THE resignation of the chief justice Surendra Kumar Sinha is still shrouded in mystery. He resigned while in Singapore on way to Dhaka from Australia. He flew to Canada from there, instead of returning home. It may, therefore, take a while before the nation hears the story of the resignation from him because his return to Dhaka any time soon is very unlikely. Barrister Maudud Ahmed said that the government had forced him. That explanation was instantly believed by the supporters of the BNP and also by many who do not belong to the either of the two mainstream parties.
Maudud’s explanation was accepted by many because the government implicated itself by the messy way in which it handled the affair. Justice Sinha had become a nemesis for the ruling party since his ruling on the 16th amendment to the constitution. He with his fellow judges had declared that amendment null and void that took away from the parliament its power to dismiss the judges. That was something totally unexpected and shocking for the ruling party. And if that was not enough, justice Sinha and his fellow judges of the Appellate Division in their 799-page verdict delivered explanations to the ruling that was a political dynamite against the Awami League.
Justice Sinha had thus hurt the government in a manner that the opposition did not even dare in the last two terms of the Awami League, particularly during the current one when it has not tolerated any criticism of its rule, let alone challenge it. The Awami League had given the parliament, albeit itself, through the 16th amendment that it had enacted after coming to power for a second consecutive term through the controversial January 2014 elections, the right to dismiss the judges, thus bringing under the government’s absolute control all the three branches of the government. Justice SK Sinha’s judgement challenged that successfully.
Sinha not just expressed his determination to establish the independence of the judiciary through annulling the 16th amendment, he also underlined through it that in the country’s politics, the Awami League was not beyond challenge. In fact, there were postings on the social media that said that he was getting ready to challenge the legality of 153 members of the parliament who had not faced an election in the last elections that had threatened to bring down the government.
It was, therefore, expected that the Awami League would get even with the chief justice given the current political reality after getting caught by surprise with the annulment of the 16th amendment. The ruling party realised that the Supreme Court had the power to carry out the threats that were posted on the social media. They, therefore, sent senior leaders to his residence to deter him from doing any further damage. Their efforts were partly successful as the chief justice was encouraged to leave the country while the court was in recess for Canada and Tokyo. The chief justice, however, did not fully put the Awami League at ease as the rumours that he would act further to hurt the government continued to float on the social media and elsewhere.
The government then apparently lost its plot. Online news outlets and social media suggested that it tried to bring the chief justice to toe its line in managing the political damage to the ruling party from the annulment of the 16th amendment and alleged threats that followed. The chief justice was reportedly informed about cases of alleged corruption against him that were serious enough for legal proceedings. The threats apparently failed, leading the government to ‘force’ him to go on a month’s leave to visit one of his two daughters in Australia the same way it had forced former president HM Ershad to contest in the 2014 elections. The government stated that the chief justice’s health was a reason for the leave. That story was a palpably poor one because it was exposed as false as soon as it was made, for the chief justice himself said before his departure that he was in ‘sound health.’
The plot then shifted to Singapore after the chief justice had left his daughter’s residence in Australia completing his leave, apparently on way to Dhaka. The media speculated that he would not be allowed to join his office and would be forced to resign on his return home. Meanwhile, a different story in the media suggested that his wife and daughters and some in the inner family had, meanwhile, convinced the chief justice not to return home where he would be not just forced to resign but harassed as well and perhaps prosecuted. In the end, the family apparently prevailed. The chief justice sent his resignation to the president from Singapore and flew off to Canada to join a second daughter. He did not wait for the president to accept his resignation.
The story that involved the family and the one told by Maudud are in sharp contrast. Both stories are speculative. What was not speculative was that the chief justice’s ruling on the 16th amendment and the 799-page verdict had deeply embarrassed the Awami League and had made deep holes into the party’s narrative of the country’s history. His alleged promise on acting on the 153 members of the parliament had further rattled the Awami League for good reasons because the chief justice had the power to carry out that promise if a writ was to come before the court questioning the 153 members’ right to remain members of the parliament.
The government messed the plot badly. It made the chief justice feel that he was in danger not just with his job that he knew was going to end anyway with his retirement next February, but more importantly that he would be harassed and perhaps punished for the ruling on the 16th amendment. The unusual statement of his colleagues in the Supreme Court about 11 counts of corruption against him made the day after his leave had convinced him that he had already played his last card as the chief justice with the annulment of the 16th amendment and he would have beeen in personal danger if he had returned home. His move to resign without coming to Dhaka may, therefore, have been a thoughtful and clever one. The government may no longer be in fear of falling with the possible writ concerning the 153 members of the parliament. Nevertheless, his resignation and his decision not to return home has left the Awami League with a situation that is politically far from comfortable.
The Awami League would now have to convince the voters that the government did not force the chief justice to resign with the elections around the corner. The more dangerous predicament for the Awami League would be convincing India that it had not forced the first Hindu in Bangladesh’s history to rise to such a high position to step down in a manner where the government’s role has been established in the minds of almost everybody. Hindu fundamentalism is now the driving force in Indian politics and the BJP’s constituents are unhappy with the fate of the Hindus in the country. Indian media have covered the news of the chief justice’s resignation that should make the Awami League wary because it would need the public in Bangladesh to know that New Delhi backed it to ‘win’ the last elections.
The government could now go ahead and revive the 16th amendment. It could also pursue the accusations of corruption against the former chief justice made by his colleagues. But that would only worsen the Awami League’s standing with the voters and do little for the Hindu factor in the resignation and how it would play out in the power corridors of New Delhi. Therefore, justice SK Sinha may have landed the Awami League in a more difficult predicament than with the annulment of the 16th amendment. In retrospect, the ruling party could have been better off politically if the former chief justice had returned to Dhaka, completed his term and then retired. And Maudud may, in the end, be pleasantly surprised for what SK Sinha achieved with his resignation in the country’s politics.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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