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Book Review

The Ultimate Search

In an environment polluted by corruption, injustice and unbridled greed, the search for fairness seems as impossible as the search for Eldorado. Yet it is no doubt, the basic principle that drives human beings to dream of a near-perfect society. A simple enough dream, but one that involves a journey marred by obstacles and opposition. As the author of the book In Quest of Fairness points out – all great movements, whether it is the storming of the Bastille in France in 1789 or the Liberation Movement of 71, the underlying catalyst has always been this quest for fairness or struggle to uphold it.

One of the most striking anomalies of contemporary society that the author Mohammad Ameeruz Zaman scathingly dissects is the gap between fairness and law in Bangladesh. He insists that this dichotomy is a consequence of a widening ethical gap between the two. The continuous tampering of our constitution considered the supreme law of the land through amendments from 1972 to the present times have constantly attacked the sanctity of the constitution and thwarted its intention to be fair to all citizens of the land.

In Quest of Fairness
Mohammad Ameeruzzaman
Publisher: UPL
pages: 245
TK: 500

Many of these thought provoking essays have been published earlier in various English dailies but the compilation is in no way the repetitive exercise of putting old wine in a new bottle. On the contrary, Ameeruz Zaman's provocative, rather bold statements about corruption of state and society are just as relevant today as they were in the 90s when the essays were printed.

He expresses his doubts regarding the efficacy and justification of a caretaker government which he compares to the traditional role of a 'caretaker' – "to be in charge of a building or a bloc of flats...He serves under an elected management committee and is accountable to it. By no stretch of the imagination, he replaces the elected committee or usurps its power and prerogative desired from the general body of the owners in genuinely free and fair elections." This article was published in 1995 at a time when the present ruling party, then the opposition, had taken to the streets demanding a caretaker government to conduct free and fair elections while the ruling BNP government vehemently opposed it. Now, after sixteen years it is the other way around: the BNP are in the streets, demanding a caretaker government and the AL ruling party are trying to scrap it.

The author ruthlessly brings up more home truths. How long can a hungry person remain quiet, cool and a law abiding citizen, demands the author. His scathing criticism continues as he points out that it is the 'market-friendly economy' that obliged the person to be hungry and our legal system that put him behind bars (for stealing a loaf of bread); this, despite his entitlement to food. Ameeruz Zaman also refers to the gross inequality in workers' compensation for injury or death while engaged in hazardous, back-breaking labour:

"How generous is the compensation? Schedule II of the Act provides that the dependants of a worker, getting monthly wages of no more than Taka 100, will get Taka 8,000 and the dependants of a worker who is paid Taka '501 and above', will receive Taka 21,000. That's it. This is the legal price of a worker."

Thus Ameeruz Zaman relentlessly questions the element of fairness in the various laws of the land. The underlying theme is that many of our laws, however well-intentioned at the time of formulating them, have failed in their objective because they do not recognise the reality of the society they are supposed to govern. They ignore the ethics of the consequences when such laws are enforced, that may end up hurting the innocent and rewarding the corrupt and guilty. The contradictions posed by reality, morality and legality creates disharmony in society and ends in conflict. A landlord discriminates against tenants although all citizens are entitled to have a roof over their heads. On the other hand, a tenant exploits the legal ramifications of eviction and continues to overstay in a house even after the landlord has asked him to leave and complied with the waiting period.

Loopholes in the law lead to 'slaughter of innocents' concludes the author, as he describes the way ordinary people were reduced to paupers because of rampant, unethical manipulation of share prices. Ironically the same manipulations and 'slaughter of innocents' have taken place more than a decade after this essay was published.

It is the 'internalised respect for tolerance, restraint and legal law and not the discriminatorily enforced law which will enable us to enjoy our fundamental rights' insists the author.

In Quest of Fairness hardly falls under the category of light reading, being based on extensive research and understanding of the legal system. The language, however, is fairly straightforward and peppered with enough sarcasm to hold the reader's attention.

A section in Chapter 13 titled 'Tentative Proposals to Strengthen Parliamentary Democracy' is called 'Spirit of 1971 and Perverted Reality Today' where the author lists the indicators that prove that the supreme sacrifice of 'the little men' as he terms ordinary citizens, to create a Sonar Bangla has been constantly marred and dishonoured in post-Liberation Bangladesh. He refers to human development and human rights reports of international organisations; the innumerable amendments to the constitution that have legitimised undemocratic reigns; our overdependence on foreign aid; the rule of might replacing the rule of law; the institutionalising of the greed factor and so on.

His extensive knowledge of governance and law has a lot to do with his background. After completing graduate degrees in Economics and Accounting in the US, UK and Dhaka University, he joined the Civil Service in 1957, worked for the UN for twenty years and after retiring, decided to study law in Dhaka.

Despite the overriding cynicism palpable throughout the chapters, the author nevertheless does not believe that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The last chapter is devoted to describing the concept of fairness and honesty practiced by ordinary citizens with extraordinary dedication and integrity. Fathers handing over their sons to the police for throwing acid on a young woman and refusing to accept any money as reward, a woman social worker tireless in her pursuit of making other peoples' lives better, Mother Theresa's unconditional love for the poor and infirm, a civil servant's spotless honesty, a doctor's devotion to helping humanity, especially the needy and complete indifference to self aggrandisement.

Through these examples the author shows that it is possible to create a just, fair society when there are such individuals who set aside their self interest, to bring solace and harmony to the big picture. This honesty and generosity of spirit, practiced on a larger scale, can surely bring the kind of fairness that the author so poignantly searches for.


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