WITH no street agitations or unexpected turn of events, and with the ruling party’s firm grip over the situation, 2017 was politically a relatively calm year. But it was neither uneventful nor inconsequential. The year witnessed events related to governance, particularly regarding the relationship between the executive and judiciary, which have profound and long-term effects on the Republic we call Bangladesh. Other developments, in terms of foreign policy and domestic politics, will have significant ramifications for 2018.
A BATTLE WITH LARGE IMPLICATIONS
That the chief justice of the Supreme Court had resigned would have been a matter of great concern for any country, particularly when there was no precedence since its independence. But, even before Bangladesh’s Chief Justice SK Sinha offered his resignation from Singapore and it was accepted by the president on November 11, it was a foregone conclusion because of the series of events that began with the release of the full text of the verdict of the SC rejecting the appeal of the government on the 16th Amendment of the Constitution. This 2014 amendment transferred the power of impeachment of judges from his/her peers through the Supreme Judicial Council to the parliament members, and was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court in 2016. The chain of events which led to the unprecedented culmination began to unfold when the government appealed against the HC ruling on January 4, 2017. Little did we know at that time of the trajectory of an appeal.
Much ink has been spilled since August 1, 2017. Therefore, the chronology of events need not be recounted here. Three things, however, became clear afterwards: (i) despite the verdict of the appellate division of the SC being unanimous, Justice Sinha was singled out as the principal target of criticisms from the ruling party leaders—outside the parliament, in the parliamentary discussions on July 9 and during the adoption of an unprecedented parliamentary resolution against the judiciary on September 14; (ii) the tone and tenor of the criticisms essentially vindicated the arguments of the Justices of the High Court and the Supreme Court when they nullified the amendment; and (iii) the ruling party members did not live up to the promise of the law minister of being respectful to the verdict despite disagreements.
What transpired during the Sinha Saga is that it is far more than a matter of “removing” an alleged “corrupt” CJ from his position. The latter point is confirmed in the gazette notification on the disciplinary rules of the lower court judges. The Bangladesh Judicial Service (Discipline) Rules 2017, announced on December 11, retained the power of appointment, administration and removal of lower court judges in the president’s hands as opposed to the Supreme Court. This was one of the bones of contention between the judiciary and the executive since the separation was made under the caretaker government in 2008 as a follow-up to the Masdar Hossain Case of 1999. Importantly, the government’s draft submitted in July 2017 after years of delay and its claim in December 2016 that a gazette notification on this is not necessary, were rejected by then Chief Justice Sinha. After the publication of the gazette, the law minister claimed that a “consensus between the judiciary and executive” has emerged, and that Justice Sinha was the obstacle: “It got delayed because a person tried to politicise it,” said the law minister. But anyone who followed the issue, pertinent to Article 116 of the Bangladesh Constitution, would be able to recollect that since 2008, five CJs before Sinha had opined that the power shouldn’t rest with the president.
These developments, the “resignation” of SK Sinha, insalubrious rhetoric of the ruling party leaders, and the disregard to the 12-point directives of the SC on the service rules of lower court judges, have laid bare the tension between the executive and judiciary. Theoretically, tension between these two is not unusual, instead it points to the checks and balances in democratic governance. But the way it proceeded in 2017 in Bangladesh and was apparently resolved, practically undermined the fundamental principle of a Republic, which requires not only an independent judiciary but also one perceived as such by its citizens. Additionally, the government’s decision to leave the CJ position vacant even after Sinha’s resignation does not bode well in this regard.
Three issues are to come before the Court in 2018—a hearing on the Judicial Discipline announcement, review of the 16th Amendment verdict of the SC, and the HC verdict on the writ about Article 70 of the Constitution—and will tell us more on the current state of the judiciary, its relationship with the executive and the future trajectory.
COMPASSION AND BLEARY FOREIGN POLICY
When the Myanmar government recommenced its well-designed ethnic cleansing of Rohingya under the pretext of attacks by a ragtag insurgent group called ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army) on police posts in Arakan in August, Bangladesh was not only faced with a historic humanitarian crisis at its doorstep and an influx of about 700,000 refugees, but also found itself in a baffling situation as its close allies of China, India and Russia, pursuant to their own economic and security interests, decided to side with Myanmar. The government tried to put on a brave face and claimed these countries will come forward to help in resolution, but it turned out to be a hope of Bangladesh rather than a promise of these countries. Yet, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina tabled a clear and specific six-point proposal for a long-term solution in her UN General Assembly speech in September which indicated working through international bodies.
Evidently, in the following days, the global powers became polarised into two camps. Faced with the choice of internationalisation of the issue suggested by the United States and Europe, and finding a solution through bilateral negotiations suggested by China, Bangladesh continued to vacillate. But by December, Bangladesh seems to have opted for a bilateral arrangement, ostensibly under the insistence of China. Bangladesh, which was supposed to put pressure on Myanmar through their common friends, ended up at the receiving end. The vague bilateral arrangement, without any international involvement and means of arbitration, has demonstrated how bleary the foreign policy of the government is and how its friends didn’t come to its aid at the time of need.
ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCES AND THE DEAFENING SILENCE
The culture of fear, which can become more powerful than any modes of violence, reached a new height in 2017 as more people are now becoming victims of enforced disappearance. Between January and October, at least 50 people went missing, according to human rights groups. The list included professor Mubashar Hasan, journalist Utpal Das, former diplomat Maruf Zaman; they are among the 14 who became victims in the four months since August. Of these, two have been found dead, three have been shown arrested, and nine have returned. The increasing number of enforced disappearances in the past decade is matched with extrajudicial killings; at least 139 people have been killed in 10 months. The impunity enjoyed by law enforcing forces regarding disappearances and extrajudicial killings seems to have encouraged them to continue these tactics. Unfortunately, the prime minister’s conflation of missing persons in Britain and the United States with “enforced disappearance”, and the comment of the IGP that “enforced disappearance, abduction and killing have been going on since the British period” can be read as acquiescence of the government. Additionally, a disturbing trend that warrants attention is the deafening silence of those who fortunately return from their captors. The government hasn’t shown any interest in finding where these people had been. There is another kind of silence that is taking hold in society: the media seems to be more and more engaged in self-censorship, as are writers and journalists. Article 57 of the ICT Act has been the principal weapon of the government and those who do not want any dissent.
LOW-INTENSITY MILITANCY AND INTENSE INTRA-PARTY CONFLICT
The country continues to experience low-intensity militancy, as reflected in the regular security operations by law enforcing agencies. Between January and November, at least 14 high-profile operations resulted in the deaths of 41 militants; they were either killed by the security forces or militants chose to blow themselves up. These security operations, without any other visible attendant measures, demonstrate the exclusive reliance on force and an absence of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy encompassing deradicalisation, disengagement and prevention measures. One positive development is that the government seems to have stepped back from blaming the opposition political parties for immediate political gains.
As for political violence, intra-party clashes within the ruling Awami League, particularly its student wing, have become routine in costing the lives of party activists. These disputes are largely related to maintaining a sphere of influence, extortion, securing government contracts and exhibiting muscle power. The culture of impunity, rampant corruption and absence of accountability are all fuelling these conflicts.
ELECTION-TALK IN A NON-ELECTION YEAR
Although the general election is almost a year away, appointment of the new election commission, announcement of the roadmap, and dialogues with political parties and various other segments of the society had prompted intense conversations about the election. However, the PM brushed aside the speculation of an early election, and ruled out any possibility of talks with BNP on the issue of election-time government. The question that continues to dominate the discussions is whether the BNP will participate in the forthcoming election sans some form of interim government, and if its leader Khaleda Zia is convicted in any of the two graft cases currently in the final stage of trial. Khaleda Zia and BNP leaders are facing dozens of cases. Since Khaleda returned from her three-month trip to London in October, party activists are showing growing confidence. But the party structure remains weak and a clear direction remains wanting. The BNP had been allowed to hold a public rally in Dhaka in November after almost 18 months, but the government’s attempt to halt all public transport to Dhaka on the day of the rally brought back memories of 2013. Similarly, attacks on Khaleda Zia’s motorcade in Feni on her way to Rohingya refugee camps sent an ominous signal.
The ruling party has repeatedly taken steps to placate highly conservative Islamists, represented by the Hefazat-e-Islam. The removal of the statue from the apex court premise, backtracking on the decision regarding the revision of textbooks, and the recognition of the highest Qwami madrasa degree without much planning and consideration of the ramifications, are the most palpable examples. Some view these as a strategy to woo Islamists before the next election.
With little possibility of a compromise between the ruling party and the BNP on the election-time government, hope for a peaceful year ahead may not come to fruition. However, the Election Commission’s conduct and its willingness to use its power to earn the trust of the opposition and the voters, are important. The six forthcoming city corporation elections—Dhaka North, Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet, Barisal and Gazipur—and an acceptable demarcation of the constituencies will be the litmus test. Peaceful election of Rangpur City Corporation and acceptance of the result by all parties recently are positive developments. But, at the end, whether an inclusive national election will be held is a political decision which rests on the ruling party, and essentially on its leader—the prime minister.
Ali Riaz is Professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA. His recent publication is entitled Bangladesh: A Political History since Independence (IB Tauris, 2016).