August 21, 2007

Everyone Is a Citizen First on Campus!

Update 2: Shadakalo has some chilling interesting news from Dhaka. Feeling as let down as I was in June.

Update: DS is reporting that violence continues on campus, and has spread to Jagannath University as well. Also reporting that students have vandalised 100 vehicles near Shah Bagh. Fast losing my sympathy there. More importantly, reports that students have set fire to an army Jeep and beat up the personnel inside. The polarisation continues.

It was inevitable. Friction happens. As anyone any man who has had the good fortune to sit in the Western Gallery of Bangabandhu National Stadium knows, sporting events with their rush of adrenaline are fertile grounds for friction.

As any reader stumbling on my blog at this late hour knows, there have been protests against the army camp set up at the Dhaka University gym. If this last piece of news comes as a surprise to those of you who have been relying solely on the mainstream media for your news, that is completely understandable. I haven't seen this reported on at any great length. Thankfully most of us have some contact with the City of Rumours where this was universal knowledge.

Blog round up as a service to my readers who should not rely on the media to get their news about such matters: Drishtipat group blog which broke the news to me, Shadakalo, 3rd World View, In the Middle of Nowhere and straight from Dhaka, Raha.

But back to inevitable friction. The Daily Star has this to say:

The initial cause of the demonstrations was an incident around 3.30pm yesterday when army personnel mercilessly beat three DU students and humiliated a teacher over a petty dispute concerning comments passed by spectators watching a soccer match on the university gymnasium ground where an army camp is situated.

The soccer match was between the departments of public administration and journalism. During a penalty shoot Mehedi Mohammad, a student of the public administration department stood up in front of a group of army personnel, obscuring their view.

Army members allegedly abused him verbally and asked him to move before beginning to beat Mehedi and his friends.

Mehedi along with Shafiq and Lucas all MSS students of public administration, and Dipu, a third year student of the same department, were taken to DMCH for treatment.

As Mubashsher Munayem, a teacher of public administration tried to stop the incident, the army personnel humiliated him too

New Age adds this telling detail (links tomorrow once they are archived):

Witnesses said army personnel in plain clothes beat up a number of students in the gallery of the DU playground during a football match between the departments of Public Administration and Mass Communication and Journalism sparking the protests.

The students alleged that the soldiers from the camp in plain clothes watching the football match hurled abuse at a master's student who returned the insults

Plain clothes. When army personnel are in plain clothes they have the same rights and responsibilities as citizens. That means that you do not use violence or coercion in dealing with your fellow citizens. Clearly, these people failed at being responsible citizens.

Next, the students managed to identify them as army personnel despite the plain clothes, which most likely means that they identified themselves as such. This places this incident smack in the middle of the (as yet unarticulated) greater political debate in the country: exactly how much special privileges do armed personnel enjoy at civilian institutions such as the DU campus, the market place and cabinet meetings. In my humble opinion, they have as many privileges as civilians are willing to give them, not more nor less. This does not include over-riding the right to dignity that every citizen of Bangladesh - civil or military - enjoys. Clearly these students and the teacher did not cede this right to anyone, civilian or military.

Lastly, even had they been in uniform, that would simply increase the degree of their offence. We respect (and fund, but lets not get into that!) our military precisely because it takes upon itself hardships and sacrifices that we do not. If that includes not being able to see clearly at a soccer match, then so be it! The uniform should be a sign of greater restraint and responsibility than those of an ordinary citizen. Instead, and all too frequently, the uniform is seen to give impunity to the wearer.

What followed was the usual pandemonium. The students have called for the army camp inside their campus to be removed. Though by no means agreeing with the methods through which they expressed themselves, I have to say that their demands have shown a lot more far-sightedness than those who placed our military personnel there in the first place. It's easy to interpret this move as a self-interested one, but ask yourself: how does this make ANY difference to DU students? Is the presence of the army camp making any difference in their lives, in their ability to protest? The answer is one big "NO"!

Rather that camp is harming the goal of social harmony more than anything else. It is causing friction between Bangladeshi citizens - same age, same colour, different background. Today's incident was simply the tip of the iceberg of the polarisation of our society, a polarisation that is tangible when travelling down that long stretch of road from Shohid Jahangir Gate to TSC Chottor. I'm too tired and emotionally involved in this at the moment to look into the historical perspective of that polarisation, but Mujib and Zia feature prominently in it, as does the cleavage between Mukti Bahini people and the repatriated Bangladeshis in 1971.

In conclusion, one simple request: try these goons now. Do not show them any special favour at all. They were in civilian dress, and let them be tried as civilians, in a civil court and get their just desserts as everyone else.

Of course that will not happen. The brass will kick in. Some sort of false dichotomy between civilians and military will be drawn in their minds, any sign of punishment for one of their own will be seen as a sign of weakness, a concession rather than justice. And the impunity will continue. Already New Age concludes ominously:

When asked about the incident, the director of Inter-Service Public Relations said they would come up with their version today.

As a commenter on DP says, "This time round it will be managed".

I once heard someone say, "You cannot demand respect, you have to earn it". Our armed forces annoy us by constantly demanding respect, which makes their (frequent? infrequent? really besides the point) failures at earning it all that much more galling. Yesterday, hours before the incident was reported, I wrote: "let us treat our soldiers as citizens first, soldiers second. And may they live up to such treatment". Today they did not.

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