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Denigrating the Chief Justice: Undermining traditions and institutions in Bangladesh

The spectacle of publicly denigrating the Chief Justice of Bangladesh is not merely depressing, it also undermines the institutions which need to be strengthened for pluralistic politics to take root in the country, writes Syed Badrul Ahsan for South Asia Monitor

Sep 6, 2017
By Syed Badrul Ahsan
 
Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik has joined the growing cast of people who have launched a broadside against the Chief Justice of Bangladesh, Surendra Kumar Sinha. He has joined a growing band of people who have publicly criticized the Chief Justice for certain observations he allegedly made and for which he must pay the price.
 
Justice Chowdhury has threatened Justice Sinha, incidentally the first Hindu to assume the highest post in the country's judiciary, that the Chief Justice will have to leave the country if he does not recognize ‘Bangabandhu’s’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) leadership in the attainment of Bangladesh’s independence. That is the crux of the issue.
 
In his assault on the Chief Justice, Justice Chowdhury, who has retired and is no longer part of the judiciary, has questioned whether Justice Sinha himself wrote, in the space of 25 days, all 400 pages of observations relating to the Appellate Division’s verdict on the 16th amendment to the Constitution. He claims it is not humanly possible for an individual to write such a long manuscript in such a short time.
 
The point here is not that Justice Sinha wrote those pages in 25 days. It is why Justice Chowdhury has now thought it necessary to raise the question. 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 any Bangladeshi below the belt. And coming from one judge against another, it is not only sad. It is also appalling.
 
In the weeks during which Justice Sinha has found himself embroiled in an unsavoury situation, the barbs have been coming his way from all directions. He is, say his detractors, guilty of undermining ‘Bangabandhu’.
 
Why should the Chief Justice question the leadership of the Father of the Nation? It is likely that he used incorrect language in some of those observations on the 16th amendment. Perhaps the language was not well-formulated, but what remains clear is his loyalty, like that of the 160 million people of Bangladesh, to ‘Bangabandhu’ and his legacy.
 
Justice Chowdhury has held out the palpably ominous warning that this country may not be home for Justice Sinha 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 even trenchant criticism --- have done the government little good.
 
It is always nerve-wracking for citizens to witness the spectacle of the executive and judicial branches of government at loggerheads with each other. In recent weeks, ministers have attacked the Chief Justice for 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 as in the future, functionaries of governments to come might well take recourse to similar moves, leading to a further fraying of the fabric of governance.
 
The fabric fraying was the consequence of remarks made on the judicial ruling relating to the 16th amendment by Justice Khairul Haq Chowdhury. Currently Chairman of the Law Commission, Justice Haq Chowdhury 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 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 Haq Chowdhury and now by Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury. Added to that is the systematic way in which Chief Justice Sinha has been and is being berated by ministers and others in the ruling Awami League. The spectacle of publicly denigrating the Chief Justice of Bangladesh is not merely depressing; it also undermines the institutions which need to be strengthened for pluralistic politics to take root in the country.
 
It is a sad situation, made grim by the growing feeling that reason has given way to intimidation, that values are getting mauled in the brickbats flying around the person and office of the Chief Justice of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court.
 
(Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist in Bangladesh. He can be contacted at ahsan.syedbadrul@gmail.com)

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