We live, right now, in troubled times. The country is going through one calamity after another, with hardly any respite or quarter given. If it is not a natural disaster, then it is a manmade one. One week it is the heinous actions of the opposition, and the other week it is something the government does to let us down. Still nursing our wounds from one injury, we are forced to defend ourselves against yet another.
While such a plethora of incidents and accidents is taxing in its own right, there is an even bigger issue underlying these unfortunate times. It is how we are dealing with these incidents. It is how we are beginning to act like some lesser form of intelligence, able to focus on only one incident at a time, forgetting the nature and magnitude of all the past injustices until, at some point in the future, they don’t seem half as bad in hindsight.
Let’s look at the past few weeks. First, the Bangladesh government joined the rank of a handful of infamous governments by arresting four people for writing their honest opinions on social media and blogs. In a country where murderers are pardoned and terrorists nominated to run for public office, four young men were put in prison for blog posts and status updates. To add insult to injury, they were made to stand in a line like common criminals, being shown of as the latest victory of the law enforcement in Bangladesh, complete with the terrible weapons these men use for their crime of free speech – computers and hard drives. Apparently this was supposed to impress us with how these people are, in fact, criminals of a sort, and have been caught red-handed with their instruments of crime. Instead it only made the whole event look that much more ridiculous. If owning desktops, laptops and hard drives is a crime, some of us would be spending the rest of our lives behind bars.
Even worse, though, was the fact that the arrested individuals were flaunted like this for the media. Given how they were being accused of blasphemy and anti-Islamic propaganda, making them so visible only endangered their lives. Over the last few years, Bangladesh has seen the rise of many a reactionary power – too sensitive against imagined slights against Islam, and too eager to dole out punishment on their own without due recourse to the rule of law. Once these individuals are released, if ever, would it be very wrong to say that they will live forever as targets, seeing shadows around every corner and paranoid about being attacked anytime, anywhere?
But then something happened to take our focus away from the innocent men doing time for writing what they think. An entire building collapsed. When the news first started making rounds in the media and social networks, it is sad but true that it probably did not get as much attention. The garments industry in Bangladesh has a status little above, or maybe even below, that of slave labour. Fires in garments buildings kill thousands every year, and we all do lip service for a few weeks before going back to our cushy lives. Sometimes on our way to work, our fancy car is held up by the flood of garments workers crossing the road, and we frown at the unbearable inconvenience.
But over the next few days, we realized that this time the accident is of proportions too big for our apathy to be able to pretend it has not happened. The air around Rana Plaza, Savar, grew heavy with the stench of dead bodies and the cries of those stuck under tons of rubble, not sure if they will make it through this horror. Over a thousand of them did not. Many of them had the singular misfortune of finding out that their chances of survival are vanishingly low, and I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like for them, stuck there, knowing that death is imminent.
The Rana Plaza incident was depressing at a national level, with the death toll rising every day, with people opening the newspaper every morning afraid of the body count, the photos and the news headlines to do with this incident. Volunteers suffered physically and mentally, and for a while it seemed like the owner of the building will go scot-free despite his involvement with the death of thousands and the possibly permanent maiming of many more. It is a good thing that Sohel Rana has now been arrested, although given the culture of this country, I will only breathe easy once I see him actually receive some punishment for his actions and not just slip out the backdoor, something that happens way more often than it should.
And yet, even as the dead bodies piled up and hospitals ran out of beds to place the injured in, the country came to face yet another horror. On the 5th of May, Hifazat-e Islam moved on with their siege of Dhaka city. I am still unclear as to what such a siege was intended to achieve, but we all saw where it led to eventually. The demonstrators engaged in arson, ransacking stores, attacking cars and innocent passers-by, and engaging the police in what was essentially a street fight. The city turned into a war zone, with everyone calling their loved ones to make sure they are safe. It is unthinkable that such horror could be unleashed in the capital of a free nation with a democratically elected government. As the government itself seems to have realized a bit too late, allowing these people the democratic right to hold a meeting was a mistake. Democratic rights should be a prerogative of people who actually believe in a democracy, not of those who pine for the return to a time where everything was decided by a show of force and through battles.
In the early morning hours of May 6th, the government finally stepped up and neutralized these people. There can be little doubt that they did this in an exceptionally competent manner, regardless of the overabundance of rumours about an alleged “genocide” and use of overwhelming force. For this the government deserves to be commended, even though it would probably have been far better to not let a bunch of rabble-rousers like Hifazat-e Islam reach the level where they dared to come into a confrontation with the state. Any reasonable man is able to see that their demands do not belong in the 21st century, and the manner in which they would like to enforce their demands is at complete odds with the very fabric of democracy.
But even that is not the primary reason why I write today. These are all unfortunate incidents, and it seems to be a particular bad luck that all of these things are happening in such close instances of each other. The last few months have been very difficult and draining for Bangladesh as a country. There have been immense highs and lows, reasons for both hope and despair. But to me, what really sticks out is a culture we seem to have developed. It is a culture of forgetfulness. The moment something new happens, our entire focus is shifted away from the last incident that had our attention, no matter what the status of that incident is at the moment. Thus we now lament the actions of Hifazat-e Islam and wonder what they might do next, but do not seem to remember that the Sohel Rana case seems to have been pushed off the front page. Call me cynical, but in Bangladesh that is usually the first step towards eventually letting the culprits go and deprive the victims of their rights. First the media loses interest, then the common people forget, and then finally all that is left is the sigh of family members who remember that they are yet to receive any justice or recompense.
We have forgotten that some people are behind bars for their interaction in social media. We have forgotten that Sohel Rana almost, almost got away with his crimes. When the next wave of misfortune strikes us, we might well forget the evening of May 5th and the ludicrousness of the Hifazat-e Islam charter. And once we forget the magnitude of an injustice, it will be easy to convince us that it was but a minor incident, nothing more than a miscommunication. And then we will be asked to forgive and move on. Which we probably will, until which we ignored comes back to hit us right in the face far more brutally than we could ever imagine.
After all, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and how can one learn from history when they cannot hold their focus on the wrongs of the past week?
Hammad Ali is a teacher of Computer Science and Engineering at BRAC University.