March 2010

Update: Uninterrupted power supply and air conditioning available to Ministers and MPs only.

Update II: Government has not yet clarified if last year’s ban on wearing suits and full-sleeve shirts is still in effect.

In its latest move to control the stifling electricity shortage in Dhaka, the Awami League government has imposed restrictions on the usage of air conditioners. Except for hospitals, hotels, and restaurants, all other structures have to keep their ACs shut between 6 and 11. Even when the ACs can be operated, they can not be set below 25 degress. The reporters present asked the bureaucrat making this announcement what the government would do if someone did not follow this regulation. The bureaucrat replied he hoped everyone would cooperate with the government.

You cannot make this stuff up. To paraphrase Pablo Neruda, the stupidity of the government washed over the country, with little fuss, like governmental stupidity.

In any functioning country, a government publicly announces a measure only after it has implemented the scheme to execute it. To take an obvious example, when US authorities crack down on illegal immigrants from Mexico, they do not announce that all illegal immigrants from Mexico have been prevented from coming to this country, and then announce they are going to build a fence on the border and appoint more border agents. The arrangement is always the other way round: the assets are always put into place before a government ffigure publicly announces a new initiative.

However, that is now how Home Minister Sahara Khatun operates. If she did, she would not currently be BNP’s biggest ally. She announced, with great fanfare, that people on the government’s list of suspects for the upcoming “crime against humanity” trial would not be allowed to leave the country. Then it emerged that one of the people in the list, Mur Kashem Ali, Chairman of Diganta Media, had just flown out the country. Not only had he left the country, he had given a letter to the Civil Immigration authorities, who oversee the airports, stating the fact of his departure, and asked for the use of VIP facilities, which had promptly been granted. How was he allowed to leave the country? Well, it seems that Sahara Khatun was so busy talking to the media that she forgot to send a notice to Civil Immigration with the name of those barred from flying abroad. What was her reaction after this whole matter became public? That she did not know of any such incident. As I said, you cannot make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, the government only decided to stop their zany scheme to mess with the clocks again at the last second. However, it took Zafar Iqbal going on a warpath and publicly writing columns in Prothom Alo and Samakal before the government came to their senses. Salaries for the Cabinet have almost been doubled, and lawmakers can again import duty-free cars. The government does not allow Drik to have an exhibit on the heinous crossfire murders, even when the Director General of RAB is admitting that they need to work hard not to become tainted by their misdeeds.

There is an ever-widening gap between the government’s actions and the public’s desires. Moreover, there appears to be no effective way to convince the government about this gap. The government would do well to reflect on why they have been losing elections to professional bodies recently, and what it portends for a government that publicly seeks to remain in power for multiple terms.

Updated: Prothom Alo report says “কবে সরাসরি রাজনীতিতে আসবেন, সে সিদ্ধান্ত একান্তই জয়ের। যদিও চূড়ান্তভাবে প্রধানমন্ত্রী শেখ হাসিনার ওপরই বিষয়টি নির্ভর করছে। তবে জয়ের মার্কিন স্ত্রী ক্রিস্টিন ওভারমায়ার এ ব্যাপারে আগ্রহী নন বলে জানা গেছে।” (The decision of when he will directly enter politics is exclusively Joy’s. However, the final decision in this regard is Sheikh Hasina’s. Joy’s American wife. Christina Overmyer is not interested in Joy joining politics.) Poor Joy, not yet in politics, and already torn between mother and wife. He has our sympathies.

On February 25, 2010, Awami League Joint General Secretary and Sheikh Hasina’s right-hand man Mahbubul Alam Hanif submitted Sajeeb Wazed Joy’s membership form for Rangpur Awami League. Joy is now in Bangladesh, and has been working with programs involving AL’s “Digital Bangladesh” slogan.

One small quibble to Joy’s handler in Awami League, and the Bangladeshi media: please stop referring to him as a “computer scientist.” The term is awkward; try “computer specialist,” or “IT policy analyst,” or if the mood takes you, “programmer extraordinaire.” We will still believe you, I promise.

Now, the question is: why? Why would Joy join politics so early in the second year of AL’s term? This ensures that all the missteps and misdeeds of the next four years will also cling to him. And why in Rangpur, and not his family stronghold of Gopalganj-Faridpur, under the tutelage of his uncle, Sheikh Selim, his aunt, Sajeda Chowdhury, and his mother’s in-law, Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain?

The answer to the timing part can be found in the Amended Representation of the People Order issued in 2009. Section 12 (j) holds that a person will have to be a member of a party for at least three years before he can contest an election from that party. Thus, Joy won’t be able to take part in an election as an AL candidate until February 25, 2013. Since the next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2014, that should give him plenty of time to fulfill this requirement.

Now, why Rangpur and not Gopalganj? It has been commented upon how Sheikh Rehana and her family are rarely in Dhaka the same time as Joy; it’s almost as if they take turns to visit Sheikh Hasina. Rehana’s son, Radwan Siddiq, has already been noticed by many political observers as someone to look out for. His sister, Tulip Siddiq, is active in local-level Labour politics in England. If it ever comes down to it, will Joy be able to take them on? Is that why he is being shifted to Rangpur, which is somewhat of a political tabula rasa as far as Awami League is concerned? Now that Rangpur has been announced to be a division, he can use his paternal identity to build a loyal base there?

