A Bangladeshi MP – who paradoxically represents the ruling coalition as well as its opposition in the parliament – recently played the proverbial role of the judge, jury and prosecutor. He and his associates publicly tortured and humiliated a headmaster of a local school at Narayanganj, for his “blasphemous” comments against Islam. I don’t want to discuss the alleged blasphemy issue; other issues are more important and relevant today. The MP-turned-judge-jury-prosecutor’s highhandedness, and the way some vested interest groups, including Islamist fanatics and communal elements are trying to defend the MP, and fish in the troubled water are very ominous indeed.
What the lawmaker-turned-self-appointed judge and his henchmen did to the unfortunate school teacher – brutalized and humiliated him by forcing him to squat holding his ears with his two hands in public – most definitely amount to the violation of human rights, as specified in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (made in 1948). The Daily Star (Bangladesh) editor Mahfuz Anam has beautifully elucidated what squatting by holding one’s two ears in public is all about (“Story of an MP and a teacher”, DS, May 18, 2016): “Culturally, there cannot be a more humiliating act that one can be forced to perform in public…. This is what is done when we want to rob a person of all his sense of dignity and self-respect”. Most importantly, the lawmaker’s breaking the law of the land by promoting vigilantism is a much more grievous crime than any blasphemous comments attributed to the teacher.
I’m not going to repeat the bizarre, and frivolously ridiculous allegations brought against Shyamal Kanti Bhakta, the headmaster of a high school in Narayanganj, by some people in the locality and MP Salim Osman, who had some vested interest in the removal of Mr. Bhakta from his position as the headmaster. The School Committee under the vested interest group had already prepared the Headmaster’s resignation letter on 13th May, ahead of the actual day of his forced resignation on the 17th. As appears on this so-called resignation letter, the teacher concerned “confesses” his lapses, including taking bribes from jobseekers at the school, and making blasphemous comments against Islam. Interestingly, only one student had testified against the teacher – which he later recanted – about the Headmaster’s making derogatory comments against Islam, which an Education Department probe committee later found out to be totally baseless.
I don’t write this because only because some rogue elements humiliated and tortured a teacher. Had Mr. Bhakta been a cleaner, rickshaw-puller, doorman, or a chaprasi, I would’ve most definitely defended his rights, honour, and dignity as well. The persecution and humiliation of any human being anywhere, irrespective of the victim’s race, religion, age, gender, or profession is violation of human rights. However, from the mass protests of Bangladeshis – especially in social media – against the public humiliation of a teacher, everyone seems to be aggrieved and angry because a rowdy lawmaker victimized a teacher. A teacher is supposed to be respected most by everybody. Nevertheless, the protest is a positive sign.
One Bangladeshi-American professor has aptly argued:
The reason this incident is so offensive is not merely that a boorish and arrogant man humiliated an older school headmaster. He insulted not a person but a profession, a tradition, a time-honored social institution, he also insulted the nation itself, everything we had fought for, sacrificed for, and hoped to achieve when we won our independence. His argument that he had to humiliate the teacher in order to rescue him from public wrath sounds like the one General Westmoreland made about some of his decisions in Vietnam: “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”. What distressed me more than the thuggish behavior of the MP was the throng, which had gathered to support, and perhaps enjoy, this spectacle.
The rogue MP’s playing the judge-jury-prosecutor role definitely violated the UN Charter on Human Rights. The Charter affirms every human being everywhere must “enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”, and considers this “as the highest aspiration of the common people”. While Article 1 of the Charter affirms, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; Article 5 is unambiguous about protecting every individual from torture and humiliation in any form; the punch line being “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
The UN Charter also stipulates certain remedial and retaliatory measures against anybody (an individual, group, or state) who has violated any individual’s freedom, honour, and dignity. As Article 7 affirms: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”; so do Articles 8, 12, and 19: “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law”(Article 8); “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy … nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation” (Article 12); and “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Article 19).
It’s noteworthy that the Bangladesh Constitution also ensures each and every citizen’s and resident’s honour and dignity, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture in any form. Article 35 (Clause 5) of the Constitution is very unambiguous about these principles: “No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment”.
