Saturday, May 28, 2011

Muslim discontent and West Bengal elections

Daily Sun , May 22nd, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A few expatriates in Washington with whom I had a conversation recently were hot happy that our Prime Minister should be so overtly happy with the landside victory of Trinamool in elections in a province in India. They felt that the message of felicitations should have gone from a lower level in the Government.

These expatriates also referred to a 1999 incident when Sheikh Hasina was introduced to the audience as Chief Minister when she had gone to Kolkata for that city’s famous Book Festival as a Chief Guest. These expats felt that our Prime Minister had allowed herself to be “humiliated” by visiting an Indian province where she was not shown proper respect.

I corrected some of the false notions of the expats. I told them that I was present at the 1999 Book Festival as a member of the Prime Minister’s delegation and that the reference to Sheikh Hasina as a Chief Minister was totally un-intended and that when a few members of the Prime Minister’s delegation objected, the individual who was conducting the event apologized profusely. He said that West Bengal hardly if ever had an opportunity to welcome a Prime Minister and hence not accustomed with protocol concerning one. Sheikh Hasina herself was amused instead of feeling humiliated and I thought correctly so. She allowed the incident to be resolved in a manner that I thought was diplomatic and correct and enhanced her respect to the people of West Bengal.

Sheikh Hasina had good reasons to visit Kolkata in 1999. West Bengal’s Chief Minister then was Jyoti Basu who played a key role in reaching the Ganges water Sharing Accord earlier in that term of Sheikh Hasina. Jyoti Basu was also very influential in Indian politics and hence it made additional good reasons for the Prime Minister to go to Kolkata to make him happy for his support in resolving Bangladesh’s other problems with India.

Mamata Banarjee’s stature and influence in New Delhi where she was a Cabinet Minister before becoming West Bengal’s Chief Minister, is also significant. Hence it makes sense for our Prime Minister to make Mamata Banarjee happy as a strategy to achieve the country’s foreign policy interests. Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool Congress is also an ally of the Congress that is in power at the Centre. The reservations of the expatriates in Washington notwithstanding, there are serious foreign policy considerations that have gone to not just the Prime Minister extending her felicitations to Mamata Banarjee but also the Foreign Minister who too warmly congratulated the new West Bengal Chief Minister.

Nevertheless, the concerns expressed by the expats in Washington cannot be dismissed lightly. Bangladesh must not forget its sovereign status. It is this sovereign status that must dictate its relations with West Bengal. In this context, our foreign policy makers must make an objective assessment of importance of West Bengal to our foreign policy needs and to that extent try and get that province on its side but at the same time remember that West Bengal is not really one of those provinces that matter a great deal in India’s politics.

At the same time, our foreign policy makers should examine the reasons that helped Trinamool earn such a landslide victory. In analysis in the media in Bangladesh on these reasons, a fact that has not been touched at all is the role of Muslim voters in the election’s outcome. Despite all the good things that have been attributed to the communists in West Bengal, including the fact that the province did not see any violence against the Muslims since 1964, the status of Muslims in the province has gone from bad to worse in this period. This fact has not gone to any analysis in our media about Trinamool’s victory. One newspaper’s editorial instead suggested that we could learn from the way Buddhadev Bhattacharya accepted his party’s defeat. The editor must have lost sight of two things. First the defeat was expected and so overwhelming that there was nothing left for the former Chief Minister but to accept defeat. Second, and more importantly, he also forgot that West Bengal is a province and subject to control by the Centre where there was just no alternative for Buddhadev Bhattacharya but to accept defeat, gracefully or otherwise.

The polarization of Muslims in West Bengal was there for all political analysts to see soon after the Sachar Commission Report of 2005 was published to predict that the leftists there were headed for a defeat just on this fact alone. The Commission was established by Prime Minister Manmohon Singh to find out the social, economic and political status of Muslims in India under the Chairmanship of Justice Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of New Delhi High Court. The Report reveled that in the so-called non-communal West Bengal, Muslims who constitute 25% of the province’s population, occupied 2.5% of Government jobs! The Sachar Committee Report that pictured a very depressing state for Muslims of India gave West Bengal the worst marks for treating Muslims as second class citizens. Analysts of this report gave West Bengal even worse marks than Gujarat where its Chief Minister prides and thrives on his hatred for Muslims.

It is true friendly relations are desirable with India and West Bengal can help further that objective. Nevertheless, Bangladesh should not forget that the Indian Government and media regularly refer to us as fundamentalist that treats its minorities unfairly. Bangladesh should muster the courage to tell India that it should treat its Muslims fairly before criticizing Bangladesh that has a much better record for treatment of its minorities.

Bangladesh must keep in mind while dealing with Trinamool that the feelings in West Bengal against Muslims are not restricted just to the leftists. It is deeper and more widespread than what our foreign policy pundits and the government realize. Despite winning the elections so massively on votes of Muslims, Trinamool may not change their fate unless they are pressured. As a sovereign nation with a huge Muslim population, Bangladesh has a responsibility to encourage India in general and West Bengal in particular to deal with Muslims fairly.

