A Truth Commission or the rule of law?
All this excitement about a truth commission raises some very significant truths that we need to handle. As Law Adviser Mainul Hosein informs us, and every now and then, it is the state of the economy, which will be a determinant in the formation and operation of the truth commission.
What is the truth? Asked jesting Pilate once. He would not stay for an answer. At this point in historical time, here in Bangladesh, it now becomes our responsibility to raise that very question and place it before the interim government and then wait for an answer, if there is any answer.
And while we wait, we will mull over the truth that has apparently convinced the government that a truth commission needs to be in place. And that truth is, in more ways than one, an acknowledgment that the methods applied in dealing with dishonest businessmen have not worked, that indeed hauling them off to prison or issuing public notices about their alleged corruption have now brought economic activities to a halt.
But, of course, the economy needs to go on if the country has to go on. And what better way to do that than for bad businessmen to come forth with apologies and contrition about their disreputable past, and then be allowed to resume leadership of their business houses?
We understand perfectly the predicament the government finds itself in. That a section of our businessmen have certainly proved less than moral in the way they have gone about earning profits for themselves has never been in doubt. That a fairly large number of them have acquired the additional raiment of politicians has only reinforced our extremely justified notion that they have used politics to advance their business interests, almost always at the expense of the nation.
If that is the truth, and it is, it remains the business of the law to see to it that anyone and everyone who has been guilty of taking the economy for a ride is penalised on the premise of due process.
Societies do not move forward on promises of future good behaviour. They operate, and all too often thrive, on the wheels of justice turning in regular patterns and so convincing people that in the endless struggle between light and dark, light eventually gains the upper hand. Given these inalienable truths upon which life goes on, it makes sense to ask if a truth commission is what we in Bangladesh need in order for the economy to get back on the rails.
Or observe things in another way: if one of these days someone in government or outside it stumbles on the brilliant idea that politicians proved to have indulged in gross corruption can have their reputations restored once they admit their wrongdoing before a Truth commission, what will that do the idea of democracy, of a welfare-oriented society we have so long struggled to construct amidst all the debris around us?
No one has yet suggested a truth commission for politicians. But if a truth commission for businessmen is already in the air and in the corridors of government, it is not hard to see why a similar exercise will not be there for the men and women who have in recent times brought political idealism to such a sorry pass.
In truth, though, when does a country get to have a truth commission? There are the instances that are regularly cited, of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa and of similar commissions elsewhere. But these commissions were engineered into form and substance to deal specifically with violations of human rights, with genocide and, in general, with behaviour that left societies battered beyond recognition through a sordid and callous exercise of political power.
The truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa was a moral response to manifest acts of political immorality, acts that left a society deeply and badly fragmented and scarred as a consequence of apartheid. In other places, it was the matter of murder, of ethnic cleansing that served as terms of reference for truth commissions.
None of these criteria apply to Bangladesh, not one of the rules guiding the formation of truth commissions abroad can be spotted in this country. To be sure, you might raise the question of morality surrounding the behaviour of detained businessmen or politicians, those hauled in or being pursued by the law since the imposition of a state of emergency in January this year.
There are a couple of answers that will arise as a result of that question. In the first place, our detained politicians and businessmen did not, for all their misdeeds, leave society divided right down the middle. They simply left us disillusioned and bitter.
In the second, even if one were to assume that a truth commission might be a fair enough way of getting them to own up to their wrongdoing and then have some, if not all, of them get out of the bind, where does that leave us in terms of an operation of the normal course of justice?
The law adviser's comments have surely opened up this whole matter of justice and its application in the matter of those against whom allegations of criminality have been rife for years. When these individuals were netted (and are still being looked for), the clear popular expectation was that their cases would be handled in terms of existing laws. And indeed, up to this point, that is the method that has been applied to the cases against them.
To argue now that a Truth Commission may now be cobbled into shape in order for businessmen accused of criminality to feel sorry about their deeds, to shed tears and then be allowed a new phase of life, is essentially to inform the country that beyond the law there are other ways of dealing with bad people and bad deeds.
The truth for us in Bangladesh is simple, which is that the sins and crimes that a truth commission might be asked to handle are what we as a people have known about for years together. We as a people have a fairly good idea of how some very large sections of businessmen and politicians have enriched themselves in the last few years.
The gap that has developed between the rich and the poor, between different segments of society in Bangladesh has generally been a universally known and accepted fact of life. The nation knows about it just as the caretaker government knows about it.
That individuals in the corridors of power or having access to power have milked the country of its resources and bled the nation white of its economic and political vitality in the recent past are truths we do not really require a truth commission to enlighten us with. But what we do need is a full speed and full time working of the course of justice for anyone and everyone accused of malfeasance and other forms of wrongdoing.
The collective self-esteem of a nation has little room for compromise, especially when its fundamental goal remains a restoration of democratic governance. Yes, the economy is in bad shape. But should that be a reason for those who have treated the country badly over the years to be allowed the opportunity of a return to their old ways?
A truth commission may come up with a variety of explanations to inform us that a contrite businessman will not commit the old mistakes again, that he will have learnt his lesson. That is all very fine with us. But for everything that such a commission might plan on doing, must we keep the law of the land in subdued suspension?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.