Last week when opposition BNP candidate Monirul Huq Sakku was elected mayor of the Comilla City Corporation, many joked that he was fated to go behind bars. They were hinting that once he became the mayor, he would be accused of sabotage or face some other criminal charges. He would be dismissed and removed. It was just a matter of time that the ruling party’s political leadership would give the go-ahead signal.
The new mayor of Comilla hasn’t taken over as yet and so we must wait.
But the mayors of Sylhet and Rajshahi fought a legal battle and managed to sit in office, one for two hours and the other for eight minutes. The Habiganj mayor got a bit of a longer period - 11 days.
They may be elected representatives, but their political identity sealed their fate. In a most shocking manner they had to face allegations and then removal from office.
These three mayors are now the talk of the town, though many may forget they are a part of a political continuity. Previously the mayors of Gazipur and Khulna were also similarly removed. Khulna’s mayor Muniruzzaman may have been reinstalled in office, but surely he is not free of trepidation. There were repeated cases against the mayor of Gazipur, MA Mannan, 21 in all. He recently told Prothom Alo he won’t even try to return to office because that would just instigate further cases against him and he would be back behind bars.
Mayor of Sylhet City Corporation Ariful Huq Chowdhury and Habiganj pourashava mayor GK Gaus were first removed from office in the murder case of former finance minister Shah AMS Kibria. There were not even mentioned in the FIR (first information report) regarding the murder which took place on 27 January 2005 in Baidyerbazar, Habiganj. But about 10 years later in December 2014 the police named Ariful and Gaus as accused in the case. The government thus dismissed them under the Local Government Act 2009. Their appeal for bail was rejected and they remained in jail for about two years without trial. Then after two years and three months of legal battle they were granted bail and their positions were restored.
Rajshahi’s mayor Mosaddek Hossain was first removed from office in May 2015. He was charged with sabotage and only got his office back after about two years of legal battle.
The common factor of these mayors was that they were all BNP leaders. They may not have used the BNP’s paddy sheaf symbol for the election unlike Comilla’s Monirul Huq Sakku, but the voters knew them to be BNP-backed or BNP-nominated candidates.
There would be no objection to placing these mayors on trial if they had committed crimes. But the government has already punished them without trial by removing them from office. Now when they face charges of murder or sabotage, they can also accuse the government of political harassment. The ruling party bungles up the process of justice for the sake of short-term and immediate gains.
According to reports of 2015, at least 25 municipal mayors and upazila chairmen of BNP and Jamaat were removed from office (Prothom Alo, 27 March 2015). On the other hand, no one dares to file cases against the mayors or chairmen of the ruling Awami League. Even if any cases are filed, the police keep investigations hanging. Again, while charge sheets have been issued against around five Awami League men, they have not been removed from their posts. There is also the instance of a minister hale and hearty in office despite being convicted of crime.
Former advisor to the caretaker government barrister Mainul Husein was the defence counsel for Ariful Huq. He said that the Local Government Act (City Corporation) 2009 had been applied to remove him from office. The court had suspended the order, and the legitimacy of the act was in question. Mainul Husein said that the court had accepted his argument that an elected representative of the people cannot be prevented from carrying out his duties simply if his name appeared on a charge sheet as this did not prove him guilty. The government had appealed against the High Court order, but the Appellate Division upheld it.
The High Court has also stayed the new suspension orders. If the government does not appeal, then at least it will seem they have come to their senses.
Suspended Rajshahi mayor Mosaddek Hossain said he would go to the court again. But perhaps like the Gazipur mayor Mannan, at one point he too may give up in fear of being jailed.
I have already mentioned the common political identity of the dismissed mayors. But there is another similarity and that is the commonality among those who benefit from their dismissals. Only the Sylhet city corporation is being run by a government bureaucrat, known as the administrator, due to inner conflict of the ruling party. In all other places, the panel mayors are ruling party Awami League councilors. They had not even considered themselves qualified to contest as mayors or didn’t have the gumption to do so, and yet now they have entered through the backdoor and sit in the mayor’s seat. What a farce of democracy!
A ruling of the Appellate Division maintains that the verdict of the voters cannot be violated. Concerning Articles 59 and 60 of the Constitution, that ruling says that local affairs should be run by locally elected persons. It would be meaningless to have local government institutions if government leaders or their henchmen or supporters are brought in to run these institutions. (Qudrat-e-Elahi Ponir vs. Bangladesh: Dhaka Law Reporters Issue 44, 1992). The Appellate Division which issued this ruling was headed by former chief justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and the other members were justice Muhammed Habibur Rahman, justice ATM Afzal, justice Mustafa Kamal and justice Latifur Rahman (all of whom successively were chief justices).
A provision was drawn up in 2008 for a local government commission as an safeguard preventing the ruling party or the government from overriding the voters’ expectations in local rule and enforcing their own authority. The virtually still-born local government commission was given the responsibility of that protective provision. A law had even been enacted for an independent commission that would assist, supervise and monitor the activities of the local government, from resource allocation to everything else. A chairman and three commissioners were appointed in a four-year term to the local government commission.
One of the commissioners of the now defunct local government commission, professor Tofail Ahmed, said, as the local government commission act was not raised in parliament after Awami League formed the government, it became void. If that act was in place, then it would have been mandatory to consult the commission before removing the mayors. In order to keep the powers in the hands of the ministry, Awami League allowed the 2008 local government laws to fall void. But in 2009 it made separate laws pertaining to city corporations and pourashavas, dropping the commission parts.
Just one day before the elected representatives were politically manipulated out of office, the prime minister addressed hundreds of parliamentarians from all over the world at a conference in Dhaka, saying that democracy was not just a system, it was a way to emerge from problems. Many in her party, of course, maintain that development is the priority.
Due to various loopholes and errors, the people’s mandate is sadly lacking in our democracy. Even in the 2014 election, voters did not get the chance to vote in over half the seats. The major opposition political party did not participate in those polls. Everyone is aware of this. Steps contrary to democracy at a grassroots level in the local government system do not bode well. It gives rise to apprehensions. These are apprehensions regarding the future of democracy.
Let me end on a lighter note. I’m quite impressed at the wit of persons in this age of Facebook as I was on Sunday night. There were three headlines on the TV channels. Ariful-Mosaddek removed, three teachers dismissed for keeping smartphones with them when bringing HSC questioning papers from the treasury with the probable motive of leaking the questions out, and gazette of the 35th BCS results published. Someone on Facebook remarked, one of the questions for the next BCS exam will certainly be: ‘In which country of the world were three mayors dismissed on the same day?’ His remark made me think that surely this could enter the Guinness book of world records. Or maybe it will appear one day in Prothom Alo’s ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not!’ corner.
*Kamal Ahmed is a journalist and consulting editor at Prothom Alo. This article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir