Democracy, law enforcement and the judiciary – are they really functioning?

Democracy, law enforcement and the judiciary – are they really functioning?

In Bangladesh, many politicians, intellectuals and analysts often claim that democracy has been restored with the general elections in December 2008 which saw the Awami League coming to power. Is ‘democracy’ just holding of elections, or the way a government behaves in terms its actions?

In early 1970s, a cartoon in an Indian national daily depicted the demand of some political parties in west Bengal for holding mid-term elections in the State. The caption of the cartoon said: “Elections for democracy and more elections for more democracy”, implying that elections were not the only solution to political stability. Power-hungry and self-serving politicians will invoke the term ‘democracy’ time and again in the name of the people, arguing that elections are the panacea for all the problems in the country. However, general elections are simply the first step of democratic governance in a country – it is no more than this. It is said, “Be ware of the motive of those who incessantly cry for democracy”.

What really matters is the way public policies are developed and designed, and the credible and pragmatic actions taken by the elected government to implement these policies. Let us take the example of current law and order situation in Bangladesh. In general, people want peace to prevail in the country and do not want to see the incidence of recurring violence. But why have violence and criminal activities been increasing day by day in the country, engulfing educational institutions down to industrial sites – not to speak of everyday hijacking, extortions, mugging and killing? Who are involved in these criminal activities and who patronise the criminals and why? How do the criminals get away without punishment? Who provide shelter to them?

Overseas governments have also observed that the law and order situation in Bangladesh has deteriorated since the grand alliance led by Awami League came to power following the general elections in December 2009. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its travel advice relating to Bangladesh states that “Criminal violence and armed robbery are common in Bangladesh. There has been an increase in reported criminal activity since the beginning of 2009, including in Gulshan and Banani in Dhaka, where resident Westerners have been victims of armed robbery”.

Similarly the State Department of the United States (US) has expressed negative views on the security and crime situations in Bangladesh. Its country specific information about Bangladesh says that “urban crime can be organised or opportunistic, conducted by individuals or groups, and commonly encompasses fraud, theft (larceny, pick-pocketing, and snatch-and-grab), robbery (armed and unarmed), carjacking, rape, assault, and burglary (home and auto). Incidence of crime and levels of violence are higher in low-income residential and congested commercial areas, but are on the rise in wealthier areas as well”.

The US State Department’s 2009 Human Right Report on Bangladesh published in March this year considers that “there was a slight increase in the number of extrajudicial killings by security forces; there remained cases of serious abuse, including extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths, arbitrary arrest and detention, and harassment of journalists. With the return of an elected government, reports of politically motivated violence increased 3.3 per cent”. The report also states that “violence against religious and ethnic minorities still occurred, although many government and civil society leaders stated these acts had political or economic motivations and could not be attributed only to religious belief or affiliation”.

In any case, the fact of the matter is that violent activities in educational institutions and industrial sites (especially in garments factories), tender rigging in contracts for development projects, rapes, killings, eve teasing, armed robbery, extortions and muggings have increased to an alarming level. We do not see the results of government actions in curbing the incidence of violence and other serious crimes.

The key issue here is the alleged involvement of members of the ruing party and its associated student and labour organisations in many criminal activities. This is evident from the frequent warnings by the home minister Sahara Khatun who says that corruption and terrorism will be uprooted from the society. It has become fashionable for her to say “no matter which party the criminals or terrorists belong to, nobody will be spared”. She has been harping on the same string for the last one year and a half, but nothing has happened in terms of reduction of crimes in the country.

Even the prime minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed her determination many times to effectively deal with the deteriorating law and order situation in the country, especially violence in educational institutions that involves her party’s student wing. However, all the avowed missionary zeal and determination of the government appear to have turned into simple ‘lip service’ (chaapabazi) as the government has virtually failed to control their own party cadres that have been let loose to wreck havoc in many parts of the society, so to speak.

Police are supposed to maintain internal security and law and order in the country. However, the members of the police force are generally constrained to take action against the criminals affiliated with the ruing party – be it Awami League or BNP. Just a couple of weeks before the general elections in 2008, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Noor Mohammad was of the view that since the independence of Bangladesh, the police forces have been used as a political tool by the parties in power.

The essence of the IGP’s views is that while police corruption exists, a major problem is that in many cases the police cannot work independently according to the law of the land. Individual politicians use them to serve their own narrow interest, to gain and exercise undue power and authority in local areas and to make money.

Another problem lies with the way the judiciary, including the High Court/Supreme Court, is perceived to have been working at the present time. Observers and analysts consider that many criminal cases are not being dealt with in an appropriate manner where the known and convicted criminals get bails and impunity. Do judges really apply the provisions of the law and dispense justice accordingly? Do their verdicts reflect the merit of the cases? Are their judgements in some cases determined by non-legal factors, including political motivation, influence or pressure?

We should remember that the government of the day is ultimately accountable for all its actions. The failure of the government to contain violent crimes and provide security to the citizens can be treated as a breach of its social contract with the people to bring peace in the society.

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