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A Frisson of Freedom

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Follow Me on Twitter     Message Iftekhar Sayeed
I feel a frisson of freedom every time I contemplate our democratic transition of ‎‎1990. We were living in an autocracy; today we are free men and women who go out to ‎vote every five years. Ah! Liberty. ‎

Yes, today we are free to walk the streets of the city any time of the day or night ‎without fear. We couldn't do that earlier, could we? Women wear their finest jewelry and ‎saunter around heedless of who's looking. They know they are perfectly safe - they feel ‎as though they are in Saudi Arabia. Men carry wads of cash from banks and homes to ‎their offices and back without a moment's reflection on the security they enjoy. There are ‎no goons who would tell them to stick up their hands and stuff the stuff into a bag at ‎gunpoint. Partygoers come home from late night soirees at dawn, a little drunk, but safe. ‎If this isn't liberty, what is?‎

Women have never had it better. No girls are raped in the universities - perish the ‎thought. There have been reports in the newspapers, of course, but they have to jack up ‎their circulation with lurid stories, don't they? The Daily Star observed: "Incidents of ‎sexual harassment of women at educational institutions over the last few years provide a ‎shocking pattern: the perpetrators are mostly political activists, especially those ‎belonging to the student fronts of the mainstream political parties" (11th March, 2000).‎

This must surely be a canard. Our brave, freedom-loving students are models of ‎respectability and good breeding. Only boys from the best families go to school, college ‎and university. And these boys naturally treat girls like their sisters. It was also reported ‎‎(shame on our newspapers!) that 'more than 20 female students were raped and over 300 ‎others were sexually harassed on the campus by the "armed cadres of a particular ‎political party."' (I think it was again the Star that printed the calumny on October 1st ‎‎1998 online.) This was said of Jahangirnagar University. What slander! Surely we all ‎know that our boys never engage in politics; they are too busy, crushed - crushed, poor ‎chaps - under the load of their exacting curricula to engage in any extramural activity ‎like rape. Why, they hardly have the time to participate in debates! ‎

Newspaper headlines announce the murder of student politicians by student ‎politicians. By no stretch of the imagination can one conceive such a situation. These ‎boys must be yahoos and hooligans, not 'real' student politicians. A student politician is a ‎good boy: he stands for election to the school union, wins and takes care of students. And ‎we all know the student unions are never - I repeat, never! - politicised. ‎

Our politicians have nothing but the good of the public in mind. They are elected ‎for a few years and are expected to perform miracles. Surely this is unfair. It swells the ‎chest with pride to watch the two parties debate the minutiae of a law into the wee hours, ‎bleary-eyed, barely coherent, hungry and demanding breakfast! And how do we reward ‎such utter selflessness? By printing wild stories of the politicisation of student unions. ‎Nonsense! ‎

Then there are hartals. But for hartals, the pollution would have been intolerable. ‎And hartals are welcomed by school students because they get a holiday. Hartals are a ‎constitutional right, after all. It was by means of hartals that the latest autocrat was ‎deposed. Little good did the curfews do him! I seem to have got the following from some ‎source hostile to our democracy: "Two rickshawpullers - one of them unidentified, the ‎other Badaruddin (32) - were bombed while they were pulling their rickshaws during ‎hartal hours. It took them 24 to 48 hours to die. An auto-rickshaw was burned to ashes, ‎and when the driver, Saidul Islam Shahid (35), tried to put out the flames, he was ‎sprinkled with petrol, and burned to death. It took him more than two days to die. Truck ‎driver, Fayez Ahmed (50), died when a bomb was thrown on his truck. And Ripon ‎Sikder, a sixteen-year-old injured by a bomb, died on 4th May, 2001 at the Dhaka ‎Medical College Hospital after struggling for his life for eleven days." Talk about yellow ‎journalism! ‎

Some nasty people point out that the last autocrat was kept in power by the ‎donors. And when the Berlin Wall collapsed, they let him down. For evidence, they point ‎to Africa: in 1989, there were only three democracies in sub-Saharan Africa; in 1991, ‎there were 30 such democracies. ‎

But what does that prove? Our benevolent donors (who are after all our real ‎rulers) saw the error of their ways and thought fit to impose - I mean, give us - ‎democracy. I vividly remember Colin Imray, lips trembling with suppressed emotion, ‎announce to the General while opening a bridge, that from now on multi-party elections ‎would be the way to go. I am surprised that the great man did not break down in tears at ‎the enormity of what he was proposing. ‎

Of course, rude people point out that the donors are not really interested in our ‎welfare; that even Mark Tully has shown how they take away half the loans and grants ‎they give us. All they want, it is claimed, is control. "Look," these naysayers say, "at how ‎many seminars are held on Palestine in Dhaka city." Well, none.‎

Are they trying to imply that our intelligentsia are corrupt? If they are making ‎such a dastardly accusation, I personally shall be in the fore of the attack against such a ‎glabrous innuendo (I'm not sure if that word is right here, but it sounded nice)! Why, ‎man, what you are saying amounts to the admission that we have a freedom industry on ‎our hands, that this industry lies about the state of affairs to make money. Any man ‎making such an accusation should be keelhauled (or, if the laws won't allow that, hauled ‎over hot coals). ‎

No, no, an epidemic of freedom swept over the unfree world in the early 1990s. ‎Prometheus was unbound at last. No villager came to town to celebrate the overthrow of ‎the dictator, granted, and most of our people live in villages, yet there was a surge of ‎people on the streets when the tyrant announced his resignation. What is it that I hear? ‎They were unemployed people? Very well, then, even unemployed people deserve ‎freedom, don't they? And when you're free what does it matter if you're raped or ‎cremated by a mob?‎
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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