POLITICS IN BANGLADESH

The iceberg syndrome

Published: 00:05, Nov 15,2017 | Updated: 22:22, Nov 14,2017

 
 

ICEBERGS are famous for being mostly hidden under water with only 10 per cent visible. That is why it makes a deadly obstacle when a ship hits it. The Titanic which sank with many on board is the best example. The essential message is clear. Submerged secrets are deadly and more so in public and political life.
The Sinha episode exemplifies that. The lack of transparency around the appointment, judgements, protest, accusations and departure leading to resignation are all shrouded in mystery. That is what brings icebergs to our mind.

The Justice Sinha puzzle/mess
THE Sinha episode has exposed the enormous weakness of our formal institutions. What began as a contest between the executive and the judiciary became a free-for-all conflict among all the official, political and administrative institutions and agencies that enjoy benefits of being close to state power. Of course, the political parties were slugging at it for long.
The final focus of the struggle was the rejection of the 16th amendment-related verdict. By cancelling the verdict, the Sinha regime went on a confrontational course with and the legislature whose power to sack judges were deemed unconstitutional. The political part of the executive and the legislature retaliated with condemnation and various gatherings.
But once the observations part of the court was published which was critical of the administration and some of it was read as trivializing the role of Sheikh Mujib in 1971, all hell broke loose. The debate was no longer on constitutional issues either but personal and individual focusing on Justice Sinha.
Although the non-AL legal community stood behind him and the BNP supported him, the pro-AL lawyers, party activists and the supporters who had nothing to do with the 16th amendment became part of a civil agitation against a judicial decision. While Sinha was on a visit to Japan during a court break, which many hoped would clear the air, the battle became very complex even when well known Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik reported that Justice Sinha had said at a dinner party in Japan that he was going to ‘bring democracy back’ to Bangladesh. The story hinted that a plan was being made supported by present and retired army officers. The same journalist had written that Sheikh Hasina had survived an assassination bid by extremist Islamists in the army. It also mentioned that a writ was being readied by a team of lawyers challenging the 15th amendment, the law under which the 2014 parliamentary elections were held.
Once he returned to Dhaka, he basically did not last a day and there was a bizarre comic opera scenario about being too sick to serve, a letter seeking leave, no connection with anyone, visit to a mandap, hasty departure plans, wife allegedly not allowed to fly out with him and a very dramatic Sinha handing over a letter where he said he was not sick but forced to leave to uphold the prestige of the judiciary, that he would return and so on.
But the matter did not end there as several corruption, moral turpitude and other charges were brought against him. This was followed by the other Supreme Court judges who were co-signatories to the 16th amendment verdict refusing to sit with him on the same bench due to such allegations.
Justice Sinha, who had flown out finally handed his resignation on November 11, the day he was supposed to return. The formal institutions of the state had never looked so messy ever in the past 45 years.
But the biggest problem is that nobody knows what is going on. Bangladeshis know very little and have no idea what happened or is happening. The questions they raise about Sinha are pertinent too.
— If Sinha was so corrupt, why was he made a judge and later the chief justice?
— How do the authorities know that he alone is corrupt. Has everyone been investigated because now the doubt has fallen on all judges, serving or retired?
— Why was Justice Sinha allowed to leave when such serious charges of corruption were pitted against him?
— What has the government done to reduce high-, middle- and low-level corruption in the judiciary if it exists?
— If corruption is endemic, how free have been the verdicts given before and will be given now?
— Given the pressure that Sinha experienced, how can we be sure that the review petition hearing on the 16th amendment that will be heard soon be free from encumbrances of anxiety by the Appellate Division?
— Why did the authorities resort to such pressures only after the verdict of the 16th amendment was delivered?
— If Sinha was planning a takeover, as reported by Indian media, why was he not detained and investigated and tried on high treason charges?
— How come Indian media know so much who have reported at least three events of unrest in the army or bids to takeover?
— Is the situation due to Justice Sinha’s behaviour alone or is the judicial system in doldrums?
There are many other questions that are inevitable when the entire system is so foggy. It does seem that the authorities do not believe that they have a responsibility of informing the people of such matters. We also have a right to know Sinha’s point of view on all the issues, including corruption.
The basic problem of our politics is its lack of transparency. That happens when systems are weak or weakened, institutions are stunted and public opinion is not a critical ingredient in political management and governance.
But given the situation, do rulers care? And more pertinently, do people care?

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

POLITICS IN BANGLADESH
The iceberg syndrome
ICEBERGS are famous for being mostly hidden under water with only 10 per cent visible. That is why it makes a deadly obstacle when a ship hits it. The Titanic which sank with many on board is the best example. The essential message is clear. Submerged secrets are deadly and more so in public and political life.
The Sinha episode exemplifies that. The lack of transparency around the appointment, judgements, protest, accusations and departure leading to resignation are all shrouded in mystery. That is what brings icebergs to our mind.

The Justice Sinha puzzle/mess
THE Sinha episode has exposed the enormous weakness of our formal institutions. What began as a contest between the executive and the judiciary became a free-for-all conflict among all the official, political and administrative institutions and agencies that enjoy benefits of being close to state power. Of course, the political parties were slugging at it for long.
The final focus of the struggle was the rejection of the 16th amendment-related verdict. By cancelling the verdict, the Sinha regime went on a confrontational course with and the legislature whose power to sack judges were deemed unconstitutional. The political part of the executive and the legislature retaliated with condemnation and various gatherings.
But once the observations part of the court was published which was critical of the administration and some of it was read as trivializing the role of Sheikh Mujib in 1971, all hell broke loose. The debate was no longer on constitutional issues either but personal and individual focusing on Justice Sinha.
Although the non-AL legal community stood behind him and the BNP supported him, the pro-AL lawyers, party activists and the supporters who had nothing to do with the 16th amendment became part of a civil agitation against a judicial decision. While Sinha was on a visit to Japan during a court break, which many hoped would clear the air, the battle became very complex even when well known Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik reported that Justice Sinha had said at a dinner party in Japan that he was going to ‘bring democracy back’ to Bangladesh. The story hinted that a plan was being made supported by present and retired army officers. The same journalist had written that Sheikh Hasina had survived an assassination bid by extremist Islamists in the army. It also mentioned that a writ was being readied by a team of lawyers challenging the 15th amendment, the law under which the 2014 parliamentary elections were held.
Once he returned to Dhaka, he basically did not last a day and there was a bizarre comic opera scenario about being too sick to serve, a letter seeking leave, no connection with anyone, visit to a mandap, hasty departure plans, wife allegedly not allowed to fly out with him and a very dramatic Sinha handing over a letter where he said he was not sick but forced to leave to uphold the prestige of the judiciary, that he would return and so on.
But the matter did not end there as several corruption, moral turpitude and other charges were brought against him. This was followed by the other Supreme Court judges who were co-signatories to the 16th amendment verdict refusing to sit with him on the same bench due to such allegations.
Justice Sinha, who had flown out finally handed his resignation on November 11, the day he was supposed to return. The formal institutions of the state had never looked so messy ever in the past 45 years.
But the biggest problem is that nobody knows what is going on. Bangladeshis know very little and have no idea what happened or is happening. The questions they raise about Sinha are pertinent too.
— If Sinha was so corrupt, why was he made a judge and later the chief justice?
— How do the authorities know that he alone is corrupt. Has everyone been investigated because now the doubt has fallen on all judges, serving or retired?
— Why was Justice Sinha allowed to leave when such serious charges of corruption were pitted against him?
— What has the government done to reduce high-, middle- and low-level corruption in the judiciary if it exists?
— If corruption is endemic, how free have been the verdicts given before and will be given now?
— Given the pressure that Sinha experienced, how can we be sure that the review petition hearing on the 16th amendment that will be heard soon be free from encumbrances of anxiety by the Appellate Division?
— Why did the authorities resort to such pressures only after the verdict of the 16th amendment was delivered?
— If Sinha was planning a takeover, as reported by Indian media, why was he not detained and investigated and tried on high treason charges?
— How come Indian media know so much who have reported at least three events of unrest in the army or bids to takeover?
— Is the situation due to Justice Sinha’s behaviour alone or is the judicial system in doldrums?
There are many other questions that are inevitable when the entire system is so foggy. It does seem that the authorities do not believe that they have a responsibility of informing the people of such matters. We also have a right to know Sinha’s point of view on all the issues, including corruption.
The basic problem of our politics is its lack of transparency. That happens when systems are weak or weakened, institutions are stunted and public opinion is not a critical ingredient in political management and governance.
But given the situation, do rulers care? And more pertinently, do people care?

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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