‘The rulers do not believe in human dignity’ Nurul Kabir Editor, New Age (Nurul Kabir had his undergraduate and postgraduate education in English at the University of Dhaka in 1982 and 1983 respectively. In 1983, he also graduated law from the same university. He was a leading activist of the student movement against military rule in the 1980s. He joined journalism as a political correspondent in 1990. He has authored a number of books.) Article 2: As a senior journalist, four decades after independence, do you think that the promises made at the time of setting up Bangladesh as an independent democratic state, have been met? Nurul Kabir: Bangladesh engaged in a war of independence with a view to ensuring ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’ for the people of Bangladesh. A record of the country’s ‘proclamation of independence’ was made on 10 April 1971. After independence was achieved, Bangladesh constitutionally promised to be a ‘people’s republic’. The ‘preamble’ of the constitution of the newly created state pledged that the ‘fundamental aim of the state’ would be: ‘to realize … a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and political, economic and social justice, would be secured for all citizens’ and to ensure socio-political conditions in which the citizens would ‘prosper in freedom’. In 1971, more than four decades into independence, Bangladesh had grown into an autocratic state. The ruling coteries had all the privileges to practically ‘prosper in freedom’, with state protection. For the ordinary masses, including the middle class, ‘fundamental human rights, freedom, equality and political, economic and social justice’ remain elusive. Article 2: Are there any inconsistencies between the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh and those of the political elite and the bureaucrats? Nurul Kabir: There is an enormous gap between the aspirations of the Bangladeshi people at large and the political elite and the bureaucrats. The people aspire to a truly representative democracy. A government that is genuinely accountable to the people. An economy that is egalitarian, where all would have equal access to public resources. And, of course, a secular political culture in which religion would not be used for partisan or personal gains. These are the principles and values that were missing in our country during the Pakistani era. The war of liberation war was fought to bring back those things that were taken away. Our nation’s political elite are spread out over two political camps led by the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. They have gradually imposed a political culture which is devoid of democratic practices both within and without the parties. A model of unbridled market economy was introduced which survives by creating disparities in incomes on a continuing basis. This culture permits the political use of religion which contributes to the growth of ‘religious communalism’. State bureaucracy, which is the beneficiary of the undemocratic political, economic and cultural systems, is an obvious instrument of the elite which perpetuates the anti-people systems. Article 2: To what extent has militarization contributed to making Bangladesh what it is today as opposed to what it would have been without militarization? Nurul Kabir: The various phases of military rule have definitely contributed to an autocratic society and to a specific form of government in Bangladesh. It was primarily the failure of the political parties that paved the way for military takeovers. Every time a military takeover has taken place, the people have eventually and successfully taken to the streets. They sent the military back to their barracks, thus helping the political parties return to power. In all of this, the political elite have not conducted themselves properly, generating a sense of frustration among the population. Therefore, the entire ruling class, including both civil and military elite, is to blame for the precarious state of affairs in Bangladesh at the present time. Article 2: What are the challenges to realizing freedom of expression and opinion to the fullest in Bangladesh? Nurul Kabir: Bangladesh suffers from the existence of a political elite class, divided into two feuding political camps, which is inherently undemocratic. The elite in question try to silence the dissenting views of the citizens. It adopts various means, ranging from keeping the intelligentsia divided on political lines to intimidating the dissenting voices by various legal and extra- legal means. Organized resistance of the democratically oriented intelligentsia, backed by public sympathy, is the prime answer to the problem. Article 2: Is the culture of violence inseparable from the specific form of government in Bangladesh? What should be done to end widespread violence in the country? Nurul Kabir: Historically, the people of Bangladesh have lived under two repressive regimes, that of the British colonial and Pakistani neo-colonial states. Violence, instead of consent, was the primary means used by those states in governing the people. Democratic struggles by the general populace against British colonialism or Pakistani rule often turned violent. In addition, Bangladesh emerged from a violent war of independence. After the emergence of Bangladesh, successive governments have used state and