Spare the rod

 Published in: The Daily Star on April 7, 2014
Spare the rod

THEY were beating a guy in a blue check shirt. Kicking him. Tugging at his collar. Throwing him around. Mahmudul Haque Munshi of Gonojagaron Mancha was under attack. Last Friday, April 4, the television screens just focused on that one scene alone. Thanks to technology, that scene was looped over and over again and no matter how many channels the viewer surfed, one would only end up watching that ‘one single scene.’ Question is: what does media do? How is it supposed to serve its goal? Well, one cannot expect an ostrich to fly away, though evolution has given it wings. But in spite of being “wingless” it has a powerful clout, and a full swing of its clawed leg can rip open a tiger’s belly.
Electronic and print media, the Cyclops of our postmodern times and the apotheosis of our popular culture, in spite of all their weaknesses, indeed made many think that night. That single scene literally was strong enough to rip open one’s faculty and pose a single question: what if he was my son?
In spite of Mancha having landed up with controversies and critique, I don’t think there’s even one citizen who thinks that when they started their journey on February 5, 2013, they had any other purpose other than bringing about a change in the culture of impunity. True the platform got diluted, true that many shied away from even going there, but does any of this justify the power of the brute force unleashing violence on their bodies? No. While they were being chased away from Aziz Super market, National Museum and eventually Bangabandhu Medical College, could they not have been spared the rod? And for how long shall we just continue watching history repeat its violent episodes over and over again?
Our history seems to be perennially courting violence. The Friday scene brought back a memory of an estimated 87,000 students participating in protests, defying the interim regime’s emergency laws, way back on August 28, 2007. The military-backed regime in Bangladesh, through its indefinite curfew in six major cities on August 22, attempted to suppress student agitation, which erupted from just a football match. 1,500 police were sent to Dhaka University and many were injured, while security forces used force to disperse the crowd. Media reportage was banned, cell phone networks were also jammed and yet, in spite of the authorities having detained more than 250,000 people in less than nine months till August 2007, could they escape the verdict of the mass? Fortunately, no.
However, most turning points in world history do revolve around violence, starting from the American, French, or Russian Revolution, the 1857 Revolt in India, or World War II, down to Martin Luther’s Reformation and the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. History, to say the least, has always chronicled violence. Now, a couple of questions spring up at this point. How necessary is violence as a political language? How does it alter outcomes in intense political discourses? And can ‘force’ replace violence? Are ‘violence’ and ‘force’ terms that can be easily interchanged?  And most importantly, can persuasive force impact the public mind?
Gandhi’s “truth-force” as a nonviolent anti-colonial movement is certainly one example, and the scene of African Americans sitting at a segregated lunch counter in the South in 1960 exerting substantial“force” on the public is another. The more recent event of an essentially nonviolent regime change in Egypt brought about by ordinary, unarmed people is also a similar reference. In many African civil wars, rioting has been a manifestation of violence that targeted to change society, politics, and economy and craved for freedom from discrimination and disenfranchisement. There are also instances in history where “actual violence” and “nonviolent force” have aimed to achieve the same goals and in many cases, violence has been justified when it came down to “people” and not to “power.” If oppressed mass resorts to violence to secure change, then can it ever be made legitimate? Should we ever say “why not” to violence?
While Gandhi had said: “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence,” Martin Luther King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech also has an explanation: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” These endorsements do make a case for political violence committed by the oppressed and calls for it to be treated as an expression of unmet demands, while a more structured and more intense critical examination of power deserves to be studied with regard to how it is gained, controlled and perpetuated through violence.
Whether or not Gonojagoron Mancha took the permission to host rallies in Shahbagh, it is imperative to understand that movements don’t require approvals and that, irrespective of whether they are marred by controversies or not, nothing justifies the violence. The Mancha, which could have represented a moment of struggle and could have crystallised politics at one point, may have succumbed to powerful interventions and have been questioned to an extent, but that does not give right to the security forces to exert brute power from the circumscribed space at the top.
While violence has become a part of political construct in many societies including ours, one must also carefully remember that we are treading sensitive grounds as only in February this year, more than 100 were injured while police charged batons and fired rubber bullets on 5,000 agitating students in Rajshahi. In less than three months, in that same university, Bangladesh Chhatra League called for an indefinite strike following a killing of a fourth year student of Political Science. Currently, there is more news of discomfort and fear in Bangladesh Agricultural University where students are tense about the killing of a 21 year-old Saad Ibne Momtaz, a fourth year student of Fisheries Faculty.
One must also remember that we live in a country where often the youth have been the most vocal, desirous of change and wanting unparalleled freedom. The sole focus is then to only eradicate illegitimate violence instead of fighting daily battles with security forces hiding behind safe shields while the protestors remain exposed to the aggressive boots of the police forces. While one shouldn’t resort to blanket condemnation of violence, one must critique the monopoly of terror. After all, violence antagonises and does not invoke commitment. One ought to also remember that the debate of any struggle runs way beyond the powerful vertex and often rests in horizontal axes in society that quietly pop up in the democratic societies.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

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