Political controversies over politicians going on leave are not so uncommon. Back in the days of sixties and seventies Maulana Bhasani would often whisk himself away on leave on ‘health grounds’ whenever he would get fed up of the leadership clashes among his followers. When the conflicts would be resolved, he would bounce back to good health and his leave would end. In more recent times, the former army ruler HM Ershad was at the centre of such a political fiasco too when members of the security forces announced his illness and took him to a hospital. And we all know that while staying at the hospital he not only played golf, but was also elected member of parliament without even entering into the fray.
However, such a flurry of discussion and debate over the leave of a non-political person holding a constitutional office, has been unprecedented. Our chief justice Surendra Kumar Sinha has gone on leave. News of his taking leave on health grounds came from two government offices - the attorney general and the law minister.
Many were taken aback by this news. His taking leave on the very day that the court opened after a long vacation gave rise to much speculation. In response to all the speculation, the law minister Anisul Huq said, “Can’t he fall ill?” It is true that the constitutional office of the chief justice cannot protect Surendra Kumar Sinha from any illness!
We do not remember the sickness or leave of any other chief justice giving rise to such incessant discussion. We are hardly ever aware of when the president, prime minister or chief justice, all holding constitutional posts, fall ill or are going on leave.
When the president and prime minister go abroad, they carry out their regular office duties from wherever they are. However, in keeping with the constitution, when the chief justice travels abroad, the senior most judge of the Appellate Division takes over in his stead. Accordingly, referring to Article 97, the law minister explained that Justice Mohammed Abdul Wahhab Miah was taking over as chief justice. Justice Wahhab Miah has taken over as the acting chief since last Tuesday. However, the president and general secretary of the Supreme Court Bar Association and many other senior lawyers continue to express suspicion about the chief justice’s leave - particularly on health ground.
It is generally thought that the main reason chief justice SK Sinha’s leave has generated so much discussion and debate, is political. And the government’s repeated attempts to project this as ‘normal’, simply gives rise to further doubt. Public curiosity was piqued further when the law minister displayed the chief justice’s letter to the president informing about the leave at a press conference.
After all, the confidentiality of such a private communication between the head of state and the head of the judiciary was violated.
Then again, there are the series of events leading up to the chief justice going on leave which cannot be ignored. Everyone is aware that by scrapping the 16th amendment, the power to remove judges of the Supreme Court was no longer in the hands of the parliament or to be more precise in the hands of the executive branch. This irked the government and the ruling party.
And certain observations on the country’s past and present politics served to add fuel to the fire. The manner in which some ministers and members of parliament castigated the chief justice inside and outside the parliament, was certainly not normal. It was not just the parliamentarians that displayed great discomfort at his holding the highest office of the judiciary. Some ministers openly said that he would be forced to leave the country. Leaders at all levels in the ruling party criticised him to no end. Even though seven judges of the Appellate Division were unanimous in their verdict to scrap the 16th amendment, the entire political pressure fell upon the chief justice SK Sinha alone. It was said that some of his observations in the judgement were irrelevant and objectionable. Pro-government lawyers were boycotting all of the chief justice’s programmes. We were told that the government was planning to pursue the course of legal remedy. Yet, the issue of his leave is remains the talk of the town.
The statements and comments of the ruling party leaders and activists have created a sort of political pressure which certainly is not normal. At a national mourning day programme this year, the chief justice Sinha himself said that he had returned home from Singapore where he was undergoing cancer treatment, simply to conduct the hearing of the Bangabandhu killing case. So has his cancer not been cured? Or has it appeared again? He had been attending office regularly until the afternoon that his leave was announced. He wasn’t so sick that he had to be rushed from the court to the hospital. He simply returned home and even over the past week wasn’t admitted into hospital. Several physicians of the country called upon him, but, none had suggested his shifting to a hospital. He visited the Dhakeswari temple for puja with his wife and also went to a visa agency. The health tests he underwent at ICDDRB were nothing new. He has taken these tests before too. There is no end to speculations on his ailments.
In an interview with the Prothom Alo, law minister Anisul Huq said the registrar general’s office of the court is supposed to announce the matter of the chief justice going on leave. The judiciary has no separate secretariat. The news did not come from the registrar general’s office, but from the office of the attorney general. Then again, the law minister said he had informed the attorney general about the leave. It seems as if some quarters are pretty pleased that the chief justice has gone off on leave.
Many lawyers of the ruling party have averred that it was wrong to enact a law such as the 16th amendment to make the judges of the Supreme Court accountable to the parliament. Even the law minister of the immediate past Awami League government was of this opinion. Now there is a move to hold the chief justice SK Sinha singularly responsible for scrapping this law. Such a stance may not be a boost to the government’s image. It is not clear why certain leaders allege that the chief justice has been hatching conspiracies against the government. If the government really has evidence against him, they should make this public. The government had been so proud of appointing this individual, and now they are casting such aspersions against him. This raises questions about the government’s own capacity of assessment.
Law minister Anisul Huq told a private TV channel that the chief justice SK Sinha is supposed to retire on 1 February next year. So before that he can return and perform his duties of office. The government will not take any initiative to appoint a new chief justice before that. We hope his words remain true and that leave means leave, not farewell. An undignified exit of the chief justice will not bode well. It is undeniable that chief justice SK Sinha played a vital role in settling the Bangabandhu killing case appeal and ensuring the trial of the war criminals.
While all this controversies continued in the political arena, the world’s focus was on the Nobel prize for science, literature and peace. Despitethe entire hullabaloo, our attention was there too. Last week the Nobel prize for literature was announced. The recipient was an English novelist of Japanese origin, Kazuo Ishiguro. Who knows when another Bengali will win the Nobel for literature? Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore still remains an inspiration. The poet had several poems on ‘leave’ or ‘holidays’ too. There was the rhyme we learnt in our childhood, “Aajamaderchhuti, o bhai, aajamaderchhuti” (“It’s a holiday today, brother, it’s a holiday today”). There was another poem of his in the collection ‘Balaka’ written 101 years ago. It seems pertinent to quote from it, though much may be lost in translation:
‘When you called me near
With love so dear
To remain by your side,
Night and day I quaked in fear,
Lest I pushed that love aside…
… Freedom has come along
Resounding in the freedom song
On the neglected wounds it’s been bestowed,
In the drumbeat of towns and villages echoed.
It’s time for me to leave, time for me to part
Broken now lies the pillar of my heart…”
* Kamal Ahmed is a senor journalist and consultant editor of Prothom Alo. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.