The arrest of Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam is like a relic of the Cold War. It isn’t often, these days, that someone is picked up for speaking a little too expansively in the course of a television interview. Who takes television chitchat seriously? It’s just background noise at underpopulated dining tables and in overpopulated waiting rooms.
But, oh dear, governments take it very seriously. This week Ben White, journalist and author on Israel-Palestine issues, provided a depressing three-step timeline of a newsroom response following the killing of a pregnant woman and a child in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on August 9. Step one: BBC World ran this headline: ‘Israeli air strikes “kill woman and toddler”.’ Step two: The ministry of foreign affairs in Tel Aviv issued a formal complaint to the BBC. Step three: BBC edited the offending headline to read, ‘Gaza air strikes “kill woman and child” after rockets hit Israel.’ The things you have to do for world peace…
But to return to Bangladesh, Shahidul’s Skype interview aired by Al Jazeera was part of a larger news story about the unusual movement in progress in Bangladesh, in which students appear to have mobilised without a central command, moved by the everyday tragedy of two people mowed down by buses. The agitation is against the road fatality rate, which stands at 7,000 per year. But with elections looming in December, a civic and public safety issue has turned into a political matter. A minister questioned the credentials of students who were outraged by two deaths in Bangladesh but were unmoved by the bus crash the previous day in India, in which 33 were killed.
In the interview which got Shahidul booked under Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act of Bangladesh (their equivalent of Section 66A of the Indian IT Act, which has been struck down after gross misuse), he was asked if there was a larger issue beyond the road safety question? He responded, “This has been going on for a long time. governments ruling by brute force, looting of banks, gagging of the media, extrajudicial killings, disappearances. protection money and bribery at all levels, corruption in education, it’s a never-ending list.” If this generic venting of steam which names no names can be the basis of summary arrest, every talkative Indian who has ever served as a panelist for Republic or Times Now must fear the worst, if our laws ever change. Shahidul has been put away for days, despite an international clamour for
Of course, he did allege that police were taking “the help of armed goons to attack unarmed students asking for safe roads… There are people on the streets with machetes chasing unarmed students and the police are just standing by.” Sounds only a little worse than the wildness seen this week on the streets of the National Capital Region — sharp instruments in acrion rather than blunt instruments. What used to be a pedestrian pilgrim procession has turned into a stream of aggressive motorcades with the blessings of the state machinery. It has been going on for years but there is outrage now, when a flying machine of the state has been used by a senior police official to shower rose petals on the pilgrims. But he was only playing follow the leader because days earlier, ANI had shown Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath surveying the procession route from another state flying machine and, purely out of habit, waved at people far below him, rendered invisible by distance, to whom he was similarly invisible. Anand Mahindra has wondered out loud if, at some future date, we shall give ourselves up to the dark side of the demographic dividend: the mob. He could as well have used the present tense.
Indeed, a negative demographic dividend can be of advantage. The headline of the week appeared in The Financial Times: ‘Legal & General forecasts higher profits as customers die earlier than expected.’ Tremendous clarity there.