Archive for September, 2008

Making a new order

September 18, 2008

By Nurul Kabir*, NewAge, September 2008


Change is the key word that has been ringing in the political discourses in our country for quite some time now. Almost all the thinking sections of our society, even of diametrically opposite ideological moorings, have been talking about the need for a changing order – political, economic and cultural – for the further progress of our people. The various left groups talk about change, as do those on the right. Even the middle-roaders, still the mainstream, who are proponents of a centrist polity, preach change. And that almost an entire population initially supported enthusiastically the anti-political, and therefore anti-people, military-controlled ‘caretaker’ government of Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed in January last year, was a massive manifestation of our people’s eagerness to see a change – a change for the better that is – in their social, political and economic lives. The incumbents, one would remember, promised qualitative change in our political, economic and cultural order. And that the entire populace, barring the small politically naïve or self-seeking coterie known here as ‘civil society’, quickly got disillusioned about the present regime is due, by all probabilities, to the latter’s visible failure to prove itself anything but an agent of the cherished change – the pervasive popular aspiration of the day.

However, that all the thinking sections of a people, including the politically organized ones, eagerly talk about a new social, political and economic order – regardless of the differences of opinion they have with one another on the nature of the required change – is a clear proof that the exiting order has failed utterly to serve the cause of the people.

What is the nature of the order that we are forced to live in that has failed to fulfil the people’s social, political, economic and cultural aspirations of the day? What kind of an order, then, can help realise the popular aspirations, and how can such a positive order emerge? These are questions that perhaps need to be discussed thoroughly, and debated freely, in the society in order to facilitate a comprehensive change of qualitative nature.

To begin with, the political order that rules us is non-representative and non-participatory, and therefore undemocratic, and does not effectively allow people to have a decisive say in policy formulations of the state – thanks primarily to the absence of elected local governments at all the tiers of the administration, a constitutional obligation on the part of the elected governments which has never been met properly. Then, the dominant political culture, plagued with the overriding influence of money and muscle, hardly provides any opportunities for the thinking people with moderate income, let alone the poor, even to contest the elections – local or national. Thus the elected representative bodies, if one calls them so, eventually become the clubs of the rich, understandably indifferent towards the need of ensuring effective public participation in the policy making process of the governments – local and central.

Moreover, the parliamentary form of governance that the country has experienced since 1991 has never ever been able to deliver even some of the positive results that it produces in some parts of the world – the most important idea being parliament controlling government policies. In reality, just the opposite has happened in Bangladesh: the governments have controlled the parliaments – thanks primarily to the constitutional failure of separating the legislature from the executive wing of the state. How can members of parliament control a government when the head of that government simultaneously remains the head of parliament, and that too in a parliament where a member loses his/her seat if s/he votes against the party that s/he is elected on the ticket of? Notably, the Bangladeshi brand of parliamentary democracy allows the same person to simultaneously hold three vital positions: chief of the ruling political party, head of the government, and leader of parliament. No wonder that our ‘democratic system’ is not keen on democratising the state and devolution of power, let alone democratising the political parties and their front organisations.

Then, we have an economic system that is entirely insensitive towards inclusive developments, and thus devoid of the democratic principle of social justice. Under the system, the economic policy makers, usually a bunch of economists and bureaucrats influenced more by the political-ideological hegemony of the anti-people foreign financial institutions like World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, etc rather than the ideas of public good, blindly pursue a kind of unrestrained ‘market economy’ which is committed only to maximisation of profit , and that too primarily of the transnational corporations and their local cronies in the age of imperialist globalisation. Least bothered about the democratic concept of equal rights and opportunities of the citizens in general, the unbridled market economy, which is practiced here, only contributes to perpetually widening the income gap between the rich and the poor. The obvious political implication is powerlessness of the vast majority of the poor, which pushes them further from participating in the policymaking process of the state, and thus practically turns the state to be the association of the rich minority. And there is the bureaucracy, fashioned on the colonial model, to perpetuate the anti-people system by using the coercive state machine.

