Source: The Sunday Times
Date: February 10, 2008
Cloud over Bangladesh caretaker Govt. gets darker and darker
I have no doubt that Bangladesh has been a cesspool of corruption and what was once bazaar gossip has turned out to be true. Both Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia, former Prime Ministers, were known for rewarding their kith and kin and suspected of receiving benefits indirectly. As of today, it looks as if both have not been above board, to say the least.
However, I, and many like me, would await the outcome of cases pending in court before we make up our mind. Yet, I was shocked to read about the concocted story on the torturing of Tarique Rahman, run on a TV network in Bangladesh. Corruption cannot be concealed by a false picture of torture. The people are not taken in by such crude attempts to suppress the truth. That the caretaker government has been able to make some of the deals public with evidence so as to pursue them in a court of law is a plus point.
But I presume there is no witch-hunting or vendetta of any type. There is always a suspicion against the rulers that they try the opponents on flimsy grounds to wreak political vendetta. However, the charge against former Law Minister Moudud Ahmed allowing loans on forged documents has shocked me.
I have known him for a fairly long time and considered him an uncertain commodity in Bangladesh politics, but not in matters of money. Never did I imagine that he would be mixed up with bogus transactions. I recall his halcyon days of legal practice which brought Moudud fame and money. He was so defiant of the establishment that he would never mince words against any government in power. He was detained by General Ershad who subsequently appointed him as the Prime Minister.
In fact, I came to know Moudud during his detention when his wife wrote to me that he was picked from home at midnight. Moudud was released after the protest voiced by the Germans. The charge against him is serious. He is alleged to have bent rules to benefit a businessman to get a loan of 15 crore takka (roughly Rs 10 crore) from a local bank which too forged documents to lend money without any collateral.
The name of Sam Pitroda, chairman of World Ten Holdings Limited, has also figured in the case because his signature was reportedly forged to withdraw 35 crore takka (nearly Rs 25 crore) from the National Bank of Pakistan. What was the connection between the Bangladesh bank and that of the one in Pakistan is beyond me. I presume this Pitroda is different from the one we have heading the National Knowledge Commission. Yet it is worth probing.
Moudud's case only underlines something common among most ministers of the three countries in the subcontinent. They can circumvent any rule or norm to benefit themselves, their relations or friends. It is not a one-sided political favour. There is invariably a quid pro quo. Money too changes hands, either visibly or under the table. One act of corruption, as has been seen, requires the assembly of a whole stable of politicians, bureaucrats and criminals. Cleansing process in Bangladesh gives hope that the same type of broom may one day sweep the dirt in India and Pakistan. But we do not want the military to do it. Democracy has enough levers to operate against the corrupt.
However commendable such efforts are in Bangladesh, they come to naught when the caretaker government's basic job to holding elections quickly is still shrouded in doubts. After all, as Dr Akbar Ali Khan, a respected expert, has reminded that elections had to be held within 90 days of the caretaker government taking over powers.
His advice that they should be held at least 90 days after the finalization of voters' list needs to be followed now. It is, however, good to hear from the military-backed government that it will hold the polls this year. But this has been said earlier too.
Since no date has yet been fixed, there are always misgivings about the polls. The example of Pakistan is before us. General Zia-ul Haq assured at the time of military takeover that he would hold elections within 90 days. But he stayed on for nearly nine years until he died in a plane crash.
That the caretaker government has initiated talks with the political parties on the polls is a commendable step. But why doesn't it announce the date first and then work backwards, talking to political parties and providing facilities for holding free and fair elections?
The caretaker government was not convincing when it tried to draw a distinction between the emergency in Bangladesh and the one declared by President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Dakha's plea was that imposition of the emergency in Bangladesh was "within the country's constitution." The emergency in Pakistan is not dissimilar.
Musharraf clamped it as the Army Chief. It was not martial law but similar to the one the caretaker government in Bangladesh has done. The European Union, the main donor to Bangladesh, says that Dhaka has managed the emergency "in a pragmatic way." I do not know how far it is correct.
True, Article 141A of the constitution of Bangladesh says that whenever a grave emergency exists in which the security or economic life of Bangladesh or any part thereof is threatened by war or external aggression or internal disturbance, the president may proclaim a state of emergency."
But it is also stated that the emergency "shall cease to operate at the expiration of one hundred twenty days, unless before the expiration of that period it had been approved by a resolution of parliament." Bangladesh's state of emergency should, by this reckoning, have ended in April 2007. There is no explanation given for the blatant breach of the constitution.
The ongoing routine of secret detention, extra-judicial executions and deaths by "cross-fire" has in no way lessened. Odhikar, a Dhaka-based organization, has said that there were 153 extra-judicial executions in the 10 months of the emergency. It observed that the actions of the current government were being "dictated less and less by the law" and called on the government to follow the due process of law.
Still the most important thing is to have elections in the next few months, preferably before the monsoon. When the electoral rolls are complete, what is the hitch? The armed forces owe it to the nation to revive the democratic system which it took over on the promise to make the people of Bangladesh sovereign.