Letter from America: Bangladesh’s Railway-gate Corruption
Crime and corruption always go hand in hand. Bangladesh, like many of the developing countries, has her share of such vices that never seem to go away. But her people have always expected better and thus with uninhibited enthusiasm participated in all the elections since 1970, a year before the country emerged as a new state in the world atlas.
That year in the parliamentary election, the Awami League - under the able leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popularly known as the Bangabandhu (or the Friend of Bengal or Bangladesh) – won 160 of the 300 seats contested for the National Assembly of Pakistan, winning all but two seats from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
The interim military government of Pakistan was caught by surprise at people’s verdict. In its wildest dream the latter had not imagined that the people would choose its adversary that had been demanding regional autonomy since 1954. It had foolishly fancied that a coalition of centrist parties would emerge victorious in the election which would allow it to retain most of its unchallenged powers.
Instead of transferring power to Sheikh Mujib, and under the smokescreen of protecting the unity of Pakistan, the interim military government of General Yahya Khan, aided materially by the USA, launched a massive crackdown beginning on March 25, 1971 against the people of East Pakistan. The rest is history. Bangladesh was liberated on December 16, 1971 after a 9-month long war.
In 1973, Bangladeshi people again rallied behind their charismatic leader Sheikh Mujib, whose status by then has been elevated to the Father of the Nation, and voted Awami League into power which promised to better their condition through the miracle of socialistic economy. Yes, back then socialism was believed to be a cure-all-ills elixir and the Midas-key to turning the country to Golden (Sonar) Bangladesh. It was the Cold War era in which the former colonies -- the underdeveloped and developing world (more commonly called the third-world countries) – belonged to the protective umbrella of either the communist block or the capitalist block. And thanks to the timely support that she enjoyed during the liberation war – both inside and outside the UN – from the Soviet-block countries (including India), Bangladesh’s non-aligned foreign policy was widely perceived to be aligned with those of the socialist block.
Many of the pro-western governments in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, refused to recognize the new nation of Bangladesh. The attitude of the USA government, with Dr. Kissinger as the newly appointed Secretary of State, was very hostile. He was particularly concerned about the expansion of Soviet influence in South Asia as a result of a treaty of friendship signed by India and the USSR, and sought to demonstrate to the People's Republic of China (Pakistan's foremost ally and an enemy of both India and the USSR) the value of a tacit alliance with the United States (in which Pakistan played a major role). He despised India (calling Indians ‘bastards’) and her leader Indira Gandhi, whom he called a bitch and a witch. To him, the new state of Bangladesh was world’s “basket case”.
As revealed in a PBS program decades ago, to punish Mujib and his government, the USA government under Dr. Kissinger’s guidance used food-grains as a weapon of war in the famine of 1974. He withheld 2.2 million tons of food aid to ensure that Bangladesh had abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals. And a year later, when Bangladesh was faced with severe monsoons and imminent floods, the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of Bangladesh's policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure, and stopped jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was 'too late for famine victims'. Probably tens of thousands died in the famine, and Mujib’s once-towering popularity plummeted considerably.
And then there were other problems that the people of Bangladesh faced. The government’s massive nationalization program of the big industry and mismanagement of the nationalized assets by corrupt and incompetent administrators were ruining the economy. People had expected economic miracles ‘overnight’ and apparently Mujib failed to deliver on his promises to transforming Bangladesh into Sonar Bangla. While Mujib was an honest and a lion-hearted person, some of his party members were utterly corrupt. Although he had fired a junior minister for allegations of corruption and disciplined some high ranking members of his party, such measures were considered too little and too late to salvage his popularity in the post-famine era.
So, when Sheikh Mujib and his entire family (minus two daughters) were killed in a CIA-sponsored coup by some rogue elements of the Bangladesh Army in the early hours of August 15, 1975 many Bangladeshis fancied that they had seen the end of corruption, and things would become better. And with massive material aid pouring into the country from the USA and her friendly Arab states shortly after the overthrow of the Mujib regime, everything appeared to go in the right direction. The prices of essential commodities came down, and famine was a distant memory.
