Feature Img

in-conversation-with-professor-abdullah-abu-sayeedWe are an impatient nation; almost too eager to speak, eager to bash, eager to side with or oppose, eager on shoe slinging and of course eager on hyper-speculation. So, when it comes to a public platform, many of us get carried away and do what we ought to do the least: vent.

On the 2nd of June 2012, a Professor vented and on the 3rd of June 2012, a few members of the parliament vehemently reacted. Both the outbursts were uncalled for and unhealthy for a democracy that is struggling to come on course after many years…

On the 2nd of June 2012, it was just another scene from the newsroom of a television channel. There was nothing special about the manner that the news was broadcast; there was nothing really that evoked any reaction other than “Oh, sir!”

I saw Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed participating in Transparency International of Bangladesh’s two-day long national convention of the Committees of Concerned Citizens (CCC) and Youth Engagement and Support (YES) which focused on combined efforts of the government, political leaders, civil society and all to strengthen anti-corruption movement for establishing “dreams of independence, democracy, good governance and human rights.” (Source: TIB website).

On the 3rd of June 2012, it was a scene from the parliament with a few members referring to Prof Abdullah Abu Sayeed’s remarks in that convention as “contempt of parliament and democracy.” (Source: Bangladesh news 24 hours).

Prof Md Ali Ashraf, who was presiding over the sitting was of the opinion that the Parliament should summon Professor Sayeed and have him stand in the House and demand an unconditional apology. Prof Ashraf also shared that he anticipated an ominous turn in democracy if no action was taken against the educator. His suggestions also included submission of a notice to bring a censure motion against Sayeed. Prof Ashraf, most possibly was referring to a report of a newspaper which is published daily by a corporate house with which Prof Abdullah Abu Sayeed has had multiple head on collisions with in the past on issues of environment and land grabbing. Mr. Fazlul Azim also raised a point of order and stated that Prof Sayeed had “undermined the lawmakers’ dignity and the sovereignty of parliament”. Mr. Mujib-ul-Haque Chunnu, a JP lawmaker followed the same tune and finally AL lawmaker Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim came down heavily on the Professor. He raised a number of questions:

1.“Intellectuals like him [Prof Sayeed] give certificates to lawmakers, ministers and the government. But who will give them certificates?”

2. “They bring a lot of money but on whom do they spend that?”

3. How can TIB officials and all associated with TIB lead posh lives?

Now, what was it exactly that Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed had said?

In the convention, the educator had specifically said that ministers and lawmakers take oaths for not doing corruption. He also referred to the thieves and the robbers having no “neeti”, therefore the question of them engaging in “durneeti” did not arise. But yes, if the lawmakers and police end up being violaters, then that would be considered “durneeti”. Abdullah Abu Sayeed had also said that the “Law enforcing agencies’ which had violated their ideals in recent times should be punished heavily, adding that the government had failed to control the police and that the government was weaker than the police.

He had also said, “The state machinery in Bangladesh indulges in plunder and rights violation, abusing both pen and weapon.” He further added a suggestion for the law enforcers who violated the law would have to be punished “five times higher than that in the case of an ordinary citizen.”(Source: The Daily Star, June 03 2012)

I have quoted sources in almost every paragraph of this article as a new fear has set in. If newspapers are to be read and quoted in the parliament, then we have every reason to assume that all columnists, journalists, intellectuals, educators, thinkers should put on their crash helmet and take a decision to take a leap of faith and jump off the mountain of Free Speech, looking for a safer place to land or crash into.

Now, in reality, beyond the glare of the camera, what was it that Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed believed that he has said?

According to sources close to him, he had categorically said that a daily Bangla newspaper had misreported what he had said at the TIB convention venue. He privately shared that not even for once had he uttered the word: Shangshod (MP). Therefore the question of him insulting the Parliament did not occur. When he actually spoke to his friends on the night of the 3rd, he sounded concerned about the misrepresentation of his statements as reported through the print media. He was hurt, stunned and completely taken aback by the whiplash he had suffered in the House.

Reality 1:  Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed is an educator who started way back in 1978, with only Taka 35.00 in his pocket, enough to buy 10 books to form a reading circle. Thirty-four years later, Prof Sayeed has over 1 million members in Biswa Sahitya Kendro, spread over 1700 centers in 55 upazilas. “Alokito Manush Chai”: We want enlightened people: is the slogan that Sayeed promotes. I know not of one person who would deny the impact that BSK has had over young minds. I know not of one person who will argue the fact that Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed is a modest man, who is yet to own a property. The last and only gain has been through a recently inherited plot of 5 kathas shared by 13 of his siblings, in which he will eventually manage to get one tiny flat. I know not of one person who can call Abdullah Abu Sayeed “a thief”, “a robber” or a violator of social justice. To the best of my knowledge, he owns a modest car, which is mostly driven by him with the driver sitting by his side, as he fears increase in operational costs will occur lest his driver misuses the car.

Reality 2: Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed did point his fingers at governance, indicating clearly that law enforcing agencies were to be blamed for various lapses and abuses that had occurred in recent times. Sitting in Bangladesh, he could not have spoken of any other government, any other political parties which consist of elected lawmakers or any other system of corruption. He was referring to this land of ours for sure. What he was doing was simply venting his frustrations out and sharing it in public. Unfortunately, Professor Sayeed had underestimated the gravity of his statements. An educator who was always known for his lecture on “Haimanti” in Dhaka College, an idealist who had always stood by issues of rights, justice and environment, he perhaps, for a moment, forgot that electronic and print media wait to gulp news down with the bitterest pill, and that breaking news matters much more than reporting what is right for the time. At the same time, Professor Sayeed should have had thought thrice before uttering such statements, phrased in the most casual manner, devoid of cautious phrasing. He should have known that real Professors mesmerize students and create generations of followers. Therefore, he ought not have shared his perceptions in such a carefree manner and he should have known better to stay out of the quicksand of political analysis. Politics is not his land, by any means. Education is.

Reality 3: The lawmakers in the House perhaps, could have reacted to Professor Sayeed’s statements by being a little more tempered and could have asked for the recording of the TIB session instead of relying heavily on the Bangla daily which ran the headline in a provocative manner. The honourable lawmakers could also have shown some restraint instead of asking Professor Sayeed to apologise outright before the House. The lawmakers should have also thought thrice before raising questions on Professor Sayeed’s “posh” lifestyle and riches.

Reality 4: A fear is building up within our system; a fear of speaking up openly in public; a fear of being callous with our statements; a fear of not being politically correct and above all, a fear to critique.

At the same time, another fear is also stealthily settling into our social psyche: the fear of our intellectuals like Professor Sayeed straggling without considering consequence, and the fear of the powerful coming down on them, with the strongest hammer possible, waiting to crash the credibility that educators like Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed have taken a lifetime to create.

States ought to nurture intellects instead of shunning them. Figures like Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed are hard to come by. Therefore, bringing a censure motion in the House or harping on demands of apology from the Professor may scare many.

It is after all, difficult and painful to watch mentors put their palms together and seek apology while it is equally disheartening to watch lawmakers’ outbursts dominating the parliament with the honourable Prime Minister almost nodding her head in approval.

After all, neither Fear, nor Aggression is a healthy indicator of democracy.

Rubana Huq is a poet, researcher, columnist and an entrepreneur.