Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury , an eminent educationist, tells New Age. Interviewed by Mir Ashfaquzzaman
Do you find the two-year emergency rule legitimate — politically and constitutionally?
The two-year emergency rule was unexpected. What we were looking forward to was a caretaker government that would continue for three months and arrange for the general elections. However, the strife that developed, and the situation of near-confrontation, between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League made the declaration of a state of emergency necessary. It was not legitimate, constitutionally, but, politically, it was necessary. It was politically necessary because there was a situation of near-confrontation between the two parties, and one did not know what would happen. I would put the blame on the BNP-Jamaat alliance that had made use of the president. The president made an unexpected — almost foolish — decision when he declared himself the chief adviser to the caretaker government. That was being done at the behest of the BNP-Jamaat alliance. It was not legitimate. Then, there were other forces beyond the country — the donors and other countries — who might have wanted the declaration of a state of emergency.
The Awami League, meanwhile, made the claim that it had brought in the emergency government through movement. It was certainly not a wise claim to make. It was the BNP-alliance’s actions and intolerant attitude, which had made the confrontation likely, if not inevitable.
In what ways did the action of the military-controlled regime affected the country — politically, economically and socially — both in the short and long term?
In the short term, the declaration of emergency was a matter of relief, politically speaking. The people thought that a confrontation had been avoided. An atmosphere had been created in which there were fears of bloodshed. There was also the likelihood of military involvement. The BNP wanted to get the army involved in the running of the elections. Later, the continuation of the emergency government for two years, which was not constitutional, roused expectations, created by the government itself, that there would be reforms. But these reforms seemed to be centred round the so-called ‘minus-two’ policy. The reforms that the government wanted seemed to be the prohibition of the two leaders from taking part in the elections. When this became obvious, the people were not happy because they knew there was no alternative to these two political leaders. What the people would have liked to do was to vote against the alliance. That was the tendency; that was the trend. This trend is almost historical in our country — a political party comes to power… abuses power, the people get tired of the party… want to get rid of it… vote against it and then a new government comes to power and does what the other governments did… then the people again vote against it. The alliance knew it. That is why they were making use of the power of the president and that is why they wanted to get the army involved in the running of the elections.
The people were aware that what the emergency government was trying to do was not possible. Also, the parties are structured in a manner that they cannot function without their top leaders. The reform that the government tried to bring about through some well-known leaders of these two parties was not likely to be successful because the rank and file of these parties would not accept these leaders in any way, and it was not successful. On the other hand, these leaders owed their power, I should say, to their allegiance to the top leaders of the party. Without the top leaders, these apparently powerful men were without power and support from the grassroots of the parties.
Economically, the emergency was responsible for a slowdown. Some of the businesspeople were arrested but they remained powerful. The syndicate went on operating and a very abnormal rise in the prices of commodities was indicative of the fact that the businesspeople had full control over the prices and the economy also. Secondly, bank accounts were frozen and being investigated. So, the normal flow of money was hindered. And the people who wanted to invest were not able to do so or did not feel encouraged to do so because they feared that they would be held accountable and that they would have to explain where the money had come from. The atmosphere was not conducive to investment.
During the two years, economically the country suffered. One of the indications was the rising prices, the second indication was the fall in investment and the third was the surge in unemployment. Also, small traders suffered, as roadside markets and village markets were demolished. Economically, there was no progress but the government did not seem to care and did not look into these aspects of it. One of the advantages that the government had was that it had no accountability. It was not an elected government. There was no accountability. It did not have to account for what it was doing to anyone. That was the advantage for the government and disadvantage for the people. The people were not consulted, they had no voice and they were afraid of raising their voice.
Socially, there was no improvement. It was a period of stagnation. The social voices were muted. For example, archaeological specimens were sent to a museum in Paris in a dubious manner. The people wanted to protest against it. But it was difficult and it was discouraged. A society functions through its cultural activities. These were not encouraged during the two years of emergency rule. There was a silence in the cultural arena. Also, the media, both electronic and print, was under a kind of censorship. It was not always evident but it was there. Then there was self-censorship, which was even more silencing than the censorship itself.
What happened politically after the emergency rule is that the two major political parties have become even more autocratic. Instead of bringing about reforms, the activities of the interim government resulted in further consolidation of power in the top leaders of these political parties.
What approach should the current parliament take in dealing with the decisions and actions of the emergency regime?
Many of the decisions and actions of the emergency regime need to be evaluated and their effects made public. There should be investigations into how and why these decisions and actions were taken. Such investigation is necessary in the interest of democracy. Democracy needs transparency. The two years of emergency must also be made transparent. The state belongs to the people, and the people have a right to know what happened and why it happened in the way it did, where the responsibility lay.
