Vol. 4 Num 270 Mon. March 01, 2004  
Front Page

When elected leaders act like despots
Step by step govt is becoming more repressive

Under what law and under what right was Sheikh Hasina stopped inside Dhaka Cantonment and prevented from driving on in her car? She is not only the leader of the opposition, in which capacity she enjoys the rank and status of a cabinet minister, she is also an elected MP, a former prime minister, a public leader of the highest echelon and above all, a citizen of a democratic country. On being prevented she walked several kilometres and went to see a critically wounded Prof. Humayun Azad at the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) where the main gate was shut on her face. She was prevented from performing what is a common humanitarian gesture and something that is an integral part of our culture -- to be by the side of a person in time of their need.

What we have here is an example of the supreme arrogance of power that seems to have gripped the minds of Khaleda Zia and her team. When the highest administrator of the country -- that is the true function of a prime minister-- feels that law is nothing more than a plaything and the government machinery is a toy that can be used in any way one pleases without any sense of right or wrong or any thought of being accountable to anybody, then we have a serious case of delusion of power leading to its serious abuse that threatens civic rights of ordinary citizens.

Let us recall that of all the enormous executive power of the US president, Nixon fell on the rather small issue of wire-tapping of a few delegates to the Democratic Party convention at the Watergate complex in Washington DC in the late sixties and early seventies.

To add insult to injury, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) press release issued by the Ministry of Defence, which is the only official explanation we have as to why Hasina was prevented from going to the CMH, makes a mockery of public intelligence. It says she was prevented to see Prof Azad on doctors' advice. Did the doctors order that Hasina be stopped on the road several kilometres from the hospital? Did the doctors order that the main gate be closed on the opposition leader's face? Many of us, on numerous occasions, visited critical patients at the CMH when doctors prevented us from going inside the intensive care unit (ICU). What happens then is that we meet the near and dear ones of the patient, express our sympathy, good wishes and solidarity with the suffering family and leave. Hasina could have been allowed to do the same. Instead, we have the most horrible example of whimsical use of power which now involves the case of a severely injured intellectual-- a man far away from the world of politics and partisan rivalry.

We have no tears to shed for Ershad, but recently he was, without any rhyme or reason, prevented from travelling abroad in another case of arbitrary and whimsical use of power. Several weeks ago, Hasina was prevented from paying respects to the soldiers who died in a plane crash in Sierra Leone.

No-one needs to be reminded of the bitterness that marks the personal relations between Khaleda and Hasina. We hear about it almost every day from the speeches they make about the other. However, what we want to underscore here is the regular and almost routine abuse of power by the government against the opposition and ordinary citizens against whom the ruling power takes umbrage. Who is prevented from going where and who is stopped from going abroad are but small issues compared to the plethora of serious national concerns that are staring us in the face. But these small incidents form an acid test for a government's respect for law and can be taken as a barometer of its mindset about democracy and values such a political system represents.

Phones are tapped, income tax files recalled, people investigated and surveillance is ordered simply because one has fallen foul of the powers that be. We can predict the response of the government -- 'we are doing nothing compared to what they did to us. During their time…

' (A long narration follows). So it is all about revenge while the country, its people, its human-rights record, its economy, its student community -- in one word our future -- can all go to hell.

There is another violation of the law we feel compelled to underscore today. Till the writing of this piece, police, the intelligence agencies and the home ministry are clueless about who were the assailants of Humayun Azad. All say investigation is on and they are still to find a lead. But in the evening following the attack the prime minister herself declared that the Awami League carried out the attack to fuel their hartal call. Is this the respect for the law? Is Humayun Azad's near-death (God forbid) condition a game that the government will play just to denigrate the opposition? How could the highest administrator make such a public statement when her own government machinery is yet to find out who did it?

When asked, BNP leaders say that such things are said in public meetings and so should not be taken seriously. They point at what Hasina regularly says about Khaleda. One is amazed by the comfort our leaders find in justifying wrong actions just by saying that the other side does the same. No distinction is made between the government that is oath-bound to uphold the constitution and treat every citizen (including the opposition) with fairness and equality before the law and the opposition which is not in charge of running the country. (That, of course, does not give it the licence to be destructive).

What is really sad about the PM's comments is the influence it is likely to have on the investigation itself. When the police get a clear signal as to what the PM wants the investigation to lead to, then it becomes impossible for the police to follow clues that may lead to different culprits. After all, how can they prove the head of the government wrong, especially in our climate of partisan politics?

We recall how the PM's pointing finger at the Awami League for the Mymensingh blast led to arrests of Shahriar Kabir, Prof. Muntasir Mamun, and others of the opposition. Cases against them still await even a shred of proof while the real culprits are not being apprehended because that will not suit the political purpose of the government. This may be why none of the major bomb blast cases have gone anywhere for all these years. Taking a cue from all this, the home minister the other day brazenly misrepresented facts in parliament about the attack on Dr Kamal's motorcade, saying that it was the latter's own people who attacked the other side and not vice versa, while the entire media reported and his own ministry's subsequent action proved.

Step by step we are moving towards a more repressive society. We are convinced that Khaleda's repressive measures are not going to solve the political crisis and only take us towards greater strife. Nobody can match this paper's record of opposing hartals and violent attempts to overthrow an elected government. We will continue to do so. However, we must raise our unflinching voice at the treatment being meted out to peaceful demonstrations of the Awami League. Every attempt by them to protest, to demonstrate, to hold meetings and to organise rallies are being met with violence by the police and hooligans of the ruling alliance. The recent attack on and obstructions to Hasina's tour of Bhola and adjoining areas can in no way be accepted as a part of democratic norms. The result of all this is the erosion of democracy that, we desperately hope, is something that Khaleda does not want.