Are some people above the law?
The recent administrative action against an officer diligently doing his job is a sign of how impunity continues to undermine our lives as citizens. The officer in question had been doing what all officers and politicians should be doing, which is to go after corruption, malfeasance, and criminality of any and every kind.
That is what education is all about. That is what governance is all about. This officer of the government had been going after powerful people owning beauty parlours and superstores highlighting locally made products.
He saw what was going on and going wrong, and he was unhappy. Much to citizens’ relief, he took action. And then those above him in the administrative hierarchy went gunning for him.
He was to be associated no more with the responsibility of ensuring consumer rights. The peremptory instruction was for him to join his new office, under a different ministry, in Khulna.
It is our good fortune that public pressure, on social media and elsewhere, swiftly compelled the administration to eat humble pie. The order of transfer served on the officer was rescinded, though the senior-most bureaucrat of the ministry could not conceal his umbrage at the officer’s going public over the issue.
His explanation that the officer had been transferred under the usual rules did not hold water. To any citizen observing the matter, the young officer was driving into businesses not measuring up to acceptable standards.
It was obvious the transfer order was a pronouncement of punishment on him. He was doing good, wasn’t he? But, then, in a country infested with the corrupt and the influential, good people pay a price. We have seen it happen over and over again in this People’s Republic, where people do not matter much.
There are all the sad tales we read and relate to our children of the noble principles which impelled us into a glorious war for liberty close to half a century ago. We speak to them, even as we remind ourselves, of the countless of our compatriots who died in that war in order for us to live in freedom.
We sing the old, almost frayed song of economic emancipation having been a fundamental goal of our struggle for sovereign nationhood. We have grown old remembering the old ideals and watching them die inexorably.
In our youth, there was a light in our eyes which showed us the rolling expanse of freedom where dreams would translate into social democracy for all of us.
In our twilight -- we who have witnessed the Bengali nationalist struggle of the 1960s and early 1970s -- it is the tears we shed silently at the death of our dreams. Life was supposed to be different.
That young officer we speak of has survived, for now. You can be sure there are all those dark elements lurking in the bushes ready to pounce on him again.
Malevolent power and baleful influence have consistently made havoc of the principles we have held dear. The men who have ruined thousands of lives through manipulations of shares in the market have walked free, in all the hubris that peacocks bring into their bearings.
The law, we are informed by those who consider themselves wise, will take its own course. In the matter of the shares scams, the law has remained fugitive. Where then does the citizen go for redress? When a bureaucrat arrogantly refuses to respond to a journalist’s questions and instead asks him to go commit suicide, what disciplinary measures are there for this bureaucrat to be brought to heel?
When a few policemen, angry that an egg dealer is unwilling to satisfy their demand for bribes, destroy the thousands of eggs he means to sell in the city, they are “closed” by their superiors. That is the law? That is an administrative action? And how do you close an individual?
Too many rich people strut all over the landscape today. They own television channels and newspapers, privileged to have been awarded licenses by the government. And then these media moguls, if you can at all call them moguls, arbitrarily decide that culling of staff would be in order.
Scores of journalists are dismissed through a simple office order and yet there is no law that the government can bring to bear on these corrupt businessmen as a penalty for their high-handedness.
Where are the means by which the authorities can seize the licenses of these men, clamp a ban on their media outlets and send them out to pasture?
And the journalists’ unions? They are today polite, docile, and lazy extensions of the political parties they swear allegiance to. We will let them enjoy their tentative day in the sun, their laid-back attitude to the moral responsibilities they are expected to perform but will not.
This culture of impunity is nibbling away at our nascent efforts toward building a democratic structure for ourselves. When retired major general CR Dutta reminds all of us that the Liberation War was not waged for Bangladesh to be a communal state, he is informing us of all the bigotry that has been clogging our path to the future.
The shock is not that the political right massages the ego of the religious fanatics. The shock is in the sight of the self-declared voices of secularism watching the fanatics make quantum leaps in their program of undermining the secular nature of the state and yet looking the other way.
The Saudis, driven by their zeal to extend their medieval influence on nations outside their territory, promise to build six hundred-plus mosques in our country. We stay quiet; some among us are thrilled beyond measure. Western diplomats think we are a moderate Muslim country and for many of us, that is the reason for unbounded joy. We are not embarrassed.
The poor peasant who cannot pay back his loan is hounded by his bank and the police hour by hour. The “industrialist” who has swindled the state out of millions of taka through the camouflage of loans knows the government will be magnanimous through making it easy for him to pay back his loans under conditions which actually are a way of suggesting he does not have to pay that money back.
This “industrialist” and all other such “industrialists” should have been in prison. The tradition of ever-expanding impunity has raised them into an oligarchic order coddled by the powerful. And coddled too are those men and women who have been laundering money abroad.
They buy homes in foreign countries. Their children study in the West. No one probes their sources of income. No one touches them. All of them are feted in society. They are beyond the pale of the law.
Back in the early days of a free Bangladesh, Tajuddin Ahmad pointed to a simple yet inescapable reality. “Today, it is only Bangladesh’s peasants who are fulfilling their responsibilities,” he said. “Our farmers are going out of their way to enhance our food production through their perseverance and hard work.”
The image has not changed much, has it, in all these decades? Think of those who have ruined the Farmers’ Bank. They are accountable to no one for their misdeeds.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.