Democracy is not a spectator’s sport, Ariana Huffington once famously declared. If you care about it, you need to roll up your sleeves, go out and stand on the picketing line. That’s exactly what a group of Dhaka University teachers did and in the process paid a price.
Last week, several Dhaka University teachers were manhandled by police and pro-government goons for protesting indiscriminate assaults on students demanding quota reforms. None of the teachers were involved in any violent action, neither were they known to have broken any law. Yet they were assaulted – in broad daylight and with cameras flashing – most likely to send a signal to others: protest at your own peril. The same message has already been transmitted to the protesting students. Most of their leaders are now hiding.
The teachers, however, were back on the street the next day. Clearly, fear does not work with everyone.
None of the professors protesting are top tier intellectuals. Except for one or two, those in the top tier have so far preferred to sit on the sidelines, their mouth tightly shut. After all, they know the goons are waiting at the gate.
This incident, like many others in the past, reminds us that resistance to abuse of power is necessary – in fact, indispensable – for democracy to survive and deepen. When the voice of resistance fades, democracy faces a slow death. We know it from Bangladesh’s own history that there is a price to be paid to achieve democracy. Think of Bangabandhu, who spent almost one-third of his life behind bars. His sacrifices led to our freedom.
No less significant was the sacrifice made by Bangladesh’s ordinary people. In my living room hangs a photo of Noor Hossain taken by Pavel Rahman only minutes before he was gunned down in 1987 by a military dictator’s police. Never known for his political activism, Noor Hossain was just a regular young man. Yet he felt it no longer possible to sit on the sidelines and watch the police and paramilitary continue to mow down protesters demanding the restoration of democracy. On his bare body were written two bold proclamations: restore democracy and death to autocracy. He fell on Dhaka’s asphalt street as a bullet fired point blank hit him in the chest. Sacrifices by Noor Hossain and many others like him finally led to the restoration of democracy in 1991.
History tells us any people unable or unwilling to stand up for democracy will see democracy evade them. This is true everywhere, even here in the US. In both Bangladesh and the US, democracy is in retreat. However, there is a subtle difference. In Bangladesh, the resistance to Democracy’s retreat is almost non-existent. In the US, the resistance is strong and widening.
Over the past 18 months, something strange has been happening in the US. It was a foretold fact that Donald Trump’s election would result in a crisis for democracy. This prophecy is being fulfilled – in bits and pieces - as Trump continues to erode civil rights, defy existing norms and violate democratic principles. And, in the process, he has pushed the country to an unprecedented political divide.
Obviously, this has caused great worries among Americans, many of whom now say they can no longer recognize their own country. Former President Jimmy Carter has publicly lamented that the US was no longer a democracy. Using opinion polls and other analytical tools, a group of researchers at Princeton University also reached the same conclusion: yes, the US was an oligarchy – not a democracy – where all power was concentrated in the hands of a few rich and powerful.
That in Bangladesh, too, power rests with a handful is a given fact. People’s participation in democratic decision-making is nominal. Press freedom is dwindling. Corruption is all-pervasive. The sanctity of people’s vote is besmirched. Most people now say democratic gains of the early 1990s are now a mirage. And yet there is no meaningful resistance to this continued erosion of democratic norms.
It is a folly to expect anyone from the ruling circle to resist this erosion, as elected representatives are constitutionally barred from taking a position not endorsed by the ruling group. In such a situation, who do people turn to for leadership? Not the political opposition, their own record at destroying democracy is even worse.
In the US, too, nobody expects the ruling Republican leadership to offer resistance, they have acquiesced to Trumpism so completely that none – not even the Leader of the Senate or Speaker of the Congress – have the courage to stand up to the President’s appalling behavior. Many Americans, including those in the middle, are unable to fathom how the country stumbled into this morass. Last week, on the occasion of America’s Independence Day, the Washington Post tallied several public opinion polls and reached the conclusion that a growing number of Americans no longer feel patriotic. The Editorial Board of the New York Times even called for a renewal of American values. In the past America recovered from its own stupor by reinventing itself. It is still possible, the daily reminded its readers.
At the centre of this renewal lies uncompromising resistance to all attempts to stifle democracy. Not just in America but everywhere else we have seen this rebirth through resistance. The more the oligarchy tries to throttle democracy, fiercer has to become the resistance to it. The renewal that the New York Times spoke about is not mere talk. Even in the era of Trump, many voices are challenging Trump. Obviously, those on the outside of power block – women, minorities and immigrants – are at the forefront of this resistance. Even a certain number of Republicans are renouncing their own party, quitting it disgust.
One of those to have left the Republican Party most recently is Steve Schmidt. A former campaign manager of John McCain’s unsuccessful Presidential run in 2008, Schmidt has recently announced his departure from his party after being a Republican for 29 years and nine months. “Today I renounce my membership in the Republican Party. It is fully the party of Trump,” he said.
In today’s Bangladesh, there is no Steve Schmidt. Those plucking sweet plums, thanks to their membership in the power circle, are unlikely to change course. With disappearing press freedom and shrinking civil rights movement, much more was expected of the country’s intellectuals who in the past had articulated the demand for democratic governance.
Where are they now?
The good news is that they may not be many, but we still have a few brave souls willing to stand up for democracy. When I read how the members of the teaching community, among them Rehnuma Ahmed, Fahmidul Huq and Gitiara Nasrin, chose not to give up their core belief in democratic principles, I knew not all was lost. They were bloodied and hounded. Yet, on the next day, they were out on the street making the same demand.
Brecht once wrote, even at times of darkness, there will be singing – about the dark times. This was their song about the dark times.
6 July 2018, New York