The manner in which the ruling Awami League and its supporters in Bangladesh have pounced on the Chief Justice (CJ), Surendra Kumar Sinha, clearly militates against the essence of democracy or even a fledgeling democracy. The conflict which has pitted the ruling party against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has its origins in the judgment on the 16th amendment to the constitution. The amendment, which would empower members of parliament to impeach judges of the high court and supreme court, was struck down, first by the former and then by the latter.
In the course of announcing the judgment, following hearings in the appellate division of the high court, Justice Sinha made certain observations in relation to the history of the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. He paid full tribute to the leadership of the country’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in the movement for freedom, noting that an entire nation took part in the struggle. Rather than being the contribution of a single individual, stated the Chief Justice, it was a collective experience for Bangladesh.
The CJ’s observations, taken out of context, swiftly landed him in troubled waters. The ruling circles were incensed that he had undermined and belittled, in their view, the contributions of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the creation of Bangladesh. Late last month, it was the turn of a former judge of the appellate division, none too well-disposed towards the chief justice, to jump into the fray. Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury, who retired last year and has had a public spat with Justice Sinha on the issue of delivery of judgments in time, has launched a broadside against Sinha. He joins that disturbingly growing band of people who have seemingly decided that the chief justice has committed a grievous wrong and must now pay the price.
In his assault on the CJ, Justice Chowdhury has questioned whether Justice Sinha himself wrote, in the space of 25 days, all 400 pages of the observations relating to the appellate division’s verdict on the 16th amendment. He 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 why Justice Chowdhury has now thought it necessary to raise his question. One is only too aware of the public position he took in his last skirmish with the CJ, a position he ought not to have taken. Now that he has found a new reason to launch a verbal assault on Justice Sinha, there is a strong whiff of prejudice. The former judge makes things worse when he accuses the CJ of having had his observations written by Pakistan’s infamous ISI.
The CJ, Chowdhury has warned, will have to leave the country if he does not recognise Mujib’s leadership in Bangladesh’s independence movement. And now, Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury has waded into the issue. She has asked the CJ to leave the country or be treated for mental illness. In all these weeks, Sinha has had arrows flying at him from all directions. He is, say his detractors, guilty of undermining the historical role of the Father of the Nation.
Justice Chowdhury has warned Justice Sinha that the latter will not only have to resign but also be compelled to leave the country in light of his legal observations. Minister Matia Chowdhury has echoed him.
It is always nerve-wracking for citizens to have to confront the spectacle of the executive and judicial branches of government trading fisticuffs. In these past few days, ministers have gone after the chief justice over his observations. All of this has created a bad precedent: 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.
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 severely damaged. The systematic way in which CJ Sinha is being berated by individuals in the ruling dispensation does not bode well for Bangladesh.
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 the Chief Justice of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court.