Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

Emergency not conducive to proper electoral atmosphere

October 13, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, October 13, 2008

The next general elections, slated for December 18, cannot be held under the state of emergency as such a situation is not conducive to a congenial voting atmosphere owing to curtailment of some fundamental rights of the people, said Odhikar on Sunday.

Despite repeated assurances by the military-controlled interim government, the human rights body felt that doubts still persist about the holding of elections since the state of emergency has lost its justification, legal and otherwise, and continues to pose a serious threat to basic human rights.

Odhikar demanded immediate lifting of emergency in its monitoring report on the state of human rights in the 21 months under the state of emergency.

‘The Parliament that will be elected through free and fair elections should not extend blanket immunity to this government,’ said Odhikar.

Reiterating its criticism of the current state of emergency, the human rights watchdog said that emergency has suspended basic human rights enshrined in the Constitution and has essentially encroached on the space that the people need to make choices through election.

‘Odhikar strongly believes that the state of emergency should be lifted in its entirety and in the whole territory of Bangladesh in order to create a climate conducive to free and fair elections,’ said the report.

‘Odhikar also maintains that human rights are indivisible and it is neither possible nor permissible to restore some rights while others are still being denied. Human rights should be upheld and respected under all circumstances. Therefore, attempts to hold a general election under the emergency cannot offer a congenial atmosphere for a credible polls and transition to an elected government,’ said the rights body.

Stressing the need for the formation of a government through electoral democracy, Odhikar said that a free, fair and participatory popular election was the only legitimate way to fulfil this goal.

‘Odhikar believes that only through a widely participatory, credible general election can the nation make a transition to representative governance from the current extra-constitutional administration,’ said the watchdog.

It demanded that nothing should be done by the government to jeopardise the holding of the general elections on the set date.

‘Odhikar feels it is time to think about the post-election situation too, and this gives rise to the question of the ratification by the next elected Parliament of the deeds of the present regime that, instead of acting as a caretaker government, exceeded its constitutional authority and acted as a regular government.’ said the human rights body.

It said that the question of ratification or legalisation of the activities of the government would arise soon after the election is held.

‘In this general election the electorate will vote for an elected government, but not necessarily to ratify or otherwise legitimise the actions and measures of the current government,’ Odhikar maintained.

The rights watchdog said that there has not been any improvement in the safeguarding of the people’s basic rights and the formation of the National Human Rights Commission would not make any difference to this end as it will be manned by persons chosen by the incumbents and will be political appointees and bureaucrats.

‘It is highly paradoxical that the government has proceeded to establish the National Human Rights Commission while keeping all basic rights suspended and denied!’ quipped Odhikar.

The report also stated that the Right to Information Ordinance, approved by the interim Cabinet, would not ensure the people’s right to know.


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:  

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.

Govt’s provocation is unacceptable, so is political protest that kills

August 29, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, August 27, 2008

The deterioration of Tarique Rahman’s health in the prison cell of the BSMMU hospital and the subsequent mayhem caused by the student wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party call for a deeper look into the military-controlled government’s sense of justice and the culture of political protests that kills innocent people.

Students of Dhaka College rampage through a city road after hearing the news of injuries sustained by the detained BNP senior joint secretary general Tarique Rahman in a bathroom fall at BSMMU Hospital prison cell on Monday. — Photo: New Age 

That Tarique Rahman, son of former prime minister Khaleda Zia and senior joint secretary general of the BNP, fell in a bathroom of the hospital and sustained injuries to his head seems to substantiate repeated warnings by doctors that his legs are exposed to the threat of paralysis. It is true that Tarique is an accused in a number of corruption cases, that the corruption chargers should be thoroughly investigated and that he should be brought to justice through public trial. However, his indictment in the cases should not be used by a government as a justification for denying him proper medical treatment, at home or abroad, and that too by a government that talks about democracy and rule of law. The rule of law dictates that an accused can only be punished after he or she is convicted in a competent court of law. Again, if the detention of an accused before the trial process is completed poses a serious health risk, through the denial of appropriate treatment for instance, the magnitude of the crime committed by the government increases manifold. Since Tarique is in government custody, it is principally the government’s responsibility to ensure that he is provided with appropriate medical treatment for his ailments. To fail to do so is a grave crime and Monday’s protests may have been a public reaction to that failure.

