“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”
Prof. Khaliquzzaman Elias intoned as we sat listening to his lecture, mesmerized as always. He then gave his trademark gentle smile and explained: “The centre cannot hold – Khaleda Zia can not control her government.” This was 2002, and Dr. B. Chowdhury was still the President of Bangladesh.
This poem again flashed through my mind as I was reading the latest court proceedings regarding Mahmudur Rahman. First arrested on the pretext of a fraud case; he quickly got bail in that case the very next day. However, the government has quickly filed three other cases against him, all non-bailable in nature. One accuses him of assaulting a police officer, although it is probably common knowledge who assaults whom when the police arrest someone in Bangladesh. Another accuses him of plotting sedition against the Caretaker Government headed by Iajuddin Ahmed, by secretly organizing a meeting of bureaucrats at his business office. Does this mean that the Awami League government finally admits that the Iajuddin-backed first Caretaker government was not pro-BNP, as it routinely alleges? Are they now saying that the first Caretaker Government was so extremely anti-BNP that a group of supposed BNP sympathizers were meeting to plan seditious activities against it? The last charge is that he used the printing press of Amar Desh to print leaflets for Hizbut Tahrir, a banned fundamentalist organization. Suffice to say, in the years of propaganda against Mahmudur Rahman, this allegation has never previously been raised against him.
The closure of Amar Desh and the arrest of Mahmudur Rahman has seen almost universal condemnation across Bangladesh (with only the strong, patriotic voice of Mozammel Babu raised in its favor). Instead of taking some steps to rectify its errors, Sheikh Hasina has doubled down on her bet, filing additional cases against Mahmudur Rahman and taking him into twelve days (so far) of remand.
Remand, that most dreaded word in Bangladeshi discussion. Crossfire? Death awaits us all at the end; what matter if the black-garbed denizens hastening us towards it are oath-bound to be our protectors? But remand, with its attendant physical and mental torture, is arguably worse. If your spine is not broken, if you are not slapped and prodded with hot iron rods, if you do not have your most private indignities recorded and widely distributed the next day, you are left with the memories of those moments when one’s personal dignity being stripped away and discarded.
By plotting this attack on Mahmudur Rahman, Awami league is in uncharted waters, just as it was with the closure of a print newspaper, a phenomenon not witnessed in post-Ershad Bangladesh (how fitting then, that Ershad is a partner of the coalition currently in power). Abdus Salam Pintu was already in jail when this government came to power, and Lutfazzaman Babar has also been jailed in relation to charges filed by the last Caretaker Government (though in reality, Babar is paying the price for foiling Abdul Jalil’s April 30 trump card). However, Mahmudur Rahman is the first opposition figure of national stature whom Hasina has sought to have jailed by inventing charges against him. Whereas the BNP government introduced crossfire and the last Caretaker government made commonplace the practice of torture of dissenting individuals in custody, this Government has connected the dots and completed the triangle, with a fired-up cadre of lawyers ready to condemn suspects to torture, and a compliant judiciary that seems to have forgotten their vows to defend the Constitution. Meanwhile, let it be noted that not a single discussion notice about this arrest was allowed in Parliament; perhaps that will be remembered the next time someone chooses to lecture BNP about joining the Parliament.
The thing about these abuses of power is that they are just so tempting. Like mangos and chomchoms, it is difficult to stop after just one, no matter the initial resolve. If a troublesome editor can be silenced in this way, why not a lawyer who is vocal about the human rights of those languishing in jail under this Government? And why not that scary-looking bearded man, even though there is no evidence against him? I have no illusions about the deep reservoirs of tribalism and blood lust in our collective psyche (remember when crossfire made RAB national heros and little kids were dressing up in all black?); I merely hope that there are still left the sufficient number of good men and women, both inside and outside the Government, to prevent things from deteriorating to an irreversible stage. Meanwhile, all those cries about the return of BAKSAL do not strike a chord in the young, first-time voters who are popularly thought to have been the backbone of Awami league’s last electoral victory; I would surmise most in that group do not know what this dreaded acronym stands for. The hope is that they can continue in this blessed ignorance, and never have to find out.