A prayer for 2020

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Can we hold ourselves to a higher standard in the New Year?

The New Year according to the Gregorian calendar is about as universal as an occasion gets.

Unlike, say, the Bengali New Year, Eid, or Independence Day, when it comes to marking the transition from December 31 to January 1, ethnicity, religious belief, and nationhood are completely irrelevant. There is no intrinsic meaning to a New Year celebration, nor is there any singular cultural ritual that requires observance. 

There is a certain freedom in this: We get to decide what we want it to mean.

On a personal level, then, it is no surprise that a diversity of ideas exists regarding what we should do to mark the New Year. Some will spend the day in quiet contemplation, digesting and assimilating all the experiences, joys, and traumas of the past year, and perhaps seeing the day as an opportunity for spiritual growth. 

Some will be reminded of the passage of the time, and consequently, their own ageing bodies, and will enter a rigorous workout regime with renewed enthusiasm. Some will go the tried and true route of losing themselves to a blaze of bacchanal on New Year’s Eve, the next morning taking pride in saying they don’t remember a thing. 

And of course, there are those who will find New Year’s Day to be an utterly meaningless occasion. For them, the date changes, and nothing else, so they cannot fathom why the day would be treated any differently from any other day. At most, their office will need a new desk calendar.

But this freedom to decide also puts a responsibility on us, and not just on a personal level, but collectively, as a nation. And freedom, just like getting behind the wheel of a car, when not used responsibly, can be destructive, or even fatal. 

Around this time of the year, not for nothing is there a heightened sense of paranoia among law enforcement and politicians in charge. They don’t like the idea of New Year’s, or to be more specific, they don’t like the thought of what kind of celebrations might take place, and what consequences there could be. 

 The usual restrictions will invariably be placed upon the capital regarding conduct and movement around the city on New Year’s Eve. These may include restrictions on: Parties on rooftops and in other open areas, cultural programs, fireworks, movement in the Dhaka University area, movement into Gulshan, Banani, and Baridhara; you get the idea. 

And while many may feel an instinctive sense of ire that the government needs to treat people like children on such a day, effectively clamping down on individual liberty, it is undeniable, and extremely sad, that the government has a point. We Bangladeshis, in general, do not know how to celebrate responsibly, and the chances of something untoward happening when revelry goes on unchecked are very high. Think hooliganism. Think sexual harassment. Think road fatalities. Better safe than sorry, no? (Of course, there is more to this quasi-judgmental attitude the government has towards Western-inspired ideas of “fun,” but that is a whole other can of worms I will not open right now.) 

Other countries, on the other hand, do not need to put down special regulations to enforce order. Their regular, everyday laws work just fine whether it is December 31 or any other random date. Maybe a few extra police personnel may need to be deployed to control potentially unruly crowds. Maybe the security officers tasked with monitoring the camera feeds will need to work a little overtime to ensure no one gets sexually harassed, assaulted, or worse. 

But as citizens of a country, and legal residents of a city, people should have the right to move about as they please, as long as they are not breaking any laws.

Here we get back to the cold, hard slap of reality: In Bangladesh, we do break laws. We do cross lines. Horrifyingly bad things can and do happen in this country every day, and for those things, we cannot blame the economy, or infrastructural inadequacy, or Indian influence, or any of our convenient scapegoats. 

It comes down to people, and how they behave with, and relate to one another. This in turn, comes down to education. I am not talking about degrees, or textbooks, or syllabi, but education at a much more fundamental human level, which is lacking in Bangladesh, both among the general population, as well as among the political elite who make the rules. 

We need liberties — political, economic, and social liberties to realize our potential, to be better as people, and to be more productive towards the betterment of others and the nation. A New Year may be nothing but a purely symbolic occasion marking a mere date change, but it is as good a time as any to take stock, and make better, more responsible decisions with our liberties. 

Just like the government, I also don’t want bad things to happen during New Year festivities. My prayer is that one day, soon, we as a community of Bangladeshis will learn to conduct ourselves peacefully, with a respect for other people’s rights, property, and bodily autonomy. 

On that day, an occasion as innocuous as a change of date won’t start resembling a state of emergency. 

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.