However, the violence perpetrated by the Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal during Monday’s protests, which left one person dead, a handful of vehicles damaged, more than 50 people wounded and caused panic among people, is not acceptable. However genuine the grievance may be, it does not give any individual or group the right to the kind of agitation that results in the loss of people’s life and limb and destruction of public and private property.

Meanwhile, in response to Monday’s violence, the government has reportedly issued orders to the police top brass to bring the law and order situation under control. We believe this government order is incongruous with its own actions. On the one hand, it is this regime that is principally responsible for the protests in question, having denied Tarique appropriate medical treatment in an appropriate hospital. On the other hand, it is the regime which is pitting the police against the political activists for such protests. The government should abandon this double game before it takes a more serious turn.

Amended RPO flouts constitution, spirit of democracy

August 24, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, August 24, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The newly-imposed eligibility criteria under the amended Representation of the People Order 1972, both for registration of political parties with the Election Commission and for candidates to be able to contest parliamentary elections, could not have been more inconsistent with our constitution or contradictory to democratic ideals and values. As such, instead of helping to create a level electoral playing field, the conditions, we believe, will further complicate the political and electoral processes and act as further obstacles to the peaceful holding of participatory and credible elections to the ninth parliament. 

First, some of the eligibility criteria for political parties being able to register with the commission – which includes being able to show a certain level of support in previous elections or having active units in a minimum number of districts – are not only absurd but are in contravention of Article 152 (1) of our country’s constitution which does not require a party to have any minimum level of popularity or infrastructure in order for the state to recognise its legitimacy. Also, it is incongruous that candidates can contest independently without having to show a certain amount of support in previous elections or any minimum infrastructure but cannot do so as part of a political party unless the party satisfies the criteria. 

Second, under the amended RPO, a person will have to be enlisted in the electoral roll to be able to contest elections even though the country’s constitution does not make a person’s right to contest a parliamentary seat conditional upon his or her being registered as a voter. The only eligibility requirements, according to Article 66 of the constitution, are that a person is a citizen of Bangladesh and has attained the age of 25. 
In addition, there are certain conditions under Article 66 which disqualify a person from being able to run, for instance, if the person is of unsound mind or is a citizen of a foreign state, but non-registration as a voter is not included in the list of disqualifying factors either. Hence, the Election Commission has acted in further contravention of the constitution in including this additional and arbitrary condition.

Third, as a result of the Election Commission’s delay in amending the RPO – this was supposed to have been done much earlier and the parties were supposed to have from April to June of this year to register according to the commission’s own roadmap – even the major political parties will have great difficulty in satisfying some of the eligibility conditions for registration in the short time that is now available before elections. These conditions will necessitate the amending of party constitutions as well as the formation of elected committees from the centre to the union council level. Moreover, forcing the political parties to rush through internal reforms and to hold national council meetings under the state of emergency is not only unreasonable but contradicts the very spirit of democracy. However, the commission must not even think about delaying elections in order to allow the parties to satisfy its conditions. The Election Commission has no right to punish the political parties or hold the entire political process hostage for its own failures. 

Hence, we hope that common sense will prevail at the Election Commission and that it will withdraw the unconstitutional, arbitrary and restrictive conditions which are contradictory to a participatory electoral process and a pluralistic democratic system. Instead of further complicating the political process, the commission should devote all its energy towards the holding of participatory and credible parliamentary elections at the earliest.

More reasons to doubt freeness, fairness of local govt polls than not

August 6, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, August 6, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The claim of the chief election commissioner and a couple of advisers to the military-controlled interim government that the elections on Monday to four city corporations and nine municipal corporations were ‘free’ and ‘fair’ and provided justification for holding the parliamentary polls under a state of emergency is only predictable. Their claim only lends credence to the suspicion that the incumbents went ahead with the local government elections to bolster their arguments that withdrawal of emergency is not a precondition for free and fair parliamentary polls. What was rather disappointing, albeit not quite surprising, was the overzealousness of a section of the so-called civil society, including some media organisations, to project the ‘freeness’ and ‘fairness’ of the city corporation and municipality polls. Such overzealousness may have been prompted by the absence of violence and the reasonable turnout of voters, but was, we are afraid, misplaced.

There are, we believe, more reasons than one to believe the elections were neither free nor fair. First, election and the state of emergency are mutually exclusive; while the former is a manifestation of free thinking and freedom of expression, the latter officially restricts the people’s fundamental rights to freedom of thought and expression. The state of emergency, restrictive and repressive as it is, also generates a pervasive sense of fear. In all likelihood, such fears have played on the people’s mind, at least at the subconscious level, when they exercised their right to adult franchise.
   Second, the fairness of the elections is also questionable. In the absence of one of the two major political camps, the city corporation and municipality elections degenerated into virtually a one-horse race and were hardly representative in nature. Participation by all competing political camps not only enhances the credibility of the elections but also guarantees fairness of the electoral process. Besides, the Election Commission lamented, three weeks or so prior to the elections, that its endeavours to free the elections from all sorts of irregularities and influence might go in vain because of shady activities of some field-level officials of the civil administration.

Third, while the commission and the government have used the ‘clean chit’ given by the elections observers to substantiate their claim that the city corporation and municipal elections were ‘free’ and ‘fair’, it has emerged that the election monitoring exercise was itself questionable. There are allegations that credible election monitors were given a cold shoulder by the field-level election officials and, in many cases, not afforded adequate access to the polling centres.
   Added to these, lengthy process of checking, flawed electoral roll and confusion over the use of national identity cards tested the voters’ patience at some places, indicating that the commission’s preparation, in terms of personnel and logistics, may not have been foolproof. 

Overall, there are very few reasons for the Election Commission and the government to think that Monday’s elections were ‘free’ and ‘fair’ or that the elections were conducted efficiently. There are even fewer reasons for them to think that the city corporation and municipal polls provided a justification for the general elections to be held under a state of emergency. Of course, they may try to hold the general elections with the state of emergency in force; however, such elections would be far from credible and, most importantly, may not facilitate the democratic transition the people aspire for.

EC drops plan to replace Representation of People Order (RPO) 1972, to make amendments to the law

July 25, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, July 25, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Election Commission on Thursday revoked its decision to replace the -1972 and ordered translation of the amendment proposals into English for incorporation in the law.
  The election commissioners led by the chief election commissioner, ATM Shamsul Huda, called on the chief adviser to the caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, and took the decision to abandon the move to make a fresh law styled the Representation of People Order-2008 scrapping the RPO of 1972.

‘Instead of repealing RPO-1972, some amendments should be made and it has to be in English as the 1972 law was drafted in English. But the amendments we have proposed will be incorporated in the law’, election commissioner Muhammed Sohul Hussain told reporters after the meeting with the chief adviser. He said that the EC had changed its decision following demands from some quarters to do so.

The EC’s latest decision may further delay the electoral laws reforms and registration of political parties. In keeping with the electoral roadmap, all electoral reforms, including finalisation of the conditions for registration of political parties and the RPO, are to be completed by February 27.

The commission also missed its June deadline for registration of political parties for delay in finalising reforms of the electoral laws and is now extending the time up to the announcement of the election schedule which is expected in October.

On July 20, election commissioner M Sakhawat Hussain had rejected the political parities’ objections to the RPO-2008, saying that there was no need for amending the proposed law. ‘There is no further scope for amending the RPO-2008. It will take us another six months to go for amending the draft RPO. The government has no scope to discuss it’, Sakhawat told reporters on that occasion.

The military-backed government on July 13 approved the draft of RPO-2008 which was prepared by EC in Bangla for over a year. But most of the political parties rejected the draft and the Awami League and its allies said they would not accept repeal of the RPO-1972 and suggested that some amendments could be made to it.

Sohul, talking to reporters at his office on Thursday afternoon, said that they had already ordered translation of the draft of RPO-2008 into English and hoped that the entire task would be completed within 10 days.

EC sources said, besides the demand from political parties to drop the proposed RPO, the ministry of law had also questioned the commission’s authority to scrap the original law [RPO-1972].

