By KULDIP NAYAR
Whenever I return to Bangladesh, I find that one institution or the other has gone under. The last time it was Parliament. This time it is the judiciary which, to quote a top lawyer, has been “decimated.”
Yet, what is disconcerting is that a country born out of people’s revolt against a distant exploitative government has become a status quo society. True, it is still living under the shadow of the army. It does not interfere in the day to day affairs. But, to quote one top retired army official, “we ruled once, but we found the society preferring the confused people’s raj to the disciplined military rule.”
Today, the challenge is similar in a different form. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is concentrating power in herself and posting at key positions such officials who are loyal to her. She has become the law unto herself even though this goes against the grain of the people who are known for their defiance and independence.
Prime Minister Hasina controls Parliament. Unthinkingly, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted elections leaving the field open to the Awami League, the party that Hasina heads. She “won” more than 60 per cent of seats in Parliament even before a single vote was cast. It was thought that a fresh election would be held to undo the farce of the polls the country had had. Instead, she found the House without the opposition to her liking. Even the faceless MPs have begun to believe that their “popularity” had “elected” them as members.
This is bad enough. Worse is the beginning of the thinking of the ruling party that elections are tedious, cumbersome and uncertain. Some other apparatus should be devised to ascertain people’s opinion. I am afraid that Hasina, who hates opposition, may consider doing away with the elections after enjoying the unbridled power. The people may resist that in the streets, but a determined, authoritarian administration can cope with the situation as it has done in the past.
In these circumstances the independence of the judiciary is a must. However, a Bangladesh journalist who has covered the courts for more than two decades told me that corruption has corroded every part of the judiciary. “The judgments are sold,” he said. That the sons of judges are practicing in the same courts where their fathers or uncles are on the bench. This has only aggravated the situation.
Prime Minister Hasina has played havoc with the appointment of judges. The Bangladesh constitution says that the President will appoint the judges in consultation with the Prime Minister. She has stretched the word consultation to mean concurrence. The result is that even brief-less lawyers, avowing loyalty to the ruling Awami League, have been elevated as judges.
The judgments are reportedly slanted and shoddy. None challenges the appointments because he or she would be shouted down as a supporter of “the enemy.” There is no doubt that the BNP is attracting large crowds. But those who come to hear the party leaders are not necessarily their followers. The criticism of the rulers is music to the ears of the people. They are growing under the burden of ever increasing prices and the spiraling inflation.
The only faithful supporters are really the followers of Jamiat-i-Islami. Their fundamentalism still sells and surprisingly the pro-Pakistan elements are quite a few. One authentic report is that they number approximately 20 percent. Without contradiction one can say that the solid supporters of Awami League will be many more, around 30-35 per cent.
I was happy to find relations between the India and Bangladesh friendly. It goes to the credit of Hasina that she has removed the irritants between the two countries. There are no anti-India militants operating from Bangladesh, a matter of concern for New Delhi until recently.
Alas, there is an absence of idealism of the days when Bangladeshis were fighting their liberation battle. People consider that as their finest hour. Surprisingly, there is no bitterness against Pakistan for having committed the worst atrocities in an attempt to suppress the liberation movement. “We have pity them,” say many Bangladeshis seeing that country beleaguered with many problems. And they take pride in citing facts and figures to show how an average Bangladeshi is better than an average Pakistan.
This may be true, but the dynamism which I witnessed in my earlier visits is lacking. It is as if the people are tired, if not reconciled to the authoritarianism of the rulers. Hasina has probably detected that. So, it seems that she has decided to re-establish the dynastic rule as is the suspicion that Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the father of the nation, was doing in the case of his daughter, Hasina.
Hasina’s son is the most powerful person today, although he resides in America for the namesake. She has even given him an official position in technical field and he is reportedly on a salary. No doubt, it smacks of dynastic rule. But then she seems to have torn a page from book of Indira Gandhi-Rahul Gandhi dynasty.
The army, the country’s powerful chamber, is sitting pretty because it is more popular than any political party. Hasina has given the army personnel the best of perks and salaries to placate them and keep them on her side. This seems to work in her favour.
I asked a top editor why people did not revolt and throw out the armed forces. He said that they do not know what would emerge from the clash if there were to be a confrontation between the people and the armed forces. He said it may well lead to a situation of coming out of the frying pan to into the fire. Maybe, the disciplined fundamentalists of the Jamiat might emerge victorious. This thought deters even the liberals who want a change. It only strengthens the idea of why Bangladesh should not disturb the status quo.