Justice Abdus Sattar was the first civilian to be elected president after the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Bangladesh is unfortunate enough to have had several heads of state and heads of government coming to power unconstitutionally, both before Abdus Sattar and certainly after. He had been elected through free and fair polls, but just within four and a half months, in the “greater interests of the nation and national security interests” and with the “help of Almighty Allah and the blessings of the patriotic people”, on 24 March 1982 general Hussain Muhammad Ershad took over full power of the country.
Justice Sattar was known to be an efficient administrator. Bangabandhu respected him and had given him the responsibility of determining the pay scale for journalists. Actually they had grown close in Kolkata when Sattar had been the chief executive officer of Calcutta Corporation. They were together in the United Front government in the mid-1950s. Over the last few days president Sattar has been cropping up in the memory.
During his time as president, the state-owned bank employees had gone on strike. The CBA at that time was as powerful as it is now, forcefully realising their unjustified demands. The CBA leader would appoint bank employees and carry out other functions which were the responsibility of the managing director. Some of the CBA leaders made as much money as a mid-level industrialist, or more. Still not satisfied, they called for a strike. The employees had no problem with the strike because, after all, that meant a free holiday from work. The government cajoled and pleaded but to no avail. The leaders defiantly continued with the strike. They couldn’t care less about the people’s sufferings. Then president Sattar stepped in and gave them a one-day deadline: Anyone not joining work by 9:00 the next morning would be terminated.
No one really bothered about the ultimatum, thinking it was just another empty threat. But the CBA leaders and bank employees didn’t know Sattar. At exactly 9:30 on the stipulated day, the doors of the banks were locked. I had arrived at the Bangladesh Biman office that day at 10am in the morning to buy an air ticket. I saw some persons using ladders in an attempt to climb over the bank walls and enter. Many had not been able to return to the city on time from the village. A few thousand bank employees lost their jobs. The CBA leaders went to jail.
The consequences were not good. Newspapers reported about those who had lost their jobs. Some had died in poverty and some had committed suicide. One of the corrupt and brazen CBA leaders died in prison, perhaps committing suicide. I knew his father. I saw how the family lamented. I had also seen how unjustified demands had forcefully been realised. That is why I have been recalling the government of president Sattar.
When any particular group grows stronger than the government, then there is no end to public helplessness. How does a government become so weak in front of a particular group? It is when the government moves away from its moral and constitutional stand, that it bows its head in subservience.
Public transport is an essential service, but it seems as if wanting to travel by bus or minibus itself is a crime. It is not as if they are riding for free. And if people don’t travel by bus, the transport owners will hardly be able to fill their burgeoning coffers with more wealth. But the passengers suffer. They are insulted by the bus drivers and helpers. Some are even physically beaten. Even old men and women commuters are manhandled and roughly shoved in and out of the buses. The passengers are treated like cattle. It’s not that all passengers are angels, but in most cases the bus authorities are at fault.
There is no guarantee either that the buses will halt at the specified stops. They may slow somewhat for the passengers to scramble off the running bus. Passengers have been injured in this manner, even died, but no one takes responsibility. No one has even spent a week on jail for such crimes.
The city commuters struggle from the start of day. They wait on the pavements as packed buses and minibuses pass by, passengers even hanging from the doorways.
The women face a worse situation. They are repressed at home, oppressed at work and harassed in public transport. It’s even worse if the woman is young and attractive.
Why is there such a crisis of public transport in the city? Where are the red BRTC buses? If they are leased out, then what’s the point in keeping BRTC at all? Why are so many of the government buses lying in a state of disrepair? Why are the interests of the private bus and minibus owners so precious? How long will only their interests be protected?
There is a high-level road safety committee headed by road and bridges minister Obaidul Quader. The other members include ministers and other important persons. The government has made me a member too, as a representative of the civil society. But when the meetings are held after every three or four months, my words are drowned out by the shouts and loud voices of the transport owners and workers. They have the power to enforce strikes, I don’t.
It is obvious that the authorities can’t solve the problem with their mobile courts. It is a political issue now and can only be resolved politically.
*Syed Maksud Ahmed is a writer and researcher.
*The article originally published in Prothom Alo print edition is rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.