The political parties had long been asking the EC not to go for repealing RPO-1972, but the commissioners defended the move on the pretext that there would be a slew of amendments and the new law would be drafted in Bangla and an amended version of the old law would not be user-friendly.

The commission proposes 114 sections instead of 95 in the existing Representation of People Order that came into being in 1972.

The draft ordinance proposes mandatory registration of political parties with the EC. For registration, a party must have a record of winning at least one seat in any of the parliamentary elections since the country’s independence or obtaining five per cent of the total votes cast or having active units in one-third of the districts or in 100 upazilas with minimum 200 members in each.

Political parties intending to be registered would have to declare in their constitutions that they would not have front organisations of students, teachers and workers, and overseas units.

But the draft proposes that students, workers and teachers would have their rights to political activities as protected by the constitution.

To promote democracy within the parties, the draft proposes that the parties’ parliamentary boards will nominate candidates for Jatiya Sangsad elections from the panel of leaders chosen by ward or upazila level committees. The draft seeks to raise the ceiling for electoral expenditure for an individual candidate to Tk 15 lakh from Tk 5 lakh now.

Responding to a popular campaign spearheaded by various rights groups and individuals, the draft proposes introduction of ‘no vote’ system in the ballot for the first time in the country’s history. Defaulting on bank loans and rescheduling those six months before filing of nomination papers would continue to remain as disqualification as in the past. However, housing and agriculture loans have been exempted from this category.

Emergency proclamation challenged in High Court

July 15, 2008

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, July 15, 2008

The legality of the state of emergency, proclaimed on January 11, 2007, has been challenged in the High Court.
 Supreme Court lawyers M Saleem Ullah, Mohsen Rashid, Nahid Sultana Juthi and Abdul Mannan Khan on Monday filed a writ petition challenging the legality of the declaration of the emergency, two emergency powers orders suspending fundamental rights, Emergency Powers Ordinance and the Emergency Powers Rules.

Moving the petition with the High Court bench of Justice Khademul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Mashuq Hossain Ahmed, the petitioners’ counsel MI Farooqui said the president on January 11, 2007 had declared the emergency without any lawful authority.

The emergency was declared in violation of the constitution as there was no existence of ‘a grave emergency in which the security or economic life of Bangladesh’ was threatened by internal disturbance, the counsel said.

The court, however, adjourned the hearing till this morning as assistant attorney general Mahfuza Begum Nila sought time for the hearing on behalf of the government.

This is the first-ever writ petition challenging the declaration of the emergency and subsequent orders, ordinance and rules.

The constitution empowers the president to issue a proclamation of emergency, but the power is not absolute, but conditional, Farooqui said. ‘In order to declare emergency, the president must be objectively satisfied that “a grave emergency exists in which the security or economic life of Bangladesh is threatened by war or external aggression or internal disturbance”.’

In the proclamation, issued on January 11, 2007 declaring the emergency, no reasons were cited establishing the ‘objective satisfaction’ of the president for the declaration of the emergency, Farooqui said.

The declaration of the emergency is also tainted with malice in law as in the wake of strong condemnation, the president surrendered the de facto office of the chief adviser, but hastened to declare mala fide the emergency before the induction of the chief adviser on January 12, 2007, suspending fundamental rights without any specification, the counsel said.

The blanket suspension of the fundamental rights without any specification is in conflict with the constitution and the fundamental rights so suspended have no link with the objectives of the proclamation of the emergency and is also in direct conflict with the objects of the caretaker government to hold free, fair and credible national elections, he said.

He also said, ‘The caretaker government is a government defined by the constitution under the thirteenth amendment to the constitution and cannot assume the character of a representative government, nor can it claim to be supra-constitutional government and it has no authority to declare and linger the emergency beyond 90 days that goes against the objectives of the caretaker government to hold national elections within the specified period of 90 days.’

‘National Security Council cannot be good for democracy’

July 8, 2008

NewAge, July 7, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, a Pakistani academic and author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, talks to Syeed Ahamed and Faisal Ghazi of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.

National Security Council is a looming spectre for Bangladesh. What is your view on the matter?

