Neither civil nor servants

  • Dhaka Tribune  April 1st, 2020
Parliament House

File photo of the Parliament building Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Have our civil servants forgotten their duty?

There are good civil servants and there are bad civil servants.

And there are political giants like Bangabandhu to serve notice that all men and women in the service of the republic must remember that their salaries and all their benefits come from the taxes paid by the poor peasants and workers of this land, that these humble children of the soil must be treated not with cavalier disdain but with abiding respect.

And yet the bureaucrats who lately have committed gross misconduct in Kurigram and Monirampur in Jessore carefully or unwittingly chose not to remember this cardinal truth. Then there is that other member of the civil service who was wracked by no shame as he held an aged man by the scruff of his neck and dragged him all the way through the fields and through the village. It was an image of a brown sahib taking over from where the white sahib of British colonial times had left off.

And then comes the question of women — like the now removed deputy commissioner of Kurigram — finding themselves in such an exalted position as to consider themselves beyond the pale of the law. She has the temerity of unleashing a bunch of hooligans on a citizen — in this case a brave young investigative journalist — haul him off to her office in the dead of the night and, in the manner of Stalinist purges, have him condemned and sentenced to a year in prison on concocted charges. And the charges? The journalist had drugs in his possession.

Come to the other enterprising civil servant, this one too a woman. She has little understanding of a country she has grown up in or it could well be that in her new avatar as a civil servant she has chosen to cast the past out the window. There is all the arrogance of power in her and none of her responsibilities to the republic as she humiliates two elderly, definitely poor men in public. In triumphal mode, she catches their humiliation on camera. She does not know or does not care that there are others who are catching her in the act, on their cameras.

The government has enlightened us now with information that these two women have been withdrawn from their positions, which is as good as saying they have been brought back to headquarters in Dhaka. You can be sure they will lie low for a while before they are assigned new offices again. So where is the punishment they clearly deserve for the criminality they have indulged in, indeed for the transgression in behaviour they have so wantonly demonstrated?

You can assure yourself that if you or I had pounced on that young journalist in the middle of the night, we would be paying for our sins in a prison cell somewhere. You can be sure that if you and I had humiliated those two villagers in public, we would be answering a lot of questions, through periodic phases of physical assault, on our conduct.

But, of course, civil servants get away with their transgressions. When a senior civil servant falsifies his age only because he wishes to pass himself off as a freedom fighter and get an extension in service, next to nothing happens when something of serious note must happen. This man is guilty not only of lying but also of making light of the War for Liberation. He was not there, because he was too young to be there, and yet he peddles the untruth he was there when real freedom fighters were putting their lives on the line in defense of the motherland. He has not been punished. He is, do not forget, a civil servant.

Well, Winston Churchill may have been speaking half in jest when that caustic remark emanated from him. Civil servants — and he was speaking from his country’s perspective — were, after a time, no longer civil and no longer servants. You take that servant part of the statement in Bangladesh’s context. Civil servants in this country, in line with the tradition that has come down from the days of British rule, have consistently carried themselves in elitist mould.

It is rather amazing, indeed shocking, that in the country of Bangabandhu and of the Mujibnagar leadership, such elitism has gone on. So what conclusion do we draw? Simple. The ghost of Ayub Khan lives. Lest we forget, he was the man who sent politics packing in his “decade of progress” in Pakistan and cobbled into shape a pretty convenient machinery called the civil-military bureaucratic complex. Simply put, the soldiers ruled, with civil servants cheerfully assisting them in the fulfillment of their questionable goals. In the process, politicians were pushed to the sidelines. It was a tradition that was assiduously maintained by the coup-makers who came after Ayub Khan — in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

One tends to think of the bureaucrats whose roles in the history of this part of the world have been dodgy. Aziz Ahmed caused all that trouble on Dhaka’s streets in February 1952, putting Chief Minister Nurul Amin in trouble. Altaf Gauhar fraternized with Ayub Khan. Ghulam Ishaq Khan was at one point elected Pakistan’s president, but his demeanour remained that of a bureaucrat. Here in Bangladesh we have had the dubious fortune of seeing civil servants fall head over heels in oiling the engines of dictatorial rule.

Bureaucrats, having gone into superannuation, have speedily turned themselves into politicians. The result has been catastrophic: Politicians linked to the grassroots were pushed aside by their parties and these faux politicians just out of their administrative careers took over. Politics went fugitive.

Let us go back to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He admonished civil servants a multiplicity of times on the need for them to undergo a change in attitude. Step out of your trousers and into shorts, get down to working with the peasants in the fields and the workers in the factories, said he. They certainly did not like that.

Today, it is the administrative descendants of those civil servants who loom darkly over our lives. When will this darkness lift?

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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