The footage is harrowing. A speech-impaired girl is pushed off a running bus for not being able to pay her fare. She was wearing a note saying that she did not have any money on her. The driver had no time for empathy; he asked his helper to throw her out of the bus. Police later attended the injured victim and arrested the driver and his helper. The TV news channel that aired the news had the decency of not showing the photo of the girl, but they did show how the girl was writing to describe the situation. She scribbled how she was feeling a constant buzzing noise in her ears.
The incident happened in Keraniganj in the city suburb on Monday. Compared to all the gruesome news that we consume on a routine basis, this news is probably trivial. It has not gone viral as the beating of an eight-year-old Madarsa student, the death of a writer-entrepreneur while waiting for his court hearing in jail, or the release of a cartoonist who has partially lost his hearing while in custody. Then again, there is an underlying unheard tension that unites all these tenors that run alongside the grand orchestra of our 50 years celebration of the nation.
The four founding principles of the constitution state: nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism. The constitution proclaimed fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, the right to education, and public healthcare among others. The constitution is the place where every citizen has the protection to be heard; whether you are a doubly marginalised physically challenged woman, an under-age child forced to join an educational institution out of poverty, a conscientious artist with a desire to point out the follies of the society, or a concerned citizen upset by some political anomalies—the constitution should have you protected. At least in theory.
It is good to see that the police have nabbed the driver and his helper and the teacher who inflicted the corporal punishment. For the other two cases, special provisions have been made; their cases remained unheard for a long time. It was too late by the time the case of the writer-entrepreneur Mushtaq was heard, and the other case of the cartoonist Kishore has salvaged partial hearing—thanks to the untimely death of Mushtaq in the first case. The release of Kishore after the untimely death of Mushtaq simply confirms the interconnectedness of things; how we are all linked to the strings that propagate through time and space to connect us all. Now who controls the string is a metaphysical question that is outside the purview of this present article!
It matters when we forget this essential connectivity at a societal level in our efforts to differentiate one from the other. It matters when someone who steals millions can cross the border before the issuance of immigration alert. He wore a sign, saying, "I have money" (read, stolen from others) written all over it. Yet that man, the financial guru, according to a press report, managed to get a safe passage. Meanwhile, a deaf and mute girl is pushed off a bus because she has no money. What does it tell us as a society when someone gets a free ride, and others do not? Our celebration of the golden jubilee will be incomplete if we cannot ensure justice and fairness.
The bus driver at Keraniganj has every right to refuse service to a passenger who has no fare, but he has no right to throw someone out of a running bus. Similarly, a school teacher has the right to be strict to teach his student a lesson, but he has no right to resort to corporal or psychological punishments. No one has the right to humiliate the other in public; both the deaf girl and the madrasa student have their dignities. The state has not given any right to any individual or institution to compromise those. It is safe for me to comment on the wrongs inflicted upon these two individuals. But I do not feel safe to comment on the lapses of the institutions that are bound by the constitution to oversee that such malpractices do not occur. My self-censorship is a sign of social sickness. The lepers in my head long for a saviour figure.
In his political allegory in the "Animal Farm", George Orwell shows that we cannot proclaim equality when "some animals are more equal than others". The society in which we are living today is being stretched to two opposite directions. Fifty years after independence, we have developed exponentially. We have earned the respect of the world. Unfortunately, we have also forgotten to respect ourselves, our own kinds. We have forgotten our agrarian roots, our connection to the soil, its rivers. While chasing the development dream, we are forgetting the fact that the freedom that we are enjoying today is a result of the blood sacrificed by millions, most of whom came from the peasants' class. It was the tenacity of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to harness the aspiration of the people and give it a green and red contour.
"We often forget an important point in discussions on the Liberation War." The deputy chief of staff during the Liberation War, Air Vice Marshal AK Khandker reminds us. "According to my estimation, during the second week of December the number of freedom fighters was around 1 lakh 15 thousand. 70-80 percent of them came from peasant background. Our history does not recognise their role properly. We often forget that the Liberation War was a people's war and a national war."
Let us not forget the people in our journey towards the golden shore we are aiming at. Let us hear for those who cannot hear, and let us speak for those who cannot speak.
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).