Vol. 5 Num 1137 Fri. August 10, 2007  

Cross Talk
Open guilt and secret shame

I had mixed feelings when I heard the news. My chest swelled after a former prime minister declared her undisclosed income and came forward to pay taxes.

I thought it was a healthy sign of guilt when one admits a mistake and wants to rectify it. But my heart sank when the prime minister threatened to sue NBR, which had initially refused to accept her submission on procedural ground. It was a sick sense of shame, which proved again that guilty minds always are big mouths.

Which speaks of a conflict that is searing through our political landscape. As we are going back and forth in the struggle to clean up political mess, our minds wobble on a terrible confusion. Many of our politicians don't know that like there is a time for blame, there is also a time for shame.

In The Scarlett Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells us the difference. A beautiful woman named Hester Prynne, whose husband was lost in the sea, fell in love with a clergy named Arthur Dimmesdale. When Hester becomes pregnant, the townspeople forced her to wear the scarlet letter "A" for adultery. Arthur being assured that Hester wasn't going to reveal his name found it convenient to conceal his sin.

This is where guilt stood apart from shame. Hester never questioned the quality of her own person but she questioned if she had acted wrongly. Arthur, on the other hand, judged his own self and found himself to be a person worth nothing.

The morale of the story is simple and straight. Guilt is when you can't hide the wrongdoing from others. Shame is when you can't hide it from yourself.

One expected both to converge when the former prime minister sought protection under the tax amnesty. First of all it was a shame that she had failed to comply with the law of the country while sitting in its highest office.

She shouldn't have had undisclosed wealth in the first place. If she were to be surprised like rest of the country, she should have been angry, fired her accountant, tax consultant or the lawyer who kept her ill-advised.

Instead the former prime minister shocked us by threatening to go legal against NBR. Well, may be she could do it. May be she had a legal point there and a band of lawyers would have helped her do it. NBR ate the humble pie and changed its mind. But we are not talking about legality here. We are talking about ethics. Anyone asking for a special dispensation under an amnesty should show more humility and less audacity.

To set the perspective straight, amnesty is a kind of mercy consideration, which gives another chance to those who violated the law on the first instance. It is an act of justice by which those who may have been guilty of any offence against the state are restored to the position of innocent persons.

And tax amnesty is offered to tax dodgers because it makes economic sense in an arcane world of growth and incentives. But it doesn't erase the fact that one took shelter of state mercy to escape punishment. A truly repentant person would bear that in mind and feel ashamed that once she had gone to the left hand of law.

I understand that there was a time in this country when some people were busy making money and they didn't have the time to count it. One business-man-turned-politician had stashed away 220 million taka worth of savings certificates, which was forgotten until his family found it after he went to jail.

What can you say? This is where the line is drawn between two classes of people. The poor spend more time counting money, whereas the rich spend more time making it.

But we don't know where to place the former head of the government. We don't know if she was busy making or counting money. Let us give her the benefit of doubt because, as it looks, she had more supporters to count than the money she kept in banks.

It is possible she forgot that she had undisclosed money, that people who were entrusted with bookkeeping didn't do their job. So she got upset with NBR for making a procedural fuss over what may have been an honest mistake on her part. And better late than never, NBR realized it and agreed to accept her tax submission. This should be end of the story.

Yet there was something about the whole thing that left a bad taste in the mouth. The former prime minister could have showed more respect to law being more patient and tolerant instead of threatening to take legal action. And this is where she failed to show the moral gratitude for the generosity extended by the state. This is where she behaved like a bully who tried to push her way through the whole thing.

This is why I am not in favor of tax amnesty, because it gives a perverted view of shame and guilt. It convinces the tax dodgers that there is nothing to be ashamed of their offense. The state recognizes them as patron saints of the economy and, sooner or later, exonerates their guilt. It is also gives wrong message to those who pay regular taxes. If you pay up the penalty, dirty money gets squeaky clean.

The whole purpose of the amnesty has been undermined in this one instance when NBR failed to stay its ground in the face of resistance from a thankless client. As it turned out in the end, the former prime minister neither showed any qualms for her transgressions nor gratefulness for the opportunity given to her. She turned an open guilt into a senseless showdown and passed the shame down to someone else.

In so much as NBR has royally failed to face the challenge, it licked up the guilt and took the burden of shame on its shoulder. The amnesty looked like a travesty.

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan is a banker.