It is always sad when a government with an overwhelming majority like the present Awami League government loses its way. Unfortunately, a host of recent developments all point to that direction. One theme that all these events have in common is that they represent attacks on free speech and political expression, something that should be sacrosanct in all democratic societies.
The most glaring demonstration of this trend has been evinced by the behavior of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who, in her speech in the last session of Parliament, accused the members of parliament of her own parties of “arming her enemies”, by criticizing some members of her cabinet, specifically Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain. Emboldened by this, Awami League General Secretary and LGRD Minister Syed Ashraful Islam accused the media of “creating the ground for Hasina’s death.” Of course, once the two most important leaders of the ruling party expressed their disdain of dissent in media so openly, other Awami League leaders wasted no time in springing into action. Supporters of Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan, who has faced a lot of flak for suggesting the unqualified drivers be given long-distance driving permits, have seized bundles of newspapers, and set them to fire. A peaceful human chain organized by BNP to protest the crumbling state of infrastructure was attacked and broken up by Awami League activists. To cap it all, Hasina herself, in a cabinet meeting, instructed intelligence agencies to investigate the organizers of a peaceful rally held in the Shahid Minar on Eid Day.
Unfortunately, the government has made our judicial system an indispensable tool in its all-out war against free speech. Some of the developments are petty: like a sedition case being filed against a cleric for criticizing the government during the weekly sermon. Others are more serious, like Sheershanews editor Ekramul Haq being put in police remand (code for torture) multiple times for writing about corruption charges against certain members of the cabinet, specifically State Minister for Environment Hasan Mahmud. The use of the judiciary to achieve partisan ends only promises to heat up further after the High Court convenes on October 9th after its vacation. BNP acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Standing Committee member Moudud Ahmed have already been summoned to answer charges of contempt of court. If that goes well, the field is already being prepared to embroil Khaleda Zia in the same contempt charges.
Unfortunately, these tendencies were in full display during the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh, which added Article 7A stating that both to “subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this Constitution or any of its article” or to take any action that “abets or instigates… approves, condones, supports or ratifies” this subversion is sedition, and is to be punishable by death. Just to put this matter into perspective, given that this blogpost is fairly critical of Article 7A of the Constitution, I have just committed sedition. If a reader reads this post and approves, she has also committed sedition. Moreover, if someone then forwards this link (I know, highly unlikely) to a friend by email, that’s sedition too.
We are all going to drown in a sea of sedition.
When finalizing this Amendment, Hasina said in the House that she had acted thus to ensure ““empowerment of people, and their democratic and voting rights.” Perhaps, she had in mind, the provision that said that several parts of the Constitution, including one which titled her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Father of the Nation, could not be altered or amended in the future. Although, it seems like depriving future generations of the power to change the document that will affect their lives in such important ways is the express opposite of empowerment.
However, Hasina is not in good company. In the United States, home of the world’s most famous constitution, there has only been, in the country’s entire two hundred years plus history, only a single proposed amendment that sought to place any topic beyond any further debate or amendment, and it was the infamous Corwin Amendment. In this proposed amendment, in a last-ditch effort to avoid the Civil War, it was proposed that subject of slavery would not be open to any future amendments, effectively meaning that no future government could outlaw slavery. As we know, the Civil War was fought, and an alternative amendment, now known as the Thirteenth Amendment, was incorporated to outlaw slavery.
Hasina and her party love to glorify the role of Awami League in the 1971 War of Liberation. Unfortunately, it has been overwhelmingly documented by Dr. Badiul Alam Majumbad of SUJON (not a big fan of BNP), that the inspiration for this Fifteenth Amendment comes directly from the Pakistani Constitution. Around the world, there are have been two prominent laws passed in the last year that punish people for saying something. One was passed in Saudi Arabia, and it mandates jail sentences for anyone who criticizes the King of Saudi Arabia. The other was in Israel, which criminalized “calling for the boycott of Israel.”
This is not good company for Bangladesh to keep. As the current government finds itself increasingly unpopular, the risk remains that it will use these new laws to further crack down on dissent and opposing political parties. Which will be a sad ending for a government that held out so much promise.