When the world is in deep trouble confronting Covid 19, in a ‘war’ against an invisible virus, the Bangladesh state and its government have been waging an unannounced war against its own citizens. This war is being executed in two forms. On the one hand, the lives of millions of people have been put at risk due to the self-destructive decisions and structural indecisiveness of the government. On the other hand, the basic civil and political rights of citizens who are criticizing such perilous decisions and pointing out the flaws of such policies are being forcibly taken away or denied by the government. Dissident and critical citizens have been abducted and gone ‘missing’ for days or months at a time; then the news of their arrest on non-bailable offences emerge along with other state repressive actions and charges.
Last 5 May, IT specialist and member of Rashtrochinta (a political platform), Didarul Bhuyian, was abducted by some plain clothed people introducing themselves as RAB. Didarul’s wife stated that ‘right before the Iftar, 11/12 people into micros came to Didarul’s home. They introduced themselves as RAB. Without engaging any conversation with us, they took Didarul away. During this time, they took laptops, and other personal stuff of Didarul.’ The intruders introduced themselves as RAB and told the family that they were taking Didarul for ‘regular interrogation’ and that he would be home within a very short time.
When RAB was approached on behalf of the press, they denied any such arrest or abduction. They maintained the same position of denial, even when being asked by Didarul’s family and friends. Later on, we came to know through the media that writer Mostak Ahmed had also been abducted in the same way. Later the next day (6 May), the Bangla Media was informed that Didarul Bhuyian had been transferred to Ramna Police Station after being charged under the Digital Security Act. A bit later, the news of transferring to Ramna Police Station was negated. It was then discovered that cartoonist Kishore Ahmed was arrested along with writer Mostak Ahmed on the same charges.
When the fellows of Didarul went to Ramna Police Station, they were informed of RAB 3, charging 11 people including journalist, cartoonist, and activist under the Digital Security Act for spreading misinformation, unrest, and rumors among the masses. They were also accused of ‘conspiracy against the state and the government’. The accused people are: cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, writer Mostak Ahmed, political activist Md Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, businessman Minhaj Mannan, exiled journalist Tasneem Khalil, US-based journalist Shahed Alam, Saer Zulkarnain, Ashiq Imran, Philip Schuhmacher, Shapan Wahid, and blogger Asif Mohiuddin. But even then, Didarul was neither transferred to Ramna Police Station nor was his custody acknowledged by RAB or the police. When being asked the whereabouts of Didar, the investigation officer answered that Didarul will be considered as a ‘fugitive’ until being handed over to the police by RAB. Finally, in the evening, news of Didarul’s transfer to Ramna Police Station was confirmed.
The whole incident of Didarul demonstrates how much the lives of Bangladeshi citizens are exposed before their own state. The structural process behind this incident is considerably more problematic than what Didarul has done or is charged with doing. It is evident from this that the state can abduct anyone without any warrant or legal process, and that the state does so in ‘terrorist ways’. After being abducted from home, and before being transferred or taken into custody, any citizen can be just ‘disappeared’ for any period of time. (In case of journalist Kajol, it was long 54 days.) It is Didarul’s sheer luck that he could appear in public as a ‘convict’ within 24 hours of disappearance whereas in other cases people had been disappeared for much longer, even indefinitely. It needs to be noticed here, how RAB 3, also the suitor of this case, had denied that the arrest took place, after initially taking Didarul away in plain clothes. Then 24 hours later, they acknowledged the ‘arrest’ after Didarul was transferred to Ramna Police Station although the case was filed at 11 pm of 5 May, the very day he was picked up.
The questions that need to be addressed here are: 1) If the complaints were lodged on the day of taking away, then why was custody not acknowledged until the next day? 2) Can the complainant of the case pick the accused up simply because they are one of the state forces? 3) Should any person be considered as a ‘convict’ (as used in the statement of the case) right after the lodging of a complaint? 4) When a legal procedure begins with considering the accused as a ‘convict’ , can that legal process uphold any ethical or moral positions? 5) Is such a legal procedure competent enough to ensure promised ‘transparent’ judicial process, let alone any justice?
It should be mentioned that the high court in 2016 gave clear instructions against ‘arresting’ anyone without warrant and by plains clothed people, and also instructed that the reason be known within 3 hours of ‘arresting’. So, how can a state apparatus that initiates its investigation by violating the instruction of the court, hold any right to accuse someone with the charges of ‘conspiracy against state’? In other writings we have argued that the violation of the court with the help of executive power originates from the ‘totalitarian power structure’ (All power to one person!)
After Maidul Islam (Faculty of Chittagong University) was arrested on the basis of complaints lodged by a Chatra League (ruling party cadre group) leader, anthropologist Bokhtiar Ahmed (Faculty of Rajshahi University) wrote in a Facebook post: ‘arrest was meant to be an intermediate state in judicial system. Any accused undergoing through a judicial process is supposed to be imprisoned only when he can be a threat to the victim, or constraints to the legal procedure, or can get away from the jurisdiction. Without these reasons when anyone is being imprisoned just on the basis of complaint, it makes a judicial process as the punishment itself rather than being a process of redemption. Because, if the judicial process finds someone not guilty then his harassment or loss due to being imprisoned is none of the judiciary concern or whatsoever.’
