He called me bhabi, a salutation I accepted happily because of the unique connotation of this relationship. It was one of jokes and laughter, but also of mutual respect. His favourite line was “Bhabi, Limi does not let me eat anything, look I am growing so weak.” We both knew this was not true, because few wives could be as loving and caring as Limi was to Fahim.
Alas! On May 30, in the early morning, when Limi just got up for her Fajr Prayers, Fahim, Tipu as many called him affectionately, suffered a massive heart attack and left this world, leaving his family in utter grief, his wife inconsolable and his friends shell shocked.
We shared a unique moment in history when he played a crucial role in the enactment of one of the most progressive and people friendly laws in the country. This was the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Syed Fahim Munaim was the Press Secretary to then Advisor of the Caretaker Government in 2007. A few years prior to that Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) with other organisations had started to raise the demand for the enactment of the RTI.
The demand for the law started way back in the 80s during the Ershad regime when journalists demanded the RTI. The Law Commission drafted a concept note in 2001 but this never went beyond the relevant ministries and later got lost somewhere. In 2004, MJF convened a broad based multi-stakeholder conference where it was agreed by everyone that a Right to Information Law was required to improve governance and ensure transparency and accountability of state structures and expenditure of the revenue budget. This was followed by extensive lobbying with elected officials and political personalities in which NGOs, academics, professionals and journalists participated.
It was during this time that the Caretaker government came to power with the promise of holding free and fair elections in the next two years. Fahim Munaim was appointed as the Press Secretary to the Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmad. Barrister Moinul Hasan was the Law and Information Advisor.
There was a great deal of debate amongst us whether we should push for the RTI law at this time, as this was not an elected government. However, again the consensus was that we should try to have it passed as an ordinance and later lobby for its enactment once the elected government came to power. This was also the opinion of political leaders of all major parties. We set out to draft the law and entrusted the job to Barrister Tanjibul Alam. There were many others who contributed to the drafting and lobbying, among them were Shamsul Bari, Sultana Kamal, Iftekharuzzaman etc.
As one of the leading organisations pushing for the law, it fell on us to approach the relevant authorities, such as the Law and Information Ministry plus the Chief Advisor's office. Fahim Munaim, in his capacity, made our access easy and possible. He became the civil society's main conduit to place the draft to the Chief Advisor who made a personal commitment to pass it as an ordinance. Meanwhile, we submitted the draft to the Law and Information Minister. In a meeting organised by MJF, in September 2008, the Chief Advisor announced publicly that the RTI would be passed as an ordinance and requested the Law and Information Ministry to work on the draft submitted by the civil society. Contrary to practice, one of our team members was requested to be a part of the drafting team set up by the government.
During this time, there were several attempts within the bureaucracy to dilute the law. It was Fahim who would alert us to the changes being made without our knowledge. We, in turn, worked on the draft again and sent it back to him. This happened a number of times and Fahim was always there, helpful, accessible and shared our collective intention to finalise the draft which would meet international standards and stand up as one of the best laws among the 75 other laws enacted in other countries. He kept us informed of the dynamics going on within, the resistance and even the attempts to prevent it from becoming a reality. He made sure that the clauses we proposed as essential to the spirit of the law should not be deleted.
As we all know, the Right to Information Act gives citizens the power and right to seek information from any government machinery. It was envisioned that through this law, the prevailing culture of secrecy would end and an era of openness and transparency would begin. It was by design that NGOs receiving foreign funds would also have to disclose information if requested.
However, this article is not about the RTI but rather to recognise the contribution of a person, who quite accidentally was in a position at a critical juncture of our nation's history and played a crucial role to get this progressive and people-friendly law enacted. The law was passed as an Ordinance in September 2008. The rest is history, as the elected government came to power and showing a unique commitment towards openness and transparency, passed the Right to Information Act 2009 in the first parliamentary session.
Later, he would say with that trademark twinkle in his eyes, “Bhabi, remember the RTI work we did together? Someday I will write about it in my memoirs.”
It is hard to believe that Fahim is no more; it seems like a bad dream from which we will wake up to see his ever smiling, jovial and pleasant face, cracking a joke or pulling somebody's leg. To me it's a personal loss of a person who called me bhabi, but never failed to give the professional respect that is often not given in our culture.
I mourn his death along with his family and can only pray that Limi and his wonderful sons and daughter in-law will be able to someday recover from the loss. Their only consolation is that Fahim lived and died on his terms, loved, respected and admired. I wish him eternal peace and salvation.
The writer is Executive Director of Manusher Jonno Foundation.