February 2010

When Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, assumed power last year with a 270 seat coalition in our 300 seat Parliament, I think all of us expected that it would focus on good governance. The situation at the beginning of 2009 very much showed an Awami League that was secure in its position. The rational next step would be to focus on delivering effective governance across the country, strictly trying to curb both corruption and law-enforcement problems, and position Awami League as the party that brought peace and prosperity back to Bangladesh after the tumults of 2007-2008. Surely, this would be the best way to fashion a strategy that would witness a second consecutive electoral victory for Awami League in 2014, the holy grail of electoral politics in Bangladesh since the resumption of parliamentary democracy in 1991.

Yet, this is not the path chosen by Awami League. The facts are clear for everyone to see. BNP has not called a single citywide or countrywide hartal, or general strike, in the last one year. And what has Awami League done? They have gone out of the way to antagonize the opposition. They have made our national politics the domain of the petty. And they have made, in a move that violates all norms of civilized behavior, making comments about the dead body of a former president a political norm.

They say that the best revenge is living well. After the verdict in the Bangabandhu murder case, the Awami League government could have devoted the next four years towards achieving economic growth and sustainable development. Doing this would have helped erase the bitter memories of both 1972-1975 and 1996-2001 (for those who have forgotten, Sheikh Hasina is the only living former head of government to have lost an election after serving in office, as she did in her Rangpur electoral seat in 2001). Instead, just as BNP’s return to Parliament became certain, Sheikh Hasina herself launched a verbal attack on President Ziaur Rahman, asking about the whereabouts of his dead body. Awami League Members of Parliament have enthusiastically taken up this new line of slander, making our Parliament unfit for political discourse. On top of all this comes the news about Zia International Airport being renamed. Why is Awami League so fixed on the politics of confrontation?

Muddying the whole picture is the current persecution of Shibir members. So far, news reports indicate that about five hundred activists have been arrested, most for the simple reason of being members of Shibir (an untold number of ordinary people have also been swept up in the dragnet, and then released after paying extortion to the police). The politics of Jamaat, and Shibir, its student wing, is extremely questionable, sometimes bordering on the despicable. However, that does not justify the current wave of persecution against its members.

All signs indicate that Sheikh Hasina is not interested in mere electoral success. Does she hanker for a simpler time, for a time without BNP? For a time when Awami League and BNP would not have to be mentioned in the same breath? For a time when a discussion about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would not invariably draw comparisons to his successor, Ziaur Rahman? For a time when Khaleda Zia was not, arguably, the most popular politician living? Would Sheikh Hasina like to turn the clock back to 1974? Can she?

Are a nine-tenths parliamentary majority, complaint media, and willing foreign powers enough to turn a two-party state into a one-party state? Does it matter if an attempt is made to achieve this transformation? If there was such an attempt, would it be worth talking about?

Updated: For the Appellate Division verdict issued July 27, 2010, see here.

In 2005, a High Court bench led by Justice Khairul Huq declared the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh illegal. The full judgment is available at Unheard Voice. It is a fascinating read. Justice Khairul Huq’s portion is slightly longer than Justice A. T. M. Fazle Kabir’s. Page 336-337 contains the reasons that the Fifth Amendment was found to be invalid.

This case is worth thinking about, because it does not deal with legal technicality, or arcane judicial procedure. This case is about the design, the blueprint if you will, of the State of Bangladesh. It is also about whether we, the people of Bangladesh, tell our government what to do, or whether they turn around and tell us what to do. Who gets the last word, the people or the government?

The Constitution of Bangladesh is the supreme law of Bangladesh. The First Parliament of independent Bangladesh, as elected representatives of a sovereign people, approved it. This constitution is a written contract between us, the people of Bangladesh, and the government, whom we allow the exercise of state power on our behalf. This contract is binding upon all organs of this government: the parliament, the president, the Supreme Court and all lower courts, the military, the police, and our local representatives, all must abide by it.