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Friday, November 2, 2007

Straight Talk

Original sin

Ever since 1/11 there has been endless debate as to the parameters of the role of the caretaker government. Under the constitution, the caretaker government is tasked with assisting the Election Commission in "holding the general election of members of parliament peacefully, fairly, and impartially."

However, what this means in practice is subject to different interpretations. The minimalist view was that put forth by the Iajuddin-led caretaker government prior to 1/11 -- the holding of elections, whether participated in or not, whether free and fair or not, full stop.

Prior to 1/11 there were plenty of supporters for this self-evidently preposterous position. Glaring inaccuracies in the electoral roll, partisanship of the Election Commission, the endemic use of money and muscle to influence voters -- none of these were deemed problematic.

Today, no one argues this line any more, and even the most vocal defenders of the specious pre-1/11 pseudo-constitutional line of reasoning have retreated into embarrassed silence, at least on this issue, clearly hoping that no one will recall their prior strident advocacy for sham elections in the name of constitutional fidelity.

A more defensible interpretation would have been that immediately after 1/11 the new caretaker government could have worked (perhaps with the assistance of the armed forces who have experience in this due to their peacekeeping tours of duty) to ensure good elections within the 90 days contemplated by the constitution.

The focus could have been on leveling the paying field by ensuring that the Election Commission officials conducting the election discharged their duties in a neutral and non-partisan manner and that the people would have been free to vote their consciences and that the vote would have been counted accurately. This could have been achieved.

Instead, the current caretaker government tended towards a more maximalist interpretation of its duty to ensure free and fair elections. Under this interpretation, it is not enough to hold elections, the caretaker government must ensure that the elections deliver what they promise to deliver and that voters get what they vote for.

It is to this end, to ensure that democracy delivered by the election would actually be functional, that the current caretaker government has seen fit to undertake reforms to institutions and the rules of the game.

This is the thinking behind the drive to cleanse the system of corrupt money. This is why the idea has been more to take the influence of corrupt money out of politics than to cracking down on corruption per se.

This is the thinking behind proposed institutional reform in constitutional bodies such as the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission, behind separation of the judiciary from the executive and the proposed establishment of a right to information act, behind the attempts to prod the political parties towards intra-party reform and to expel the corrupt from within their ranks.

Many fundamental questions still remain: amending Article 70 of the constitution, whether proportional representation will deliver better democracy, whether there is a need for an upper house or more powers for the presidency, etc.

Whether these are the province of a non-elected caretaker government and whether an elected government will ever enact the reforms necessary for functional democracy, and if not, what to do about it, remain contested issues.

One of the ideas making the rounds is a truth commission. There is a fair point raised by its critics that typically truth commissions come into being in the aftermath of some kind of war or serious conflict or to deal with wrong-doing that is so entrenched that an entire country or society is implicated and therefore orthodox legal remedies are simply incapable of delivering justice.

There is certainly an argument to be had as to whether corruption is so endemic and the judicial machinery so dysfunctional that Bangladesh falls into this category. But there is no doubt a good argument to be made that it does.

Of course, the interesting thing, in the context of Bangladesh as a county, is that some kind of resolution, be it in a court of law or a truth commission, for the crimes of 1971 still remains off the table.

Indeed, our failure to squarely face up to the issue of war crimes and collaboration is our original sin as a nation. It is the one issue we have never dealt with and as a result have never put behind us.

There is a direct line from our sins of omission in the post-independence era to the trajectory our country has taken all these years. The damage done to our national psyche from the lies and obfuscations that has come out of our failure to fully come to terms with the Liberation War is incalculable. It is for this reason, perhaps, more than any other, that today our society is as warped as it is.

This is a country where lies traffic as truth, where the past is rewritten to whitewash the sins of those who opposed our independence, where our very history has been distorted beyond recognition, all without a thought as to the corrupting effect such blatant disregard for truth has on the national character.

If we wonder why things have got to where they are, why corruption, cheating, and petty criminality are so endemic, why in so many areas there seems to be an absence of basic morality, it might be worthwhile to look back at our nation's original sin and locate the problem, or at least its genesis, there.

Can a nation which tolerates lies about its past ever be great? Can a nation in which war criminals and collaborators can hold their heads up high ever amount to anything? And is it a surprise if such a nation, over the course of time, sinks into a morass of corruption and criminality?

I don't know. But I am unfamiliar with any other instance where those who opposed the birth of a country or those who collaborated with its enemies have been rehabilitated to the point that they are brought into the government. Our case certainly seems shamefully unique.

If we do not deal with this issue, not only will we remain psychologically crippled forever as a nation, but there is a practical element as well.

I would suggest that, as a nation, this is where our apparent disregard for truth and long-standing tolerance of corruption comes from, and unless we address the issue, decisively, once and for all, we will never be able to create the moral society that we seek.

Is this for an elected government to deal with? Well, no, for the obvious reason that no elected government did. I don't want to get into finger pointing at this stage as to who was more to blame or why, but just to say that it didn't happen. For one reason or another. And that is reason enough for allowing the caretaker government to tackle it. Indeed, one could argue that it is precisely issues of such nature that should be the province of a non-partisan caretaker government.

It falls well within their remit. If the point of this current administration is to create the conditions for true democracy and development, then their work will be incomplete if the festering sore of untried war criminals and collaborators is not addressed.

This is where the corruption of the nation's soul was born. If we focus on corruption and do nothing about the war criminals and collaborators, we are treating only the symptom and not the disease.

Make no mistake about it: this is our original sin, and if we do not cleanse the poison from our bloodstream, once and for all, nothing else we do to clean up the country will have lasting effect, and in the long run our failure will come back to haunt us.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.

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