A national security council will only institutionalise the military’s role in Bangladesh’s policy process. In every case, this Turkish model which has already been used ineffectively in at least three countries, Turkey, Pakistan and Chile, has undermined democracy by establishing a top-down authoritarian model. No matter what the intention is, the outcome of military authoritarianism cannot be good for democracy.

What has been the role of the NSC in Pakistan and how has it affected civilian administration?

When General Musharraf came to power, he immediately sought the help of the civil administration. The bureaucracy is very self-serving and responds positively to authoritarian rule. It does not have a political agenda and is far happier living with military bureaucracy. Bangladesh must have experienced the same during the 1980s. However, whenever the military starts to expand its control over the civil administration, civil bureaucrats become uncomfortable and non-cooperative.

Some say a meddling military is to be expected in weak democracies like Bangladesh and Pakistan and, therefore, we might as well institutionalise their role through an NSC. What is your view on this?  

Both Bangladesh and Pakistan were ‘created’ without any major plan. We always compare ourselves with India. But the Indian Congress was exposed to a certain level of political accountability even during the First World War. Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, which was the result of a bargaining movement of Muslim elites who had no social development agenda. The elites did not even go for land reforms.

In East Pakistan, the separation movement also started without an agenda and even until the late 1960s there was no plan beyond provincial autonomy. So ultimately, Bangladesh also inherited the problems which Pakistani politics faced when it was created. Also worth bearing in mind is that the majority of the original officers of the Bangladesh military were repatriated officers from Pakistan.

What is common between Pakistan and Bangladesh is that politicians never learn from history. You cannot have true democracy with a top-down centralised political system in place. You need to revamp the political system considerably to ensure a multiple structure within the political system.

You have made repeated warnings to Bangladeshi politicians before the events of January 11, 2007. In the current political reality, why should the people of Bangladesh want the failed politicians back?

Yes, it is understandable that the politicians did not act responsibly which might have prompted the military to step in. However, Bangladesh was heading towards an NSC anyway and I could even sense the growing role of the military when I visited Bangladesh in 2006.
 Bangladesh needs to address the long due political reforms which it requires to ensure grassroots participation, change of political culture and devolution of democracy with local level political institutions (such as panchayet in India).
 Bangladesh’s political parties are an absolute mess at the moment and the military cannot be blamed for their total disorder. However, if Bangladesh fails to take the long road to political devolution and institutionalisation, and resort to the quick-fix solution of introducing an NSC, the situation is going to be a lot worse.

Civil society in Bangladesh welcomed and then accepted the army intervention just like their counterparts did in Pakistan. The relationship has now soured and the disenchantment is now palpable. What role should civil society play in Bangladesh now?

Bangladesh has a stronger and more progressive civil society than Pakistan and they have a rich history of revolting against authoritarianism. My question is: Where has this civil society been during this period? Didn’t they see it coming?
   Apparently, the educated middle class have been very frustrated with the politicians, but this short-cut solution of NSC will only worsen the already weakened democratic system.

Civil society thought it would be able to use the military to overhaul the decaying political system. But the military is not a toy which can be thrown aside after you use it. Once used to bring change, it will start to demand its own share of the power. I guess, like in Pakistan, civil society has been thoroughly lazy by taking these shortcuts to reform. This will only be destructive in the long term. It is a mistake Pakistan has made and Bangladesh seems all set to follow.

What are, in your opinion, the most damaging aspects of an NSC in a weak democracy that are not communicated to or not allowed to be discussed by the public?

A national security council will not only institutionalise an authoritarian political system, once the military becomes part of this system, the system will become less transparent as well. Hence reforming that authoritative system will be much more difficult than reforming the existing political system.

Some say the establishment of an NSC directly affects the rise of religious right wing (Islamist) politics. Would you say that there is a link between the two phenomena in the context of Pakistan and Bangladesh?

Since military power does not have a development agenda, religion systematically becomes the power player in politics. Once religion enters the political system, it looks different. The BNP used it and the AL did not oppose it properly. The fear is, if Bangladesh uses an authoritarian system like the NSC, this political Islam will become more dominant.

Another concern is the overwhelming connection between military and de-facto religious fundamentalism. The military has always promoted religious groups. Ziaur Rahman was active in rehabilitating these groups when he was in power. In Pakistan Islamist groups are linked with the intelligence services, ISI (Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, also known as the Inter-Services Intelligence).

What I also noticed in Bangladesh is the rise of anti-Indian sentiment. This is exactly the kind of thing that will force the military to cooperate with the religious right. There has always been an informal link between military and the religious right. An NSC is going to strengthen that link. And inevitably, you will witness how civil liberties will gradually be taken away.

Does an NSC have any benefits and, therefore, can there be any such thing as a best case scenario?

Giving military a role in the development process is not a bad idea. But giving them a role in the policy process is probably not a constructive idea either. Last time Bangladesh experienced a military takeover, it ended in 1990, after fifteen years in power.

However, the military is far more disciplined and commanding than political institutions. Over the years, the Bangladeshi military has evolved from a ragtag revolutionary force to a hierarchically organised bureaucratic institution.

The new structure makes it politically more potent and lethal in pushing back civilian institutions. If the military is given an institutional role in the political system, it will eventually overstep politicians to create an elite power structure of its own. So, it is a bad idea to give it more power and to use it as a powerbroker. 

Chief adviser’s tenuous claim

June 30, 2008

Editorial, NewAge, June 30, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

THE chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed, was quoted by the state-run Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha as telling the ‘national dialogue for transition to democracy’ in Chittagong on Saturday that upazila elections would precede the parliamentary polls ‘as per the desire of the people’. As some well-meaning leaders across the political divide have done, we would also like to question the basis of such a claim. So far as we know, the government has neither conducted any public survey nor held a referendum on the issue. The basis of the claim is, therefore, rather tenuous. Also, it does not appear that the chief adviser was, by any means, anxious to gauge what the people truly desire. If he genuinely were, all he had to do was to look up the constitution, which, according to article 7 (2), is ‘the solemn expression of the will of the people’, and which, according to article 58D (2), requires his government ‘to give to the Election Commission all possible aid and assistance that may be required for holding the general election of members of Parliament peacefully, fairly and impartially’ and nothing else.

Yet, the chief adviser sounded as emphatic as one could be. We wonder wherein the source of his new-found confidence lies. It may be that the incumbents believe they have been successful in creating a chasm between and within the political parties, and are, therefore, confident of pushing forward whatever agenda they may have up their sleeves. With the Awami League having decided to contest the city corporation and municipality polls on August 4 and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party so far sticking to its position of boycotting local elections, the incumbents may have been able to drive a wedge between the two major political camps and obviate the possibility of a unified movement for restoration of the democratic political process. What they may have completely discounted is the fact that the division, if perpetuated, could also lead to a confrontational situation, which, if so happens, will exact a heavy toll on the nation and the incumbents may not be spared from its ill-effect.

We have no doubt that stronger and effective local government is a prime prerequisite for the democratisation of the state and society. We are also aware that the previous elected governments largely defaulted on their constitutional obligation of holding elections to the local government bodies. However, it is the job of the people – politically-oriented sections of civil society to be precise – to make the elected governments adhere to the constitutional dictates, by way of keeping constant pressure on them. Besides, this regime does not have the constitutional mandate to hold local government elections in the first place. In such circumstances, there is no reason to regard its insistence on holding local government elections as an expression of its commitment to democracy and every reason to suspect that it may be part of a greater design to create a grassroots political platform from which to launch a king’s party.

There are at least two reasons why, we feel, the people should be suspicious of this regime’s intentions. First, extra-political governments in this part of the world have shown a tendency, from the time of General Ayub Khan’s martial law regime in the Pakistan days, to hold local polls before general elections. And second, the Fakhruddin government, in tandem with the Election Commission, has overtly and covertly attempted to redraw the political landscape by creating division within the political forces. Moreover, whenever an extra-political regime has tried to introduce one blend of guided democracy or the other, it has always found cronies to give it the mask of popular support. The interim government seems to have found its cronies as well. However, it should be mindful of the fact that these individuals do not represent the people at large. Therefore, the incumbents would be well-advised to respect the constitution, which is the expression of the people’s will, and go by its constitutional obligation of holding contested and credible elections and paving the way for a peaceful transition to governance by elected representatives of the people.