Police action against marchers

Editorial, The Daily Star, 4 September 2009

Peaceful protests must not be subject to such brutality

IT is unquestionably bad practice to prevent people from asserting their democratic right to protest. And the practice gets worse when, in order to quell such protests, the law enforcers resort to a baton charge of the protestors. That precisely is what happened on Wednesday when a procession organized by the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports was pounced upon by the police. As so often happens in such instances of harshness demonstrated by policemen, no fewer than thirty people were left with various degrees of injuries on their persons. Among these thirty were ten policemen. It has been given out that the marchers, who were trying to reach the head offices of Petrobangla in Karwan Bazar to register their disapproval of the lease of three offshore gas fields to foreign companies, ended up vandalizing quite a few vehicles as a result of the police action. Vandalism, of course, is always to be condemned. If some of these protestors resorted to violent action, we cannot but unambiguously tell them they did themselves no service.

That said, though, we must go back to the thought of why peaceful marchers must be impeded by the law enforcers every time they seek to draw attention to some grievances they might wish to voice in the national interest. Over the years, even during the period of some elected governments, it has been observed that the police have demonstrated a degree of vehemence and force while dealing with protestors that has left us all wondering about the responsibilities of the state to those who voice a contrary opinion. In the recent past, we have witnessed the police taking, on some crude and indefensible instructions from the powers that be, nearly everyone on the streets into custody on the assumption that everyone is an agitator. Now, even if there are reasons to feel that law and order could be threatened by a protest march, there are sophisticated ways of handling it rather than adopting a knee-jerk position. A fundamental point about the police handling protests is for them to remain absolutely cool in the face of any provocation. Unfortunately, what they did on Wednesday was anything but cool. Besides, the fact that the anti-lease march was peaceful and was led by a number of prominent citizens should have made the police think twice before taking such action.

The point here is not whether the stand of the marchers regarding the lease of the gas fields is right or wrong. It is one of the law enforcers, in these days of enhanced political and democratic sensibilities, needlessly wielding their truncheons on people who only have a point of view to be conveyed to the government. At a time when an elected government is in office, the sight of citizens beaten to the ground by policemen is nothing less than a scandal. We are then all left feeling ashamed

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