Unfortunately, with the military running the state for the next sixteen years, corruption was merely institutionalized. What was once an exception in the Mujib-era became more like a norm! People with connection to the epicenter of power became filthy rich. Even after the military dictatorship was ultimately toppled and replaced with a civilian government in 1991, by any measure, corruption did not ebb an iota. It has been steadily increasing with no sign of ever receding.
Sure though that Bangladesh no longer makes the Transparency International list amongst the three most corrupt countries of our planet, but this omission has little to do with government’s anti-corruption drives. The improved ranking of Bangladesh these days owes much to the fact that other countries, especially in sub-Sahara Africa, have surpassed Bangladesh in corruption.
Mindful of the caustic effect of corruption in a civil society, the Government of Bangladesh created the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) through an act promulgated on February 23, 2004 that came into force on May 9, 2004. Sadly, however, every civilian government since its revamping has tried to make a mockery of ACC’s noble mission and vision of a corruption-free Bangladesh by weakening it as so brilliantly articulated by none other than its chief, Mr. Golam Rahman, who complained that the government measures are aimed at making the ACC a ‘toothless tiger’.
So, the latest news of corruption about former Railways minister Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta should not come as a surprise to most Bangladeshis. Last week, he resigned as the Railways minister four months after taking charge of the ministry following the railway-gate scandal. “I am resigning as railways minister taking responsibility of everything,” Suranjit announced at a press briefing at the Rail Bhaban, referring to the controversy surrounding the recovery of Tk. 7 million from the car of his assistant personal secretary. The latter was caught with two corrupt senior officials of Bangladesh Railway during the late hours of April 9, 2012.
The resignation came a day after Suranjit’s meeting with the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, where presumably he failed to satisfy the premier with explanations regarding his involvement with huge sum of money recovered from his APS’s cars. However, for some mysterious reason, the Prime Minister has brought Suranjit back to the cabinet as a minister without portfolio, thus nakedly exposing what many analysts have called the political and administrative bankruptcy of the government. Many see the indirect hand of India in his restitution as a minister for he is long rumored as an Indian agent.
There are also allegations about the sources of funding of a telecom firm that Suranjit’s son Soumen is going to set up on obtaining an operating license from the regulatory body only two weeks ago. As reported in newspapers, he had deposited Tk 50 million for the purpose. Moreover the setting up of the business would require at least Tk 400 million. How is it possible for a former mid-level employee in a telecom company with a yearly income of less than a million Taka to come across so much cash in such a short period of time? Suranjit has been accused of grabbing Waqf land along with other land in his home constituency. He has opened the Sengupta Trade Center at his local town only a few days ago and the land on which the market has been set up is also reportedly based on false deeds.
Suranjit has long been rumored as one of the most corrupt politicians, a sufficient reason why he was denied a ministerial portfolio in the new administration of Sheikh Hasina, until, of course, only four months ago. Now with these latest bribery accusations, he has once again given credibility to his detractors.
According to the rules set up by the government, the ACC cannot investigate a minister, unless permitted by the President. Now with the reinstatement of Suranjit as a minister that door of an impartial inquiry into his alleged bribery/corruption by the ACC is shut harshly.
And that is unfortunate for a country that is trying to shed off its old image as a corrupt country. As I see it, Suranjit’s decision to submit his resignation was wise.
However, I fail to say the same for the prime minister’s decision to reinstate him. It was dumb and unacceptable. And of all politicians, Sheikh Hasina ought to have known it better. If she truly cares about Bangladesh, she should rescind her decision and allow the ACC to conduct its investigation unhindered now, and not later after the party is voted out of power.
The government must also strengthen the ACC so that it could carry out its much needed tasks of weeding out corruption without feeling either pressured or constrained by foolish government measures that are self-defeating and suicidal.
Can the Prime Minister of Bangladesh afford to appear tolerating corruption when the very motto of the ACC is a poem from Tagore that reads:
“Those who perpetrate injustice
and those who tolerate the same,
Let both burn into ashes,
My Lord, in Your ever wrathful flame ...”?
A government simply cannot afford to appear nonchalant with corruption of one of its own ministers. Leaders must be bold enough to correct their stupid decisions. It is never too late for correcting one’s mistakes.
- Asian Tribune -