I DO not know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but power is legendary in its fragility. Nothing, a tight grip, an engulfing security apparatus, the sured chorus of enablers and accomplices, will ever be enough to avert the inevitable. The heirs and heiresses may take comfort in its momentary pleasure, but the comedown is always around the corner. It is Gilles Deleuze who in Empiricism and Subjectivity described moral conscience as political conscience and how a moral world had to allow for [self] interest and ‘also interest of the other’ to be carefully calibrated, ‘satisfied and realized.’ On page A7 of the New York Times on November 10, 1987, the lede, ‘Tunisians attempt change’ referred to the ouster of president Habib Bourguiba a few days prior. In these 31 years, Tunisians are not over attempting change, struggles for justice always an unfinished business, but the certitude of power, even more ephemeral. There is always somebody in power, but nobody stays in power forever.
From Tunisia to Bangladesh. In a black and white photograph from November 10, 1987, Shapla Chottor appears blindingly calm. There are people on the street, their dense silhouettes, ghostly and faceless, belie turgid disturbances in the atmosphere. Nothing in the photograph itself — it’s just people on a street against the light so their faces are unrecognisable, their figures as cutouts — transmits the severity of the day. But it’s a trenchant document of portentous shadows. To understand the photo and its significance, you’d have to know why one of the busiest streets in Dhaka looked so still on a weekday (it was a Tuesday). It was a day of blockades of the capital by opposition parties against the reigning dictator at the time, HM Ershad. A day of strikes, of putting bodies in the line, of not bending to the will of power, entered into the almanac of tragedy through the body and life of Noor Hossain whose message written on the body — Swairachar nipat jāk, ganatantra mukti pāk (Down with autocracy, unshackle democracy) — was unbearable for the regime to let pass. He was murdered for this transgression, words unchained; but sentiments are harder to kill. The photograph in question, a quieter entry from a day of calamities in the same place as Hossain’s assassination, was by Shahidul Alam (November 10, 1987, Dhaka Siege Day). Ershad would fall three years later.
The distance between 1987 and 2018 is not merely 31 years: Bangladesh is not under a military dictatorship in 2018. But Shahidul Alam is now in prison — the aftermath of a critical interview to Al Jazeera. He was kidnapped, sans warrant, sans charges, from his home on August 5 by plain clothes men for criticising the government during the student protests for road safety. What should have been reasonably within his purview, was saddled with a price. The charges came later, post detention; he has since been held without bail, without trial, for entering into record, his observations and analyses on the political climate of the day. Curiously, another record of note, the FIR against Alam, has no mention of his Al Jazeera interview. Instead, it is a ricocheting hail of other allegations, charges that do not necessarily adhere to the clause — the now defunct Section 57 (1) of the ICT act — under which he is held. For example, a person can be charged for spreading false and vulgar information in electronic media but none of the formal complaints against Alam satisfy the dual requirement of this clause, namely spreading information which is false AND vulgar, nor do the complaints themselves mention vulgarity. Still he languishes in prison.
Meanwhile, ignoring his body of work or worse, bending them to will, genuflecting narratives pinning Alam to a particular kind of loyalty test have taken hold. His allegiances, his family, all fair game to a tenuous reading for an even more arguable end. Scanning these accusations and insinuations floating about in traditional and social media, it would appear there is liberty in the land after all, for anybody can say anything so long as that anybody or anything favours the reigning myths of the day. As to be expected and which we have come to accept as normal, to bite the bad faith bullets and batten it for the long haul. But this forced normalcy only exposes an even more eternal dictum, that power is brittle and for all its assuredness, it doesn’t rest easy.
Shahidul Alam’s case may be one of the more famous ones but it fits within a pattern. As another recent example, Chittagong University teacher Maidul Islam was sent to jail in September, also without trial (he is now out on bail, but after suspension from the university he has not yet been reinstated), for critical posts on Facebook. A comment by the case officer to members of the media speaks for itself: ‘Police sought a five-day remand for questioning and the court granted them three days. Being a university teacher, he made derogatory remarks about the prime minister on Facebook. What will students learn?’ I too wonder about the students.
Compelled to navigate the juridical minefield, once you’re stuck the only way seems to be through, the larger question of over-criminalisation of society gets forever stalled. As necessary as it is at the moment, protestations about breakdown of law and order is still of lower stakes than an immediate reflection on the formation of law and order society and its corollary, the militarisation of institutions including of law and order. What to make of a social and political space where criticising public representatives, servants and institutions lands you in prison? Where government employees can’t be arrested without prior approval, but everybody else has to tread trapdoors of legal black holes, or worse? Countless are shot to death by law enforcers? The checkpoints, the IDs, the biometric tangles, CCTVs, regulations of speech, the men who show up unannounced to haul you off are all cut from the same cloth. In Bangladesh, all of this is of colonial vintage now refashioned into something that’s all the rage worldwide — technofascism.
That the Police Act of 1861 in British colonial India gave the Inspector General of Police full powers of a magistrate, that the police administration took after the Irish colonial paramilitary police, and that the ‘last ten years of British rule witnessed the rapid expansion of the political intelligence-oriented Special Branch and the range of its activities’ betray the DNA of policing and law enforcement in South Asia, much of which still remains extant. Then, and now, the intent was and is to wring a state of obedience through fear and force. The incorporation of the colonial era Official Secrets Act into the newly enacted Digital Security Act only reaffirms this genealogy. In conjunction, technological resurfacing of the way we live has only deepened and exacerbated many of these troubling arrangements; the twin logic of convenience and security merely perpetuate the logic of power and status quo instead of upending them.
Lodged right there in the thicket of all this is the most pressing issue of over-criminalisation. The overreach of the criminal justice system through the manufacture of crime and criminality suits the tendencies of power rooted in its historical role in ‘producing authoritarian sovereign formations.’ And ‘accusations of crime‘ has always been and continues to be a rather easy tool to stifle dissent: Disturbing peace, disturbing law and order, disturbing public interest are veiled attempts to rationalise the freewheeling menace of power. Shahidul, Maidul, and others in similar conditions are now on the hook to prove their innocence but whose interests have they jeopardised and why are those crimes are something in need of reckoning. Borrowing from Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael, it is the ‘the law of conscience’ that should compel this reckoning.
‘Therefore!’ as Mahmoud Darwish’s Identity Card proclaimed:
Write down on the top of page one:
I do not hate people,
Nor do I encroach,
But if I become hungry,
The usurper’s flesh will be my food,
Of my hunger,
And of my anger.
Parsa Sanjana Sajid is a writer, editor, and researcher.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion