Patriots versus traitors

By: Talha Ahmad

A bench of the High Court accused the Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament of High Treason (Rastrodruhi) for his alleged comment in the Parliament about a ruling of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. He further questioned the depth and breadth of knowledge of the Speaker and asked whether it is appropriate to use the term “Advocate” before his name.

Meanwhile, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Energy Affairs (Jalani Upodesta), Mr Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury termed those who criticise the “quick rental” arrangement as traitors. Those residing outside Bangladesh may wish to note that quick rental refers to an arrangement whereby the Government of Bangladesh can enter into agreement with private electricity producers to supply to the national grid without open tender. Thousands of millions of Taka worth of electricity has already been purchased under this arrangement.

These are merely two of numerous examples of “traitors” we hear about in Bangladesh. Discussing the appropriateness of the term ‘traitor’ in every context that our politicians and civil society use is beyond the scope of this article. However, the above two are important examples. I hope that a brief analysis of the appropriateness of the two contexts above will shed some light on whether we should be alarmed at the presence of such a high number of “traitors” in our beloved country; or, whether we should be concerned at the relative ease with which people at such highly important positions use this profound word.

Taking the first, it is worth noting that our country broadly follows the UK-style democracy and therefore much of our doctrines reflect those of the UK. The backbone of British democracy – and by extension our democracy – is the concept of “separation of powers”. This refers to an arrangement whereby the Parliament, the Government and the Judiciary are recognised as the three most important pillars of the state, each having their own areas of authority and each one must not transgress upon the territory of the other. Generally, mutual respect ensures relative harmony but occasionally there are inevitable tensions.

Another doctrine that complements the theory of the separation of powers is that of the supremacy of parliament. This doctrine essentially means that Parliament is the ultimate law maker in a democracy and it can make or unmake any law it so wishes. The Government and the Judiciary are bound and obliged to enforce these laws in their own ways within their competence.

It follows from the two above doctrines and from convention that, the Judiciary, as much as it is independent, cannot act beyond a defined set of rules. In other words, while the Judiciary is independent and ultimate interpreter of law, it must reflect the will and wish of the parliament and act within the legal framework duly enacted by the Parliament. It is inevitable, that occasionally, the distinction between the two spheres may be blurred and it may be difficult to reconcile the act of these institutions together. For this reason, parliamentarians enjoy privilege while speaking in the Parliament and the judges enjoy privilege when the speak while adjudicating in a court of law. Of course, it does not mean they can get away saying anything and everything that they wish to say. There are parliamentary watchdogs, judicial commissions etc whose role it is to investigate and address any issues of foul play by the respective members of Parliament and Judiciary.

As a novice and relatively new student of law, I would not claim to know much. However, being in a democracy, I feel, I am entirely within my right to use my common sense to analyse a situation and express my genuine opinion. It is in that spirit that I write this article.

I have read the Speaker’s comment as reported in more than one media outlets. The statement was strong, undoubtedly. It cannot be said, however, that what he said was irrational, illogical or improper. Making bold statement requires courage. The learned Judge, it transpires from news reports, understood what the speaker has said in a particular way. Furthermore, the learned Bench of the High Court must act in accordance with law and whatever comments or decisions they deliver must be in accordance with law. Which is why, in general, judges will explain at length with proof and evidence why they are issuing a decision. Besides, I am not quite sure that the Judges are entitled, as a matter of law, to term the Speaker of the Parliament “traitor” when no such declaration was sought by any party. In any event, the Speaker is protected by Parliamentary privilege and therefore, a question arises whether it was appropriate for the High Court to intervene in such a way.

Coming back to the Government, an Adviser to the Prime Minister is part of her administration. But in any civilised nation, their role is limited and often in obscurity. Unfortunately, in our country, everything happens in the open. The Advisers seem a lot more powerful and visible than many of the important ministers. Of note, the Energy Advisor is particularly keen to claim the limelight from time to time. However, being a career bureaucrat and a very experienced one, one would have expected him to know how to speak with control, respect and dignity. Moreover, a person appointed to be an Adviser to the Prime Minister is assumed to understand important principles of democratic systems such as freedom of thoughts, expressions, openness, debate and discussions.

Quick Rental agreement may have a place in our resource-constraint nation where important infrastructure development takes time and the needs urgent response. But in the same spirit, one can argue that quick rental agreements are costly, open to abuse and may give rise to questions of impropriety. And therefore, many may argue against this arrangement in the interest of transparency, accountability and efficiency. Provided that no obvious ill motive is identified, neither of these arguments can be set aside as unreasonable and improper.

The Advisor is entitled to hold a view in favour of the quick rental agreement and he may advocate in its favour with energy, drive and force. He should do so with logic, reason and evidence. He is equally entitled to demand reasoned argument from those that oppose this arrangement. However, it is entirely irresponsible, gross error of judgement and utterly unacceptable for him to term those opposing this arrangement as ‘traitors’.

We all are aware that in our ill-functioning democracy, these remarks are very small matters. However, we observe with great sadness that the culture and standard of debate is sliding downwards. These remarks are extraordinary, grave and have the potential to leave profound impact. If these remarks are left unchallenged, it will create a wrong kind of environment and will destroy any hope of genuine accountability. It is hoped that the Judiciary, the Government, the Parliament and indeed the intelligentsia of our country will avoid such tone and adopt a more sophisticated and respectful tone in addressing dissenting voices.

Source: The Financial Express