Everyone is talking about the Tetultala grounds now due to the police. The citizens have created quite a stir by vehemently protesting against the police exerting their power to construct the Kalabagan police station on this field. The police’s treatment of a woman and her young son has been termed as unlawful and unjust. The mother and her son were only released from detention after she signed a bond not to carry on the movement to keep the Tetultala field as a playing ground.
In face of the demonstrations, the home minister has said that instructions have been issued to find an alternative place to construct the police station and if found, this will remain a playing field. Meanwhile, construction continues under police watch. It is still difficult to discern whether the movement has been a success or a failure. Even so, the features of this citizens’ movement deserves discussion.
The main feature of this citizens’ movement is that it is entirely non-political. It is not that there haven’t been any movements in the past in Dhaka to protect citizens’ rights, but it has been quite some time since such a spontaneous movement erupted. A few years ago a group of consumers had launched a movement demanding clean drinking water from WASA, but eminent citizens did not take part in the protest.
Lower income and middle class families have been gasping under the mounting costs of electricity and gas, but even that didn’t quite take off as a movement. Basically the left leaning parties followed a routine political movement. There are occasional human chains and protests over various social and cultural issues, but even those are mostly initiated and carried out by political and cultural activists. Over the past two years only two movements have made a major mark and those are the quota reforms movement and students’ movement for safe roads. And there has not been a single political movement worth mention.
The 2013-14 movement taken up by BNP, boycotting and resisting the election, got out of hand and simply ended up being quelled by stern repressive action. The success of this repression was a huge boost to the government’s confidence and encouraged it further. And it has been a continuation of this policy of repression that has effectively kept BNP and, in fact, any political party of differing views, off the streets. For instance, the movements of the organisations of two former DUCSU VPs – Mahmudur Rahman Manna’s Nagorik Oikya and Nurul Huq’s Gono Odhikar Parishad -- were supressed. Even the movement by committee to protect national interests, to protect the Sundarbans against the coal-fired Rampal power plant, did not escape this suppression, though it was not a political issue.
There has notably been a sort of national silence against the violations of the fundamental rights to assemble and for freedom of expression. The human rights organisations have regularly been publishing lists of the incidents of repression, torture and violation of human rights, but the citizens’ bodies have not been doing much outside of this. Expression of differing views have resulted in action such as enforced disappearances, harassment with false cases, and crossfire. In face of this environment of fear, silence seemed to be the better option.
The protestors also include persons known to be of the government camp, even though this group has been silent about the suppression of differing views, torture and the violation of human rights
The citizens’ movement to protect the Tetultala grounds has broken this silence. The legitimacy of making the woman sign a bond not to continue the movement has been questioned. The citizens have asked for a list of issues against which no movement can be launched. This question indicates a determination to protest against all sorts of wrongs and injustice.
The people who are demonstrating for the protection of the playing grounds, include renowned citizens’ rights activists and organisers who have at various times stood up against various steps of the government that have gone against public interests. And the protestors also include persons known to be of the government camp, even though this group has been silent about the suppression of differing views, torture and the violation of human rights. The police has deemed the local residents of Tetultala as the foe, and in doing so they have instigated the pro-government intellectuals to also join the protest against the abuse of power. This is certainly no mean achievement. The question now is, have these citizens of the government ilk taken a single step for the protection of human rights outside of this move to save the Tetultala field? And even if they have, how far?
Even in developed countries, mainstream political and social movement is still on the streets. The social media and internet are tools of support
Of course, the role of social media like Facebook in movements to protect citizens’ rights certainly warrants discussion. The agitation on the streets over the issues has been far outdone by the agitation in social media, particularly Facebook. The government also seems to have begun to understand the clout wielded by Facebook. There have been instances of the government rapidly changing certain decisions in the face of Facebook protests. In fact, many believe that after Syeda Ratna and her son were detained, they were released that night with no cases filed against them, simply because of the reaction on Facebook. Then again, there may be another reason to meet people’s non-political demands, other than giving any importance to people’s views on Facebook. Amidst the allegations of the lack of democracy in the country, the government may use this instance in the international arena as an example of their democratic character.
However, organised political programmes have hardly been able to tangibly use Facebook as a strong base. While the students have effectively used Facebook to directly campaign and rally support for their movements, no political protest till date has been effectively organised by means of this platform. In the meantime, the government is working in full force to gain control over Facebook and other social media platforms. There is a growing awareness among the people of the government’s initiatives to ensure that no seeds of antigovernment protest movements can be sown. There needs to be talk about the freedom on internet of the people who actively uphold citizens’ rights. But it must also be noted that even in developed countries, mainstream political and social movement is still on the streets. The social media and internet are tools of support.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir