When trust in the judiciary gets tenuous

Maswood Alam Khan from Maryland, USA
In the early 1960s when I was a kid attending primary level classes in Annada Model Multilateral High School in Brahmanbaria one neighbour was always intriguing to me: an elderly man who used to go to his office every working day in the morning sometimes riding on a rickshaw and sometimes walking on foot. He was the senior munsif of Brahmanbaria. The area we lived in was Munsif Para, perhaps so named after the official quarter the munsif sahib of Brahmanbaria had resided in since the British colonial era.

Watching the munsif sahib, a chubby man with a big tummy, walking in a swinging gait always wearing a bluish necktie, a hat with a round brim fastened around his chin with a strap and a pair of braces holding his pants up with leather belts passed over his shoulder was somewhat mystical to me. The munsif sahib or any of his family members did never visit our house. He didn’t attend any other social gatherings either.

Not in the distant past people didn’t really hold a high admiration about civil bureaucrats in the executive branch of the government because the majority of the executive officers were not as honest as their jobs demanded. But people by and large had high regard towards judicial officers for their honesty and integrity.

The judicial officers were palpably different from other executive officers in the field. Executive officers like magistrates were very social; they used to attend community functions, festivals, marriage ceremonies etc. whenever or wherever they were invited to. On the other hand the judicial officers like munsifs and judges had a peculiar and stubborn streak; they were never found attending any community functions and nobody could ever dare to invite them to anybody’s house. Later I came to know that judges were officially debarred from hobnobbing with local people or from attending any social gatherings, lest they get biased towards any acquainted persons while dispensing justice.

Let alone questioning the veracity of judges of the High Court, the level of integrity of the subordinate judges working in the field was taken without a shred of doubt. High Court judges in those days were deemed saints and nobody could ever dream of questioning their uprightness. The judges in the High Court were imagined as some mysterious beings capsulated in a kind of secretive world living a stoical life. They were never found under the spotlight, never heard in any public forum. They were truly God’s special emissaries to pronounce a sentence to hang someone to death or to salvage someone from his death throes. They were regarded as a last resort for one beseeching for relief from tyranny or cruelty.

Selection of judges of the High Court used to be an extremely onerous job on the part of the Chief Justice who would recommend to the president of the republic a few lawyers and judicial officers deemed fit to be judges after thorough and comprehensive evaluation of the backgrounds of the nominees with painstaking attention made to details of their past performance, integrity and family backgrounds.

Only prominent and first-rated lawyers who were hugely rich and were tired of earning money as law practitioners and sterling judicial officers who had spotless career in the field were usually chosen to be High Court judges and the gems among the High Court judges were the ones who would be promoted to the appellate division of the Supreme Court.

But the present scenario in Bangladesh judiciary with lawyers getting desperate to become judges, judicial authority recommending controversial lawyers for judgeship, attempts of putting partisan people as judges in the higher courts and exposing judges in the limelight of politics is an ominous change for the worse, a paradigm shift that augurs badly for the future of justice seekers. Judges of our Supreme Court who are verily supposed to be unalloyed in their neutrality now seem to be divided into two camps apparently affiliated with two opposing political parties.

It is unfortunate that most of the time since Bangladesh was liberated and especially since the time we did lose our leaders we have been misruled by demagogues who have minimised the moral dimensions of governance and who have ruthlessly abused people’s trust for their personal gains. These demagogues are everywhere—in the politics, in the civil and military bureaucracies, in the business community—making the loudest and the ugliest noise drawing public attentions and grabbing wealth that belonged to others. Their inadequacies in national welfare suggest that they are fast disqualifying themselves as role models.

In the ocean of demagogues there was still an island where lived some saintly civil servants; they were the judicial officers like munsifs, sub judges, additional judges, district judges and most importantly the judges in the Supreme Court. People had—and still have—a huge trust in the judges. When all the doors get closed one after another people still rush to the courts of judges, the last beacon of hope, to solicit succor and justice.

Ominously, the trust in the judiciary is fast getting tenuous and the last hope to find relief from the judiciary getting thinner with unbelievable reports about nasty and unbecoming wrangles in the Supreme Court appearing of late in the news media.

A few months back the Anti-Corruption Commission had notified a former Appellate Division judge, two Supreme Court bench officers and a lower court reader to submit their wealth statements. A high official of the commission told a newspaper that the commission suspects that 34 Supreme Court judges and bench officers, including some sitting judges, had amassed illegal wealth beyond their known sources of income through corruption.

The other day Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) demanded resignation of the Chief Justice. The reason: the incumbent Chief Justice took oath of two judges who were earlier dropped from taking their oath from the former Chief Justice in the face of protests from pro-BNP-Jamat lawyers. SCBA claimed that these two judges were controversial as one was the principal accused in a case of killing and the other was involved in a vandalism that took place on the Supreme Court premises four years back.

The report of suspecting judges in the Supreme Court to be involved in amassing illegal wealth and the incident of taking oath of judges amid protests from a section of lawyers certainly indicate that something is terribly amiss in the supreme judiciary in Bangladesh.

What else abominable incidents are required to say that the integrity of the highest court of law is now in question? What can one expect from the judicial officers in the lower echelons in the field when such is the scenario in the apex court of law?

The judiciary in our country seems to have been plagued with some fundamental problems since the time when judges of the Supreme Court were asked to do something outside of their courts, to perform a job that they were not really used to or trained for. Pulling and pushing the judges to perform the jobs of advisers in the caretaker government and the jobs in other constitutional positions like that in the Election Commission, I believe, was perhaps contrary to the public interest and exposing judges in the limelight perhaps told upon the sanctity of the judgeship.

Unfortunately, our judiciary hasn’t been performing as effectively as it should be. It seems to have failed to live up to the expectation of people in general and given cause for concern. The judiciary must not be left in this torpor because its nonperformance is dangerous. Being an integral aspect of a viable democracy, the judiciary must administer justice expeditiously so as to instill confidence in the citizens to have trust in the people who are sitting judges of the Supreme Court and also in the lower courts of law.

The partisan behaviour of the lawyers in protesting and supporting the recent oath taking of two judges, the uncouth behaviour of some lawyers kicking at the doors of judges and attorneys, the greed of some lawyers in fleecing their clients, the trickery of some lawyers in making fortunes by exploiting political opportunities speak a different story of a slide of dignity in this noble profession. Such behaviour of a few wayward lawyers is an insult to a career path chosen by great lawyers like Dr Kamal Hossain.

Indeed, lawyers are powerful people in our society, having dominated our country’s politics. The majority of our lawyers are known as moral crusaders and valiant defenders of justice. But there are lawyers too who have been tarnishing the noble image of the profession; they hate to follow the footsteps left by prodigies like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sher-e-Bangla Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq, the great lawyers who had turned into great politicians.

When I was young, one of my teachers told a story about deceitful lawyers. He said that when some bad lawyers die, their tongues are cut off and their corpses buried without their tongues. The reason, I asked? My teacher said: “Those lawyers are crafty liars.” I believed the story when I was young. Now that I am old, I don’t know whether to believe the story anymore; but until someone examines the physical body of such a dead bad lawyer dug out from his grave, I will continue to wonder why our elders had such impressions about lawyers or why they did choose only lawyers around whom to weave such a story.

E-mail : maswood@hotmail.com


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