Thus the expats in Washington may have a point. Bangladesh should restrain its excitement over change of government in West Bengal because on its records, the province does not deserve our unqualified felicitations. Our sovereign status demands this of us particularly where that province has lots more to show for our respect. In any case, the Indian Prime Minister who had postponed his long awaited visit to Dhaka for West Bengal elections where results have been achieved to make New Delhi happy would be visiting Bangladesh soon. Therefore what West Bengal means to the Centre and how much it can help Bangladesh’s interests, would be known soon.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Judiciary and the Constitution

The Independent, May 21st., 2011
As I see it Column
M. Serajul Islam

There are many things happening in politics of the country that are creating more conflict than resolving any. The Supreme Court has entered into the fray. In fact, it has taken up the task of showing the politicians the road to the future of politics in the country.

All would be fine if the people had been prepared to accept the court for the role that they are now playing. There have been public expressions, some even from ruling party parliamentarians, on whether the judiciary has the right on its own to decide on the Constitution or constitutional issues and amendments. The parliamentarians feel that these issues are within their competence because they are the elected representatives of the people that the judges are not.

Judicial intervention is coming in the context of politics of conflict in the country that is going from bad to worse. A leading lawyer of the country congratulated the present government for consulting all shades of opinion on constitutional amendments. He was correct but only partly.

The Special Parliamentary Committee on constitutional amendments offered the BNP to name a member to this committee that it later increased by one more. The BNP declined to sit on the committee claiming that the style of AL’s politics made it futile for them to be a part of it for their opinion would not be heard anyway.
The BNP’s refusal thus takes away from the work of the committee a lot of substance for consensus that is critical for bringing the changes. The BNP represents at the minimum 34% of the voters of Bangladesh who voted the present government to office. Realistically, with AL’s failure to deliver on its election promises, that percentage of BNP’s hold on voters must have increased.

Hence, even if one is to accept the ruling party’s claim that the BNP is at fault, the fact remains that whatever amendments are made to the Constitution, a large number of the people would not be a party to the amended constitution of the country unless the BNP is a part of these amendments despite the committee’s consultations with many stakeholders.

The Court emerged in politics at this critical phase in the country’s politics where consensus building that is of critical importance for constitutional amendments is difficult to contemplate let alone achieve. In this context, concerns have been raised in many quarters on whether the judiciary is helping in consensus building or strengthening the partisan politics that is destroying Bangladesh’s future.

One issue of concern amongst many with the court’s engagement with constitutional issues is its recent ruling on the 13th Amendment. In a majority decision taken with the just retired Chief Justice in the chair, the Supreme Court declared the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, that inserted in 1996 the system of non-party CG, as illegal. The Court however ruled that the next two elections could be held under the “illegal” system and gave the parliament “liberty” to make amendments to it!
The ruling remained silent on what would happen to the present government after declaring the system that elected it as “illegal “ nor how elections under an “illegal” system would give legality to the next two elections . The court has created contradictions and confusion at a time when the country is yearning for the contrary.

The two mainstream parties have interpreted the court’s ruling to suit their own agenda. The ruling party, even before the court’s ruling, had stated publicly that it wanted the CG to stay with amendments. In fact, some of its leaders said they wanted the CG system to be there for two more elections before it is scrapped. The BNP stated categorically after the ruling that it would not go for the next elections unless it is held under the CG. The BNP’s stand has been enforced by a subtle change of position by the ruling party after the court’s ruling.

The Constitutional Committee, that in reality reflects the views of the ruling party, said very recently that it is considering alternatives to the CG system or to modify it in line with the decision of the court. Quite understandably, the BNP is apprehensive that the ruling party is thinking of bringing those changes to the CG system that would place it better in contesting the next elections, an opportunity that has come its way as a result of the court’s ruling.

The way the judiciary has dealt with constitutional issues in general also adds to the apprehensions of the opposition. The issue with the 5th Amendment with which the court set the ball rolling was the outcome of a plaintiff’s attempt to get redress to a cinema hall that the High Court had used to declare the whole 5th amendment void. It directly affected the BNP. As the BNP was in office at that time, it appealed to the Supreme Court where it was kept pending till the end of its term. The AL activated the appeal soon after coming to power in early 2009 and the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s ruling.

The ruling on the 7th Amendment is also the outcome of a move by the ruling party. In fact, the whole focus on constitutional issues by the judiciary has some political overtones. The Court’s rulings have all also gone against the BNP creating a fear in the latter that the ruling party is using the courts against it. In fact, the BNP acting General Secretary has accused the ruling party of “burying” the judiciary by misusing its executive power.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that most of the judiciary’s rulings on constitutional issues have been those that leaders of the ruling party expressed in public. Nevertheless, the courts should have seen this and done something about it. The highly partisan political environment of the country is no secret to anyone. It is natural, therefore, that the BNP will not see the similarity of thinking on political issue between the judiciary’s rulings and that of the ruling party as coincidence.

The court’s ruling on stopping extra-constitutional interventions in future by constitutional provisions has also likewise raised questions because these uphold the views of the ruling party. Those who question the ruling feel that when the military intervenes, they do not even think that there is a constitution.
They also feel that the only way to keep the military from usurping power is for politics to develop to the level where the need or even the thought of such an intervention would be considered absurd. That is hardly the case in Bangladesh because its politics is what creates the condition for extraneous interventions. The court could have focused on this aspect instead.

The rulings of the judiciary on constitutional amendments are dividing politics further instead of uniting it instead of helping Bangladesh’s political development upon which Bangladesh’s future depends.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former ambassador to Japan.