“Liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of our ease, their estates, their pleasure and their blood.” – John Adams, second US president, 1765
That quote states an obvious and natural component and undoubtedly one of the most important rights in any republic. A curtailment or menace to this right negates everything democratic republics stand for. What we are seeing in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (the obvious irony in its name) is not only a negation of man’s innate right to liberty but a complete abuse of such a concept and the practice of it.
Gruesome violence against free thinkers, speakers, political opponents and their supporters have been the new normal in Bangladesh for more than a decade but has risen exponentially in recent years. Anyone who dares to speak up unfavorably about government policies is a target for persecution or even death. Social-media accounts are rigorously monitored and statuses or even “likes” on comments that question Sheikh Hasina’s government are targeted.
This was manifested for the entire world to witness with the brutal murder of Abrar Fahad, a 21-year-old student at the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). In his Facebook posts, he had shown his support for the autonomy of Kashmir, against Indian oppression and human-rights abuses, like millions of people globally. However, this is considered a crime in present-day Bangladesh.
At around the same time as the lockdown in Kashmir, the director general of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an organization described as “the elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police,” declared on national television that no protests about the Kashmir lockdown would be tolerated, and would lead to arrests. Thus Abrar was undoubtedly already featured on the radar.
The ruling Awami League does not just restrict itself to online activities of Bangladeshis. When international analyses exposing the truth about Sheikh Hasina’s blatant authoritarianism results in her top diplomats issuing public responses defending what is known to be false, we know that the understanding of a democracy, freedom of thought and speech are willfully ignored. It is as though the Awami League is ready at all times with fire extinguishers to negate and refute each and every fire of truth that is exposed regarding its breaches of democratic governance.
The Facebook post that ultimately cost Abrar his life was posted shortly after Sheikh Hasina’s return from India at the beginning of October, a trip in which she and Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed seven treaties. In the post, Abrar expressed his critical views. He wrote about the issues of allowing India to use the Mongla Port, withdrawing water from the Feni River and importing liquefied petroleum gas from Bangladesh. The big question here is: What did Bangladesh get from these treaties, which are only bilateral in name?
By definition, a bilateral agreement is one between parties or states that aims to keep trade deficits to a minimum. Therefore, what Abrar and 163 million Bangladeshis wondered was: How do treaties that favor only one party, in this case India, benefit Bangladesh? Furthermore, how do treaties that tip the balance in favor of India even more than was already the case benefit Bangladesh in any way?
To take the point even further, how can a bilateral treaty between two leaders be signed when one of them has not even been democratically elected by the people? Does this point in and of itself not nullify all agreements signed by unelected members of Parliament?
The Bangladesh election, for lack of a better word, is widely known as a farcical means by which Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party forced themselves into power once again in December 2018. Bangladeshis were not allowed to choose their government freely and exercise their constitutional rights. Thus Bangladeshis have every right to know on what grounds treaties that are completely detrimental to their nation were signed by an unelected prime minister.
The student wing of the Awami League
The Bangladesh Chhathra League (BCL), the student wing of the Awami League, has been described as the ruling party’s ground force, its goons. It is present in all violent riots or altercations with the general public. An organization that is disreputable enough for Bangladeshis to circulate petitions to have it enlisted as a terrorist organization, the BCL is indispensable to the Awami League and is not going anywhere.
The illicit nature of the BCL’s crimes was seen yet again in the merciless and brutal beating that led to Abrar’s death. It is difficult to fathom that the culprits were also engineering students at BUET and had the highest test scores and impeccable grades in order to be admitted. How brilliant students from very modest homes have been transformed into ruthless murderers for the Awami League is yet another worrisome factor for the society as a whole. During police questioning, the perpetrators admitted to their crimes and unanimously stated that they were following orders.
The legacy of Abrar Fahad
Abrar Fahad has become a hero and is known as the first martyr of the second liberation of Bangladesh from tyranny and the loss of sovereignty to India. With the eloquence of his words that led to his death, he has sparked a revolution that will undoubtedly come to fruition.
The Awami League government was categorical in its position that although educational institutions would be free to choose whether to ban the BCL or not, it would not be banned as a whole throughout the country. What is even more shocking is the apathy displayed by the government in the aftermath of such a heinous crime, committed by its student wing, for comments that were critical of its actions. No one condemned the BCL or its actions, not a single member of the ruling party attended Abrar’s funeral, and not a single word of empathy was uttered nor an address to the nation given.
Yes, the traditional meeting of the victim’s families at Sheikh Hasina’s residence was done, one at which the privacy of the victim’s family was not respected, judging from the number of photos that have been released. Financial help and employment, if needed, is usually offered to the families. We are told that Abrar’s mother, who was understandably inconsolable, was told to consider how Sheikh Hasina too lost her family. This attitude of “enough about you, now let’s talk about me” has become a very common theme in Bangladeshi governance, and the lack of empathy it demonstrates has not gone unnoticed to Bangladeshis.
What value do economic growth figures have when human lives are systematically exterminated through state-sponsored violence?
It is said that before handing Jesus over to the Jewish religious elite, which led to his crucifixion, the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” In distancing herself from all the murders, rapes, extrajudicial killings, falsified election results and other atrocious crimes committed on behalf of grasping on to power, Sheikh Hasina resembles Pontius Pilate. She washes her hands of any responsibilities of ensuring a democratic society, because she knows that in a democratic electoral process, no one in his right mind among Bangladeshi voters would willingly vote for the Awami League.
Given a choice, it is clear that the people of Bangladesh also wash their hands of the dictatorship they have been subjected to for more than a decade.