Fictitious cases not fictitious claims
[Written statement of election commissioner Mahbub Talukdar delivered at a meeting held on Thursday, between the election commission and police officials regarding the upcoming election.]
Around 48 years ago when I taught at Chittagong University in 1970, I was given the duty of presiding officer during the national elections. That was my first experience with the elections. Now that I have joined the election commission, that experience has flourished like a tree, albeit it with some thorns. I want to share this with you all today.
After this election commission took over responsibility, we held two significant elections. One was the Cumilla City Corporation election and the other was the Rangpur City Corporation election. We can say that we conducted these two elections successfully. There were no allegations that put either of these elections into question. Undoubtedly, the election commission managed to create a sense of public trust through these two elections.
However, it was a different experience in conducting the five city corporation elections of Khulna, Gazipur, Barishal, Rajshahi and Sylhet respectively. I will not comment on the elections of Khulna, Rajshahi and Sylhet.
However, I was singlehandedly in charge of the Barisal city polls and so I will share that experience with you. Meanwhile the honourable chief election commissioner requested me to draw up a report on the Gazipur City Corporation elections. I accordingly drew up a report on that election and handed it over to him. Unfortunately that report has not seen the light of day.
In light of past experience, as a self-assessment, I want to present before you the positive and negative aspects of the Gazipur and Barishal elections. It must first be said that this is not to put any individual or institution into question, not to underestimate anyone’s performance of duty. These matters must be discussed so that solutions to the past problems can be found and that similar problems do not crop up, clearing the way for the upcoming 11th national parliamentary elections.
I will highlight three incidents of the Gazipur election. Firstly, the Gazipur deputy commissioner sent an unsigned list of 179 persons to the returning officer and the returning officer refused to receive this. Later the following forwarding was sent along with the list from the deputy commissioner’s office, but still with no signatures of those on the list. The forwarding note read:
‘Subject: List of the presiding officers
A report of an intelligence agency on this subject was sent to this office. The report concerned the appointment of presiding officers in the Gazipur city corporation. As the appointments of the presiding officers are carried out by the returning officer, the list has been attached herewith for necessary action.
The list had neither any signatures nor any heading. The forwarding had the name and signature of a lower ranking officer of the deputy commissioner’s office. I am not aware if the returning officer requires any unwarranted assistance in the appointment of the presiding officers.
The second issue relates to police activities. The returning officer verbally stated that the police office would not issue an acknowledgement letter when any complaint of the opposition mayoral candidates was submitted. The letter would be accepted only after much requesting. The police played a silent role regarding the complaints concerning police harassment of the opposition party’s mayoral candidate, mass arrests, threats, forceful taking over of polling centres, etc. No replies were issued to the complaints. Response was only issued to four of the 11 written complaints, that too in a careless manner. The police did not bother to respond to the seven other written complaints.
The third issue also concerns the police. There are allegations that during the Gazipur election, the police in uniform or in plainclothes picked up many persons from the streets or from their homes. Many were taken away to other districts. The police have not admitted to arresting any of them expect one. After the election, many of them were found at the Keraniganj central jail. If they were not arrested, how did they land up in jail? This question remains unanswered.
Now let me come to the Barishal city corporation elections. I was singlehandedly in change of this election. Unfortunately, among the five city corporation elections, the situation was the worst in Barishal. In the morning the voting was being carried out quite well. But as the day progressed, more and more irregularities came to light. By 11am I realised that the voting couldn’t continue in this manner. I informed the chief election commissioner and other commissioners that voting in the Barishal city corporation elections needed to be halted completely. At one point the commissioners were in consensus about halting the vote casting, but he did not halt the election as we had to consider whether the law enforcement agencies would be able to keep the situation in control if the election was stopped and whether adequate security could be provided to the officers involved in the election. In the meantime, five of the six mayoral candidates withdrew their candidature and the remaining candidate was elected almost uncontested.
I am presenting her excerpts of the statement made by the returning officer to the inquiry committee formed by the election commission regarding the Barishal city corporation election: ‘In certain cases the opposition candidates were unnecessarily harassed by the police. On the other hand, the police remained impervious to the violation of the election code of conduct by the ruling party candidate. Not only that, there have been allegations of the police’s unwarranted intervention in the opposition candidates’ campaign.’
