Commentary: Originally published on July 17, 2007, A day after the arrest of Sheikh Hasina

This is no way to strengthen democracy

Just as 'command economy' failed, so will 'command politics'

Yesterday, seven honourable members of parliament demanded my trial for "treason" for publishing reports that they claimed to have led to Sheikh Hasina's internment. We fundamentally reject this link as it is not based on facts.

Below, we reproduce in full my signed commentary published on the day after her arrest and urge the honourable MPs making the accusations on the sacred floor of the parliament  and our readers to judge whether the author of such a commentary could have wished for her arrest, let alone 'created grounds' for it?

I also want to point out that The Daily Star published 203 editorials, which is one editorial every third day during the whole period of emergency caretaker government, demanding repeatedly the earliest restoration of democracy through "free and fair election." This, we think, remains an unmatched commitment to democracy for any newspaper during the period dominated by an army-backed regime.

I urge the readers to examine and judge for themselves the validity of the vilification and character assassination campaign that has been going on since I made an introspective comment about a lapse in my editorial judgement in publishing a few reports following the 1/11 takeover that we could not independently verify.


The only reason that the caretaker government has survived six months in power, and the chief advisor acknowledges it every time an occasion arises, is because the general public think of it to be an instrument to strengthen democracy. But now if this very instrument of 'strengthening democracy' becomes a symbol of mindless and arbitrary use of power, then how will the public distinguish it from such previous abusers of power and continue to lend it support?

As a newspaper which supported the reform process of this government, we raise the above question in all seriousness. For we think by arresting Sheikh Hasina on charges that can easily be tried without her internment, the government has put at risk all its achievements of the last six months. To us Sheikh Hasina's arrest is totally misconceived and smacks of arrogant use of power without due process of law. To say that nobody is above the law must also mean that law is not the handmaiden of anybody either.

Examine the arbitrariness with which Sheikh Hasina has been treated. She was allowed to go abroad and just because she spoke out against some actions of this government, (having earlier promised to ratify everything) suddenly several cases were filed against her. Then, when every government would want an accused to return to the country to face the charges, the government decided that she would not be allowed to come. Why and under what law and whose authority, we still don't know. In a most childish move all foreign airlines were asked not to take her on board, ignoring specific international laws that govern international travel. Then, just as suddenly she was allowed to return to a tumultuous welcome at the airport, which then resulted in cases against 5,000 unidentified attendees. (How these cases will be pursued only God knows).

Things were quiet for a while as the AL chief kept mum. She was allowed some movement but stopped whenever she would make a comment. In the latest instances of arbitrariness, Sheikh Hasina was allowed to visit the ailing Sabina Yasmin but Khaleda Zia was not.

In Khaleda Zia's case a comedy was enacted with her going abroad. The plan was to send her into exile and the bargaining was whether or not she will be allowed to take her two sons with her. We saw the drama of Koko -- being charged with extortion (same as Sheikh Hasina), arrested and then released within a day with the case still pending. The drama continued for days which later turned out to be a farce as the BNP chief did not even have a visa for any country willing to host her. She had to negotiate to visit her husband's grave and seek clearance every time she went anywhere. Again the question is why, and under what law her movements are curtailed.

We trust the chief of staff when he says that the Army is not involved in politics or forming any new party. But what do we do when we receive reports from our correspondents that district administrators are making lists of so-called clean politicians and that many of them are being visited by the powers that be goading them to join the new so-called king's party? What do we do when senior leaders of both the BNP and the AL tell us of powerful visitors asking them to move against their party leaders or face corruption charges?

We would like to strongly suggest that this is no way to strengthen democracy. Just as 'command economy' failed so will 'command politics'. The core of democracy is people's right to choose their leaders and those who will represent them in the government. We accept that we made some bad choices in the past. We accept that our leaders, including Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, betrayed our trust in many cases and over many years. We also agree that we got tired and fed up with confrontational and destructive politics and that we all yearned for a change. But we never agreed to bargain our democracy for 'knights in shining armour' to save us from dire straits.

We repeat that we welcomed the emergency for the simple reason that the election that was looming before us was going to further destroy our democracy, which had been battered by years of partisan politics from both sides. We supported the caretaker government, and we still do, simply because we want to go back to democracy, albeit greatly strengthened and made free of corruption. But arresting leaders at whim and 'punishing' them for making critical comments is no way of doing that.

In reference to the economy our Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammad Yunus had told an earlier government: "We do not need your help, just remove the obstacles and let people do the rest." We say the same thing today about politics to the caretaker government and to the armed forces that are helping them. We don't need your help in doing politics. Just remove the obstacles and let people do the rest. Here obstacles means corruption, lack of appropriate laws, necessary oversight mechanism, independent judiciary, Election Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission, Public Service Commission, depoliticised bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies.

Much of the above the government is doing, and creditably so. But the tragedy is that it is doing something more. It is attempting to manipulate our politics by trying to predetermine who will be and who will not be a part of its future. This is neither desirable nor doable and even if forced, not sustainable. Every leader possessing slightest bit of integrity will shy away from being a part of this process. Those who will be forced to participate in this process will lack credibility to command any respect and thus be unable to provide stability. And those who will volunteer to be part of this process, and there will be many as there has been in the past, will not be worth the paper their names will be written on.

If anybody expects to bring about a dynamic Bangladesh through such group of opportunists can only be termed as being totally devoid of any knowledge of history, especially of this part of the world, and specifically of Bangladesh.

The chief election commissioner's roadmap of Sunday had cleared the air considerably about the coming elections. But yesterday's arrest of Sheikh Hasina brought in some dark clouds over the election horizon. Suspicion has been sown that though the process and mechanics of the coming election may be free and fair, through "command politics" those participating in it may be pre-selected and thereby predetermining the outcome. Simply put "command politics" will yield "command victors" and thus instead of elected government we'll have a puppet government.

We hope that the above nightmarish scenario will not happen. It is imperative that immediate and credible steps be taken to remove all suspicion about it. For a start we think Sheikh Hasina should be set free. Let all credible cases be brought against her and let her face the law and the courts and let the people judge her for what she is. Further, we need lifting of ban on indoor politics. This will allow the reformists and the old guards to fight in the open and give the public a chance to understand the issues and make their judgment. It is our firm belief that there is a groundswell of support for reforms in every aspect of our politics. The leaders who will oppose reforms will be rejected by the voters, if not by the party activists and supporters. But the reform process has to be open and free, and not manipulated.

We conclude by urging the army-backed caretaker government not to jeopardise the whole reform process and the considerable success that this government has achieved in fighting corruption and bringing some institutional reforms by wittingly or unwittingly becoming over-ambitious and taking more on their plate than they can digest. The fundamental mistake committed by past proponents of "command politics" was to underestimate the wisdom of our masses. We cannot afford a repeat of that mistake.