Subir Bhaumik wrote a pretty intriguing piece in the Look East news portal a couple of weeks back where he said that Justice Sinha had told his audience at a private party in Japan that he would ‘restore/establish democracy’ to Bangladesh. The story also said that the move would be triggered by a writ petition filed by over 150 lawyers urging the chief justice to declare the present parliament illegal and insisting that it should be scrapped. In this effort, Sinha would also be supported by several serving and retired army officers which basically means a civil-military coup. Most Bangladeshi media outlets chastened by the debunking by the Prime Minister’s Office of the ‘Hasina assassination’ story did not run it. But there is no confirming this news either.
But soon after his return to Dhaka from Japan, his exit drama began as Justice Sinha suddenly went on leave citing ill health. He sent a letter to the president seeking leave which actually is not required constitutionally. This letter was shown to the media by the law minister and not by Sinha’s office which intensified speculation that something was awry but not what.
This letter is full of spelling errors and the signature of Justice Sinha differs from his other signatures as duly reported by the media which made most suspect that it was not written by the chief justice. Justice Sinha was almost incommunicado for a day and BNP lawyers and a few others said that a conspiratorial hanky-panky was on to remove him.
As confusion mounted, the law minister who was stewarding the Sinha ‘leave on health grounds’ process visited him at home and soon Sinha went to the Durga puja mandap to prove that he was ‘not under arrest’ as some said. However, the man scolded for talking too much said not a word.
Meanwhile, the BNP protested, visited him but was denied access and he was cut off from all public contact. Proving speculations about his ‘facilitated exit’ correct, Justice Sinha has now got a ticket to Australia where he is expected to serve out the rest of his term which is ending in a few months anyway.
Managing a mysterious ‘exit’
THAT Justice Sinha was forced/eased out seems obvious but why it was done so is left unclear. It was managed rather shabbily which left the reputation of the ‘managers’ in a fair bit of mud. But then we do not claim to be efficient too loudly anyway. Professional media appeared very cautious knowing about the issue and social media had a fireworks of comments. The BNP said loudly that a conspiracy was on but what that was was not stated.
The alleged writ was never filed and no military coup was noticed since then. AL leader Hanif said that by going on leave, the country was saved from a conspiracy, obviously BNP-led, and BNP leaders said, Sinha, Bangladesh and the judiciary were victims of an AL conspiracy. It was also reported by some media close to the Awami League but not always credible that several ‘civil society’ activist lawyers were behind it all but ‘patriotic’ souls had foiled the trap before it could be sprung.
It does seem from all the noise that something was afoot but nothing has yet been said about what that was. Like Bangladesh’s ruling class politics it, remains a mystery to the rest of the people.
Subir Bhaumik’s story was clearly fed to him by intelligence agencies but which agency and destination? Was Sinha so naïve that he would disclose such a plan at a dinner party? Was the news broken to hint that Sinha was up to no good and action was coming? If so, for whom was this message meant?
Three months would hardly be enough to hear a writ and decide to dissolve a parliament or was it? AL sources mentioned that Justice Sinha was planning something since being hired in league with the BNP but what that is is not said. Most mention several writs about to be filed but was it capable of overturning the regime? They say that no risk was worth that risk with the election so near. But nothing firm is heard.
If the agencies already knew Sinha and the BNP had a plan, why was it so hurried and disorganised after a long warning? This kind of speculation can go on and on but at least there is something else to discuss other than whether Miss Beautiful Bangladesh or whatever was married, divorced or engaged or single.
Executive beats the judiciary?
AT A more real level, Justice Sinha did take on the executive from the first day of his office and it was an open fight which ultimately became the inevitable Awami League vs BNP battle in the end. The peak was the 16th amendment verdict and observations which drew serious ire of the party in power. The parliament and the bureaucracy banded together and they hit back not just with street and media mobilisation but personal vilification, quite unprecedented in Bangladesh as far as a chief justice goes. A few former judges also pitched in and the scene was quite as hurly-burly as any AL-BNP stone throwing party.
The episode did manage to downgrade the image of the judiciary in public eyes which may be the opposite of what Justice Sinha and his Supreme Court wanted but it was inevitable. Fortunately, other organs have not much image to protect. The Awami League had many axes to grind with the chief justice built over time. But the conflict shows that after 45 years, state institutions are immature and the necessary formal systems are yet to take root.
What Justice Sinha tried to do was possibly establish the supremacy of formal institutions which ultimately took on a political hue. However, if reports are true, he may have tried to move in the informal space which created the final stage of the crisis. This activism was not ‘formal’ and his exit was not either. It was sadly an excellent example of how deeply ‘informal’ political and ruling culture is.
If the wealth-making process remains informal based on clan, crony and course mate based, the chances of state institutions becoming formal is less and obviously is not going to happen soon.
Thus while the executive and the legislative can declare their victory over Justice Sinha, if not the entire Supreme Court Appellate Division, or the higher judiciary, it is clear that a lack of clarity in the management of the state system as a whole remains as high as ever.
Bangladesh is yet to become a maturely functioning state and to expect public interest in its state of health could be a little over ambitious at this point of time.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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