organizational violence in varying degrees, to control political dissent. The opposition, on the other hand, have at times, resorted to violence of various kinds to respond to state-sponsored violence. Understandably, the ruling class has not allowed the culture of democratic tolerance to put forth its views, political or otherwise, or to develop in Bangladesh up to the present. As a result, the virus of violence has spread beyond the political arena, affecting social, familial and personal relations. However, one does not have a reason to believe that violence is inseparable from the Bangladesh polity. There is a growing demand in society to put an end to the culture of physical, verbal and psychological violence. Article 2: What is your opinion about endemic torture, extrajudicial execution, and the government’s often quoted excuses of ‘crossfire’ and ‘gun battle’? Nurul Kabir: The endemic torture of citizens by the state of alleged criminals or not – means that the rulers do not believe in the dignity of the human person. Extra-judicial execution means the rulers have no respect for the rule of law. Successive governments’ propaganda about ‘crossfire’ ‘encounters’, ‘gun battles’, and the like suggests that they think they can always fool the people. However, such an oppressive, dictatorial approach by the state towards alleged criminals or others, is entirely unacceptable to a democratic mind-set. Social resistance against this phenomenon is the essential element which could prevent an unruly government from continuing their objectionable practices. Article 2: What is the difference between ‘enforced disappearances’ and ‘secret killings’ that happened before and during the independence movement and those that are happening at the present time? Nurul Kabir: During Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, the Pakistani army of occupation, with the collaboration of some Islamist political groups opposing liberation, had engineered ‘enforced disappearances’ of many Bangladeshis supporting the cause of independence. The objective of such extrajudicial murders was to weaken the forces engaged in the war of liberation. Immediately before the defeat of the Pakistani forces, the Jamaat-e-Islami, with one of its front organizations, the Al Badr, had allegedly masterminded the ‘enforced disappearances’ of many left-wing intellectuals. They were later found dead in a ‘killing ground’ on the outskirts of Dhaka. The aim of these gruesome acts was to hinder the growth of a socialistic influence in the post-liberation society of Bangladesh. In the independent Bangladesh, the Rakhsmi Bahini, a paramilitary force created by the Awami League with party loyalists, was behind ‘enforced disappearances’ and ‘extra-judicial murders’. They killed hundreds of political leaders and activists. The most prominent among them was Siraj Sikder, the chief of the left-wing Sarbahara Party. He put up armed resistance against the pseudo-democratic government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The objective of the Awami-league was to consolidate their rule without opposition from any political quarters – armed or not armed. During the initials months of the military regime of General Ziaur Rahman, allegations were made. It was said that dozens of military officials, opposing his takeover, were victims of ‘extra- judicial murders’ inside temporary troop quarters – beyond the eyes of the public. State extra-judicial killings reappeared during Khaleda Zia’s second term in office, with the short-lived ‘operation clean heart’. Under this operation, the army picked up ‘anti-social elements’ party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Their objective was to ‘quickly discipline’ the hardened criminals by extrajudicial means. In addition, there were a number of victims of government sponsored extra-judicial murders under the Khaleda regime, who belonged to ‘ultra-left’ political groups active in the rural areas. These were politically motivated murders to prevent the possible rise of a politically left ideology. The ‘enforced disappearances’ and ‘extra-judicial murders’ reached a climax, after the post-independence Awami League era, under the second and controversial third term in office of Sheikh Hasina. Primarily, the victims were the opposition leaders and activists belonging to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. All these operations appear to have as their prime objective, the weakening of their political opponents. A good number of politically innocent people, including children, have also been the victims of the above operations. The cause is reportedly the steadily growing financial corruption in the ‘forces’ responsible for carrying out ‘enforced disappearances’ and ‘secret killings’. Due to bribes, they target persons with no political connections. Article 2: How far are the criminal justice institutions and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh independent and capable of preventing gross human rights abuses? Nurul Kabir: The institutions responsible for delivering criminal justice in Bangladesh suffer from many limitations. The prime limitation is partisan interference by the Executive, particularly at the lower level of the judiciary. Two other serious impediments, also at the lower level, are the financial corruption in the police and the lack of administrative justice. These