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Tolerating dissent

Publication Date : 18-10-2012


Someone had said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. And I chose to commence this piece with a quote the source of which is still being disputed (contrary to popular belief that the saying originated from the third president of the United Sates it is now believed to be only a few years old and not 200), it being very relevant to our deliberations today. Very few will disagree that whoever uttered these priceless words had articulated perhaps the most enduring sentiments (criticism and dissent) that drives and sustains the spirit of freedom and democracy around the world.

It is the "scoundrels" that the government is finding hard to put up with in Bangladesh, if one were to accept that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, or even the first. That tolerating criticism is not one of the fortes of this government, or for that matter any past governments, has once again been demonstrated by the way it has come down upon its critics.

There is a criticism psychosis that is pervading the minds of our leadership today. And thus the strident reaction, the latest on the government list includes the Transparency Internaitonal Bangladesh (TIB), and the talk shows, and its wary eyes have not even spared the recent meeting between the visiting World Bank delegation and a few reputed national figures. The TIB has come under government criticism for its survey report on the performance of the members of current parliament, and not for the first time either has its motives been questioned. And one finds it hard to believe that the talk show participants would be so denigrated as to be compared with those that prefer nocturnal quietness to ply their trade.

Regrettably, this is not the first time that criticism of the government or disagreements with its policies has received the government's and the party's wrath. Those at the helm of affairs tend to forget that the critics are not their enemies; and a government that cannot differentiate between honest and well meaning criticism and "disloyal subversion" is not really worth its salt or the trust of the people.

One can recall a very insightful article by noted economist Professor Rehman Sobhan which appeared in these very pages soon after the Awami League was elected to its first term in office, on December 23, 1998, entitled, "My critic, my friend a road to better governance." It seems that prudent warnings from time to time by its well wishers have been ignored by the government, in fact those have been turned on their heads and it would not be wrong to suggest that some of the well meaning critics are now much misunderstood.

It is queer too that behind every such report, as that of the TIB's, the government finds an ulterior motive, a conspiracy to "undo" it. Some of its spin doctors, so often given to flights of fancy, have come out with the conspiracy theory, once again, and to quote a senior cabinet member, the report is aimed to impede democracy and invite undemocratic forces.

Let us make one thing clear. The TIB Report, or for that matter the words spoken in the talk shows, are not the be all and end all of the matter. Not all criticisms are always fair or just. Where in the world is it so? And just as those that use the media to express dissent or criticise government policies the government too is at liberty to disprove criticisms through its own observations. Its correct riposte is in proving the critics wrong, or, where the critics are right, to correct its policies, never in running the critics down. As one Nobel laureate had said, it is easy to mock dissent. Mocking comes easily to those that do not have the weight of reason behind them.

One might wonder at the cause of such pathological aversions to criticisms. Offering reasons in such matters may be risky but worth none the less. One might attribute the current syndrome to the huge majority that the government enjoys in the parliament. On its own it has a 2/3, and together with its allies, a 4/5 majority. This has made it supremely confident of itself and makes it feel impervious to any criticism. It is quite happy to ride roughshod on popular feelings forgetting the wise counsel that dissenting voices must not only be heard they must also be encouraged because a wise person must be constantly wary of those that agree with him or her readily.

A critic is your friend because he tells you what you should hear and not what you want to hear. The unpleasant facts must not be discarded but internalised to redact policies and rectify mistakes. A critic is a friend because he has not learnt to, "sandwich every bit of criticism between two thick layers of praise". A government that wants to render public service must understand that stifling criticism creates an aura of fear, and no productive activity can take place in an environment of fear. There is a free society and there is a fear society -- take your pick.

The writer is Editor, Op-ed & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.


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