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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 49, November 29, 2014

A Status Quo Country

Monday 1 December 2014, by Kuldip Nayar

Whenever I return to Bangladesh, I find that one institution or the other has gone under. The last time it was the 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 the 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. The Army does not interfere in the day-to-day affairs of the state. 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 concent-rating power in herself and posting at key positions such officials who are loyal to her. She has become a 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 the parliament. Unthinkingly, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the elections leaving the field open to the Awami League, the party that Hasina heads. She “won” more than 60 per cent of seats in the 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 the people’s opinion. I am afraid that Hasina, who hates the 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 practising 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 briefless 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 groaning under the burden of ever increasing prices and the spiralling inflation.

The only faithful supporters of the BNP are really the followers of the 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 per cent. Without contradiction one can say that the solid supporters of the 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 for 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 Pakistani.

This may be true, but the dynamism, which I had witnessed in my earlier visits to Bangladesh, is lacking. It is as if the people are tired of, 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 that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation, was suspected to be doing in the case of his daughter, Hasina.

Her son is the most powerful person today, although he resides in America for the namesake. She has even given him an official position in the 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 the book of the 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 falling from the frying pan into the fire. Perhaps the disciplined fundamentalists of the Jamiat might emerge victorious. This thought deters even the liberals who want a change. It only strengthens the idea as to why Bangladesh should not disturb the status quo.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com