Whenever such a government takes over, we hear of the doctrine of necessity. The people have the right to know why the ordinances that the interim government promulgated were thought to be necessary, what was the outcome. This is necessary not only to evaluate the emergency government but also to forestall the coming of such governments in future. Let us not imagine that an unelected government is better than an elected government. Elected governments do fail but they have an obligation to the public, they are accountable, they are changeable, they can be changed by public opinion. Since they are accountable they listen to the views of the public. They also have the obligation of being transparent. There being a parliament, transparency is possible. There should be committees to go through these ordinances. Some of these ordinances will be accepted by the parliament but then it should be known why these ordinances were promulgated at all.
Another big question is why the Election Commission took upon itself the task of introducing so many reforms in the electoral process. The responsibility of the commission was to hold the elections. Beyond that it had no authority. It was not expected to bring reforms in the political process. Besides, it failed to bring these so-called reforms. In the end, the commission was busy trying to bring the two parties into the elections. It was apprehensive that the elections would not be credible if any of the two parties were to boycott the elections.
What do you think were the forces/factors/events that led to the January 11, 2007 intervention?
Obviously, there were obviously confrontations between the two parties. Then there were the imprudent and almost illegitimate actions of the president. Moreover, one heard of civil society being imagined as a political force. The donors – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and such other organisations – would have been happier to see civil society leaders run the country instead of the political leaders, who had already become discredited. They may have thought that their purpose of having a control over the country, politically and economically, would be better served through a so-called national government comprising people who were supposed to be honest and efficient. These foreign powers and bodies had their interest in bringing about this emergency government, which was supposed to be a caretaker government but acted as an interim government. They would have wanted this government to continue. But the people were not prepared to accept such a government, primarily because the economy was suffering; in society there was this stagnation and even politically the government was unable to display any achievement worthy of its name.
How can recurrence of such undemocratic interventions into the political process be deterred?
There are two ways to deter such interventions, both politically and legally. The first is public opinion, in creation of which the media has a very important role to play. We are, in a way, rather fortunate that the organs of the media are competitive. The newspapers and the televisions channels, because of their competition, want the public to be with them and thus have to look at the interest of the public.
The other force that can work is more basic and more difficult to get, which is an alternative political force, developing within the country democratically, not undemocratically; a political party looking after the interest of the people; a political party standing apart from the two existing political alliances and, in fact, rejecting the two alliances. This will be a political formulation which will be both patriotic and democratic. Patriotic in the sense that it would look after the interest of the people and the country, and democratic in the sense that they would not believe in the democracy of the so-called elections, which are really transfer of power from one government to another but the character of government remaining the same. It would be ensuring equality in rights and opportunities, decentralisation of political power and establishing the authority of elected representatives at all levels of governance. This is what real democracy means. The solution lies in the advancement of a political force that is committed to democracy and patriotic in character.
The state in our country has changed three times. There was the British state, then the Pakistani state and now the Bangladeshi state. The character of the state has remained more or less the same. It is bureaucratic in administration and setup and capitalist in economic outlook and ideology. The bureaucratic and capitalist state system remains as it did in the British era. The society has displayed many changes; there have been improvements in many respects. Structurally, the society remains the same. It is class divided, the rich oppress the poor, the privileged get more privileges and the deprived get increasingly deprived. The new political formulation would aim at a genuine social revolution which has not happened in our country. The size of the state has shrunk; it is not as large as it was in the British era and even in Pakistan days. The character of the state, however, has not changed.
As for legal deterrence, we have had military dictatorships in the past. General HM Ershad was in power for nine years. But we have not been able to eliminate him politically. He remains a force to be reckoned with politically. This has happened because the nature of politics has not changed. General Ershad was punished for corruption but he was not punished for the crime of usurping state power. He took over state power illegally and we have not been able to hold him accountable for that. Usurpation of public fund pales in enormity against usurpation of state power that he had committed. There should be a legal system that makes such usurpation of power accountable.
How do you look at the military intelligence’s involvement in politics as manifested by the activities of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence during the emergency regime?
From what we have heard from many sources, particularly my colleagues who were taken to prison in August 2007 in the wake of the campus unrest and the grilling process that they had gone through, and from the interviews of politicians and businessmen who were imprisoned, we learn that the DGFI was very active during the emergency regime. It is undesirable; it has never been desirable. Bodies like this were responsible for much political trouble in the Pakistan days, for example the Agartala conspiracy case. Even in today’s Pakistan, the Inter-Service Intelligence is held responsible for not only what is happening in Pakistan but also the terrorist activities in India and Afghanistan. The Pakistani government is now aware that this body needs to be done away with. In a democratic system, everything should be transparent. Transparency is the first necessity of democracy. Together with transparency, accountability is needed. Such organisations, as they are not transparent and accountable, should not be allowed to intervene in politics.