Sarwar Tusher is a young political analyst who is involved in a number of youth organising groups including Rashtrochinta and Auraj. During an interview with Nasir Uz Zaman for New Age Youth, Sarwar Tusher talked about power, authority, sovereignty and the Constitution of Bangladesh
New Age Youth: You are member of youth groups like Rashtrochinta and Auraj and as a young political analyst you have taken interest in questioning power, authority, sovereignty and constitution. What ignited your interest in these issues?
Sarwar Tusher: To begin with, I must talk about my university life. In campus, I was involved in a variety of cultural and social organisations. Now I realise, those organisations primarily functioned as cultural and political forces. From those platforms, we opposed irregularities, corruptions and arbitrary or oppressive decisions of the university administrations. There were several examples of successful movements. I also saw naked violence and dadagiri of Bangladesh Chhatra League.
Experiencing all these and participating in the movements, I turned out to be extremely oppositional to tyrannical power and authority. At the same time, the comfort zone of my intellectual world was strongly shaken by the writings of Noam Chomsky, Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, George Orwell, and of course the two names in particular — Salim Reza Newton and Bokhtiar Ahmed. Their writings, discussions influenced me tremendously at that time. From then on, I continued to engage critically with the question of state, authority, sovereign power and violence.
Then, I came to Dhaka and joined Rashtrochinta and later Auraj. What I realise is that ‘each and all’ is a beautiful idea. The beauty and need of the coexistence of the individual and the collective became apparent to me. As I have been told before, collective means sacrificing individuality, talking of individual human agency is just amounts to ‘selfishness’. But on these two platforms, I saw exactly the opposite of such practice.
Here no one oppresses the individual for the sake of the collective, in fact, the collective becomes possible only under the condition of the individual’s full ‘autonomy’. So, through these two organisations, I am constantly learning to be more firmly critical about the dangers of one-person-centred power, constitutional dictatorship and more broadly, of the power itself. I am learning that human being can become the master of her/his own life. From then on, it became my political position to work for the empowerment of mass people by problematising the dominant order.
New Age Youth: As part of Rashtrochinta, you have comprehensively studied the Constitution of Bangladesh. In critiquing it, you have talked about amendment in some sections for building a democratic state with the spirit of 1971. Tell us more about your findings and the amendments you think is needed.
Sarwar Tusher: Actually, Rashtrochinta is not advocating only the ‘amendment’ of the constitution, rather talking about the democratic transformation of the state through the reform of the one-person-centred power structure of the constitution.
Engaging critically with the Constitution of Bangladesh, we have seen that power has been consolidated in one person. In that way, the wider the organisational and ideological power of the ruling party is, the more it can control the state institutions, media and cultural section, the more it establishes a terrible dictatorship, considering both repressive and ideological aspects.
The danger of the ‘amendment’ is that as long as you have a two-thirds majority of the total parliamentary seats, you can make any changes to the constitution. Be it Bakshal, be it a one-party state, be it adding Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim to the constitution, be it the state religion Islam or be it abolishing the caretaker government system which was established through people’s movement — it is possible.
By making such an amendment, you can further strengthen the politics of ideological polarisation of Bangladesh with the force of this two-thirds majority (if you keep Article 70 in mind, it will be clear that it is just matter of one person’s will or reluctance). If you notice, each of the mentioned amendments has taken Bangladesh in one or the other negative directions. These are still the matters of debate and division in our political discourse. But none of these amendments were the demands of the mass people. Professor Ali Riaz called it the ‘curse of the two thirds’.
From Rashtrochinta, we are challenging the absolute power that brings such amendments and speaking about a balance of the unaccountable powers. We are saying that the constitutional arrangement that gives the blank check of such an absolute power needs to make accountable to the people of Bangladesh through a democratic transformation by the election of a constituent assembly. Through which we will be able to resolve the conflicts between the manifesto of the Constitution and its structure.
In Bangladesh, the constitutional debate is largely centred on the fundamental principles of the constitution, but hardly any talk over its power structure. The constitution clearly states that if the state does not abide by its declared principles then those declared principles will not be judicially enforceable. Rashtrochinta speaks of a change in such conflicting reality — a reform of the power structure that will largely be consistent with fundamental principles of the constitution.
It is, as such, no amendment can be brought by force of parliamentary majority which changes the basic character of the state and converts the crisis into the rule.
New Age Youth: One of your major intellectual intervention is your work on violence where you argued that extra-judicial killings are not really extra-judicial, in fact our legal frameworks have historically accommodated such violence. Tell us more about your work on the topic?
Sarwar Tusher: The argument about ‘extra-judicial’ killings is largely based on how we view the ‘judgment’ discourse. If ‘judgment’ means justice or the establishment of justice, then of course there is no ‘justice’ in such killings, there is the exercise of the extreme racist sovereign power of the extreme violent state. It is just a murderous instinct. However, when we oppose the term ‘extra-judicial’, we are basically emphasising on the legal framework of the word ‘judgment’.
We have noticed that those who oppose crossfire because it is ‘extrajudicial’ killings, clandestinely indicate these killings to be ‘illegal’. As if they have taken for granted that our constitution cannot pave the way for such killings.
But we have closely read from Articles 32 to 46 of the Constitution, relevant sections of the Criminal Procedure Code and the Penal Code and learned that crossfire or encounter cannot be ‘illegal’ killings. For example, Article 46 states, ‘Parliament may by law make provision for indemnifying any person in the service of the republic or any other person in respect of any act done by him in connection with the national liberation struggle or the maintenance or restoration of order in any area in Bangladesh or validate any sentence passed, punishment inflicted, forfeiture ordered, or other act done in any such area.’
