Karl Marx, among other critics of imperialism, had some kind words for British colonial rule in India, especially in regard to the prevalent rule of law in the colony. The civil and criminal laws, as evolved in Bangladesh – as in all the former British colonies, worldwide – are based on the British Common Law. However, barring a handful of former British colonies, there have been endemic violations of the law in Africa and Asia, including extra-judicial killings, and impunity from arrests and prosecutions of certain privileged individuals. Being one of the most corrupt and ungovernable countries in the world, of late Bangladesh provides hitherto unheard of impunity to “well-connected” people, mostly politicians, businessmen, civil and military officers, and their henchmen.
As arbitrary power leads to undue privileges, so members of the ruling elite, bureaucracy and law-enforcers frequently break the law by taking advantage of the ordinary people’s compliance to feudal, colonial and pre-modern traditions. The British – who introduced the Common Law and nurtured the rule of law in the Subcontinent – conceded certain (unwritten) privileges and extra-judicial power to high civil and military officers, and members of the landed gentry. However, the British did not allow extortions, torture, and public humiliation of people, at least not in the last two decades of the Raj.
In the backdrop of frequent violations of law – including the grant of impunity to the privileged few – in Bangladesh, one may be too naïve to impute this disorder to British colonial rule. And it’s absurd; the law-breakers are not ignorant of the law, colonial or postcolonial, which don’t allow vigilantism, extra-judicial killings, and any impunity from arrest and prosecution to the guilty, irrespective of one’s power, position, and status in the social hierarchy. It’s no exaggeration that British rule – at least during the last decade of the Raj, 1937-1947 – ensured much better law and order situation, democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights to the people in this country than what prevail here since Independence.
As the Common Law and its derivatives are quite adequate and comprehensive, so are the well-structured criminal and civil law in Bangladesh. There’s hardly any inadequacy in the law. The problem lies elsewhere, especially in the highhandedness of the executive and legislature, which stifle the judiciary, and influence the bureaucracy. There’s an ongoing tug of war between the legislature and the judiciary. While the former refuses to part with its power of impeaching judges, the latter apprehends the power could be arbitrary, and even worse, politically motivated.
Since the “right credentials and connections” matter most in Bangladesh, certain people enjoy undue benefits from corrupt regimes; they may kill and humiliate people, swindle billions from public and private sectors, with total immunity from arrests and prosecutions. For those who know the art of remaining “well-connected” forever, immunity goes hand in hand with impunity. Loyalty to one particular party or ideology is out of place in Bangladesh. Beneficiaries of ruling parties often change sides with the change of regimes, and join another ruling party, which might have totally different ideologies and programmes.
The predominance of the ruling party, or the Present Government Party (PGP) – I coined the acronym in the 1970s, which got a wide currency among my colleagues at Dhaka University – and the proliferation of the PGP Men and PGP Culture are at the roots of the prevalent culture of impunity. Then again, impunity isn’t a sign of strength, but of corruption, nepotism, weakness and incompetence of the government. Throughout history, incompetent autocracies failed to ensure the rule of law for the common people. And the rest is history – they didn’t last long. They either imploded due to civil wars and revolutions, or exploded due to foreign invasions.
Of late, we frequently hear from certain members of the ruling elite that development is more important than democracy. As if, the so-called development is unimpeded, and not subject to any retardation; and as if nothing can hold back Bangladesh’s growth and development despite corruption and violations of human rights! Hence the advocacy for the Mahathir Mohamad model of development! Nothing could be more condescending, complacent, and foolish than preferring development to democracy. Actually, today unimpeded democracy is the epitome of development.
Mahathir Mohamad, Lee Kuan Yew, Park Chung Hee and other authoritarian rulers didn’t ensure any immunity and impunity to members of the ruling elite, let alone police and bureaucracy. Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea – among other autocracies in the recent past – developed only by ensuring the rule of law or total accountability of the politicians, bureaucracy, police, military, judiciary, businessmen, and professionals. No government in Bangladesh has so far been able to ensure the rule of law, which is a sine qua non of growth, progress, and development. In sum, the rule of law is the mother of development.
Shockingly, influential people who were involved in mega scandals, corruption, or violation of human rights in the recent past, never had to face any law enforcer or the court of justice. The Padma Bridge Scandal, the Share Market Scam, the capture of seven million taka from a minister’s PS’s car in the middle of the night, the shooting of a 12-year-old boy by an MP, a ruling party MP’s alleged role as a drug lord, a former MP’s nephew’s drunk driving and killing a pedestrian in broad daylight, and last but not least, MP Salim Osman’s recent public violation of human rights of a school headmaster at Narayanganj may be mentioned in this regard.
Although the police, journalists, and sections of the population know who the criminals and their associates are, the “well-connected” criminals somehow remain unscathed. Thanks to the hush-hush culture, and the culture of fear of intimidation from above, people tend to feign indifference to the grossest violations of human rights, scandals in the share market, and fraudulent banking and financial transactions. What many people don’t realise, financial corruption leads to political corruption, and political corruption to impunity, and impunity to chaos, and disorder. In short, impunity is corruption, which breeds tribalism and fractured states. And corruption begins at the top. Mao Zedong has aptly said: “A fish rots from the head down”.
It would be sheer recklessness to assume that since Bangladeshis have tolerated all the excesses by members of the ruling elites during the last four decades, they would remain compliant and complacent for an indefinite period. Corruption, impunity, and unaccountability never saved any regime in the past. As the social media indicates, people want justice, not impunity for a select few. It’s time the superordinates read the writings on the wall. It’s a sacred obligation to the nation, not a favour to anybody. What Abraham Lincoln has said in this regard is very relevant to Bangladesh today: “You can’t fool all the people all the time”.
The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org