DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF DEMOCRACY – II : F R Chowdhury (1st)
A few days back I wrote the first article under this heading. In Bangladesh they often say with pride that they follow the parliamentary democracy in line with the Westminster. That is why my comparison has been mostly drawn with practice and procedures followed in the United Kingdom. I stated earlier that I visited no less than fifty different countries all over the world. In many of those countries I had the opportunity of visiting Bangladesh missions. The thing that always caught my attention is the portrait of the prime minister in the office room of the ambassador/ high commissioner. On one occasion at least I asked the ambassador about it and he explained that there was a government directive about it. I did not try to dig the matter any further. Whether there is in truth any such directive or it is over enthusiasm of the ambassador, the practice of using the portrait of the prime minister is wrong. The ambassador represents the state and the head of the state. He brings his credentials from the head of the state i.e. the president. It is appropriate to display the portrait of the president as it is in his name that everything operates.
The foreign minister is the head of the foreign affairs and the prime minister is the head of the government. It is understood the ambassador/ high commissioner will conduct his/ her routine duties and functions under the guidance and supervision of the government but fact remains that government itself is working on behalf of the president. The mission should display the portrait of the father of the nation and that of the current head of the state.
In part – I of the series I dealt with relations between the state and the government. I made it very clear that the president as the head of the state appoints a government (elected by the people) to run the state on his behalf. Today I intend to discuss the relationship between the government and the civil servants. The civil servants are state’s employees. They are appointed by or on behalf of the president. However, their services are always placed at the disposal of the government no matter whichever government is in power. In the greater interest of the state, the civil servants should render their services to the government with utmost sincerity and devotion.
The government develops its policy and takes up plans for new projects. The civil servants execute those to the satisfaction of the government. The government (respective minister) provides the general guidance and supervises the work done by civil servants. Civil servants have defined roles and responsibility. They shall work under the law of the land and guidance of the government. The ministers can oversee. The minister may raise question, ask for explanations or even take disciplinary action against a civil servant if s/he fails to do something or does it wrong. What the minister cannot do is to tell in advance what to do or how to do. The minister cannot even exert his/ her influence over the civil servant in respect of delegated function. The civil servant must work in a free and fair way without any fear of political influence. Any attempt by the minister to dictate over the civil servant would mean unlawful interference and acting beyond the powers.
I was a civil servant in the UK for many years. I was originally employed through the then CSC (Civil Service Commission) in the marine division of the department of transport. Later my services were transferred to the newly created MCA (Maritime & Coastguard Agency) as this agency headed by a chief executive was designated as the national maritime administration. The chief executive was responsible for execution and compliance of the provisions of the merchant shipping act and would report to the government (secretary of state for transport). In other words the chief executive was responsible and answerable to the minister. It is to be noted that the chief executive was never made answerable to the permanent secretary (in Bangladesh known as secretary to the government). The permanent secretary would step in only when the minister would send a particular matter to him. We issued all approvals, exemptions or extensions under the provision of the law and such documents would normally be signed by an officer not below grade-7 on behalf of the secretary of state. This is how all delegated functions and duties were executed. I never saw any routine matter being forwarded to the ministry for their knowledge and action as in Bangladesh most matters are forwarded for “saday obogoti abong poroborti nirdesh”. I never saw any specific instruction in advance on any matter from the ministry. Sometimes we came across papers received by the ministry and then forwarded to us for their disposal under the law. Such papers would be forwarded to us with no comments, views or advice.
The home secretary (secretary of state in charge of home affairs) appoints a director for nationality and immigration. With the appointment of the director, all powers vested in him (home secretary) under the law is automatically delegated to the director. The director, of course, remains responsible and answerable to the secretary of state. The secretary of state will ensure proper supervision and monitoring as he remains responsible to the prime minister and the parliament. Anything goes wrong; the minister shall take the blame and resign.
Now we have an example of the true spirit of democracy. There was a secretary of state for home affairs named David Blanket. He had a Filipino domestic aid. This lady had a pending case with the home office about her residential status. It is not known if the minister was aware of it or not. Whenever, the minister asked for her, she was away in the home office. The minister got very angry. One morning he asked his secretary to ring up the immigration director to find what the problem was. The minister was told the problem had been resolved.
In a day or two the minister faced a question in the parliament accusing him of exercising his influence over the immigration director in discharging his duties. The minister said that the telephone call was merely to know the status of the case. The answer was not acceptable because a minister was not supposed to inquire about a pending case. The minister’s action was regarded as unwanted interference in discharging public duties and considered unethical on the part of a minister. The minister apologised and tendered his resignation. This is true spirit of democracy.
As a minister Mr. Blanket had every right to see into the matter in case of an appeal to him against the decision of the director. He could overturn the decision or even call for further explanation or even take disciplinary action against the director. However, he could not interfere in a delegated function. The democratic system has every provision for check and balance. But there must be clear evidence of every job being discharged in the right manner by the person responsible for it under law of the land.
The police act of every country would clearly define the role and responsibility of the force in ensuring law and order. With the appointment of an inspector general or director general, all powers vested in the government are automatically delegated and transferred to the IGP or DG, as the case may be. A good law will evidently state that the IGP or DG shall ensure execution and compliance of the provisions of the law and shall eventually be responsible and answerable to the government (secretary of state or minister). The minister will oversee so that the force acts diligently. He may even hold review meetings with senior officers to review their performance and give general guidance without prejudice to any hidden political agenda or motive. The minister shall ensure that the force is never used directly or indirectly for political gains. The minister shall always bear in mind that he is a part of the government appointed by the head of the state to run the state on his behalf. All citizens must enjoy equal justice, rights and opportunities. The minister can question any action but cannot advice in advance about any course of action.
This system of check and balance should continue at every level. The IGP or DG should also allow the regional/ area heads to work with an open mind without any fear or influence. He (IGP or DG) is to oversee and monitor to ensure proper compliance at every level. He can raise questions or ask for explanations or even take disciplinary action where necessary. What he cannot do is to tell in advance what to do or how to do. This chain of command is the essence of democracy. Nobody should say I was advised to do so. Everybody should stand for what s/he has done. This will reduce chances of corruption to a large extent.
In the United Kingdom there is IPCC (Independent Police Complaint Commission) to look into any death in custody or application of violent force by police. I have stated in part – I of this series that in Bangladesh the Commissioner of Human Rights should have the powers to order judicial inquiry into all such cases. Extra judicial killing in the name of gun battle is not acceptable in any civilized society.
I have to also write about the bad practice by police in Bangladesh of publicly parading persons apprehended by them in front of media and camera. The worst is to divulge information obtained from such persons. These people must be treated as innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The police should produce them to a court with supporting evidence including confession, if any. Human dignity must be respected.
I am surprised as to why the Bangladesh minister never asked police as to why BNP was never given permission for political gathering in Suhrawardi Uddyan when BAL, Chatra League and even jubo league were given permission. This certainly does not reflect fair treatment without prejudice to political consideration. The government is supposed to be for the whole nation and not for a particular political group.
Bangladesh urgently requires legal and administrative reforms to establish rule of law. We must have proper system to enjoy the fruit of democracy. Deeper understanding of democracy must be reflected in our social and political lives. I shall soon come with part – III of this series dealing with other aspects of democracy. Mean time I would like to hear other views on the matter.