Right to ask questions

Asif Nazrul | Update:

The Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate (CIID) raided the jewellery shop owned by the father of the prime accused in Banani rape case.My daughter is now appearing in the school finals. She’s a third grader at an English medium school. Her history book has a piece on the Greek philosopher Socrates. As she read about him, she came running to me, shocked. Socrates was forced to die drinking Hemlock on charges of instigating his disciples’ curiousity. My daughter asked, “How can it be an offence to encourage questions? Why was posing questions an offence in Greece?”

My daughter is unaware that asking a question is an offence even today in many countries like Bangladesh, though questions make people conscious and inspire them to think.

Inquiry encourages people to stand up against injustice. Accountability and transparency- the two pillars of good governance- are based on the liberty of raising questions. But powerful people in our society hate questions and suppress those who question.

It is in such a society that twisted persons of unlimited wealth, like the rapists of Banani, are born. People plunder state-owned banks but remain safe. Nine persons go missing in span of three days, but people are forced to keep mum.

The parliament is responsible for raising questions against misrule, injustice and such anomalies. Previously there was an opposition bench in the parliament which held the government accountable and and raised questions in the parliamentary standing committees on various policies. The treasury bench had to answer the questions. Nowadays, there is no effective opposition in the parliament. Issues like crossfire, disappearance, unbalanced treaties with India, corruption in road construction, bank scams, or question paper leakage, are not tabled in the parliament.

The other state forum for raising question is the court. But to escape questioning in the court, cases are withdrawn by the government. Police in many instances refrain from receiving case. Sometimes the way for raising issues in the High Court is blocked, such as in the Sagar-Runi murder or Rampal power plant cases. The current chief justice also has been target of government criticism for his efforts to establish an independent judiciary.

The civil society was another bastion of protest. But most of the civil society members have been tamed by some unknown fear and on various grounds.The civil society members were successful against the Phulbari coal mine, but many of them evade the on-going movement against Rampal power plant. The civil society was vociferous against Yasmin murder in Dinajpur, but turned mute over the Tonu murder in Comilla. Questions are not raised during press conferences of the ruling politicians. Such events have turned into forums of sycophancy. The anti-government media also have stopped raising questions due to various pressures.

In this question-less society, social media has been the only ray of hope for the inquisitive, protesting people. But this scope also curbed by various laws, repression and threats. 

The recent Banani rape incident is a glaring instance of the catastrophic situation of the question-less society. The Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate (CIID) raided the jewellery shop of the father of the prime rape accused and found many anomalies in its business. But why has CIID not gone to other jewellery houses with the same irregularities? The government agencies become active when a crime comes to limelight, but they do not raise question at other times. 

The guns carried by the accused in the rape incident have now been brought under investigation, but why the guns were not verified by the law enforcers previously? And why other gun owners remain unaddressed? 

The hotel involved in the incident has also been subject of repeated raids and investigations. Illegal liquor was said to have been found in the hotel. But the question is why other hotels are not searched regularly? Why is a company probed when accused, but subject to routine checks? 

The media revealed many reports on embezzlement of government bank money. The finance minister also spoke against a main culprit involved in plundering Basic Bank, but the man could be brought to book. Many other plunderers have fled the country safely. Why was the anti-corruption commission not active against them? How could the amount of default loan amount over Tk 1 trillion?

Questions raised against misrule in this country are feeble. Our politicians and civil society failed to voice their protests strongly. The rulers just ignore them. The Banani incident has taught us that we all must raise questions against misrule.

Asif Nazrul is professor of law, Dhaka University

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