Then comes the question of culture/s, one of the most important components of human life that provides, among many other things, social legitimacy to a political order – democratic or undemocratic. The culture that dominates our national political psyche, the psyche of the Bengalis within the nation-state called Bangladesh that is, still gravely suffers from horrible insensitivities towards various inequalities – gendered, ethnic and religious alongside the social, political and economic inequalities – in almost all spheres of life, private and public. It is, therefore, not surprising that the political parties or anti-political groups governing the country still do not face any effective public resistance of their political practices devoid of the sense of equality of citizens. Slogan mongering for democratising the society and state is the last thing to help democratise the society and state, if the slogans are not inspired by a pervasive cultural sense of social, political and economic equality of citizens irrespective of their gender, faith and ethnic identities.

However, there are at least two political camps – the left and the right – that engage in critiquing the dominant political ideologies of the dominant political stream represented primarily by the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The right wing offers religious rule, which is nothing but theocracy, as the sole solution to get rid of the exploitative socio-economic formation of the day. Theocracy, it is to be noted, does not believe in the idea of sovereignty of people in running the affairs of the state in the first place. Besides, the camp, committed to gendered social division of labour, abhors the democratic idea of equality between men and women. Moreover, it does not appear to have serious objection to the West dominated international politico-economic order, identified by the progressive democratic sections of people across the globe as a prime impediment towards the social, economic and cultural emancipation of the post-colonial countries of the world. However, the right wing political groups, although divided in various groups, have seriously been propagating their ideologies for quite some time now, and thus slowly, but steadily, progressing towards creating a cultural hegemony to secure social legitimacy of its political agenda to set up a theocratic state in Bangladesh.

The left, on the other hand, offer socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat that is, as an ultimate solution to the existing politico-economic order standing in the way of social, political and economic emancipation of the people at large. This camp, however, identifies an interim phase of representative democracy, at least theoretically, before it reaches its final destination. The camp rightly identifies the corporate global political–economic order as a serious impediment towards national economic liberation of poor countries, rightly criticise the social injustice produced and reproduced by the development paradigm of the undemocratic mainstream political parties, points out the democratic importance to demolish gender inequalities, repression of the ethnic and religious minorities, etc for a genuinely democratic order to emerge in the country. But unlike its rightwing counterpart, the left camp, divided into splinter groups, is hardly carrying out any significant programmes to create a counter cultural hegemony against either of its opposing streams – the failed existing system presided over by the dominant parties, and the right wing slowly filling the political space automatically created by the failures of the dominant polity of the day.

It is a complex circumstance, indeed. The old order has failed to deliver, the new order is to yet emerge. The present, naturally, is inflicted with hopeless confusion. But the future has to be created – a future that genuinely promises people’s democratic emancipation – social, political and economic.

We are aware that any qualitative change in the existing order needs painstaking efforts, theoretical and practical, by those politically ready to bring in the cherished changes. There are no short-cuts to be taken in creating new history. The cherished changes cannot be translated into a political reality until the majority of the people are convinced about the need of a change of order, the way of changing it, and they themselves are ready to change. Heroes do not change history one fine morning. Rather, it is the people who bring about heroic changes over time.

But there is always the question of guiding history, which by itself is blind, towards the light of hope. It is always the farsighted intelligentsia with proper understanding of the dynamics of history who have shown the right paths across the globe. We, on the occasion of New Age’s fifth anniversary, offer our readers some essays, written by some of our reputed scholars most committed to bringing positive changes to Bangladesh’s history, that hint at various paths that they find right. The readers, we believe, would find the essays thought provoking. 

*Nurul Kabir, Editor, NewAge. Contact:  


279 fall victim to extrajudicial killing in 20 months: Says Odikhar report

September 13, 2008
Staff Correspondent, The Daily Star, September 13, 2008
At least 279 people fell victim to extrajudicial killing by the law enforcement agencies across the country during the state of emergency between January 2007 and September 2008, revealed a study report yesterday.

The report published by Odhikar, a human rights organisation, covers 20 months of the present government. 

