The state in its fearsome symmetry

By Syed Badrul Ahsan

THE sight of Professor Anu Muhammad lying prostrate on the street, his young camp followers trying to protect him from the blows of policemen gone berserk, was something we had come across before. Remember the moment when a police officer, fury pushing his facial features into contortion, landed his fist in the face of an elderly photojournalist and sent the poor man tumbling? And do you recall how a whole phalanx of policemen swooped on Sohel Taj (and he was a lawmaker), back in the days when the country seethed in fury at the misrule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government, and left him with a fractured arm?

Go back in time. In the early days of the Ershad military regime, trucks were simply let loose on university students who dared to question the legitimacy of the coup makers of 1982. Come back to times closer. Every time the opposition called a general strike or sought to enforce a siege of the capital in the days when Khaleda Zia ran things, it was not uncommon for the police to seize anybody and everybody they could lay their hands on, dump them on to trucks and simply whisk them off to prison. It did not matter at all that all these hapless men were innocent citizens trying to go about their quotidian business of earning a living. The state ignored their innocence.

It all says something about the state we have given ourselves, particularly in the post-1975 period. Before the murder of Bangabandhu and then the assassination of his colleagues in prison, the Bangladesh state cared for those who constituted it. Between August and November 1975, light gave way to sinister darkness.

The welfare-oriented state of Bangladesh with alacrity mutated into an insensitive one. Two military administrations, one cabal of killer army officers and two periods of putative rule by the BNP (it was anything but) were all that was needed to inject fear into the minds of citizens. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men in the armed forces perished in the five years of the Ziaur Rahman regime.

In a political dispensation where transparency and accountability were expected to be the underpinning of governance, it was fear of the state that began grinding citizens’ rights into pieces. No wrong, no act of immorality could be questioned. None was. Colonel Taher was hanged in the dark loneliness of prison. Not even the uncertain interregnum that was the Sattar presidency demonstrated any inclination to be a little more sophisticated than its predecessor. Military officers charged with planning and carrying out the Zia murder were put to death in dubious circumstances.


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