A MANIFESTATION OF SEPARATION : Against the Wall around Kahn's National Assembly in Dhaka

Given the long curated culture of indemnity and the authoritarian streak the current government is on, it may seem futile to make any fuss regarding the iron barrier that is being erected around our beloved Sangshad Bhaban, an architectural masterpiece by one of the modern masters Loius I. Kahn. A government, which can get away with fundamental issues such as holding a questionable election, must see this as nothing more than the rightful exercise of the authority bestowed upon them by the very people. The barrier is to protect the venerable MPs and the workings of democracy taking place inside. I am sure there are pages devoted to detailing its necessity for security purposes, as must be elaborated in the application to build it as well as in the subsequent work order. Since any argument these days invariably brings up the constitution, here I prefer not to. It seems everyone is an expert on it, and without being one, I can assume that erecting the wall is not unconstitutional. The government is a “strict” adherent of constitutional processes; hence, it is in the clear. Is it unlawful to construct the barrier, an eight-foot tall protector of the very symbol of democracy? Of course not but then again it is not the legal legitimacy of the iron grill that is in question, but rather, the ethicality of it. In a political landscape strewn with governmental actions that transgress the legal boundary so often, overstepping a moral one is obviously not a cause for concern for the government. My article is about why it should be ours.

The south plaza of the Sangshad Bhaban, as intended by Kahn was designed as a public space, for people of the city to gather and may be even protest the very dealings going on within the seemingly fort-like brutalist building. The surrounding plaza, is not merely a physical space so as to increase the aesthetic quality of the building, but rather has a psychological value for the citizens, not only recreational in nature. The citizen, by occupying the plaza, becomes a participant of the very process of the democratic workings even though he may not be officially any part of it. I remember the eventful evenings from my childhood, sitting on the grass, watching the plaza dotted with Dhakaites and people jogging in the morning. By having people from all walks of life right next to it, the sangshad Bhaban portrayed an air of inclusivity, one of the major underpinnings of a democracy. Then that right was taken away and the south plaza became restricted for public. In a city like Dhaka with public spaces few and far between, closure of such a place did not meet that much of a resistance, after all who can afford to invest their time and energy for such a subtle right to occupy a designed public place, when major issues such as poverty, corruption and human rights are still unchallenged.

Now as if that was not enough, we can take notice of an aberration in the name of an iron grill that is being erected. It seems there is not a single member of parliament who can realize that the grill is only going to achieve supposed physical security at the cost of the sanctity of the institution. As an architect, as much as I am concerned of how this aberration is going to affect the aesthetic of the majestic masterpiece, little do I have to add to the vehement criticism already splayed by many of my profession as well as other concerned citizen. Without any doubt, the wall will be an eyesore. My concern, moving beyond the aesthetics, is what this particular form of intervention, the wall means. If one takes stock of the walls built in history of mankind, one will find a fascinating pattern. Walls have always been a means of separation, a physical manifestation of an underlying “us versus them”. From the Great Wall of China to the Berlin wall and the wall in Jerusalem, all walls have been built in the name of security and each symbolizing a much deeper separation rather than only the physical aspect of it. Whereas there was an ethnic or religious polarization among those present on the either side of the wall in these cited examples, no such bifurcation underlie here, or is there one? In an ideal democracy, there is no difference between those who govern and those who are governed, as they are all member of the larger body of population. The wall brings into materialization a separation palpable between the government and the people.

Also, it is curious to note the coincident timing of the construction right after the 10th election is held and with the beginning of this questionable parliament. Architecture is always embedded with salient intentions and carry psychological phenomenon, sometimes not even intentioned by the architect. Just as the open space around the Sangshad Bhaban denote an invitation for people to come and gather, the iron fence means a much deeper detachment than its mere physical separation. Any physical structure for that matter is not merely the material composition of it but also is generated from a non-linear set of underlying reason and is accompanied by meaning.

Is the fence a symbol of the fear the member of parliaments are very aware of, but, fear not of physical assault or attack on the building of Sangshad Bhaban but rather the fear that one might feel after having stolen 5 years in government?

I am aware of the reaction by those in power to an argument such as this : “The wall is for security only and one should not try to read salient meanings in their presence. Any criticism against it will be taken severely ( RAB encounter may follow )”. So typical! What is, in essence, the hilarious point in all this is how a country marching towards a supposed “digital Bangladesh” is finding the most analogue means for securing its parliament. There are numerous intelligent surveillance systems, pressure sensors, or other means of invisible security controls which would have been cheaper as well as being more effective in providing security. Why were not such systems employed here? The visual reminder to the people by having a wall has a far-reaching consequence that these invisible systems would have.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously said that those who threaten are typically afraid themselves. I believe a similar case is afoot here as well. The wall around our beloved Sangshad Bhaban is a physical manifestation of the fear the government want to instill as well as a statement of the disconnect between the people and them.