Syed Badrul Ahsan
It is a bizarre situation. It is an unreal, dark image of society before us.
Ministers belonging to the same government sit on opposite sides of the fence, or the table as the case might be, to thrash out a solution to an illegal strike resorted to by transport owners and workers across the country. On one side we have Road Transport Minister Obaidul Quader and Law Minister Anisul Haq, representing the government. On the other side, there are Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan and Minister of State for Rural Development and Cooperatives Mashiur Rahman Ranga as spokespersons for the striking transport community.
You have that queasy feeling welling up from somewhere deep inside you. None of the transport owners or their workers paid any heed to appeals from people in the public domain to bring their strike to an end. Not until Shajahan Khan, having met his colleagues at Road Transport and Law and having had ‘assurances’ from them on a solution to the crisis, emerged to appeal to the striking men did public transport services resume across Bangladesh. The implications are clear: the kind of clout Shajahan Khan exercises on the transport owners and workers, the camaraderie he has with this community, gives him an edge over many others among his colleagues. Obaidul Quader and Anisul Huq could not do what Shajahan Khan and, to a certain degree, Mashiur Rahman Ranga were in the end able to pull off. They told their core supporters — and these supporters are the transport owners and workers — to take to the wheels again. Suspicions of an arrangement having been worked out with the government were in the air.
It did not matter, it does not matter, that what these transport people put the nation through over the past few days was clear mob rule. That it is all right to ignore judgments delivered by the judiciary was what these thousands of people engaged in the transport sector were trying to prove. And they have indeed proved that morality does not matter, that the law is there to be violated with impunity, that the courts do not have to be feared, that citizens can go on dying in road rages and crashes. In the end, it is all a question of the law proposing and the transport people, with such powerful backers as the shipping minister and the state minister for rural development, disposing. Note that Shajahan Khan and Mashiur Rahman Ranga are extremely fortunate and extremely influential individuals, for they each have dual roles to play. Shajahan Khan is executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation and Ranga is president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Association. In all this critical condition engulfing the transport sector, they pushed their ministerial roles into the backyard and focused, to the nation’s dismay and embarrassment, on their trade union links.
How do you explain these contradictions? These two men, the minister and the state minister, were sworn into office on a promise of service to the people of the country. Over the last few days, they forgot or did not care that they had forgotten the people and indeed pushed them against the wall. It clearly did not upset them that their supporters, their camp followers — the transport owners and workers — had taken the country hostage to their motives of violence. These camp followers flung the dangerous message at the nation — that they and their friends in the transport sector can drive buses and trucks in frenzied and reckless manner but they cannot be brought to justice. The judiciary, they were sending out the disturbing message, did not need to be listened to. Everything would be taken care of by their very own people in authority, in this instance the shipping minister and cooperatives state minister.
So where does that leave the judiciary? Where does the country stand when mobs fan out all over the place because they do not wish to have the criminals in their midst, their friends, pay for their crimes and for their sins? Minister Shahjahan Khan has spoken of assurances coming from the government, certainly to the transport owners and workers. One does not quite know what the assurances are, but one can be pretty sure that the government has genuflected before the strikers. These genuflections are distinctly and increasingly turning uncomfortable, almost nauseating. Academics must leave their places of work because people close to the centre of power do not approve of them. School textbooks must be rearranged and reordered and rewritten in order to keep religious bigots in good humour. And today, for the pusillanimous, it is not the judiciary that matters but those who have in these past few days been making a mockery of the rule of law.
Discipline is fast becoming an archaic term in our national political lexicon. A minister whose son-in-law has been found guilty of murder remains blissfully unaware that he needs to leave the cabinet on moral grounds. Another minister presides over the import of bad wheat and yet hangs on to his job despite public outrage over the affair. And now we have two men in government who do not see any conflict of interest in being active trade unionists as well. Where does the constitution come in here? And how does the Prime Minister interpret a situation where Shajahan Khan and Mashiur Rahman Ranga have together been a rock-like presence behind the men who kept an entire nation hostage to their irrationality?
Former president Hussein Muhammad Ershad was right to demand that the government deal firmly with the striking transport owners and workers. He was not heard. The hostage takers angrily put his effigy to the torch. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir has spoken for everybody through pointing to the roles of the shipping minister and the state minister for cooperatives in the shutdown of the transport sector. The government was expected to stand tough in the face of the strike, in the interest of governance. It failed on that count.
The implications should be obvious. A precedent has been created — of mob rule compelling the powers that be into submission at every given opportunity, of dark elements flouting the majesty and power of the judiciary with impunity, of trade union leaders sitting in cabinet without any thought to the manifest wrong inherent in holding on to two diametrically opposed jobs.
A society which permits unscrupulous men to belittle judicial authority is condemned to perdition. A country where mobs decide on the streets what political leadership should be deliberating on in the hallowed halls of political power will remain trapped in stunted growth.