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Be You Ever So High, the Law is Above You

Shakhawat Liton
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her valedictory speech at the first budget session of the 10th Jatiya Sangsad on July 3, was describing the Awami League's long struggle for the country's democracy. In so doing, she bitterly castigated military ruler Ziaur Rahman for grabbing power violating the constitution after the bloody changeover of August 15, 1975. She also described how General Zia made efforts to legalise his takeover by holding a farcical presidential election which elected him President. She left no stone unturned to portray Zia as a despot.  
But Sheikh Hasina, also leader of the House, seemed to have softened her stance on the military takeover when she was describing how General Ershad grabbed power by overthrowing an elected president in March 1982. In her words, Ershad followed the footsteps of General Zia. When she was speaking about Ershad's takeover, Ershad was present in the House and was smiling too. Some AL MPs were also seen smiling. The Jatiya Party led by General Ershad was an electoral partner of the AL-led grand alliance in the run up to the December 29, 2008 ninth parliamentary election. The JP was a partner of the AL-led government in between 2009-2013. Again, the JP did a massive favour to the AL by joining the voter-less January 5 parliamentary election held amid a boycott by the BNP-led alliance. And the JP agreed to play the role of main opposition in the parliament though some of its MPs joined the Hasina-led cabinet. JP Chairman Ershad himself was made special envoy of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. So, the premier's criticism appeared to be a friendly game in politics.
It was none other than Sheikh Hasina who made a surprising claim on May 30 at a press conference that no one can be more sincere than her in running the country. Through this claim she might have wanted to demonstrate her love for the country and democracy. But does this sound like the true voice of democracy?
French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu in the 18th century in his book "the Spirit of Laws" has explained what is meant by a love of the Republic, in a democracy. The theory of separation of powers was further developed in the 18th century by Montesquieu. He writes: "A love of the republic, in a democracy, is a love of the democracy; as the latter is that of equality. A love of the democracy is, likewise, that of frugality. Since every individual ought here to enjoy the same happiness and the same advantages, they should, consequently, taste the same pleasures and form the same hopes; which cannot be expected but from a general frugality. The love of equality, in a democracy, limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow-citizens. They cannot all render her equal services, but they all ought to serve her with equal alacrity. At our coming into the world, we contract an immense debt to our country, which we can never discharge."
Let's revisit the story of James I, who was the King of England more than 400 years ago when some conflicts arose between the King and then Chief Justice Edward Coke. James I had claimed that he was the supreme judge, 'inferior judges his shadows and ministers…and the King may, if please, sit and judge in Westminster Hall in any court there, and call their judgements in question. But Chief Justice Coke differed and said the common law was the supreme law in the state and the judges were their sole interpreters. King James I considered it treason. Chief Justice Coke replied--the King should not be under man, but under God and the law. Coke was in favour of the core principle of the rule of law which says, "Be you ever so high, the law is above you." His views have been upheld in the England later following a series of conflicts with the successive Kings.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.

Published: 12:00 am Friday, July 11, 2014

Last modified: 2:02 am Friday, July 11, 2014

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