Two years back, five intellectuals including Romila Thapar responded to the arrest of 5 activists by giving a statement, which commenced with these line: ‘arrest should be the last step of any investigation, not the starting point for one..’
In the case of Didarul, Kishore, and others, our experiences are the opposite. Here the process is started by the state, not even with an ‘arrest’, but by forcible abduction of the person and then ‘disappearing’ them from the public domain for a certain period of time. During this pandemic, where as we have seen various prisoners had been released on bail or released unconditionally due to the high risk of contagion, here we are witnessing that the mere exercise of freedom of expression and constructive criticism of the government are being labeled as a ‘crime,’ resulting in the imprisonment of a cartoonist, activist, writers – even before complaints were lodged. Regarding this kind of state oppression, zonal director (Asia) Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch rightly said: “It is only an insecure and authoritarian government that uses a pandemic to arrest cartoonists, journalists, and activists…Instead of filing cases that could result in life imprisonment simply for posting satire, the ruling Awami League should take note of the criticism and try to address any gaps in the government’s response to Covid-19.”
We all know why Didarul and Kishore had been abducted or arrested. They did not blindly nod their head before the government or state; they expressed their opinions from their respective positions and tried to critically engage with the policies of the state. Didarul was an online, political activist, and Kishore was a cartoonist. But the way the state has criminalized these ‘spontaneous and courageous activities’ exposes the true relationship between the citizen and the state! Unquestionably, this relationship is a colonial one, where the state has colonized the body, mind, political rights, and the thoughts and speech of the citizens.
According to the mainstream media, the charges brought against them under the Digital Security Act were described broadly as “knowingly posting rumors against the Father of the Nation, the Liberation War and the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image and to create confusion among the public through social media and to cause the law and order situation to deteriorate” and “spreading propaganda and misinformation with an intention to undermine the image of government /state.”
A case of defamation has been filed against a journalist of Sunamgonj under the Digital Security Act for giving a Facebook post that criticized the local MP. For sharing a video of an MP harvesting unripe paddy, another person has been arrested under this Act. These acts have been described as ‘propaganda against the government’ and ‘undermining the image of the government’. Few days back, the intelligence force had threatened family members of the Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil (also runs Netra News), accusing him of ‘conspiring’ against the government.
Since mid-March, at least 30 people have been arrested for writing about the Covid-19 pandemic, most under the Digital Security Act. During the one-month period of March 10 to April 10, a minimum of three complaints had been lodged under this Act against six journalists. Since then, 8 other journalists had been arrested in the last couple of weeks. Three teachers of government school have been suspended for writing in Facebook regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, and an investigation is ongoing against a BRAC University faculty for his research on Covid-19.
Hence it is evident that the way Didarul and Kishore have been treated is not an isolated case. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the state/government have been meticulously trying to uplift their ‘image’. Rather than handling the Covid 19 pandemic with effective measures, the government’s focus has been to counter something else: to suppress all voices that might expose the reality of the ongoing crisis. The motive is to strip its citizens into ‘bare lifeforms,’ deprived of all political rights, in front of a violent sovereign power structure. We are not a bit astonished to know that the rules under the Digital Security Act came into force on the very day, i,e, 8th March 2020, when the first Covid-19 patients were detected in Bangladesh. Thus with this draconian act, the government initiated the neo-reality of sending its individuals and society into a ‘permanent state of quarantine’.
It is clear from the government narrative that there has not been any segregation among the state, government, and ruling party. All three have been integrated into one; the ‘image’ of any single component represents the ‘image’ of the others, and undermining the ‘image’ of any of the components results in the same for the rest. That culmination has been made flawless under the Digital Security Act. Elsewhere, we have shown the relationship between the Digital Security Act and the transformation of Bangladesh state into a totalitarian fascist reality.
Now the question that must arise is, whose ‘security’ is represented by this Act? Anyone digging deep will reach the conclusion that this Act has integrated three separate entities — state, government, and ruling party – into one single entity. Constructive criticism of any one of those entities could be regarded as criticism of others and blasphemous thereby.
The phrases ‘reputation of the state’, ‘spirit of the liberation war’, ‘religious sentiment’, ‘anti-state activities’, ‘false and vulgar’ has been defined vaguely. The application of this Act compels us to think that one of its primary objectives is to be ambiguous. Whenever the government is criticized, the ambiguity of these phrases comes in handy to reconfigure the criticism as ‘undermining the image of state’. This act is executed purely for the ‘security’ of the current ruling party, which is completely dependent on an exploitative power structure. Though the ‘digital’ in this act may sound or seem modern, the truth is with the restoration of the ‘Official Secrets Act’ from the colonial era, the current government has unveiled its colonial tendencies. The colonial rulers used to regard the people of the subcontinent as mere subjects; hence they created and enforced the ‘Official Secrets Act’ in order take all their corruption-exploitation beyond any accountability. The current Bangladesh Digital Security Act demonstrates the colonial tendencies of our state and state apparatus, and how they are meticulously molding themselves into a more colonial structure.
