Frontline Volume 21 - Issue 12, Jun. 05 - 18, 2004
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WORLD AFFAIRS

A controversial amendment

HAROON HABIB
in Dhaka

The 14th Amendment to the Bangladesh Constitution, brought by the Khaleda Zia government, is seen as an attempt to serve the ruling alliance's partisan ends. But the lack of Opposition unity proves to be a major stumbling block to an organised response.

THE Constitution (Fourteenth Amendment) Bill 2004 passed by the Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament) in Bangladesh on May 16 incorporates into the Constitution a set of provisions that are at the centre of a raging controversy. The Bill was passed without discussion, 226 to one, amid a boycott by the Awami League, the main Opposition party. The ruling four-party alliance led by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia has a comfortable two-thirds majority in Parliament.

SHAFIQ ALAM/AFP

A human chain in Dhaka, to protest against the 14th amendment to the Constitution, on May 16.

Besides the members of the ruling alliance - the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Bangladeshe Jatiya Party (BJP) and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) - 12 of the 14 members of the Ershad-led Jatiya Party (J.P.) and three independent members voted in favour of the amendment.

The only member who voted against the Bill was freedom fighter Quadir Siddiqui of the Krishak Sramik Janata League (KSJL). The J.P., which had opposed the Bill all along, did a U-turn in the last minute, with party chief and former President H.M. Ershad directing his members to support the Bill. He changed his stand apparently under pressure from the government. (Ershad faces a series of corruption and other charges and had spent six years in Dhaka Central Jail.) Seven members of the ruling BNP, including Health Minister Dr. Khandoker Mosharraf Hossain and Chairman of the Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs Khandaker Mahbub Uddin Ahmed, were absent, as were two J.P. members and the lone member of the J.P. faction led by Anwar Hossain Manju.

The Bangladesh Constitution was framed hastily in 1972, within a year of the creation of the country, and it went through several drastic changes following the bloody political changeover in 1975. However, this is only the second constitutional amendment in eight years. The previous one incorporated a clause providing for the establishment of a `non-party caretaker government' for conducting free and fair elections.

The present constitutional amendment incorporates, among others, the following provisions: reservation of 45 seats for women on a proportional representation basis for the next 10 years; increase in the retirement age of Supreme Court Judges from 65 to 67 years; and displaying of portraits of the President and the Prime Minister in all government, semi-government and autonomous offices and diplomatic missions abroad.

The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League, which has 60 seats in Parliament, rejected the changes outright. The Left parties, which have no representation in Parliament, have also opposed the Bill strongly. The Awami League and the Left parties alleged that the ruling alliance amended the Constitution with a partisan design, "to ensure that its own man became the chief of the next caretaker government, to manipulate the coming election". One of the new provisions empowers the Chief Election Commissioner to administer the oath to Members of Parliament in the absence of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker. Both the Opposition and sections of civil society termed this provision "unwarranted and unnecessary".

PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

At the funeral of Ahsanullah Master in Dhaka on May 8. The Awami League MP was shot dead by gunmen at a rally in Tongi on May 7.

While Leader of the Opposition Sheikh Hasina termed the amendment "contradictory to the fundamental spirit of the Constitution", Deputy Opposition Leader Abdul Hamid alleged that it was part of a conspiracy by the government. Hamid, the Speaker of the last Parliament, said: "The age limit of Supreme Court Judges has been increased because they want to see a particular Judge (indicating incumbent Chief Justice K.M. Hasan, who had links with an earlier BNP government) as head of the caretaker government." (Under the 13th Amendment, the Chief Justice will head the caretaker government.)

Law Minister Moudud Ahmed argued that in the next four years 25 Supreme Court Judges would retire, creating a vacuum in the top tier of the judiciary. This justification has not satisfied critics and is likely to find favour only with Moudud Ahmed's partymen.

As for displaying portraits of the President and the Prime Minister in government offices and diplomatic missions, the Opposition believes this has been done only to undermine the `founding father' of the country. "The intention is clear: this will in future bar the display of the portrait of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They still fear Mujib, who was assassinated nearly three decades ago," said a veteran Awami League leader.

However, the Law Minister maintains that the provision has been incorporated in the Constitution "just to end the long controversy". The `controversy' revolves around the question whether to accept Mujib as the undisputed hero who led his nation to freedom from Pakistan.

The provision reserving 45 seats for women on a proportional representation basis for the next 10 years would be effective for the residual period of the existing, eighth, Parliament, which has 300 members. The Opposition and women's organisations say the BNP violated its pre-election commitment by avoiding direct elections to the seats reserved for women. They perceive such a system of indirect representation as one that is designed to favour party loyalists, irrespective of the extent of their popular support.

AFP

At a demonstration in Dhaka on May 10 by the Awami League.

The Awami League and 10 other political parties unanimously rejected the 14th Amendment at a meeting held at the Awami League's Dhanmondi office on May 16. Said Sheikh Hasina: "The 14th Amendment is contrary to the original spirit of the Constitution. We are rejecting the amendment since there is no requirement for it." On the issue of displaying the portraits of the President and the Prime Minister in government offices, she said: "No instance could be cited from anywhere in the world where legislation was required to be framed for hanging the portraits of the Prime Minister and the President. Why amend the Constitution when a simple executive order is sufficient?" she asked.

Asked whether her party would launch a movement against the 14th Amendment, the former Prime Minister said: "We are already in the movement and there are programmes too and the movement will continue."

THE political situation in Bangladesh has been volatile ever since the 2001 general elections, which installed the four-party rightist and fundamentalist alliance in power. The defeat of the secular forces was credited partly to a "national and international blueprint". But even 30 months after the formation of the alliance government, the secular, `pro-liberation' parties have failed to unite. In fact, the constitutional amendment has provided yet another chance for them to unite, but nothing concrete has emerged so far.

The ruling alliance faces the allegation of turning Bangladesh into a `terrorist state' and running the country `through vandalism'. While killing of innocents by goons has become common, the recent murder of eminent Opposition lawmaker Ahsanullah Master shocked the nation. The successive hauls of foreign-made arms and ammunition, including the latest seizure of smuggled weapons in Chittagong port, have also raised widespread concern. Most security experts believe that they were destined for a third country, probably India - its northeastern region. The bomb attack on the British High Commissioner, Anwar Chowdhury, in the Hajrat Shahjalal shrine in Sylhet in the third week of May is perhaps the latest sign of the growing social extremism that secular Bangladesh has witnessed.

In the light of the constitutional amendment, Awami League general secretary Abdul Jalil said after a meeting with all Opposition parties: "We have been in the process of forging a broad-based unity and want cooperation from all so that through this unity the people and the country could be saved." The meeting reached a consensus on the issue of organising a `movement' against the `failed government' and rejected outright the 14th amendment. But there were no meaningful follow-ups thereafter.

In fact, there were several developments that the secular parties could have taken advantage of to forge a broader secular unity. Prof. Badrudouzza Chowdhury, the founding secretary-general of the BNP and former president, rebelled against Khaleda Zia and formed his own Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh (BDB). Two MPs - M.A. Mannan and Mahi B. Chowdhury - resigned from the ruling party in protest against the government's policies. Aid agencies were critical of the ruling alliance for carrying out what they called vandalism against its political opponents and even threatened to cut off aid if freedom of speech, human rights and the condition of the minorities were not improved. They were also critical of state-level corruption and the growing sense of insecurity among those in public life.

The general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), Mujahidul Islam Selim, said after the meeting of the Opposition parties that they had talks on several issues, including the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the biggest-ever arms and ammunition haul in Chittagong, the rise of communal forces in the country's northern region and the misrule of the alliance government and its failure to provide security to an elected representative of the people.

The secular parties also expressed concern over the administration's `patronisation' of a `private Islamic army' called `Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh'(JMJB), which is active in the country's northern Rajshahi region. The outfit is said to have established a parallel administration there under the command of a fanatic commander called `Bangla Bhai'. The United States administration has also expressed its concern over the militant outfit.

Referring to the developments, a polit bureau member of the Workers Party, Fazle Hossain Badsha, told mediapersons that the Opposition would take a decision whether the anti-government movement would be launched from a common platform or a united movement would be waged against the government. But it seems as if the secular parties are falling apart yet again.

Independent observers are of the view that the new changes in the Constitution are not only unnecessary but also ill-motivated. There was no popular demand for such an amendment and the changes to the Constitution have nothing to do with the national priority. As most observers put it: the foremost priority is to improve governance, check corruption, arrest the downslide in the law and order situation, and activate the non-functional Parliament.

But it is feared that the 14th amendment, far from improving the political climate, will widen further the chasm between the ruling party and the Opposition.

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