The government has set up National Human Rights Commission in the country only to shore up their credibility before the international community rather than safeguarding the rights of the people, it added.

The report mentioned that the National Human Rights Commission Ordinance 2007 provided for establishment of an independent body to safeguard the people’s rights, but it left the power to select the chairman and members of the commission to a committee controlled by the government officials, which is an impediment to establishing an independent body.

The ordinance stated that the commission would resolve the human rights violations through arbitration or mediation, but Odhikar said the violators should be tried in a court of law, which will ensure exemplary punishment of the perpetrators.

Besides, Right to Information Ordinance will curb the freedom of the press and people’s right to know rather than extending it, the report said, adding that if the ordinance is promulgated, a person even a journalist will need to apply in a prescribed form for information and the authority will have the power to reject the application or provide the information sought.

It also expressed concern that the draft ordinance was prepared by a committee dominated by bureaucrats who ignored submissions made by key stakeholders like Federal Union of Journalists, National Press Club and South Asian Free Media Association.

Odhikar observed that the tele-tapping by the state is a direct contravention of Article 43 (b) of the constitution that ensure a person’s right to the privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication.

The report said Truth and Accountability Communication (Tac) has not only failed to attain its desired objective, but it is also contrary to the constitutional provisions and the spirit of law.

Tac’s aim to re-energise the country’s economy has failed. Corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats are allowed to continue their businesses and services while politicians are barred from contesting in the elections after being bestowed with mercy from the commission, it added.

The report further said the government should allow trade unionism in all sectors to ensure a sustainable and healthy growth of the economy.


Govt itself stands in the way of positive changes in politics

September 9, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, September 6, 2008

It is nice to know that the military-controlled interim government has become sceptical about the fate of its agenda to bring about ‘qualitative changes’ in politics before the general elections, scheduled for December. Such scepticism, we hope, will dissuade the incumbents from further tinkering with the political process in general and the political parties in particular. When articulating the government’s scepticism on Thursday, the commerce adviser made a point that the politically conscious and democratically oriented sections of society have been hammering on since the incumbents came to power, i.e. the important stakeholders in bringing about qualitative changes in politics are the people and the political parties. Regrettably, the interim government has thus far sought to keep these two stakeholders out of the process to bring about a qualitative change in politics.

For the political process to undergo a positive change it is of paramount importance that the people have the right to partake in the requisite debate and discussion. However, under a state of emergency, this government has denied the people of even their fundamental rights to the freedom of thought and expression, to bring out processions and stage rallies to voice their grievances, to move the court for democratic justice, etc. At the same time, the incumbents have launched a campaign to malign and harass the politicians and the political parties through arbitrary actions. All along, the interim government has appeared relentless in their efforts to antagonise the people and the political parties alike.

Within the first few weeks of its assumption of office, the interim government virtually negated the economic gains that the country had made in the 30-odd years since its independence. Its arbitrary drive against unauthorised structures on government lands and makeshift shops on roadsides and pavements left tens of thousands of people homeless and jobless almost overnight. Its anti-corruption drive induced a climate of fear in the business community, resulting in a virtual standstill in trade and investment. Its unquestioning compliance to the prescriptions of the multilateral lending agencies led to the closure of one state-owned enterprise after the other. All this while, as unemployment rose and people’s income dwindled, the price of essentials embarked on a relentless climb upward. The net result of its numerous arbitrary actions has been the loss of livelihood for a significant section of the populace, drastic decline in the nation’s average protein intake, complete breakdown of informal economy and overall stagnation in the economy.

The interim government needs to realise that it has itself become the single-most formidable barrier to the nation’s overall well-being. Of course, the political parties in particular and the political process in general need to undergo a positive change; however, for that to take place, the people and the politicians, who, by the commerce adviser’s own admission, are the important stakeholders in this regard, have to be afforded the freedom to engage freely. Therefore, if the interim government is really committed to bringing about a qualitative change in politics, it should immediately withdraw the state of emergency and arrange for the general elections to be held, so that the primary stakeholders can once again take over the reins of the political process. We admit that there is the possibility of the political parties going back to their old ways. However, we believe if the intelligentsia lives up to its expected role of maintaining pressure on the political parties to desert their old habits and the political workers sustain the demand for programme-based activities, instead of hollow rhetoric, of their leaders, politics will be on its way to undergoing positive changes.