The way Didarul was abducted is clearly ‘unjust’ which can be or is ‘lawfully’ justified under the Digital Security Act. So, if the state forces assume anyone to be a threat to ‘state’, ‘digital security’ or ‘image’ then without any warrant or summons it can search, confiscate or arrest the concerned person. Hence, this act provides all the necessary justification to abduct Didarul in such a ‘terrorist’ way. Without going into any theorization or abstraction this reality is overtly evident how the aim and objective of this act is to criminalize any form of dissent. This act is a regulator for the formation of a ‘big brother’ state suppressing all the diverse opinions with the help of legal censorship on thought of its own citizens. This act brings into force a perpetual ‘state of exception’.
In context of Didarul, Kishore, Mostak Ahmed, Tasneem Khalil and others, who have been victims of this Act, there could have been a discussion regarding their freedom of expression. But in a nation where people had already bled so much in their struggle to realize a dream of a democratic state and society, there is no need to make them understand the gravity of freedom and independence. Rather it is important to emphasize and reveal why and how freedom of expression has been crushed via legal acts, and why it has not been possible for any democratic institution to flourish on its own merits in Bangladesh.
The above mentioned persons have been accused of spreading rumors and misinformation. Almost everyone is aware whether the activities of those persons are ‘false’ or not. For the current government, the rhetoric of ‘rumor’ has become a master-stroke. Any anti-government statement or resolution is being labeled as ‘rumors’. We have witnessed a history of manufacturing ‘truth’, ‘lies’, and ‘rumors’ by each and every anti-people, oppressive system. In a fascist reality where a government statement only means ‘truth’, and any anti-government opinions are held as ‘rumors’, the courage to dissent is the only weapon of the oppressed against the state-autocracy. Let us then celebrate ‘rumors’ in the face of such fascist reality!
It must be stated boldly that the state itself is solely responsible for the systematic manufacturing of rumors. When the state does not assure the normal inflow of information, or when they spread biased information, then the perception of ‘lack of information’ becomes widespread among the masses, especially due to unaccountability. Then, in such a situation, the groundwork for manufacturing rumors is created. At the start of the pandemic, we can clearly remember the discussion regarding the formation of committees to monitor media and press. ‘Nothing stokes rumor and fear more than the suspicion that politicians are hiding the truth.’ (Economist, March 12)
This fear and panic is like oxygen for the rumors. On the one hand, at such a time of pandemic, the panic and fear about lives and livelihoods, on the other hand flattened and shameless lies of the authorities, created the fertile land for the cultivation of rumors. The irony is, those who have criticized this process of cultivating systematic rumors, have been marked as the ‘manufacturer’ of rumors.
Even if someone is spreading ‘rumors,’ then it is the responsibility of the government to exhibit the right information. (Other than this, what is the basis of being sole agency of imposing ‘legitimacy’, ‘illegitimacy’ tag on everything else?) The limit of freedom of expression and thought should be extended up to such an extent!
Why shouldn’t the government be criticized? Only a theocratic state-ocracy in which a deity of some type is recognized as the supreme ruling authority, giving divine guidance to human representative that manage the day to day affairs of the government, can think itself beyond criticism . But it is, of course, not to forget that revolt against any type of theocracy is parallel to human experience.
Why can’t one speak out against state oppression? Won’t there be any dissent in society? Won’t there be freedom of expression? Such basic democratic rights are being punished by the ‘legal’ process. As a result, we are witnessing the arrogance of a fascist and totalitarian reality.
The undeclared ‘state of exception’ imposed by the Bangladesh state has become utterly transparent during this pandemic. As a result, it is more important for the state to deal with dissidents or critics than to deal with corona; in other words, to wage an endless “war” against its own citizens, and to turn individuals and society into colonies of the state.
We always need to claim the street to resist the oppressive Digital Security Act, and there is no alternative to form such a republic based on equality, human dignity, and social justice instead of the current totalitarian governmentality. The system should be “an association of independent human communities replacing the lifeless machinery of political and bureaucratic institutions. Structurally it is desired to be horizontal and federative, and free of hierarchy. That is possible only through the abolition of all economic monopolies and all repressive political and social institutions within society.”
Didarul, Kishore, and others are imprisoned for raising their voice against a totalitarian regime. But we must remember, in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act…
Translation: Ishtiaq Jami
Sohul Ahmed s an activist and author. Topics of interest are politics, history, liberation war ,and genocide. Published Books: Muktijuddhe Dhormer Opobabohar (2017), Somoyer Bebyocched (2019), and Zahir Raihan: Muktijuddho O Rajnoitik Vabna (2020)
Sarwar Tusher is an author and activist. Interested in studying the state, power, authority, sovereignty, violence, and social relations. Co-authored the book Somoyer Beyobacched (2019). Writes on a regular basis in various blogs and journals. Active member and organiser of Rashtrochinta.