For whom the bell tolls?

For whom the bell tolls?

Rehman Sobhan

It was saddening to observe, on the first day of the new year, a day which should project promise for the year ahead, that Bangladesh’s sole Nobel laureate, Professor Muhammad Yunus, a globally recognized and universally respected person, had been sentenced to six months imprisonment by a labour court. 

Yunus has by now attained a stature both at home and abroad to enable him to emerge unsullied from such a smear on his reputation. His prosecutors may not remain so privileged. 

Some senior establishment figures have rather unconvincingly sought to delink the regime from this case, attributing it as a purely legal matter inspired by the Labour Directorate, a small, obscure, institution of state. Countless cases of violation of labour rights are regularly taking place within an unjust society and thousands of such cases remain pending in the labour courts where the case files move at a snail’s pace, judgements are few and far between and jail sentences rare, if any.  Few will be persuaded, given its traditional practices, that a functionary of the directorate would suo moto initiate a case which may have global ramifications and pursue it at an unprecedented pace where sentence could be passed in record time. 

Such a highly publicized judgement has already exposed our judicial system and governance practices to public scrutiny. The 164 Nobel laureates and globally distinguished personalities who have already commented on the "persecution" of Professor Yunus would be particularly concerned. Many of these personalities may now be inclined to apply their high calibre minds to more closely scrutinize the particulars of the judgement by Bangladesh’s Labour Court so they can draw their own conclusion about the intrinsic merits of the case. 

Whilst the Yunus judgement may be exposed to global scrutiny it also demands that we in Bangladesh engage in some introspection as to the circumstances which culminated in exposing a person who has invested the best part of his professional life in improving the lives and empowering poor women in Bangladesh, to the prospect of imprisonment. This court case is not the first such instance where Yunus has been exposed to various forms of persecution. He has been exposed to an ongoing campaign of denigration and slander from both official sources and their intellectual fellow travelers. No rationale, backed by evidence, has been provided to explain the logic, need or relevance of this adversarial relationship against such an individual. 

When a nation has the good fortune to have a person of Yunus’s stature in their midst it may be expected that a leadership committed to the service of the country would attempt to reach out to him and all such people to invest their capabilities in supporting the government’s nation building project. I am not aware of any single effort by our leadership to hold a dialogue with Yunus to sort out these imagined or even real differences. Nor has any effort been invested by our leaders in exploring how he could be deployed to serve as a resource for the nation or as an emissary to world leaders who normally remain far beyond the reach of our ministers and diplomats.

Reflecting on this case, my most serious concern relates to its wider ramifications about the state of governance and the future of democracy in Bangladesh. One-sided abuse of the law to oppress political opponents has been in use over the years and extends back to predecessor regimes whether from the cantonment or from the political domain. 

Over the years the weaponization of the judicial system has become part of a wider assault on our institutions of democracy and governance. Not just our judicial system, our administrative institutions, our law enforcement agencies, our constitutional bodies such as Parliament, the Election Commission (EC), the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), our Central Bank, our National Board of Revenue, have all been used for partisan purposes to the point where they have lost their capacity to function as rule based pillars of governance. Each of these institutions have been politicized to serve the party in power by persecuting opposition political parties, civil society, the independent media and even individuals who may be deemed as critics of the government. 

The case of Professor Yunus is symptomatic of this erosion in the credibility of our institutions. The triviality and narrowness of the case against Yunus would not have made it to first base in any well functioning judicial system. The thousands of political opponents languishing in jail, the large number of victims serving jail time without bail or being charge-sheeted under the Damocles Sword of the DSA/CSA, illustrate the violation of our constitutional rights through denial of the protection of due process. Plainclothes persons, without any warrant can come to any home in the middle of the night and drag you off to an unknown destination to do with you what they will. Our law enforcement institutions can do so because they feel unaccountable before the law while citizens fear they can no longer look to our courts to protect their constitutional rights. 

The independence of the EC in conducting free, fair and inclusive elections has been under challenge over consecutive elections. Our ACC has been used as an instrument to prosecute the political opposition whilst turning a blind eye to the conspicuous corruption that prevails in the ranks of a ruling party, its elected representatives, and favoured business cronies. 

Parliament itself, now exclusively dominated by the ruling party, has retreated from its responsibility as an institution of accountability over the executive. Its lack of urgency in addressing some of the burning concerns of the people remains conspicuous. Representation in our elective bodies at all levels is now monopolized by self-declared and prospective businessmen. Many of these prefer to use their office, divorced from the application of any conflict of interest rules, to pursue their business interests, thereby weakening the working of the competitive process.

Without the protection of the rule of law, business advancement, whether domestic or foreign, becomes a matter of political identity, the right connections and where appropriate the deployment of material incentives. Our low inflow of FDI compared to other Asian countries originates in the concern of prospective investors over the arbitrary working of our institutions. 

Without the support of rule-based institutions, civil society remains endangered, living out its life at the mercy of official institutions which hold their financial lifeline in their hands. There is no objective criteria to determine the fortunes of a civil society organization, which will depend on their equation with the powers that be and their relations with the relevant officials. 

In such a de-institutionalized universe, the assault on the rights of a person of the global stature of Muhammad Yunus means that anyone -- the political opposition, crony-less businessmen, civil society organizations, and outspoken individuals -- remain endangered species. In such circumstances, we should beware that when the bell tolls for someone such as Professor Yunus it may one day also toll for any of us. 

Rehman Sobhan is an eminent economist and founder of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).