In its overall assessment of the election, the inquiry committee stated: ‘On the day of voting in the Barishal city corporation election, in many cases the law and order situation was not normal and the police commissioner in charge was not sincere in this regard. Despite directives from the election commission, the police authorities did not deploy any member of the police force to ensure the security of the election commission observers and the assistant returning officers. Law and order broke down in many areas of the constituency including at the polling centres. Members of the law enforcement, in many instances, did not heed the directives of the returning officer and assistant returning officers. In many areas, large numbers of outsiders thronged the polling centres, inside and outside.’
Of the 500-page document along with attachments, the main inquiry report of 71 typed pages is extremely important. I excerpted from only two places.
The positive aspect of the city corporation elections was that there was no loss of lives. Despite the irregularities, the situation was relatively peaceful. Perhaps law and order was not as it should have been. In India, at the same time, 14 persons were killed in the West Bengal elections. In that respect, the city corporation elections were relatively better.
The much talked about fictitious cases are no longer fictitious claims. Even the honourable High Court has said that such cases tarnish the image of the police. The Dhaka police commissioner has asked the police not to file fictitious cases. Even so, such cases are still being filed. My question is, since they have been lodging such fictitious cases before the election schedule was announced, will it be possible for them to change overnight after the schedule has been announced and play a neutral role during the polls? This question arises. The police are the most important force during the election. Unless they play a neutral role, the election will remain questionable.
The opposition parties submitted a list of some accused in the fictitious cases. Most of these are old cases. It may not be possible for many of the unknown persons accused in these cases to get bail from the court. Many candidates are fearful of campaigning for the election because there are cases against them. Such fears are not unfounded. In the interests of proper election management, it is important to take measures so that the candidates are not harassed before the election. It is necessary to follow the directives issued by the election commission in this regard.
I would like to mention another point. In the Supreme Court verdict on 24 May 2016 regarding the case, Bangladesh government versus the state, the Appellate Division issued ‘guidelines for law enforcement agencies’ pertaining to arrests. I do not think that these guidelines are being duly followed. If the appeal for human rights and human dignity, as stated in the Appellate Division’s guidelines, was duly upheld, this would significantly curb the propensity of the police to violate the rules and regulations.
The election commission is often called upon to ensure a ‘level-playing field’. The election commission had assured all that the playing field would be level during the city corporation elections, but that did not happen. ‘Level-playing field’ is a relative term. It has no specific benchmark.
However, it must be admitted that the election commission, armed with certain rules and regulations, were determined to ensure equal opportunities for all. But the ground reality was that the situation was not conducive for a level-playing field. I feel that if the government remains neutral regarding the ruling party, then the way to a level-playing field will be easy. It is not possible on the part of the election commission alone to ensure a level playing field. Even so, I feel the police play a huge role in creating a level playing field. If the police treat all in an equal manner, then this will be possible.
I am aware that the national election is not the same as the city corporation elections. As I mentioned earlier, I have highlighted the city corporation elections in order to identify the problems of law and order. This is in no way to underestimate the police performance. My statement can be taken as a self-assessment.
The issue that is being covered extensively by the media regarding the election is that the police have been gathering information on the election officials over the past two months. They are collecting all sorts of information regarding the presiding officers, assistant presiding officers and polling officers and making all sorts of inquiries. According to the media, no such instructions were issued to the police to carry out such investigations. The commission did not issue any such directives. So it is mysterious as to who is behind this and why?
Needless to say, these activities by certain over enthusiastic police officers are creating apprehensions and the election commission has to bear the brunt.
Dear senior officers of the law enforcement, I have told you before you are partners in the same oath we have taken to carry out our duties in accordance with the constitution. It is not us that carry out the election, it is rather you. You are our greatest supportive force. You all have displayed efficiency, commitment and sincerity in the past national elections and we hope that as in the past, this time too you will extend your full cooperation for a free, fair and neutral election. I had to make this self analysis in my statement here in order to create greater awareness.
The upcoming 11th national parliamentary election is extremely important for many reasons. The entire nation and the entire world are looking towards this election. Frankly speaking, our self-respect is linked to this 11th national election. We can by no means let it be a questionable election. Also, if it is questionable, the onus will be on the law enforcement and if you all are questionable, we cannot escape the blame either. So I hope that through our joint efforts we can fulfill the aspirations of the people for a free, fair and neutral credible election.
* Mahbub Talukdar is an election commissioner. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir