By Barrister Nazir Ahmed
Bangladesh is heading towards an unimaginable destination. Instability, irregularity and abnormality appear to be present everywhere in the country, be it in the political field or in the economic sector or within the administration or in the social arena. The basic fabric of the society has been shaken. In a homogeneous country – the character of which could have been an excellent component for uniting the nation – the government has been continuously dividing us within our already divided society and creating enemies after enemies within ourselves. Is it the country we wanted for? Is it the country our predecessors fought for? These are the million dollar questions for the people of Bangladesh, particularly the youth generation of post independence Bangladesh.
In this keynote paper, I aim to briefly outline the crisis in Bangladesh at important levels – in politics, law and order, the economy, the media, in civil society and the judiciary. Towards the end, I will briefly discuss our duties and responsibilities as expatriate Bangladeshis.
A serious political crisis is looming in Bangladesh which may take the country into a disaster. Political, democratic and basic constitutional rights of the political parties are being denied. Senior political leaders are routinely arrested and put behind the bar on flimsy grounds. Doors of the central office of the main opposition party, which had run the country at least three times in the past, were broken by the police with hammers. Opposition party workers and leaders are held on remand for weeks (and in some cases for months) without due process being followed, where they are harassed and inhumanely tortured. A recent survey, conducted by a government-leaning leading newspaper, has revealed that around 90% of the people want the forthcoming parliamentary election to be held under the non-party caretaker government. Yet the government is arrogantly determined to hold the election under their party government. The provision of the non-party caretaker government was in the Constitution. But the government – disregarding overwhelming majority views of the people, civil society and legal experts – unilaterally repealed it couple years ago.
Police, and law and order
The primary duty of the police is to maintain and control law and order within the country. To do that the police must apply the law equally to all. This is the constitutional mandate (Article 27 of the Constitution). Unfortunately, the police in Bangladesh have been acting as political cadres of the governing party. They are behaving in an apparent discriminating way and applying the law with utmost partiality. The government party workers and leaders appear to be above the law, whereas the opposition party workers and leaders seem to be the victims and targets of all actions and atrocities of the police force. This is totally against the principle of non-discrimination ensured by Article 28(1) of the Constitution. The recent attitudes, behaviours and actions of the police force clearly suggest that the primary duty of the police has changed in Bangladesh. The current duty of the police appears to be two folds. Firstly: to help and assist the government party leaders and workers by all means, no matter what they do and what criminal activities they are involved with. Secondly: to harass, beat and torture opposition party workers and leaders, and contain them and dismantle their political programmes, no matter how democratic those programmes may be. Police have been killing opposition activists and ordinary people by direct shooting at them. In the last March alone, more than 200 people, mostly poor villagers, were shot dead by the police. When dealing with opposition activists and leaders in respect of arresting them and holding them on remand, the police neither follow Constitution, nor their own code nor the guidance of the apex court.
The economic condition of the country is very volatile. The widespread corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and political influences have almost collapsed the public banking sector. In a much publicised scandal at a branch of one of the state owned banks involved nearly four thousand crore taka and high up government officials – including an influential Advisor to the government and political appointees at the bank’s Board – are evidently believed to be involved with this large scale scandal. To run the country, the government has already taken loan from the banks at unprecedented level. The evident corruption in the Padma Bridge project of the government at the highest level has led the World Bank to withdraw its funding from the project. Following the Word Bank, the other foreign creditors like the JIKA have withdrawn their funding from the project as well. The inflation is in double digit, resulting in the prices of the goods going beyond the capacity of the ordinary people to pay. Foreign remittances from expatriate Bangladeshis have been decreasing. The foreign investments have significantly declined. The unemployment rate is the highest level in the 42 years history of independent Bangladesh, with nearly three crore unemployed youths.
Almost 90% of all media in Bangladesh are biased – they appear to be in the government’s side. They are keeping their blind eyes on what has exactly been happening. Most of their reporting is either one sided or false or concocted. As a result, true condition and circumstances are aired in the media. These are making the matters worse. The time of describing this merely as ‘yellow journalism’ has probably gone, at least in Bangladesh. In fact, what most of the media are doing in Bangladesh can now be called ‘media terrorism.’ A few print and electronic media have been making objective reports with bravery and professionalism which have gone against the governments. But the government has closed down those media without following due process. The social media and international media are now the only sources to get objective information on what has exactly been happening in Bangladesh.
A vibrant civil society is vital for democracy. Unfortunately, civil society in Bangladesh appears to be one eyed, partial and one sided. They seem to cause storm in a tea cup in relatively minor incidents and matters, but they keep surprisingly quite on major incidents and matters, the discussion and criticism of which are perceived to go against the government. For example, members of the civil society were seen vocal against some minor Islamic issues, such as an isolated beating for adultery and compulsory to wear hijab for Muslim girls in an Islamic school etc, but they appear to be relatively silent on corruption over Padma Bridge, the Hall Mark scandal involving nearly four thousand crore taka, defaming Islam and its prophet, the Savar Rana Plaza tragedy which cost thousands of human lives, Shapla Chattar massacre costing hundreds of human lives etc. In these major incidents involving corruption and scandal, the government is believed to be directly or indirectly involved and responsible for what has gone on. Civil society in Bangladesh appears to be dominant by left and the secularists. The current government consists of an alliance of left and secularist political parties. This is probably why the civil society is surprisingly silent on various major issues, for they probably do not want to upset the government which shares their ideology!
Trusting the judiciary is the last resort of the ordinary people of any country. Unfortunately, the whole judiciary in Bangladesh has been politicised. The Transparency International (TI) identified the judiciary as one of the most corrupted areas in the country couple of years ago. The executive has direct control over promotion and transfer in the lower judiciary. The Judges in the lower judiciary cannot function independently and impartially. Granting and refusing bail and remand are done through indirect and hidden instructions of the government. Non-loyal and non-obeying Magistrates and Judges are transferred to remote areas of Bangladesh as a punishment.
The apex judiciary was said to be comparatively impartial and independent in the past. This is no longer the case. Appointing Judges in the High Court based on political consideration has now become the norms. Nearly sixty Judges have been appointed in the High Court since the current government came into office. The overwhelming majority of them were appointed not based on merit and skills, but rather based on political consideration, whose relatives they were and whose junior they were! This is not only happening in the High Court, the same atmosphere is seen in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court as well. It is considered normal to appoint Chief Justice and elevate Judges to the Appellate Division out of the order of seniority. Most recently four Judges were elevated to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and three of them were appointed ahead of other senior and competent High Court Judges. It is interesting to note that two Judges were elevated to the Appellate Division ahead of 40 and 41 more senior High Court Judges respectively. It is also surprising that after an appeal was lodged against the International Crimes Tribunal’s (ICT – the status of the High Court ) judgement, the same and similar ranking Judge to the ICT’s Chair was elevated to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court superseding 41 senior and experienced High Court Judges and made a member of the Appeal Penal to hear the appeal!
Bangladesh is in a really serious crisis politically, economically and socially. Passiveness of the judiciary and one sided role of the media are making matters worse. Unless political dreadlock is resolved soon and peacefully, Bangladesh will suffer unimaginable damage. What could happen? Well, many possibilities: civil war could break up, military intervention could take place, political assassination could take place at a very senior level, the government could emerge as a brutal and ferocious dictator resulting in huge losses of lives, or foreign intervention could even take place. We want none of these. We, as expatriate Bangladeshis, want to see Bangladesh prospering as a truly democratic country following the rule of law in practice in proper sense.
What is our responsibility?
Nearly ten million Bangladeshi people are living abroad. Among them nearly one million people, both regular and irregular immigrants, are living in the UK. Remittances from expatriate Bangladeshis is considered to be one of the major sources of the country’s economy. Foreign remittances keep the foreign reserve stable and hence these are considered as lifeline of the country. Therefore, the expatriate Bangladeshis have legitimate concern about how the country is being run. As expatriate patriotic Bangladeshis, we can make a positive contribution and play an effective role in the following ways:
1. As expatriate Bangladeshi we can gradually build up and mobilise public opinion, both inside indirectly and outside directly, in favour of establishing the rule of law in true sense, fairness, and justice in Bangladesh.
2. We could strive to exert due pressure, both orally and in writing and both formally and informally, on the government to act within the law and Constitution.
3. The government must be made responsible and accountable for its actions. The international community should be informed with solid facts and concrete evidence so that they could put their due pressure on the government to be accountable.
4. The government is under obligation to comply with all international laws. As a signatory, Bangladesh must comply with all International Conventions and Treaties, such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Through effective lobby, international campaign and effective representation to reputable international organisations, the government could be made bound indirectly to comply with its obligation in true sense.
Barrister Nazir Ahmed FRSA is a UK based legal expert, analyst, writer and author.