Ban on trade unionism relaxed with conditions

September 9, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, September 8, 2008

The military-controlled interim government has conditionally relaxed ban on trade unionism across the country about 19 months inside the declaration of the state of emergency amid pressure from various quarters at home and abroad.

The home affairs ministry has issued a gazette notification with immediate effect setting the conditions for trade union activities indoors including elections to collective bargaining agents in industrial units, commercial organisations and other institutes under the Emergency Powers Rules 2007.

The gazette notification, issued on September 4, was made available on Sunday.
   Labour leaders, however, rejected the conditional, partial withdrawal of the ban.
 Demanding a complete withdrawal of the ban, they said conditional or partial trade unionism would not be of much help to protect labourer’s rights by ensuring healthy industrial relations.

According to the gazette notification, trade union activities will be allowed indoors on a limited scale and elections to collective bargaining agents can be conducted with permission from the metropolitan police commissioner or the district magistrate concerned.

‘The police commissioner, district magistrate or upazila nirbahi officer depending as applicable must be informed 48 hours before holding any trade union meetings where not more than 100 persons can participate,’ the home ministry order said. ‘For participation of more than 100 persons, the trade bodies concerned must take permission 72 hours before the meetings from the authorities concerned who can allow maximum 500 people to attend.’

‘The unions would not be allowed to hold meetings in open space. The meetings will only discuss and make decisions on matters related to organisations and workers’ interests. Discussions on politics or other matters would not be allowed,’ said the order, adding live broadcast or telecast of trade union meetings on electronic media has been prohibited. But news items in this regard can be aired as part of regular news bulletins.

Use of PA system to make meeting activities reach outside the venue would not be allowed, according to the home ministry gazette, published on September 3, but made public on September 7.
 The government of Fakhruddin Ahmed enforced the Emergency Powers Rules on January 25, 2007 restricting political and civil rights, including trade unionism, with effect from January 11, 2007 against the backdrop of political violence.

The ban on political activities was conditionally relaxed for Dhaka in September 2007 and for other areas of the country in May.

Labour leader Abul Basher, also the convener of the Jute, Yarn and Textile Mills Workers and Employees’ Action Council, said they did not want trade unionism on a limited scale. It would not hep the workers to establish their rights.

‘We want full-scale trade unionism and it is our basic rights. We do not want mercy,’ he said. ‘We have enjoyed trade union rights under the martial law of Ayub Khan and now the rights have been seized under the state of emergency.’

The Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad coordinator, Wazedul Islam Khan, also the general secretary of the Trade Union Centre, said it was nothing but effort to make people believe that the government was doing something. ‘Trade union rights can not be given partially.’

Labourers will not be able to establish their rights with a limited-scale trade unionism, he said.

The Sramik League president, Abdul Matin Master, said they would first observe how much of labour rights could be ensured with a limited-scale trade unionism.

Extra-judicial killings must be stopped: speakers

September 5, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, September 5, 2008

The politicians, academics and lawyers at an exchange of views on Thursday said that the extra-judicial killings in the name of crossfire should be stopped and the perpetrators should be brought to book.

They proposed formation of a mass enquiry commission and a human rights protection committee for the trial of the perpetrators of the ‘crossfire’ incidents.

The Democratic Left Alliance, a combine of the left leaning political parties, organised the programme tilled ‘The extra-judicial killings under crossfire and future of the law’ at the National Press Club.

The alliance coordinator, Abdus Samad, read out the keynote paper at the programme.
   ‘We want the trial of all the killers under the existing law of the land,’ the keynote paper said.

The mass enquiry commission might be formed with the law experts, human rights leaders and politicians, the keynote paper suggested.

