Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has appointed Bangladesh’s first Chief Justice from the minority Hindu community. Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, an eminent lawyer, with extensive professional experience at different echelons in the judicial system, assumed charge on 17 January as the 21st Chief Justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court. This is a significant development in the present tumultuous political milieu. The country has been affected by a concerted campaign mounted by Khaleda Zia`s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and her 20-party alliance, including the Jamaat Party, to dislodge the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government from power on the first anniversary of the highly contentious General Elections of January 2014. The appointment of Justice Sinha is indicative of Sheikh Hasina`s continued adherence to a secular approach in domestic politics as well as her determination not to yield politically to the anti-Independence and pro-Pakistan collaborators during the freedom struggle like theJamaat.
The appointment is noteworthy because Justice Sinha was involved in hearing the appeal against the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated the provision of a caretaker government overseeing general elections – one of the main current demands of the BNP and its supporting parties. The Judge had also delivered the landmark verdict declaring the military rule of General Ziaur Rahman as illegal and unconstitutional, apart from deliberating on a bench related to the appeal against conviction in the recent war crimes trials. No outward dissenting opinion has been expressed from any quarter of the legal fraternity against Justice Sinha`s appointment. The appointment refreshingly stands out when viewed in contrast to the political hue and cry generated when Justice Rana Bhagwan Das, a Hindu judge, was appointed earlier as Acting Chief Justice of Pakistan, by virtue of his seniority.
Sheikh Hasina has been showing great resolve in confronting her adversaries even while performing the responsibilities of day-to-day governance. International pressures are, however, looming against her government from Western quarters as evident from recent statements made by the European Commission on Human Rights, which conveyed its concern regarding the internal political turmoil resulting from the BNP`s latest agitation and the so-called failure of the main political parties to arrive at a political accommodation. The apparent Western concern is more to ensure a counterpoise to Sheikh Hasina and the AL-led political group, thus exercising an indirect political and economic leverage on her economic development and investment policies. But these Western quarters seem oblivious to the growth of Muslim fundamentalist elements riding piggy-back on the BNP`s agitation, causing a strain on democratic and secular institutions and the security of the region.
The present government deserves credit for its consistent commitment towards preserving the socio-political structure and secular ethos of the country since the AL-led Grand Alliance first assumed power in 2008. In fact, the `Shahbag Movement` of 2013 – demanding the trial of those who collaborated with Pakistan to suppress Bangladesh’s freedom movement – indirectly helped the AL government to persist with its secular policy. However, in the present welter of political confrontation with the BNP and its allies, and in the backdrop of a strident anti-Hindu campaign by Jamaat elements who have gone to the extent of vandalising Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha`s village home, cultural minorities like those in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have been put under strain.
These communities have to be allowed some political space. Local discontent in the matter of socio-economic opportunities and cultural rights were attempted to be accommodated through the CHT Peace Accord of 1997. Recent incidents in CHT involving the Pahari Chhatra Parishad supported by the Parbatya Chattagram Janasanghati Samity and the Chhatra League (CL), the student wing of the AL, over the opening of a local medical college without allegedly fulfilling the provisions of the CHT Accord on reservation, etc.,1 need to be dealt with in a broad-based accommodative manner by the government in Dhaka without allowing the CL to take a lead role in matters of local welfare and governance. Political tension within the sensitive CHT area will have ramifications on stability of the region bordering India`s state of Mizoram and south-western Myanmar – not far from its Rakhine province where Muslim Rohingyas are suffering from socio-political alienation.
The Sheikh Hasina government is facing considerable challenges on the domestic political front and also to some extent from external sources. Until now, the AL has broadly acted in a cohesive manner in dealing with the challenge from the BNP, its front organizations and allies in the 20-party combine. Sheikh Hasina has to ensure that the writ of the AL central leadership runs throughout the country, and elements like the CL are not allowed to interfere in matters of local autonomy like in CHT, which will impinge on its accommodative and secular policies.
Political parties like the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), which are on the political fringe of the AL and its allies, and are votaries of socio-economic equity and had been adopting anti-fundamentalist postures, have off late started propagating, albeit on a low pitch, for more democratic rights against domestic violence, etc. Any such campaign will only cause problems for the present government. A politically adroit and firm handling of these developments by the government in Dhaka is essential so that its manifest secular image is not tarnished and external ramifications are avoided.
India, considering its overall strategic interest in ensuring stability in its north-eastern States and West Bengal, should act in a manner that helps Sheikh Hasina to sustain her broad social-democratic and secular frame of governance.
The author is a former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts, an Adviser of Govt. of Nagaland and presently Adviser to former Chief Minister of Nagaland & serving MP (Lok Sabha).
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India
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