AT the end of his talks with visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj a few days ago, Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali went before the media to brief them on the deliberations and their outcome. He did not have to do that. It should have been a Foreign Office spokesman or the Director General External Publicity who should have gone before the press to inform journalists of the nature of the negotiations. For their part, the Indians did the proper thing of having their spokesperson Syed Akbar Uddin appear before the media with their version of events. Sushma Swaraj was not there. It was not her place to be there.
Protocol in high places is important. For certain mysterious reasons, though, the rule has been quite different in Bangladesh. We have repeatedly been embarrassed when individuals have taken upon themselves roles they ought not to have. It is not merely in government that protocol has been turned on its head. Here in the media, there are instances aplenty of newspaper editors who have been on junkets abroad when it should properly have been their reporters to undertake that journey. We have had editors who have cheerfully boarded, free of course, inaugural flights of foreign airlines when they ought to have sent a senior reporter on that trip. In the late 1990s, an important newspaper in this country had no journalistic representation at the Cricket World Cup because its editor had insisted that he, not his sports reporter, be invited to the games. The exasperated organizers decided to withdraw the invitation to his newspaper.
There are all the times when Bengalis go red in the face when they see their important, highly placed fellow citizens doing things they ought not to. A few years ago, at the United Nations General Assembly, Bangladesh's permanent representative to the global body had members of the prime minister's family occupy seats meant for the official government team to the UNGA. You could observe the permanent representative and the foreign minister (it was Dipu Moni at the time) just managing to find some space for themselves in that crowd. Protocol had simply been flung away somewhere.
In the early 1980s, barely two years after he had seized power in a coup d'etat, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad decided to address the UNGA in New York. That was fine. The only problem was that in the course of his address, his son, a little boy, reportedly sauntered all over the place. If that puts you to shame, how do you react to the image of Tareque Rahman, a rising politician in his parents' political organization, seated as chief guest at an official ceremony involving the Bangladesh Air Force? He held no position in government and yet the chief of air staff saw little reason not to have this callow young man occupy space in the manner of a significant figure in government. A state institution was being made subservient to a political party.
There are other instances of such unacceptable behaviour on the part of important citizens. Years ago, at an international conference that called for the presence of senior government officials from different nations, it was a Bangladesh minister who turned up to speak for his country. Pretty soon he realized that it was not his place, that a minister was not needed there. He spent a few days in that foreign city before coming back home. There is a moral here: you do not belong everywhere. But does that really matter? We yet have our ministers jetting off to conferences abroad, meetings where our ambassadors can easily speak for the country, where no ministerial presence is called for. Dipu Moni's travels abroad are a case in point.
Some years ago, the chairperson of the Dhaka education board had a team accompany her to a Middle Eastern country where their job was seeing if preparations for HSC examinations by a few expatriate Bengali students were in order. That was a colossal waste of money. It was a job which clearly could have been handled by a mid-level official of the Bangladesh embassy in that Middle Eastern country. So why were this lady and her team there? The answer is not hard to come by. They simply camouflaged a holiday by billing it as a necessary government trip.
A few years ago, as a senior police officer presented a keynote paper that listed certain shortcomings in the police force, one of his subordinates in the audience loudly protested his findings. The junior officer's outburst left everyone stunned. And yet nothing was done to discipline him. Insubordination in service is a grave offence. In this case, the protocol-violating police officer remained untouched. The senior officer he so rudely interrupted has lapsed into silence. We have little idea of where he is today.
When perspectives go wrong in the corridors of power, you know there is something terribly wrong with the system. For years on end, we have had our prime ministers inaugurating almost everything that is built anywhere in the country. Be it flyovers or highways or culverts, it is Bangladesh's prime minister who must open them to the public. Think of the many foundation stones or structures that bear the names of Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Protocol, had it been maintained, would call for lesser mortals to do all that simple work.
On the day Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arrived back home from Pakistani incarceration in January 1972, the Mujibnagar leadership and the administrative machinery of the new state of Bangladesh stood at Tejgaon airport, waiting to welcome him back to his now free country. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a burly freedom fighter pushed through the dignitaries, went right inside the aircraft and emerged minutes later with Bangabandhu.
That was indecency at work. Protocol had been thrown to the winds.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.