Published:  03:59 AM, 16 September 2020

Why academic, informed discourse matters

Democracy, despite being under siege nearly everywhere, remains the best hope for people everywhere. The politics of democracy, of the right of dissent, has always been looked upon with suspicion, even disdain, in our part of the world.

We in Bangladesh have had people holding political power over the last nearly four decades coming down hard on those who have taken issue with them over various aspects of political behaviour and public policy. That is rather unfortunate, for it demonstrates our collective inability to uphold the principles upon which political pluralism functions.

These are worries which have always been articulated by social, legal and human rights groups, and for all the right reasons. It is that old genie of suspicion and arrogance of power that has stayed on in Bangladesh despite our much celebrated and much remembered break with Pakistan in 1971.

Those who have felt offended by the politics of the Awami League have swiftly gone into the odious job of spotting collusion between it and India. One will bump into pseudo-politicians forever coming up against the spectre of Baksal every time they have to explain why they are staying away from parliament.

What should have been an academic debate on the state of politics in Bangladesh rapidly and almost always descends into the ugly and the bizarre. The tragic part of the story is that even elements within the Awami League have often decided that the other point of view is undeserving of consideration and so must not be heard. Any dissent is frowned upon, indeed shouted down. That is a sad thing to happen.

Must we always let individuals, no matter how omnipotent they think they are, get away with all the aspersions they cast on citizens' patriotism? In the civilized countries of the world, one could get into serious trouble if one attempted to quash dissent.

The manner in which Donald Trump is pounced upon is an instance before us. In similar manner, liberals in India have not held back from what they see as authoritarian tendencies developing in the structure of the state, thanks to the current political dispensation in office.

One would be sued if one made insinuations regarding the loyalties of citizens to the state in the more tolerant West. Which leads us to the question: what happens if a citizen or a clutch of citizens decides to haul some powerful people to court on charges of questioning the patriotism of a man or woman?

There must always come a degree of decency into our perceptions of dissent. When organisations emerge with some harsh truths, with findings relating to corruption in the various public sectors, an entire government machinery goes into action to clobber them into submission. That is unhealthy. For the authorities, the job ought to be, in light of such revelations or allegations, to probe the findings.

That is the norm in a modern society and particularly one which aspires to full-scale democracy. This culture of treating dissent as an irritation at best and treachery at worst keeps democracy in a state of the hobbled. For years successive governments have been particularly harsh on some non-government organizations, with consequences not too healthy.

Democracy needs to be reflected in society through a healthy articulation of it in the media. Investigative reports, unfettered editorial comments on conditions of a political or economic or social nature are healthy signs of democracy at work.

The publication of cartoons, which are laced with criticism of certain existing conditions, is one of the most powerful signs of a state ready and willing to take criticism, indeed to correct the mistakes that are being and remove the hurdles that come in the way of governance.

Politicians in every country, particularly in societies where democracy is the goal or the underlying principle of governance, must bring themselves to an intellectual position where they can look upon criticism with equanimity and not detect in it shades of a deep conspiracy to undermine them. The idea holds true of both those in power and those in opposition aspiring to power.

When one treats the other person's point of view with disdain, one's exercise of authority or influence turns erratic and irresponsible. When one tries to stamp out dissent, one is really coming between the light of the sun and the fledgling plant that is democracy.

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