No real social change comes by itself

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The ruling class has been able to create divisions within the journalistic community, and the media is hemorrhaging as a result. Illustration: Noor Us Safa Anik

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The ruling class has been able to create divisions within the journalistic community, and the media is hemorrhaging as a result. Illustration: Noor Us Safa Anik

Each new year brings new hope into our lives. We hope that things will finally change. But things don’t change, they stay the same, and we despair of ever finding a change until another new year comes and revives our hope. The reason behind this, in short, is a disease with which our society and our state have long been infected: capitalism. Our efforts to rid ourselves of this disease through political means have been persistent, as has our failure. It’s evident everywhere you look. From the prices of goods to a general lack of security in all aspects of life, the markers of this failure are clear to all. We got used to it, until an incident here or there jolted us awake, making us realize we were in trouble.

Let’s talk freedom. The question of individual freedom is old, although recurrent, but it should already be settled. There should be no doubt that “freedom” and “freedom of expression” are the same thing. Without freedom of expression, democracy is only a fiction. In our so-called democratic state, the duties of parliamentarians should have been to pass appropriate legislation, to establish control over the executive branch of government, to hold government to account, to ensure transparency in the activities of the branch executive branch and to control foreign government policies and agreements. But they don’t do any of that, at all.

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Criticism of government mistakes is part of the democratic process. But our leaders cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism. They are too sensitive to it. The reason is that they do not have a solid moral basis. They know how they came to power, and when power is monopolized in this way, it is natural to lose people’s support. Our leaders only serve their own interests, not the interests of the people. Therefore, they are easily bothered by criticism. This makes them vulnerable. This makes them fear that their fall is not far away.

Part of their strategy is to make a lot of noise. So some of them say they won’t rest until they bring about “change”; others claim that people will be blown away by a surge of prosperity and dance in joy. No matter what government is in power, they want to drown out any criticism with their own noise. They are quick to dismiss, drown out, or silence any voices critical of their actions or lack thereof. Their hostility towards critics gives the impression that they think that since they have acquired the right to govern, it is up to them to make all the noise. There is an element of self-deception in this thought pattern. They hope that only their noise, and no other sound, will be echoed.

It’s not as if the ruling party always speaks with one voice. You can hear a variety of contrasting opinions within the ruling camp. For example, when the current government came to power, one of the ministers said that he would be able to control commodity prices through the intervention of the public agency TCB. Almost immediately, another minister came out in favor of keeping the market open, saying a free market would bring prices down. As a result, TCB remains stuck in no man’s land and prices have not come down at all. In fact, the steady rise in prices has left people overwhelmed.

The effective role of the opposition is vital for a parliamentary democracy. But the history of our country teaches us that no opposition party has been able to assume its responsibility so far. Often, they had to face obstacles created by the government, while lacking the moral strength to overcome them. They also lack acceptability among people. In a situation like this, any valid criticism we see comes from the people. Silencing their voice is tantamount to establishing a dictatorship.

With the media facing covert and overt threats, the current government passed the Right to Information Act 2009, the apparent aim of which was to empower the media and ensure the transparency and accountability in government. Such contrasts between the real and the legal are not uncommon. Apparently, there was pressure from the so-called international community to pass this legislation. It is not hard to assume that this law will be of no use to the people as the government shows no tolerance for any form of criticism. The ruling class is opposed to any airing of people’s grievances, let alone any suggestion of holding them accountable, which they are committed to doing.

In these circumstances, it is important to press for the government to become tolerant. There are two vital sources of pressure here: the first, of course, is the public, and the second – and most important – is alternative democratic political power. Developing the latter is a process that takes time. But the people can quickly organize for a common cause if they are united.

In the days of Pakistan, we saw how united journalists were on the issue of press freedom and how any attack on newspapers would trigger protests across the country. This unit no longer exists. The ruling class has been able to create divisions within the journalistic community, and the media is hemorrhaging as a result.

The practice of culture and literature, even journalism, requires a material base which is not solid in Bangladesh. There is no indication that the new year we have begun will strengthen this foundation. A big problem here is the lack of investment. The investment is not progressing. There are fears that the remittances sent by our migrant workers will soon decrease. A number of mega-projects have been undertaken which involve large expenditures. But instead of generating value, it is more likely that there will be waste.

An example of this is the Dhaka overflights. Experts say that instead of reducing traffic congestion, these will instead increase it. Pedestrians and ordinary transit users will see little change while motorists will benefit. Almost every major city in the world has abandoned the idea of ​​flyovers, except for Dhaka. The solution to traffic congestion is the metro, which is now present in all major cities including Kolkata. Dhaka also needs a metro, and it’s a good thing that our first rail is being built. Once the construction is finished and the metro is functional, we will know how beneficial it is.

Coming back to the question of freedom, it is essential to change our current system for our collective freedom. But that has not yet been possible. Whatever prosperity there has been, it mostly benefits a few people, and even those are not safe either. Most people spend their days in misery and danger. There is no doubt that we cannot change this system with individual efforts alone. Even a political movement cannot do anything about it. As laudable as these isolated efforts are, what we really need to bring about change is a collective and continuous socio-political movement guided by clear goals. If we can’t do that, we won’t be able to live the way we want to and we’ll stay half dead, like we are now.

Serajul Islam Chowdhury is professor emeritus at the University of Dhaka. The article was translated from Bengali by Azmin Azran.

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