Joy has been an expatriate in the United States for more than a decade. Will he come back to Bangladesh and settle here full-time? How will the American immigrant in him respond to the nature of politics in Bangladesh? In 2007-2008, when his mother, now Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, spent time with him during her trips to America, a long line of Awami League leaders would always be visible outside Joy’s Falls Church residence. The reason for this was not pretty: unless Hasina was actually talking to someone, that person could not stay inside the home. If Hasina needed someone, she would make a phone call or send someone, and the lucky leader would rush inside. After returning to Dhaka, Joy has already instructed the media to refer to him as Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed, dropping Joy from his name. One presumes that’s how his name is in all official American documents, such as his driver’s license and bank accounts, so he is also conforming to that standard in Bangladesh.

Joy’s arrival in politics seem to have solidified, at least in the short-term, many of the negative traits that are currently so visible in Bangladeshi politics. We have seen our parliament go through some turbulent phrases during the last two weeks. Personal name-calling, especially about dead people, is extremely frowned upon in our society. It is also the clearest sign of intellectual bankruptcy. Unfortunately, with their families ensconced at the head of our two political parties, making ad hominem attacks on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Ziaur Rahman have become convenient short-cuts for attacking the party itself. However, one hopes that if the heads of the two parties discourage their party members from making these sort of attacks, they will gradually disappear in the future.

Do we really need a conference center, a hospital, a stadium, and a planetarium named after the same person in one city? Has anyone seen so many buildings named after the same person in a city that is not in an African or Central Asian dictatorship? How many buildings named after President Kennedy are in DC? Or named after Churchill, in London? Normally, I would consider it the prerogative of elected governments to name institutions as they wish; however, we will have to wait for an Awami League government headed by someone who is not a family member of Sheikh Mujib to really get to know what his party thinks on this matter.    

Joy’s ascent into Awami League politics will elicit many reactions from inside the party: from Hasina’s personal loyalists, from discarded veterans like Tofael Ahmed, and from the young leaders of Jubo League and Chatra League who will look to ingratiate themselves quickly to the heir-apparent. How Joy keeps his head in the midst of all this, and goes ahead with realizing Digital Bangladesh, will be an interesting sign of things to come.

The Constitution of Bangladesh, in Section 96 (6), states that ” If, after making the inquiry, the Council reports to the President that in its opinion the Judge has ceased to be capable of properly performing the functions of his office or has been guilty of gross misconduct, the President shall, by order, remove the Judge from office.” The Council refers to the Supreme Judicial Council, as defined in Section 96 (3). By the provisions of Section 96 (6), all judges of the Supreme Court, in the High Court as well as the Appellate Division, may be removed.

Mizanur Rahman Khan has been consistently writing about legal matters in Prothom Alo. In his latest article, he pinpoints an extremely important trend in our highest court. In 1999-2000, when H. M. Iqbal was prancing around the streets of Dhaka with six-shooters in tow, Barrister Shamsuddin Chowdhury was Iqbal’s valued lawyer. As reward for his service, he was appointed to the bench and made a judge. BNP came to power, and when Shamsuddin Chowdhury’s review period came up, they decided that Bangladesh could survive without Mr. Chowdhury on the bench, and removed him. Awami League portrayed this as the judicial equivalent of the recent earthquake that struck Haiti. The matter came in front of the Court in due course, and served by its usual incompetent legal team, the government lost the case. Long story short, Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury is back on the bench. We can look forward to having him on our bench until he reaches retirement age.

However, being in the bench is really no use unless you get to use the fantastic amount of power at your disposal. Shamsuddin Chowdhury used it by making the charges filed against Iqbal disappear while Iqbal was still absconding. Iqbal was allowed to get bail directly from the High Court, without first surrendering to the lower courts. So far, this magical power was only reserved for those like Basundhara boss Ahmed Akbar Sobhan, who has Home Minister Sahara Khatun’s legal practice working for him. Then, the Appellate Division got into the act said that any lawyer or judge who did this, who let any individual get bail without surrendering to a lower court first, would be in contempt of court.

Now, normally, an order from the Appellate Court is mandatory and binding for lower High Court judges. What did Shamsuddin Chowdhury do? He went ahead and promptly reversed the convictions against Joy and Jalal Alamgir, to whom congratulations are due for getting out of the CTG’s bogus charges, even though they also had not surrendered to the lower court. Normally, contempt proceedings would be instituted against Shamsuddin Chowdhury the next day. Perhaps even the aforementioned Supreme Judicial Council would come into play. But don’t bet on it.

Don’t bet on it because Shamsuddin Chowdhury knows how things work in Bangladesh. Here’s Justice Chowdhury threatening to file a case against the ACC for filing corruption cases against Sheikh Hasina. And here he is quashing all cases against Dear Leader. In Awam League’s Bangladesh, he seems to have a bright future ahead of him. But if this government won’t impeach him, a future one must.