Autocracy in the garb of democracy?

Saturday, August 6th, 2011


Md. Nazrul Islam Khan


The recent amendment of the Constitution in parliament by the Awami League led Grand Alliance drew the attention of almost every citizen and political observer of the country. Constitution is a vital document which reflects the will of the people. It is a significant charter of citizens’ fundamental rights, freedoms as well as liberties and that’s why, if the constitution fails to gain and protect these freedoms of the citizens then it cannot be treated as a good constitution from the view point of a welfare state. The basic objectives which lead the people to form a state are to protect their lives and liberties so that a peaceful atmosphere may prevail. It is undisputed that every citizen is bound to show loyalty to his state and in return the state shall defend as well as preserve his rights and liberties. The constitution may be termed as a contractual document between the state and the people which can never be overlooked by either party and in case of irresponsibility by either party the state is bound to be a failed one.


In a civilised state it is reasonably anticipated that rights and liberties of its citizens shall not stay on paper but be guaranteed as well as observed by positive measures of the government. The government is entrusted with the sacred obligation to give effect to the provisions of the constitution to ensure and uphold democratic ambiance in society at large. In case of failure or negligence on the part of government in this respect democracy is bound to be confined to books while the actual practice smacks of autocracy. Every peace loving citizen wants to benefit from the fruits of true democracy, but we do not want democracy in name only.


In fact, in spite of constitutional safeguards where fundamental rights, basic freedoms and liberties of citizens are not guaranteed or protected, democracy and rule of law shall perish. The survivors usurp the status of assassins. Law enforcers become law violators. Unconstitutional measures in different aspects of state become necessary to protect autocratic rulers who hide beneath the apparels of democracy. Peoples’ democracy turns into police democracy.


Every day people observe miserable breaches of human rights of citizens at the hands of different law enforcing agencies. Extra-judicial killings in the name of cross-fire, custodial death, secret detention, torture in remand etc have become everyday events. No legal provision permits law enforcing agencies to practice torture to gain any purpose but unfortunately they apparently don’t care. In police remand accused persons are mercilessly beaten, electrically shocked, hung upside down just for confession. To prevent such illegal as well as inhuman practices the High Court Division in BLAST and others versus Bangladesh reported in 55 DLR 363 issued some directives which are still not complied with. It may be recommended that before complying with the directions made in BLAST case the magistrates may refrain from granting police remand. In the interim period, the accused persons may be interrogated at jail gate.


Bangladesh ratified the Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, 1984 which is designed to prevent the government officials or others acting in an official capacity to commit torture. Article 1(1) of the Convention defines torture as “any act to which sever pain or suffering whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…”. Bangladesh as a party to the convention is obliged to ensure proper legislative, administrative, judicial or others measures to prevent torture in its territory. But unfortunately these international obligations have been wretchedly ignored in this country.


In fact, legal provisions operate as safeguards of peoples’ fundamental rights and liberties where the government is a democratic one. But no provision can prove meaningful to protect the people from the vindictive actions of an autocratic government. To ensure rule of law, fundamental rights as well as liberties of citizens, democratic mindset of the ruling class is essential.


The lust for perpetual state power induces a government to indulge in illegitimate actions. The margin between democracy and autocracy becomes blurred. In such a situation the sacred constitution is ravished to serve their illicit lust for perpetual power. Law enforcement agencies are used to protect the ruling class and also to eliminate the dissident political class. No democratic movement to attain public demand is endured by such a tyrannical government. A number of officials of public administration as well as law enforcing agencies are used to treat themselves not as servants of people but of the ruling party. Undoubtedly, if such undesirable plight is permitted to persist without interruption constitutional provisions are bound to become toothless and inevitably gradually people will lose confidence upon the self-styled democratic system.


In recent times the people observed serious breaches of human rights in several respects by law enforcement agencies. Allegedly a number of persons including BNP leader Janay Alam and Shibir Leader Golam Mortuza have been arrested by law enforcing agencies and subsequently thrown into secret detention. Almost in all cases the agencies did not concede the fact of such arrests. The fate of victim Janay Alam is still unknown but it is apprehended by his family members that he was brutally assassinated by means of torture in secret custody. A few days back the son of Mufti Fazlul Karim Amini was arrested and he also experienced secret detention most probably due to the anti-government movement of his father. But luckily after a few days he was released on some conditions.


A few months ago a young boy of Jhalokhati namely Limon was shot in a drama of cross fire and subsequently arrested by RAB. The bullets of RAB caused Limon a permanent disability and thereafter owing to immense pressure from different human rights organisations he was released on bail. In fact, frequent violation of fundamental human rights has become an open secret.


More recently, the assault on Chief Whip Joynul Abedin Faruk has drawn attention and shaken the conscience of every conscious citizen of this land. According to the Warrant of Precedence, 1986 the status of Chief Whip is equivalent to a cabinet minister. Such a person was insulted as well as nastily assaulted in broad daylight under the leaderships of two police officers. Is it unreasonable to hold that no police officer can dare to assault a Chief Whip of the Parliament without direction of invisible ‘higher authority’?


In fact, we must have to discover a democratic solution to our crisis. To accomplish the goal foremost the government should be democratic in its dealings. The tendencies to use law enforcing agencies to harass as well as eradicate rivals must be abandoned. The constitution as a sacrosanct charter of citizens’ fundamental rights and liberties must be preserved and reinforced by positive actions of the government. Although it may sometimes be amended out of necessity, to upheld citizens’ rights and liberties, such amendments should never be used to usurp perpetual state powers.


Md. Nazrul Islam Khan is a lawyer.


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