Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Bangladesh: Analysis - The fallout from 8/21

A key issue that has not been debated is whether or not the report should be subjected to the scrutiny of the parliament. The parliamentarians often refer to the fact that the parliament is sovereign, although nothing of the sort is sanctioned by the constitution. If Bangladesh were a mature democracy, such an issue would have been debated in parliament as a matter of course. That unfortunately is not the case.

Worth A Look- The fallout from August 21
AMM Shawkat Ali

The debate on the August 21 grenade attack continues. After the Joynal Abedin Commission report, a lot of views have been articulated by and through the media. The cabinet is understood to have been considering the report. There is no decision yet as to whether or not the government will publish the report. The report's credibility has been called into question by independent observers. The major element of attack on the report has been that it is mainly conjectural in nature. The recent statement of the IG of police on the absence of any evidence of involvement of any foreign power has further eroded the credibility of the report.

A key issue that has not been debated is whether or not the report should be subjected to the scrutiny of the parliament. The parliamentarians often refer to the fact that the parliament is sovereign, although nothing of the sort is sanctioned by the constitution. If Bangladesh were a mature democracy, such an issue would have been debated in parliament as a matter of course. That unfortunately is not the case. Besides, the existing rules of procedure that govern the working of standing committees of the parliament, empower the government to decline production of a document before the committee on the ground that its disclosure would be prejudicial to the safety or interest of the state. Since reference to the involvement of a foreign power appears in the report, it is likely that the government may not send the report to the parliament for scrutiny and discussion.

Reference to puppet government

The newspaper reports indicated that the commission of inquiry alleged the possible attempt to install a puppet government following the August 21 grenade attack. Although many would like to dismiss this as a cock and bull story, the unfortunate fact remains that unless the full report is published, the people's right to information will stand negated. The report, like many past reports, will disappear into the secrecy of the government archives to which even the future generation will not have access.

Row over an ex-army chief

A new dimension to the August 21 debate has been set in motion by the personal views published by a retired chief of the army. The information published by the media in recent weeks appears to have culminated in a government notification to the defence ministry that cancelled the said army chief's promotion to the rank of general. The circumstances leading to the cancellation of such appointment years after the general has retired have evoked reactions from other retired senior army officers. They are, by and large, of the view that neither the promotion to the rank of general nor the cancellation was appropriate.

It is reported that the parliamentary standing committee on the ministry of defence met on October 7. The general in question was also invited to attend the meeting. The general decided not to attend the meeting on the ground that some of the subjects which he requested for inclusion in the agenda for the meeting were not accepted by the standing committee.

Reasons for invitation

The primary reason for extending the invitation to the general appears to be that some of his observations relating to alleged involvement of the army in the grenade attack tended to make the armed forces controversial.

Reasons for not accepting the general's proposal

The existing chairman of the standing committee on defence ministry is also an ex-army chief. The chairman is reported to have told a Bengali daily that the proposals made by the general were received by fax half an hour before the meeting. There was thus no scope to include the same in the agenda for discussion. The general's agenda included (a) prohibiting the general from entering the cantonment, (b) depriving him of access to medical treatment in the combined military hospital (CMH), (c) denying him the opportunity to avail of banking service from bank or banks located inside the cantonment, etc. The general also said that if it was difficult to include his proposed agenda in the meeting of October 7, it could be accepted for discussion in a later meeting. He further claimed that he had written a letter to the chief of army in this regard way back in January 2003 but did not receive any reply.

It may be recalled that this is not the first time that such reports regarding denial of entry to the cantonment area have appeared in the press. It is not clear if such decisions are lawful. Doubtless, cantonment areas are restricted areas. But some areas are more restricted than others. The restrictions to be imposed must be reasonable rather than arbitrary. That is exactly what is sanctioned by the constitution in respect to freedom of movement of citizens of Bangladesh.

What did the general say?

As reported in the press, among others, the general wrote an article alleging that: (a) the grenades used in August 21 were similar to those used by the army, and (b) the army deliberately detonated the four unexploded grenades found at the place of occurrence. Both of these observations were rejected by the senior army officers present in the meeting. On the first issue, it was said that the grenades used by the army contained embossed specifications while those used had painted specifications. The second action was defended on the ground that this was done in accordance with the standard operating procedures (SOP).

It is this second action which has raised some controversy in the media, because, in the view of others, it amounted to destroying what is known in the criminal justice system as "alamat" or exhibits. If these were carefully preserved, forensic tests could have led to valuable clues relating to the offenders. SOP, it has been contended, would be applicable in case of army operations whether for training or otherwise. It is not expected to have any applicability in respect of violent crimes, which essentially fall within the civil domain. The applicable law and the procedures must guide the investigation of the crimes. Knowledgeable circles affirm that a firm decision in this respect would have conduced to the prevention and detection of crimes of such a nature.

Setting things right or vengeful action

It is reported that following the recommendations of the parliamentary standing committee on defence, a gazette notification was issued on October 10 depriving the ex-army chief of his promotion to the rank of a general. The promotion was given four years back. It is also reported that the relevant standing committee recommended to the defence ministry to rescind the order of promotion way back in February this year. A press release of the inter-services public relations (ISPR) was quoted in the press report saying that the organisational structure of the army did not provide for the post of a general. This has been contested by the aggrieved general who said that there were precedents in this regard.

He also has claimed that the decision of the government is a vengeful action on the part of the chairman of the standing committee and his leaders. The chairman of the committee is an elected MP from BNP. It is idle to speculate what decision would have followed if the chairman belonged to the opposition.

The readers of newspapers remain rather confused, which is compounded further by the fact that the government decision more or less coincides with the article that the aggrieved general recently published. Further, the recommendation of the standing committee came four years after the general was promoted.

Institutional image

Press reports also have it that opinions were expressed in the standing committee to preserve and protect the image of the army and keep it above politics. The argument is well-taken but all decisions relating to the army or for that matter any other institution of the state should be taken in a manner that does not evoke any controversy. At the other end is the question of transparency and accountability of the institutions. As things stand now, the major institutions of the state, the executive, the judiciary, and the parliament are not above controversy. There is lack of harmonious relationship among them, resulting in imbalances with grave and serious consequences for constitutional governance, the pursuit of which remains as elusive as ever. The transparency and accountability of the established machineries of the state tend to be diluted when the three organs of the state fail to maintain equilibrium which is vital for good governance. This also occurs when government decisions are taken to serve narrow personal or partisan interests.

AMM Shawkat Ali, PhD, is a former Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture.

Daily Star 20/10/2004