When the Pen Becomes a Security Threat

Published on 03/06/2021

C R Abrar  

The Digital Security Act (DSA) has claimed its latest victim. Last Saturday, police arrested Shahnewaz Chowdhury (37), a diploma engineer of Chattogram's Banshkhali upazilla, after a case was filed under the DSA for posting a Facebook status. Earlier, the chief coordinator of the SS Power 1 Plant lodged an FIR with Banshkhali Police Station "accusing the engineer of tarnishing the power plant's image".

In his Facebook post of May 16, alluding to the recent deaths of protesting workers over the "environmentally destructive coal power plant", Chowdhury sarcastically stated that the local people "are being submerged by the tidal surge (of development)". He urged "the youth of Banshkhali to take a pioneering role against injustice and for development by taking up the pen without fear". Chowdhury was reportedly accused of posing a security threat for the power plant by instigating the locals and spreading propaganda and misinformation. On April 17, at least six workers were killed and almost 50 others were injured—18 with bullet wounds—after a clash broke out between police and power plant workers.

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It is interesting that when the workers of the power plant, the local people of Banshkhali and concerned citizens across the country were recovering from the shock of the unwarranted violence and deaths of a number of workers, the power plant administration in its infinite wisdom, instead of taking appropriate actions to implement the recommendations of the police inquiry committee, decided to turn up the heat and go on the offensive. Needless to say, the very nature of the DSA has come in handy to the powerful corporate house and has produced such a harsh outcome.

This has not been the first case of an outbreak of violence centring workers' discontent at the power plant. Earlier in 2016 and 2017, the blood of workers and villagers was spilled in Banshkhali during workers' protests regarding wages and other issues. Like this time, the call for instituting an independent inquiry into the incidents went unheeded and perpetrators were not held to account, and the legitimate demands of the workers remained largely unaddressed. The police personnel responsible for opening fire and killing the workers without provocation have not been booked yet. The violation of procedural laws in dealing with protest and assembly has been blatant. No mechanism was instituted to facilitate a dialogue between the workers and the plant administration. It goes without saying, like any other dispute, industrial disputes do not wither away on their own. If the management chooses to ignore the reality, then it leads to further simmering of discontent that in many instances result in an unforeseen spiral of events, triggering the unwarranted developments that Banshkhali experienced.

Soon after the outbreak of the incident in mid-April this year, instead of trying to placate the aggrieved workers and their supporters (mostly family and friends of workers), the management decided to file cases against 22 individuals and 1,040 unnamed persons. In line with the recent tradition in dealing with criminal cases, the local police went a notch higher and filed cases against more than two and a half thousand unnamed persons. Needless to say, a situation of unease and fear pervades the Gandamara union.

The police inquiry failed to identify the persons responsible for firing the shots that killed and wounded the workers. Notwithstanding this grave limitation, the report acknowledges that there was palpable negligence on the part of the employers to address the long term dissatisfaction of the workers. The grievances of workers on delayed payment of wages and other entitlements, unhygienic living quarters, toilets and sanitary facilities, the gap in communications between foreign language speaking supervisory staff and the workers and the failure in setting up a system of grievance management had resulted in the violence.

Justifying police action, it claimed that after failing to contain the crowd by firing rubber bullets, the police resorted to live munitions to save foreign employees and property. Plant workers, witnesses and rights activists dismiss this finding.

The above facts establish that the plant administration failed to address genuine long term grievances of the workers, including those of payment of wages and poor living and work conditions. Abuse and mistreatment of workers and the lack of workers' representation were also important contributory factors.

It is surprising that instead of taking any meaningful measure to alleviate the concerns of the workers that would create an enabling productive environment in the facility, the corporate house has chosen to take a combative path. Its invocation of the DSA is unjustifiable and is a blatant example of weaponisation of the law. How can someone in their right mind find a call for taking up the pen "against injustice" and "for development" as "instigation and spreading propaganda, posing a security threat for the power plant" and "tarnishing its image"?

A High Court bench on May 4 ordered the authorities concerned to pay compensation of Taka five lakh to each of the victims and provide security and protection to the workers, families and local of Banshkhali and not to harass them in any form. The onus lies on the state to take immediate steps to stop the harassment of the workers in connection with the incident.

The arrest of Shahnewaz Chowdhury will have a debilitating effect on those who speak on corruption and irregularities of the coal-fired power project. Chowdhury was exercising his constitutional right to express his opinion and was merely performing his civic duty in cheering the youth on to write against illegal activities and corruption. No one in their right mind should find such a call to be illegal and a move to create anarchy or instability.

Given the gravity of this protracted problem, the government should immediately institute an impartial and independent inquiry into the incident and hold the perpetrators to account, as demanded by the workers and reiterated by 63 prominent citizens. The frivolous charges against Shahnewaz Chowdhury should be immediately dropped. In line with the High Court order, the government should also ensure that compensation money is disbursed and all agencies desist from harassing workers, members of their families and the local people. Finally, the invocation of the DSA by the corporate group, in this instance, against a conscientious citizen, further emboldens the argument that this anti-people draconian law should be put to rest.

C R Abrar is an academic with interest on human rights and migration. He acknowledges the support of Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua in this article.