three impediments contribute towards the prevention of human rights abuses. As for the higher judiciary, allegation has it that some benches are being influenced by partisan interests and/or fear of government intimidation. Although difficult to prove such allegations, one is free to infer such a conclusion. An example would be, when a politician is refused bail for an alleged crime under one political regime and the same politician accused of the same crime under another regime is granted bail. Article 2: To what extent has the judiciary contributed towards limiting its own freedom and independence? Nurul Kabir: The main obstacles for the judiciary to act with complete freedom, arises out of partisan interests and intimidation by successive governments. The leadership of the judiciary has taken stands beyond limiting freedom and independence. Other institutions, too, ranging from public universities, to election commissions, to public service commissions, to the media, have taken additional stands on issues. . Historically, these institutions have on more than one occasion supported, willingly or unwillingly, extra-constitutional political and military regimes. This is an institutional moral weakness, which is very difficult for successive leaders to reject. The bar is a very important component for the bench to deliver justice. However, it is politically divided along partisan lines. They rarely forget their partisan interests while conducting cases of rights abuses. Yet, there are exceptional people in both the bench and the bar, who have stood their ground against any possible governmental intimidation. Article 2: Do you think that the criminal justice institutions in Bangladesh have become puppets under various political parties and the military? Nurul Kabir: Despite its limitations, it would be too simplistic, or even an injustice, to say that the criminal justice institutions in Bangladesh have been acting as puppets under various regimes. Some people have gotten relief from government intimidations, thanks to quick judicial action by the country’s highest court. However, the poorer sections of the population cannot afford such benefits from the higher judiciary, for which the judges can hardly be blamed. Article 2: What divides the mainstream of civil society in Bangladesh along political lines and how far has it affected their independence? Nurul Kabir: In the first place, many people in the mainstream of ‘civil society’ lack understanding. This lack of insight concerns the importance of non-partisan intellectual activism for the democratic transformation of the state and society. Secondly, the partisan reading of national history has polarized the intelligentsia into two feuding political camps led by the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In addition, vested interests play a role in recruiting members in the civil society to join particular camps along the political divide. This division has severely affected, and continues to affect, the strength of our ‘civil society’, the non-partisan pro-active role which is crucial for democratic growth of the state. Article 2: Is the global paranoia about growing Islamic militancy in Bangladesh real? Nurul Kabir: Islamist parties and groups have gained strength in Bangladesh over the last decade or so. However, this has nothing to do with the growth of ‘Islamic militancy’ as propagated by certain anti-Bangladesh quarters at home and abroad. There are four reasons for the gradual Islamization of Bangladeshi society. This includes failure of mainstream political parties to effectively address the problems of the poor, the Christianized West’s prolonged support for Israel and against Palestine’s right to statehood, imposition of the so-called War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan and India’s hostile attitude towards Bangladesh. Moreover, there is the Awami League’s cynical attitude towards even pious Muslims and their repressive measures against Islamist forces which have contributed to the further Islamization of society. Article 2: Are there non-Bangladeshi interests that are involved in promoting this idea? Nurul Kabir: Obviously. Certain Indian groups, from the West Bengal state of India, have been digitally propagandizing Bangladesh for years. Besides, an Indian intelligence agency, and a section of India’s South Bloc officials, continuously project Bangladesh as a land of Islamic militancy. The objective of such efforts is aimed at securing Western support for India so it can control Bangladesh. In this way their aspirations in establishing dominance over Bangladesh can be met. Article 2: To improve the situation of the rule of law in Bangladesh what suggestions do you have, and how may leaders motivate ordinary people to participate in actual nation-building? Nurul Kabir: In any country, it is the people who are the prime victims when there is no rule of law. So, the politically conscious and democratically oriented sections, of the population, need to put up an organized resistance to an undemocratic regime which lords itself over national institutions. They need to realize that anyone can be the victim of lawlessness at any time. The leaders, themselves, must first visibly engage in nation- building activities, before they can engage the entire populace in nation building. Genuine leaders are those who lead by example.