra Sangram Parishad. Not only that, he was even a minister in the Awami League cabinet of 1996-2000.
The guests had just exchanged greetings and were settling in, when a police officer appeared in the drawing room. It was thought he had been on duty outside and had just popped in for a drink of water. But that was not so. He had come with a message from his higher authorities - they had not taken prior permission, so the meeting there could not be held.
How could the government authorities or the intelligence assume in advance that the guests would be discussing the pros and cons of the government? They could have gathered together for nostalgic reminiscences of the movies they watched in their youth. They could have been waxing lyrical about Hema Malini, Vijayantimala, Asha Parekh, or the yesteryear heartthrobs of Pakistan, like Neelo, Sabiha or Musarrat Nazir. Then there are the unforgettable Hollywood heroines like Elizabeth Taylor and her numerous marriages, Sophia Loren and Brigette Bardot. They could have been discussing all this, but the orders came, no permission to talk.
The police officer was sent away the first time, but that was not the end. A little while later, directives came again, “Hurry up and finish.” The food was almost ready, how could the host send his guests away unfed? He asked the police for more time and the state was kind enough to grant them enough time to have the meal. And no one was arrested, at least.
The guests were all known to me, some particularly close friends. All were elderly. The meal was simple - rice, chicken, fish and such. They somehow ate and left. The meal sounded quote tempting, but I was annoyed and amused as well - annoyed at the manner in which the guests were insulted and amused at the style of democracy. The government has the authority to prevent public rallies and meetings, but the constitution has given each and everyone the right to sit at home and talk, meet. The government administration, the parliament or the state, no one has the right to snatch away this fundamental right. Those who read the parliament know this full well. Article 43 of the Constitution provides the fundamental right to live in peace in one’s home and hold talks and discussions there. The police cannot enter anyone’s home without written authorisation from a magistrate. They cannot carry out any search. They cannot confiscate property. The police’s duty is to ensure law and order, to ensure people’s rights, not to violate their rights. But the particular police officer cannot be blamed, he merely carried out orders from above.
Had the leaders that day bitterly castigated the government within the confines of the house, that wouldn’t have affected the government a bit. The people were not harmed a bit either by the obstruction to the meeting, but the government has been harmed. Those who had enthusiastically initiated this operation at the Uttara house, have tarnished the image of the government and the country. As it is the democratic culture of the country is out of shape, and now this thorn has been added. The wound will remain for long.
This disruption of the tea, or dinner, of a few renowned personalities took place at a time when a seminar on Bangladesh’s politics and democracy was being held in London. If the International Bangladesh Foundation had no importance at all, why did a high-level government team spend so much money to go there? When Awami League and BNP leaders do not sit together in the country, how morally correct is it then for them to sit together at a meeting abroad? It is one thing to go on a trip abroad on any occasion, but to attend a seminar on politics and human rights is another matter. And then did they consider the negative impact of going all the way there, but t not attending the seminar? Awami League has been attending the seminar of this organisation since 2005, but the excuse given by the Bangladesh high commission for the boycott this time, is not acceptable to the organisers of the Bengalis. The ruling party’s reputation has been tarnished.
Then there is another incident. It may seem small, but its impact on the state machinery is not small at all. It prompts adverse reaction within the public mind regarding the administration and the judiciary. It reveals the political state in which the people and the government officials live.
The upazila nirbahi officer (UNO) of Barguna, Gazi Tariq Salman, had made an independence day invitation card designed with a sketch of Bangabandhu drawn by a child of grade five. An overly enthusiastic admirer of Bangabandhu did not appreciate the sketch and filed a case against the UNO for ‘distorting’ Bangabandhu’s image. The court issued summons against the hapless UNO, he was taken before court where he appealed for bail. His bail plea was rejected and he was taken into detention like any common criminal, guarded closely in case he ran away or was snatched away by friends.
The UNO was granted bail within a couple of hours. But the humiliation was done. We have no doubt that the person who filed the case was overflowing with love for Bangabandhu, loyalty to this government and the country. We also do not have the audacity to question the wisdom of judge who accepted the case. We have no doubts about the knowledge, ethics and judgement of the plaintiff’s lawyers either. But what is the role of the ruling party? The man who filed the case against a respected official, is a party person and this is not the first such incident. Government officials are castigated the moment they do not serve the interests of party men. Many such officers have been insulted by ruling party people over the past few years. Coercion cannot earn loyalty.
Government officials are employees of the republic, not of the government. They are paid from the state coffers, not from any party fund. It is the duty of every citizen to let them perform their duties neutrally. The local leaders were aware of the case being filed. It had their support and that’s why the respected court almost passed half the sentence before the hearing. The respected court understands well what verdict to pass on certain complaints and against certain accused.
There is no reason to think that officers of the government administration will happily accept being used for party interests and then be humiliated by party people. The personal and professional life of that officer would have been ruined had the prime minister Sheikh Hasina and the bridges minister Awami League general secretary Obaidul Kader not intercepted and ordered action against the complainant.
Tolerance is a major characteristic of democratic culture. If freedom of expression is stifled, democracy dies. It doesn’t take battle and bloodshed to place a thorn in democracy’s flesh, to distort the beauty of democratic culture and to pollute it. Minor incidents are enough. Policymakers and officials, all concerned must practice caution.
Syed Abul Maksud is a writer and researcher. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir, Consultant (Content) Prothom Alo English Online.