Prothom Alo: BNP declared the parliament to have no legitimacy and so delayed in joining. Do you still think this was a correct decision?
Rumeen Farhana: The initial decision not to join parliament was well justified. The election was questioned both at home and abroad and our leaders and workers were in shock. Then we thought that the parliament could be used to highlight the manner in which our people are being harassed and repressed. BNP’s joining parliament must be viewed from that angle.
Prothom Alo: What have you or your party, specifically speaking, gained by joining the parliament?
Rumeen Farhana: I have only attended the budget session so perhaps it is still too early for me to comment on the parliamentary proceedings. However, I need to say that before we joined parliament, the government had assured us that no matter how few we were in number, we would be given ample time and opportunity to speak in the House. But reality has been different.
On the first day in parliament, I couldn’t speak for even 10 seconds. According to the rules of parliament, it is the Speaker who allocates the time for a member to speak. She can allow whoever she wants to speak, and also has the right not to allow them to speak for even one minute. The 1972 constitution had been drawn up on the Westminster model. Their Speakers allows four to five minutes to speak during debates and if that is obstructed, then the procedure committee ensures that ‘injury time’ is added.
Prothom Alo: So far how much of what you have said has been expunged as unparliamentary? Have you seen the records?
Rumeen Farhana: Perhaps the deputy speaker expunged my statement that the parliament has not been elected by the people. But I am not sure about that. There was a lot of chaos in the parliament at the time and I had been speaking about forced disappearances, abductions, killings and extrajudicial killings. I have not been able to see the records. Those words hadn’t been expunged in the script I saw later. Nothing should be expunged. The parliament must have documentation.
Prothom Alo: What is your view about the prevailing law-making process in parliament by your party and the others?
Rumeen Farhana: I feel that the parliamentarians can play a role in the prevailing process of formulating laws. They can add or detract or amend the laws. I witnessed the passage of two bills where all the amendments came from the opposition bench. The ruling party did not make a single suggestion for amendment. It is as if only the opposition has the responsibility to propose amendments to the laws.
Prothom Alo: When the budget was placed in parliament, there was criticism from the treasury bench too. The general people outside of the parliament protested too. What is your assessment of this?
Rumeen Farhana: My budget speech was about the exploitative economy. This economy is taking money from the pockets of common people and handing it over to a particular group to make them even wealthier.
I spoke about a welfare state. The allocations in the education, health and social security sectors certainly do not indicate a welfare state. These allocations are much less than that of other South Asian countries. The budget was passed with no initiative to address these concerns.
The ruling party, even the leader of the house herself, had spoken about the interest on savings certificates, but nothing was done about that. Ironically, the judiciary was given the least budget allocation. A lot may have been said, but the bottom line is that the budget was passed more or less as proposed.
Prothom Alo: What do you think about the parliamentary standing committees? Will you or your party be given priority there?
Rumeen Farhana: I just joined a committee last week. This is the parliamentary standing committee of the law, justice and parliamentary affairs ministry. I still haven’t attended any meeting of the committee but I want to place priority on the independence of the judiciary.
A lot of questions have arisen about the judiciary in recent times. I will try to work on these, particularly about the log jam of over three million cases, appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and a proper separation of the judiciary in light of the Masdar Hossain case. In line with the Appellate Division, I also maintain that only the Supreme Court should have control over the lower court judges. I also want to focus on immediate amendment of the law pertaining to contempt of court and the digital security act.
Prothom Alo: The law minister may shortly ask for a review of the 16th amendment. How will your party react?
Rumeen Farhana: Shaheed president Ziaur Rahman could have retained the authority to remove judges as in the 4th amendment but instead formed the Supreme Judicial Council. If there is to be independence of the judiciary, then the appointment and removal of judges must be kept in the hands of the judges themselves. We want the verdict to be upheld.
Prothom Alo: Elected representatives have been given authority in all local government tiers except in the district administration. The zila parishad has no control over the district administration. And the zila parishad is not elected through direct votes.
Rumeen Farhana: Section 25 of the upazila parishad act allows for members of parliament to exert their authority by being appointed as advisors. This will not bode well for anyone. The fact remains that many people are eager to become members of parliament simply because of the local development projects. That is why not many of the parliament members have the education qualifications or the political acumen to be parliamentarians.
Prothom Alo: You all are vocal in parliament about the release of Khaleda Zia. Why are you not seeking parole?
Rumeen Farhana: She could have been released on parole long ago. Given the merit of her case, her age and her being a woman, she easily qualifies for bail. The 160 million people of Bangladesh are fully aware of why she is behind bars.
Prothom Alo: Ershad has passed away. Who will be the leader of opposition in parliament now?
Rumeen Farhana: You can hardly differentiate between the treasury bench and the opposition in this parliament. Other than us seven BNP members, I don’t see any real opposition to the government in this parliament. There is a glaring lack of constructive criticism against the government.
JaPa has two factions and it is to be seen what happens now that Ershad has passed away. The BNP was not there when this parliament was formed. The Speaker is to determine the leader of the opposition, it is not a matter of numbers. If she chooses from the BNP, she will set a bright example before the people.
Prothom Alo: Tarique Rahman is self-exiled and Khaleda Zia is imprisoned. If this situation prevails till the next election, why will people have hope in the BNP forming the next parliament?
Rumeen Farhana: It is true that the acting chairman is in exile, but he is in constant communication. He has regular meetings through Skype with the district and upazila leaders too. Our standing committee and other committees are all active. I see no difficulties in the party.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Rumeen Farhana: Thank you.
*This interview, published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir