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A question of ministerial irresponsibility

  • Published at 12:24 pm August 1st, 2018
An outraged nation
An outraged nation / MEHEDI HASAN

It would have shown moral courage, but we do not expect the shipping minister to resign

Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan has clearly missed the point. He has wanted to know if his resignation from the cabinet, as demanded by so many people around the country, will bring accidents on our roads to an end. 

That is rather disingenuous on his part. At a time when even the prime minister is said to be upset by his cavalier attitude towards the death of two students under the wheels of a freewheeling bus this week, his attempts to make light of the matter did not impress anyone. His insensitivity shone bright when he brought in the issue of the deaths in a road accident in India’s Maharashtra state, ostensibly as his way of telling us that if mishaps can occur in India, they might as well happen in Bangladesh too. 

Anyone watching him carry himself before the media would have noticed the bad way in which he was doing all he could to look away from the issue. He interrupted reporters’ questions, did not let them finish, and all the while tried expanding on his Maharashtra idea through smiles that would not go away.

In that room and beyond, it was an outraged nation, outraged not merely because the minister was busily engaged in deflecting the conversation to areas that were not relevant at that point, but also because he clearly did not deem it necessary to offer his condolences on the death of the two young individuals in question. 

And now, he is keen on knowing if his resignation will lead to a drop in, or even an end to, mishaps on the road. That is not the point. In any meaningful democracy, where governance rests on the principle of accountability, it is the moral responsibility of ministers to resign when disaster strikes on their watch. 

Ah, but Shahjahan Khan is not the minister in charge of road communications or transport. Why then, should this question of his departure from the cabinet arise? We do have, in case you tend to forget, a minister to look to our roads and bridges. 

We have not heard anything from him on the death of the two students. Nor have we had any response from him on all earlier spells of tragedy on the roads.

Should Obaidul Quader -- he is the Minister for Road Transport and Bridges -- offer to resign? The question gives you food for thought. Meanwhile, what is it about Shahjahan Khan that arouses our justified fury every time a speeding bus or truck rides roughshod over a pedestrian? After all, his portfolio is shipping. 

How do buses come into the sphere of shipping? Well, they don’t. It just so happens that Shahjahan Khan is, in addition to his ministerial responsibilities, in the leadership of the nation’s road transport workers’ union. That gives him a huge advantage in wielding power and influence in the administration. Over the years, he has made sure that no drivers whose erratic moves behind the wheels of moving vehicles leave people dead on our roads and highways are hauled up by the law. 

Citizens have had the life going out of them under those vehicles, but that has not dampened the ardour of those bus drivers in their race for passengers, and for more dead people, on the roads. They know they will not be touched, not by the law, not by God, not by the police -- because they have a minister to provide them with foolproof protection from the instruments of justice.

And do remember, even as you let your imagination rove across the landscape of ministerial irresponsibility, that the shipping minister not long ago presided over a series of meetings of the collective bargaining agents (CBAs) of banks in the precincts of Bangladesh Bank. Had the finance minister done that job, had his deputy been there, one would understand. 

But here was our minister for shipping, stepping well beyond his specific area of responsibility and venturing into territory clearly not his. Did Finance Minister AMA Muhith ask for an explanation from him? Did the prime minister take him to task for such transgressions? We do not have the answers to our questions, but we do know what the answers are or will be or could be or should have been. 

We, as citizens, note the conflict of interest which is at work in Shahjahan Khan’s politics. He is a minister as well as a trade union leader. A purposeful democracy would make sure that he chose either of the two jobs. But since our democracy remains a tentative and tenuous affair, no one asks any question, no one tells the minister that he cannot wear two hats at the same time. 

The constitution enjoins upon him the sacred duty of serving the people, all the people, of Bangladesh. But that trade union role has taken him away from that role and into one where he serves a segment of society. 

To come back to Minister Shahjahan Khan’s resignation query, the answer is simple. No, his resignation will not turn our roads into havens of placidity. But if he does call up the courage or the magnanimity to resign, the nation will breathe a needed sigh of relief. 

And it will do so in the knowledge that the impunity with which the drivers of buses and trucks have for long flattened people to death on the roads and highways of the country will come to a screeching halt, that the rule of law will finally prevail over ministerial authoritarianism, that civilized behaviour will take over on the streets where mob rule has long been the bad norm.

But we do not expect Minister Shahjahan Khan to resign. Resignation? What resignation? There was bad wheat imported from abroad, but did the minister for food resign? The son-in-law of the minister for disaster management was convicted in the Narayanganj seven-murder case, but did the minister take moral responsibility and resign? The minister for law told us not long ago that the chief justice of the Supreme Court was ill, but on his way out of the country the chief justice let us in on the truth -- that he had not been ill. Did the minister for law resign?

But yes, there have been those rare tales of moral courage and political integrity which keep our faith in democracy alive. The young Sohel Taj, unwilling to indulge or tolerate nonsense in governance, resigned when impediments were placed in his way. He did not look back. Clinging to power was not his view of life and its deeper meanings. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist. 

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