The brickbats around the Chief Justice

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Wednesday, August 30th, 2017


 

It is a sad situation. It does not become a democracy. And it certainly does wrong to our heritage as a nation. Things ought not to have come to this pass.

 

Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik has just launched a broadside against Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha. He thus joins that disturbingly growing band of people who have seemingly decided that the Chief Justice has committed a grievous wrong, that he must now pay the price. In his assault on the Chief Justice, Justice Manik, who is no more part of the judiciary, having gone into retirement, has questioned whether Justice Sinha himself wrote, in the space of 25 days, all those 400 pages of observations relating to the Appellate Division’s verdict on the 16th amendment to the Constitution. He perhaps thinks it is humanly impossible for an individual to write that long a manuscript in that brief a period.

 

The point here is not that Justice Sinha finished writing those pages in 25 days. It is one of why Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik has now thought it necessary to raise his question. One is only too aware of the public position he took, on a separate issue, in his last skirmish with the Chief Justice, a position he ought not to have taken. Now that he has found a new reason to pounce on Justice Sinha, there is that strong whiff of prejudice working here. The former judge makes things worse when he accuses the Chief Justice of having had his observations written by Pakistan’s notorious ISI or its agents. That is hitting an individual, be he the Chief Justice or a simple citizen of Bangladesh, below the belt. And the act coming from one judge in relation to another, it is not only sad. It is also appalling in the extreme.

 

Justice Chowdhury has held out a threat to Justice Sinha. The Chief Justice, he has warned, will have to leave the country if he does not recognize Bangabandhu’s leadership in the attainment of Bangladesh’s independence. That is the crux of the issue. In all these weeks in which the Chief Justice has found himself embroiled in an unsavoury situation, the arrows have been coming at him from all directions. He is, say his detractors, guilty of undermining Bangabandhu. A simple question now comes up: Can one really get taken in by the thought that the Chief Justice has or can or will question the leadership of the Father of the Nation? Perhaps he misspoke somewhat in those observations, perhaps the language was not well-formulated, but what remains abundantly clear is his loyalty, like that of the 160 million people of Bangladesh, to Bangabandhu and his legacy.

 

But now Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik has held out the palpably ominous warning that this country may not be home for Justice Sinha for much longer. That brings us to another, rather disconcerting question: What right does a citizen have to question the patriotism of another? It is all right for people to disagree, especially in a democracy; and a whole host of individuals in the government or supportive of it have made their views known on Justice Sinha’s observations. Of course, those views — or call them trenchant criticisms — have done the government little good. It is always nerve-wracking for citizens to have to confront the spectacle of the executive and judicial branches of government getting into fisticuffs with each other. In these past many days, ministers have gone after the Chief Justice over his observations. They could have done better by keeping quiet, by discussing the issue with Justice Sinha away from the public eye. That they did not do that is unfortunate. It has created a bad precedent, for in future the functionaries of governments to come might well take recourse to similar moves, leading to a further fraying of the fabric of governance.

 

And a fraying of the fabric was the consequence of the remarks made on the judicial judgment relating to the 16th amendment by Justice Khairul Haq Chowdhury. At present chairman of the Law Commission, Justice Chowdhury certainly did not consider it impolitic or unwise to pronounce his indignation at the Supreme Court move. Why he needed to wade into a conflict that pitted, to our intense discomfort, the executive against the judiciary remains a question that has no answer. But what we can be sure of is that it did not set a good precedent. Former justices and former chief justices do not, as part of a time-honoured tradition, make public their views on the work or judicial decisions of their successors. That tradition has now been badly broken, first by Justice Khairul Haq Chowdhury and now by Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik. Add to that the systematic way in which Chief Justice Sinha has been and is being berated by ministers and others in the ruling Awami League — and what you have is a sight that can only depress you, can only undermine the institutions you would like to see acquire strength and dig deeper roots for pluralistic politics in the country.

 

It is a sad situation, made grim by the unhealthy and growing feeling that reason has been giving way to intimidation, that values are getting mauled in the brickbats flying around the person and office of Chief Justice of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court.

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