[Cross posted at E-Bangladesh]
Aparajito: The word cannot be properly translated into English. Those who have seen Satyajit Ray’s 1956 film "Aparajito" may translate the word as "unvanquished". Undefeated. Unbowed. Uncowed. Unbeaten. It is much more than any of those words.
Today, four Bangladeshi prisoners of conscience – Moloy Bhowmik, Selim Reza Newton, Abdullah Al Mamun and Dulal Chandra Biswas – walked out from the Rajshahi Central Jail as free men – aparajito. These four Rajshahi University professors were sentenced last week to two years rigorous imprisonment by a Bangladeshi kangaroo court for taking part in a silent procession in August of this year. Today they were released when Bangladesh’s civilian puppet president, Iajuddin Ahmed, "pardon"ed them of their "crimes".
The military government claimed that the professors were released following a petition for mercy to the president from the professors. However, the professors rejected the military government’s claim saying they had not asked for mercy:
Later at the grave of Shamsuzzoha, Bhoumik told journalists, "We heard the media is saying that we had sought presidential clemency."
"I want to make it clear that we never sought any mercy from anyone. If anybody claims so, he should show the proof. If the claim comes from the government then it is an insult to the teaching community."
"If the government claims that we sought mercy, they must prove it. We are ready to go to jail again if necessary. It is a matter of the teaching community’s prestige."
Talking on the matter of presidential clemency, Sayed Selim Reza Newton also expressed his astonishment. Rejecting the government’s claim he said, "There was no question of mercy petitions. Neither we nor our wives submitted any petition to the government for mercy."
"We are disappointed at the government’s claim. We suffered in jail long enough because we didn’t want to seek mercy. We could have been freed much earlier if we had sought mercy."
Dulal Chandra Biswas thanked the president for his ‘voluntary initiative’. "We thank him for his voluntary move of ordering the mercy. It was possible only for the efforts of all the people including our colleagues and students."
The release comes after growing public outrage over the sentencing of these professors for a non-violent and silent protest. In support of the prisoners of conscience few days ago over 40 Dhaka University professors held a silent protest in front Aparajeyo Bangla (unvanquished Bengal). The Dhaka University Teachers Association (DUTA) issued an ultimatum to the military government demanding the release of the prisoners of conscience by December 12th. In response, a three member team from the army – reportedly Brigadier General ATM Amin, Colonel Abu Saleh and Colonel Almas Raisul Ghani of the DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence) – met with DUTA and the Dhaka University Vice Chancellor to dissuade (threaten) them into cancelling their planned protests. The Dhaka University professors refused and began their protests as previously planned. It was clear that battle lines had been drawn between the brute force of the military and the moral authority of the Bangladeshi academic community.
Today the military government buckled. The military had nothing more to gain by holding these professors. They had already gotten their point across – dissent is punishable by torture and/or imprisonment. Confrontation would have led to nothing more than bad press.
However, the detention and subsequent release of these prisoners of conscience also exposes the modus operandi of this military government. The rule of law, or the flouting of it, lies at the whims of the generals in charge and at the mercy of military intelligence officers of the DGFI. It was notable and illuminating that it was the DGFI that was negotiating with DUTA. It was also notable that only under threat of what was likely to be mass protests did the military government release these men. This does not bode well for the future of Bangladesh. If force, or the threat of force, are the only checks on this military government’s behavior its exit – an inevitability – is likely to be bloody.
Meanwhile up to 250,000 other prisoners are being held by this military government without due process. Among them are Dhaka University professors also being held for protesting against army brutality last August. Today, the civilian water carrier for the military government, Mainul Hosein, declared that the Dhaka University professors "could also be freed if they apologise for their actions."
Last August the BBC pointed out that the army’s wrath against students and professors was unleashed in part because it felt insulted. It appears that the "rule of law" in Bangladesh is now not much more than insult and apology. An unaccountable military force rules by fiat. And only the politics of confrontation appears to be on the horizon. These are dangerous times.
Nonetheless, four prisoners of conscience are free today. Unapologetic. Aparajito.