Section 46(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure is a section that sets out what the police can and cannot do to make an arrest. It states, ‘Nothing in this section gives a right to cause the death of a person who is not accused of an offence punishable with death or with imprisonment for life.’ In other words, if a person is convicted in a case that could result in the death penalty or life imprisonment, then this ‘section’ gives law enforcing agencies the right to kill that person while arresting.
Notice the terms ‘any person’, ‘any act’. I mean, it can be anything, right? It is being said that any work to maintain ‘discipline’ will get indemnity. When the ‘war on drugs’ started, it started with the pretext of maintaining ‘discipline’ at the state borders, did not it? Then note the mentioned section of the Criminal Procedure Code, here the judicial power has been given to the law enforcement agencies. Is there still a way to say that crossfires or encounters are ‘extra-judicial’ killings?
There are also moral and philosophical aspects for not realising crossfire an ‘extra-judicial’ killing. Philosophically, we think that the power to take someone’s life cannot be in the hands of the state. In countries that have the death penalty, the crime rate is also higher. The ethical aspect is that a ground is automatically created for ‘judicial’ killings with the term ‘extra-judicial’ killings.
The question which arises as obvious that do you oppose crossfire because it is ‘extra-judicial’? Would not you oppose if it could somehow prove to be a ‘judicial’ murder? For this, we cannot rely on the narrow discourse of ‘extrajudicial’ killing while unveiling the sovereign power that produces human being as ‘homo sacer’ or killable ‘bare life’, going beyond the ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ framework of state killing.
New Age Youth: In several articles you have criticised the Digital Security Act 2018. Would you like to share your arguments taking into account the recent implications of the Act?
Sarwar Tusher: Digital Security Act is an oppressive law. This law proves that law can be a great tool to satisfy the political vindictiveness of the ruling party! You will punish opponents for political reasons but using a ‘legal’ framework. We oppose exactly such kind of power that upholds such constitutional system of legislation.
I do not just oppose the Act because there have the possibilities of ‘misuse’ or simply as a threat to the freedom of journalists, writers and artists. I oppose this law because it continues a coup against the human existence. This law has taken a stand against language and thought which has enabled human to rise above her/his biological existence and become a political being.
We must remember the saying of the philosopher René Descartes, who said, ‘I think therefore I am.’ In other words, there is an inseparable relationship between thought and language behind the being ‘I’. So, we do not just want to understand the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of thought merely through political conditions or as a constitutional system, but through the relation to the concept of human agency itself.
By declaring thought as a ‘crime’ under the Digital Security Act, the state has descended into the role of ‘thought police’. We unequivocally oppose it with our whole being. The most ruthless tragic-comic aspect of the Act is that the government which is committed to building a ‘digital Bangladesh’, has enacted such an unprecedented dictatorial law to deprive netizens of digital security. This is a perfect example of Orwell’s ‘doublethink’!
New Age Youth: As a young critic, what is your view on the overall democratic system and its practice in Bangladesh?
Sarwar Tusher: Actually, the condition of both the democratic system and practice in Bangladesh is quite miserable. Besides the government, without some rare exceptions, there is also visible lack in democratic practices in the platforms and organisations those oppose the government. These organisational structures cannot endorse dissent. This is because of the hierarchical power structure of the organisations, which is exactly the same as the autocratic power structure of the state. Here, there is no participation of the grassroots members in the decision making process.
A few lines from Shahid Qadri’s poem come to my mind, ‘State means left right, left right.’ It is quite same about the parties or organisations. I think present state system is the logical consequence of such undemocratic political practices. If you want a democratic transformation of the state, you must have that practice in your own network or organisation.
Otherwise, you cannot meet up the conflicts of your purpose and means. I do not want to understand progress and democracy through a linear time frame as we might see democracy and progress at some point in the future if we continue to travel through this time frame. I want to understand time as what Dipesh Chakrabarty termed as ‘time knot’. And that is — you have to start your practice right at this moment to achieve what you want. Someday in the future we will make a ‘revolution’ and then democracy will automatically come down from the sky, actually, it is not like that.
You have to practice democracy from this very moment. You have to know how to deal with dissent. The sword of ‘disciplinary action’ cannot be applied to anyone who disagrees. I think human being is by default democratic creatures and I am not just talking about democracy as a political doctrine. The biological existence of human being is democratic and language is the greatest proof.
Human being had to agree on what will be called by what name. Otherwise, it would not have been possible to have any language at all. The democratic consciousness of human being so much inherent. But the engineering of social order by the existing sovereign state system makes it as if the people are not democratic at all, they do not understand their own good and evil, they are always in conflict, so a Leviathan system is needed to control the people. This is exactly the thing that we are experiencing in Bangladesh today.
We cannot get rid of this dangerous trap if democratic practice cannot be accelerated among all kinds of socio-political initiatives, including, media, political parties, civil rights organisations, study circles and so on. I think today’s youth needs to be anti-authoritarian, to identify the dictatorships everywhere in the society and state, to question them, to revolt conscientiously against the imposed injustice.
In this suffocating and slavish political reality, the limits of freedom is needed to be extended so far that our very existence can act as a form of rebellion.
Nasir Uz Zaman is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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