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    Volume 9 Issue 17| April 23, 2010|

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Current Affairs

Beyond this Unitary State . . .

Syed Badrul Ahsan

The High Court has just informed us that the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council Act 1998 does not have any legal basis and so must be struck down. And indeed it has been struck down. A key point behind the judiciary's decision is the very nature of the Bangladesh state, a reality that does not allow any distinction or discrimination where political and administrative governance is concerned. The unitary character of the state is the pivot around which the entire argument about the act in question revolves. That being the truth, you now wonder if there are ways, other ways, in which the republic we fashioned out of war close to four decades ago can move on and into the future. Should some serious thought be given to the idea of transformation where the future viability of the Bangladesh state is concerned?

Which reminds us of the clear, precise comment Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made at his first news conference as Bangladesh's prime minister in January 1972. When a newsman asked him how many provinces he meant to segment Bangladesh into, the Father of the Nation came forth with a blunt, rather indignant response. The very size of the country, he told the assembled journalists, precluded a division of it into provinces. And that was that. But three years later came the move for a fundamental change in the nature of the state. Through the Fourth Amendment to the constitution, the Jatiyo Sangsad transformed Bangladesh into a one-party state to be headed by an all-powerful president. Bangabandhu did not see it that way, of course. He called the change a Second Revolution and went out of his way to convince people that the rise of the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) was not in any way a foisting of a single party structure on the country but in truth a national platform on which the nation could come together. The move was followed by a segmentation of Bangladesh into sixty districts, with each district to be administered by a governor. The new districts were scheduled to be inaugurated in early September 1975.

The bloody coup d'etat of 15 August 1975 pushed everything down the precipice. Indeed, the state went into reverse, reactionary gear in line with the tradition set by the Pakistan army in 1958 and all the way to 1971. It was not until the rise of Bangladesh's second military dictator, Hussein Muhammad Ershad, in 1982 that a fresh move was made to restructure Bangladesh's political landscape. Ershad went for the creation of an upazilla system that would serve as the base for a decentralization of political authority, well away from the entrenched administrative system in Dhaka. That was surely a positive step. What was not was the military regime's decision to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. Breaking up the High Court into seven divisions, to be located in various regions of the country, was considered, and very properly too, a clear attempt to undermine the system of justice. To the relief of the country, though, the judiciary eventually overturned that action brought about by dictatorial fiat.

Now, where the CHT is concerned, matters are a little more complicated. You do not need to be told that the many indigenous cultures that inhabit Bangladesh have entities distinct from one another as also from the larger Bengali population. And that is reason why these cultures should have officially been acknowledged in the nation's constitution, when it was drafted and adopted in 1972, in their own right. A Chakma, a Mro, a Santal, a Marma, a Garo, et al, has an existence that ought not to have been subsumed within Bengali culture. But they were, with the inevitable ramifications coming in. The rest is of course part of history.

The High Court judgment makes a salient point: in a unitary state it is unwise to go for measures that give off a whiff of pseudo-federalism. The point is well taken. More importantly, the judgment ought to be a springboard to fresh new thinking on the ways in which the republic can fulfill its obligations to citizens. Obviously, it will be naïve to toy with thoughts of provincial structures of government within a larger federal structure. There are reasons why Bangladesh cannot be reinvented in that manner. In the first place, the very homogeneity (or a very large degree of it) of the population does not support a reconstitution of the state into a federal structure. In the second, federalism would only increase the size of government, at many levels, and with that increase the reach of the bureaucracy. But a thought that could be explored is a division of the country into some, say four or five, administrative regions with upazillas, in single as well as collective fashion, being responsible for part or all of an administrative region. Education, the lower courts, police and other bodies could come under these administrative regions, with each region comprising a few upazillas.

And where does that place members of Parliament? They will be free to focus on their role as lawmakers, but where ensuring the welfare of their constituents is the issue, they can coordinate their work with the upazilla administrations. They will not contest the elected authority of the upazilla parishads and they will not be imposed on the upazillas in any advisory capacity. The upshot? Have Bangladesh follow the principles of local government, in totality. Without local government, all you have is messily organized chaos.

One last point, for now: the upazillas as well as the administrative regions will be empowered to exercise financial authority within the areas under their jurisdiction, the financial resources guaranteed to them through clearly defined constitutional procedures.

Thoughts, just thoughts. And they keep coming.

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