Country and democracy more important than individuals | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 24, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 24, 2008

Conscience & Society

Country and democracy more important than individuals

WHETHER the chief adviser's address to the nation on May 12 was good or not depends on who does the assessment. This issue is left aside as a lot has already been said about it. However, it goes without saying that a national charter in the form of consensus on major political and social issues facing the nation is a must for an acceptable election with a view to establishing an acceptable form of democracy, not the type that the country has been experiencing for the last 37 years.
Bangladesh's Constitution was amended 14 times, hence the present problems. The fact remains that successive political governments never responded to the people's demands. It is the same story on many other crucial issues. The political parties remained busy with their own agenda -- how to remain in power or go to power. The country was in a state of anarchy, which led to 1/11. The claim that it was prompted by foreign powers is a wild guess. Days and even weeks before 1/11, anybody with some political sense could see the advent of emergency, and extreme political chaos was basically responsible for it. Whether it was really necessary and worthwhile has to be left to the future for correct judgment.
Return to democracy a must
The caretaker government (CTG) cannot continue for an indefinite period. The country must return to democracy by the year-end. My suggestion would be that all political parties should work towards making the shonglap successful. They may like to put the country first in their political agenda and go for the election, which is the only way to restore democracy. Free and fair election must be held peacefully, and power must be transferred to the elected government. This is also the promise of the CTG.
The national charter
The effort of the CTG to establish a national charter through dialogue should receive adequate response from the political parties and the civil society. A national charter is apparently an agreement of all stakeholders -- political parties, professional and business groups, representatives of the civil society etc -- on issues of national importance and public interest. Everybody agrees that we must not go back to a situation that led to 1/11.
Democracy must be set on a strong footing; no more political chaos in the name of democratic right. One's democratic right should not take away the democratic right of another. This must be understood properly by the political parties. In other words, there should be an agreement on a set of things that must not happen anymore. Some of them are related to amendment of the Constitution, and the politicians are right when they say that it cannot be done by this government. So, a priori consensus must be reached so that this document, signed by all concerned, remains in hand for the elected government to act on.
Release of the two leaders on parole
The emphasis of the major political parties appears to be on two issues: The first one is, of course, the issue of release of the two leaders of the two major political parties. This issue is, however, under the jurisdiction of the court. Everyone is equal in the eyes of law, but it is also politically recognised that some are more equal than others. The reasons are well known: one is the daughter of late Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and was the prime minister of the country. The other is the wife of late President Ziaur Rahman and she was also the prime minister of the country.
So, a political decision by the government on the issue, for the sake of participation of all political parties in the election, could be possible. There could be a possibility of release of these two leaders under parole for a specific period of time, with the understanding that they would return to their respective parties as party chairpersons, reorganise them on democratic lines, and select honest candidates for the ensuing election. The purpose is to return the country to democracy, which is a must. As I do not belong to any political party, I have just put it in the context of facilitating the holding of the ensuing election. Anyway, it is upto the CTG whether to consider it favourably, keeping in view all other issues.
Lifting of emergency
The other issue is the lifting of emergency. This is probably an issue where the political parties will have to put more of their thoughts on, and consider it keeping in view the present political situation. The government has already said that it would relax or lift it to the extent necessary, but some important provisions relating to law and order probably may have to remain in place for the sake of peaceful election. There must not be "free for all" affairs during election. Anyway, emergency is a temporary thing, and will certainly go away with the restoration of democracy. Indeed, nothing should stand in the way of holding the general election in December 2008.
Other dialogue issues
For restoring full democracy, several other important issues have to be debated, and the agreed ones are to be recorded. There could be many issues, but the ones which are of serious interest to the people of Bangladesh may be, inter alia, the following:
* Election is a must, and all barriers in the way of holding it should be removed.
* All should agree to participate in the ensuing election, and all controversial issues on election must be sorted out before it is held in December.
* Election must be held peacefully without application of muscle power, money power etc. Anybody found doing so must be declared disqualified.
* Any specific violation in any polling booth has to be handled appropriately by the EC to make the election acceptable.
* Election results should be acceptable to all participants.
* Parliament must be accepted as the main pillar of democracy, and the only place to debate all issues of people's interest.
* No parliament boycott; temporary walk-outs are, however, acceptable.
* Any MP remaining absent from the parliament for more than a month without proper reason, and with formal approval of the speaker, should lose his/her membership of the parliament.
* Hartals to be banned. No street demonstrations and vandalising of vehicles. In case any political party insists on declaring hartals as a democratic right on an issue which appears legitimate and cannot be solved otherwise, must agree to call hartals peacefully and must not stop others -- ie the people who do not want to join hartals. Shops also should be allowed to remain open if they do not want to join hartal. All markets for essential commodities must remain outside hartals.
* No politics and political activities, including lathi processions, in the campuses and educational institutions. No political party should have any political unit in the educational institutions. If some students, even before becoming graduates, are interested to do politics they may do so, but they have to do it outside the educational institutions. When they return to the campus, they are students and NOT political activists. They can, however, place education-related demands with the authorities in an appropriate way.
* Teachers may also participate in politics, but they must do it outside campuses and educational institutions. When they return to the campuses, they are teachers and NOT politicians.
* If teachers and students are barred from doing politics in their work/study places, other professional bodies like business and industrial chambers and associations, trade unions, bar councils, doctors' bodies, NGOs, government agencies, banks' associations etc., must also be barred from having political fronts on party basis in their premises and work places. These bodies shall, however, be entitled to work for the advancement of their own professions, businesses etc. The members of these bodies, if they want to join politics, should also go out of specific areas of their activities to do so.
* The specific part of the Article 70 relating to MPs losing parliament membership in case they speak or vote against party line should be deleted.
* Balance of power between the prime minister and the president has to be brought about through changes in the Constitution, ending prime minister's dictatorship so that real democracy is established.
Institutional independence
Finally, all administrative changes which are considered good for the people, particularly the ones relating to institutional changes, should be maintained.
The issue of "independence" of the institutions has to be understood properly. Nobody is independent in this world. All institutions must remain fully accountable for their work and performance. They must act as per law of the country, and be required to explain their work and performances to the people. In other words, all activities of the institutions should be overseen by appropriate bodies set up by the parliament for the purpose. These bodies could be parliamentary bodies and/or citizens' groups. The parliament must be the focal point for democracy, hence it is a must to elect honest and capable persons as members of the parliament.

Muslehuddin Ahmad is a former Secretary and Ambassador, and founder VC of North South University. He is also the Chairman of Civic Watch Bangladesh.

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