The convener of the National Committee to Protect, Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port, Sheikh Md Shahidullah said in a civilised country every killing should come under trail. Getting trail is the basic democratic right of the people, he added.

The member secretary of the national committee and Jahangirnagar University professor Anu Muhammad said of late the killings under crossfire had increased.
 Even some left political leaders like Mizanur Rahman Tutul fell victim to crossfire recently, Anu Muhammad added.
 He also criticised the two major parties the Awmi League and BNP for patronising the killings under crossfire.

The BRAC University professor, Pias Karim said it was unfortunate that the state was patronising the crossfire killings.

Dhaka University professor, Meghna Guhakhakurata favoured formation of the mass enquiry commission for holding the trial of the killings under crossfire.

Lawyer Ruhul Quddus Babu said the political parties especially the left leaning parties should wage the movement against the crossfire killings by the Rapid Action Battalion or other law enforcers.

Family members of some crossfire victims took part in the discussion moderated by DLA leader Zonayed Saki.

More reasons than one to disband truth commission

September 5, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, September 5, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

THE Truth and Accountability Commission, installed by the military-controlled interim government for a few months to allow some people to admit to their corruption thereafter absolve themselves of their wrongdoings, is, as expected, proving to be by and large ineffective. First, there is already a writ petition with the High Court challenging the legality of the commission which has cast a shadow over its activities. Second, only 18 parties have thus far availed the services of the commission, admitting to irregularities of about Tk 5.7 crore and promising to deposit the sum with the exchequer in return for pardon. These 18 are mostly government officials whose ill-gotten wealth was accumulated through bribery. However, it must be remembered that one of the main reasons for the establishment of this commission was to allow businessmen to avail the opportunity to admit to their wrongdoings, pay fines and thereby avoid prosecution. This would, it was hoped, provide a signal to the market that the incumbents are willing to facilitate business activity which in turn would infuse more dynamism and vibrancy into the stagnating economy. This has obviously not happened as the business community has altogether shied away from availing this facility. According to reports, even the chairman of the commission did not sound upbeat as far as that objective was concerned since most of the people taking this opportunity were bureaucrats and not businessmen.

Also, politicians accused of similar wrongdoings are not allowed to avail the same facility as businessmen and bureaucrats. This is arbitrary, duplicitous and unlawful. There cannot be two sets of laws or rules for two different groups of people for the same crimes, and as such, the actions of this commission are contrary to the spirit of the rule of law and justice. Moreover, there cannot be any forum or body to deal with criminal offence other than the judiciary according to the constitution. It is the incumbents’ contention that the commission would reduce the burden of the court system and expedite some cases. However, that stance is not acceptable since the constitution quite unambiguously stipulates that the judiciary is the only competent body to dispose of criminal cases. As such, this commission is at best a vigilante initiative.

Considering that the Truth and Accountability Commission has not only failed to attain its desired objective but is also contrary to the constitutional provisions and the spirit of the rule of law, we see no reason for it to continue to exist. The incumbents would do well to dismantle it and allow the law to take its own course in cases of financial corruption as with any other criminal offence.

UNDP feels more should be done to stop extra-judicial killings

September 2, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, September 2, 2008

The UNDP’s resident representative, Renata Lok-Dessallien, felt that though the number of extra-judicial killings has decreased significantly, more remains to be done for improving the situation.

She made the comment when she called on the foreign affairs adviser, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, at the foreign ministry on Monday morning.
 Renata praised the interim government for establishment of the Human Rights Commission that will begin functioning from September 1.

‘Many governments in the past have failed to do this,’ she said.
   Renata also said there has been a marked improvement in the law and order situation and the number of extra-judicial killings has shrunk significantly, ‘though more remains to be done.’

Among other issues, Iftekhar and Renata discussed the wide range of Bangladesh-UNDP cooperation for development.

The adviser underscored the importance of the setting up of the Human Rights Commission.

‘Not only will it benefit the people of Bangladesh, it will also vastly improve the image of the country abroad,’ he asserted.

Iftekhar expressed the hope that the UN would send observers to cover the parliamentary elections in December.