In view of the unambiguous declarations by the UN Charter and Bangladesh Constitution as to what constitute human rights violations, there is no reason to assume that lawmakers, ministers and senior police officers who frequently violate human rights in Bangladesh are unaware of these declarations. I believe MP Selim Osman and his associates knew what they were doing. Hence the eyewash, blame game, and false flag operation! They gave the dog a bad name! And sections of the population believe the Headmaster said nasty things about Islam.
The MP and his men also exploited the cheap religious sentiment of the people, and mobilized an Islamist group called Tahaffuz-e-Khatme Nabuwat, which is an offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a rabid anti-Ahmadiyya proto-fascist outfit in Bangladesh. Many Tahaffuz members and other Islamists organized protest rallies, defended Selim Osman, and demanded death sentence for the “blasphemer” Hindu Headmaster.
However, as mentioned above, tens of thousands of Bangladeshi men and women have been protesting the persecution and humiliation of the teacher, mostly in social media. As one media posting indicates, a Facebook group has already emerged with the name “kandhorehokprotibad (let us protest holding our ears). Its members protest the incident uploading photos of them holding their ears. Social media users have started campaigns on Facebook and Twitter with hashtags #sorrysir, #IamSORRY, #weRSORRYsir, #shyamalkantibhakta, in solidarity with the teacher, a victim of public humiliation.
Meanwhile the High Court, various teachers’ and students’ organizations, human rights activists, a couple of ministers, including the Education Minister have come forward in defence of the victim. The Education Department published its probe report on the fifth day of incident on Wednesday the 18th, which has exonerated the victim from the false allegation of hurting the religious sentiment of Muslims. The Education Department reinstated the Headmaster, and dissolved the school’s managing body (which was loyal to the MP). However, neither the probe report nor the Education Minister has implicated MP Salim Osman in hitting and humiliating the teacher. However, the Report indicates the teacher is a victim of injustice. And the teacher told reporters the MP had slapped him twice, in public. Interestingly, the Probe Committee believes “a longstanding dispute between the headmaster and the school committee” is at the root of the problem. “Financial issue is the main reason behind the feud”, it affirms.
So far so good! We have reasons to applaud the Education Minister’s decision to form a probe committee, which was very quick in publishing its report. Now, it’s neither enough to reinstate the teacher to his previous position, nor is it sufficient to accept an unconditional apology from the MP and his henchmen, who collectively committed a grave crime against humanity. The criminals must be punished in accordance with the law of the land. There shouldn’t be any “ifs” or “buts” in this regard.
Nothing could be more hackneyed than assuming that by now what happened at Narayanganj is all but forgotten. And that there’s no fallout from MP Salim Osman’s outrageous behaviour; his public slapping, and forcing a local headmaster to squat holding his ears with his own hands, in public. As indicated in my last posting to this daily (May 21, “MP plays judge-jury-prosecutor!”), the lawmaker took the law into his own hands to punish the headmaster on trumped up charges of committing blasphemy against Islam. I believe the fallout from this shockingly disgraceful act has just started showing up on the horizon. The episode not only highlights the prevalent state of Machiavellian opportunism, but it’s also going to be an important catalyst in the realm of politics in Bangladesh, in the coming years.
I think the fallout from the Narayanganj episode has short- and long-term, and positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, controversial Islamist outfits like the Hefazat-e-Islam, and Tahrik-e- Khatm-e-Nabuwat – besides groups of Muslim traders, youths, students and ordinary people – have been glorifying Salim Osman as a champion and defender of Islam, and asking for the execution of Headmaster Shyamal Kanti Bhakta for “blasphemy against Islam”; and on the other, various politicians and human rights activists have been condemning the unruly lawmaker for committing a crime against humanity, and for violating the law of the land by undermining the judiciary, and police administration. Some of them have demanded the unruly MP’s resignation from the parliament, and his immediate arrest and trial for playing the detestable role of judge, jury, and prosecutor.
Meanwhile, for almost a week following the public humiliation of the teacher, there was countrywide protest against Salim Osman and his henchmen. The protest was mostly symbolic. Young men and women, holding their two ears with own hands, formed human chains in public places, expressing symbolic solidarity with the victim, and their contempt for Osman and his men. The protest went viral in the social media. Let’s hope this protest against a lawmaker, who took the law into his own hands, will eventually restore the rule of law in Bangladesh.
The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email: email@example.com