THE government continues to take legal and extralegal steps to encroach upon the public space for critiquing power, which is an essential right of citizens in any democratic dispensation, with the latest such undemocratic effort of the incumbents being the enactment of a legislation seeking to punish non-governmental organisations in case of critiquing, what they said, constitutional bodies of the state. The treasury bench on Wednesday had a law — the Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Law 2016 — passed by way of which the government would enjoy the right to cancel the registration of an NGO for, along with other things, as reported by New Age on Thursday, ‘making derogatory comments on the constitution and the constitutional institutions.’
That many an NGO has for long been operating in the country without a proper sense of accountability, and that many an NGO ‘owner’ has become unproportionately rich in the process of ‘serving the poor’ and that the NGOs, in general, and the foreign-funded ones, in particular, needed to be made accountable to people is unquestionable, but punishing them for legal and political comments perceived to be ‘derogatory’ by the government is absolutely undemocratic. The constitutions of the states are not ‘holy’ books — no matter how loudly the framers of the constitutions propagate them to be so. Instead, the constitutions in democratic dispensations are considered to be the manifest desires, ‘general will’ in other words, of the people that change from time to time — the reason why constitutions undergo changes, sometimes fundamentally. Similarly, the constitutional bodies and institutions are not run by angels anywhere on earth, and they are, therefore, not always beyond making any mistake, even committing crimes — the reason why history witness the trial of many running such institutions after they are out of power. Governments committed to democratic principles, therefore, do get any law enacted that prevents citizens from critiquing the constitutional authorities.
Be that as it may, the government of Bangladesh appears to have been deaf about the preaching of democratic principles for quite some years now, for they have enacted many a new legislation and amended many old laws in the past few years that stand in the way of exercising democratic rights of critiquing authorities of power. Subsequently, the public space for critiquing ‘power’ has gradually shrunk to a dangerous extent, which is being manifested in many forms, mostly extralegal, from obstructing the political opponents in registering public protest against autocratic governance to coercive actions against the environmental activists.
Understandably, the incumbents having questionable political legitimacy, originating from uncontested general elections in 2014 retaining power, are extra-sensitive about the public criticism of some constitutional bodies, such as the Election Commission, supporting it in undesirable ways. Under the circumstances, the government would be well advised to rather take steps to gain political legitimacy through fresh general elections, fair and contested, instead of resorting to controlling public grievances by legal and extralegal means. The sooner, the better, for all quarters.
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