Barring any last-minute glitch, in less than a week the nation goes to the polls. As an integral part of the electoral process political parties and alliances that entered the foray have issued their manifestos. The manifestos are essentially public declarations of aims, intentions and policies that contesting parties put forward before the electorate.
Admittedly, the poor performance of political parties in implementing their lofty promises in the past has created a degree of apathy among the voters about the manifestos. No less an important contributory factor has been the propensity of major parties to use their brute majority in parliament to rush through legislations subverting established arrangements arrived at through national consensus and passing bills that have major ramifications for the maintenance of the delicate balance between various arms of the state. In doing so, the parties concerned go well beyond the purview of their manifestos. It is against this backdrop of general indifference about the manifestos that the formation of a national united front (hereafter referred to as Oikyafront) has generated a degree of interest on the policies that political parties and alliances are peddling in this round of general elections. This article is an effort to examine the provisions pertaining to rights, "black laws" and law enforcement in the manifestos of the major protagonists.
In its manifesto the ruling Awami League (AL) vows to institutionalise democracy. In section 3.1 the party assures that "democratic values and spirit" will be upheld and “the Constitution will be the supreme guide in administering the state”. On the question of rule of law and protection of human rights (section 3.2), it promises to create conditions in which “all citizens would enjoy protection of the law and access to assistance and legal aid”. It also pledges to preserve the independence and dignity of the judiciary. The party declares “to resist any move that curtails human rights” and assures “promotion of rights that are universally acknowledged”.
In "creating a people-friendly law enforcement agency" (section 3.4) the AL promises to beef up the law enforcement agencies, including the police, with adequate personnel. Emphasis has also been laid on shoring up their institutional capacity through allocation of more land and resources for infrastructure, equipment, transport and new technology to combat terrorism and cybercrime.
It is interesting to note that the commitment to build flats for journalists and support the plan to construct a 21-floor building at the national press club tops the list of objectives and plans under "media freedom and free flow of information" (section 3.30). Controlling yellow journalism through creation of a national media commission is another objective. Other plans include ensuring protection of media personnel, building their capacity through training, ensuring fair distribution of government advertisements, and the assurance not to use any law against the press.
The manifesto of the Oikyafront begins with highlighting what it states to be the reality of involuntary disappearances, extrajudicial killings and thousands of ghost cases. In order to address those it promises an end to state violence and establishing an all-party Truth and Reconciliation Commission (section 1).
On the question of "ensuring freedom of expression" (section 3) the alliance makes an unequivocal commitment to scrap the draconian Digital Security Act, 2018. It also promises to uphold full freedom of expression. Oikyafront pledges that there will be no direct or indirect control of the state over the media and also over social media. Citizens will be accorded the right to criticise government measures and office holders. Included among the right is to post cartoons and caricatures.
The Oikyafront has generated a detailed set of proposals on law enforcement (section 12). It makes a firm commitment to cease enforced disappearances, and launch investigation into past cases of disappearances. It makes a whole array of commitments regarding issues that citizens find themselves currently weighed down with. Included among those are: bringing down instances of lodging of fictitious cases to harass to zero, ensuring that all cases reported are duly recorded, that no one is arrested without a warrant, implementation of the High Court directive that no one is arrested by plainclothes men, prohibiting torture in remand and making the police bureau of investigation independent. A few fresh initiatives on law enforcement have also found their place in the Front's manifesto. Those are: providing compensation to those who are implicated in false cases and action against police officials involved in such cases, and ensuring proper implementation of the defamation law so that only those directly aggrieved could file cases.
On the question of the media (section 24) the Oikyafront manifesto highlights investigative journalism, setting up an independent press council and declaring newspapers as an industry that deserve state incentives. As a response to long-standing demands of media workers the manifesto also commits 100 percent guarantee of protection of journalists in conducting their professional role, conducting trials of the deaths of all journalists including Sagar and Runi (the journalist couple murdered in their own flat) and in the case involving torture and harassment of journalists during the road safety movement.
In its own manifesto the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) declared that all law enforcement agencies, including the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab), will be held to account. It also pledges to structurally transform Rab as an additional armed police battalion that will be under the Ministry of Home Affairs and states that all agencies, armed forces and civilian, should only be run in accordance with their respective charters.
In line with Oikyafront's manifesto the BNP also promises freedom of expression, tolerance of criticism of the government and removal of online monitoring mechanisms. One of the defining features of the BNP document is its promise to abolish the much abused Special Powers Act, 1974; Digital Security Act, 2018; and the Official Secrets Act, 1923.
A comparative assessment of the manifestos reveals interesting variations between the parties in their approach to rights, "black laws" and law enforcement. Although the Awami League has underscored to uphold "democratic values and spirit" and to ensure "citizens' recourse to protection of the law", very little concrete steps have been charted out to realise such lofty goals. The section on law enforcement focuses primarily on improving the institutional capacity of the forces and does not state anything about how best to ensure their accountability. Despite public demands for their amendment, if not annulment, the complete silence of the AL on the "black laws" such as the Special Powers Act, Official Secrets Act and the Digital Security Act appears to convey the message that those would be retained in their current form if the party comes back to power.
In contrast the Oikyafront's manifesto details out remedies of some of the pressing concerns of citizens, particularly those who are politically active. Its acknowledgement of the reality of extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, custodial torture, ghost cases and the like and its planned corrective actions are likely to resonate among the voters. The Front's commitment to scrap the DSA, 2018, implementation of the provision of existing laws that demands that law enforcers respect citizens' rights (including the ones to criticise political leadership), and make law enforcers accountable are also measures that are in tune with the aspirations of the people who expect rule of law to prevail in the land.
In the past, while in power, the BNP shied away in implementing its electoral promises in 2001 of scrapping the Special Powers Act and the separation of judiciary. The party is also responsible for launching the infamous Operation Clean Heart that subsequently led to the creation of the Rab. While in office the party introduced the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006 containing the tarnished Section 57 (that was sharpened by the subsequent Awami League government). Against this backdrop of unfulfilled promises it is a challenge for the party to convince voters that it will not renege on its 2018 commitments. One hopes that being in the receiving end of the state's machinations over the last few years will convince the party leadership to deliver on their promises this time around, if they are elected.
C R Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.