Small men in big posts

There was a time when persons of high calibre were placed in high positions. No matter what their physique may have been, they were lofty in conscience and considerations, in thought and intellect, in patriotism and efficiency. Things gradually underwent a change. “Small” men are now in big posts. It is rare that one can find a man of lofty ideals in a high position.

How were these lofty persons in high positions? And why are small men now getting these big offices? This piece deliberates on these two apparently simple questions.

The judiciary

Let’s begin with the judiciary. After all, the judiciary is the pinnacle of assessing justice and injustice.

For quite some time now, albeit irregularly, I take walks in Gulshan Park. Over a decade ago when I was walking one day, I saw an elderly white-haired man walking alone. I was a fast walker at the time and as I crossed him, I offered my salaam. I then saw it was the former chief justice Mustafa Kamal.

I slowed my pace, introduced myself and began to walk along with him. The best topic to start up a conversation with an unacquainted or little acquainted person is the weather. It was winter then, and it had just rained.

I started by talking about the untimely shower. And in response, he reeled off one adage after another about untimely rain. I still remember two: one was about rain in the month of Poush bringing about a delay in rice produced in month of Agrahayan. This pushed up both demand and prices, and so even paddy husks sold for money. The other was about rain in Agrahayan being beneficial for jackfruits. He would give a social, economic and even meteorological explanation to all these wise folklore proverbs. Rather than addressing the former chief justice as “sir”, I would call him my elder, my respected senior. We would often talk on wise elders in the context of various issues.

One day he spoke about the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy and the Muslim astronomer Ibnul Hisham. In this manner we would discuss the Greek and Arab philosophers, the political and social scientists.

It was from the former chief justice Mustafa Kamal that I learnt that it was the Muslims who first introduced modern hospitals. By changing the direction and pace of my walking, I got to learn so much from him. To my misfortunate, not long after that he fell ill and stopped coming to the park. And I was deprived to gaining more knowledge from this walking encyclopaedia.

One morning on a holiday we went to the Hare Road residence of Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman (later chief justice) to consult him on whether or not to file a career-related case. He came down the stairs of his duplex government residence simply clad in a white punjabi and lungi. He refrained from discussing the issue to avoid being influenced in any way regarding the case in future. However, when he heard we had just come from watching a play at Bailey Road, he launched into the heritage of Bengal's theatre and we chatted for around an hour over hot tea and dal puri. I learnt from him that the traditional drama of Bengal was a basically a balanced blend of dance, song, story, acting and plot. There used to be a stage at the centre surrounded by the audience. I also got to learn so much about different forms of our theatre -- jatra, Ramlila, natpala, kalikach, Bishharir pala, jari gaan, kichcha gaan, bicchhedi gaan, gambhira, shongjatra, kabi gaan, bichar gaan and putul naach.

There was a time when people would bow before judges of the Supreme Court in reverence and respect. Now we hear of groupings in the judiciary. Has anyone ever heard of Justice Mustafa Kamal or Muhammad Habibur Rahman being involved in any political party!

Civil administration

At the start of my career, at the Civil Officers Training Academy (COTA) I got to meet Khalid Shams, who was both tall in height and in stature as a man. I met Mosharraf Hossain CSP, Shegufta Baksh Chowdhury, Chowdhury AKM Aminul Huq, Nurul Hossain Khan, and others.

Some of them were very serious, but not unsocial. I remember, after office I had met with the CSP secretary brothers Nasim Uddin and Azim Uddin at Dhaka Club on some official work. I had never seen them in the company of any controversial businessmen. I saw them socialising with foreign secretary Abul Ahsan and a professor of Charukala (Fine Arts Institute). But regardless of their physical stature, they were all big men in high positions.

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Police administration

When we joined government service, the IGP had been ABMG Kibria. He left teaching at the university to join police service. Mahmudul Huq of our batch joined police service. He had left teaching at Chittagong University to join the police and then returned there again.

Another IGP of our batch, Khuda Baksh, told us when he had been at the Sarda Academy, the principal introduced the new cadets to IGP Kibria, saying "They are very brilliant sir, one of them was a university teacher." When the principal repeated this, IGP Kibria said, "As principal of the academy you should know better, that has always been the standard of recruitment in the service." Needless to say, IGP ABMG Kibria and ASM Shahjahan were men of towering stature.

National Board of Revenue

Shah Abdul Hannan and Manzur Mannan, as members of the National Board of Revenue (NBR) were the epitome of integrity. Even after being assaulted by miscreants on the Dhaka-Chattogram highway, they made no compromise where the interests of the government's revenue were concerned.

I met member (income tax) Iftekhar Ahmed, who would buy old copies of the New Yorker magazine from Nilkhet and hand these over to me when he finished reading. They could never imagine dabbling in corruption. They were all big men in big posts.

Corruption has taken on proportions of an epidemic, financial and social systems have collapsed, and above all, public interests have been dashed to the ground

Bangladesh Bank

I saw the solemn and serious Shegufta Baksh Chowdhury as the governor of Bangladesh Bank. Then there was Lutfur Rahman Sarkar who had come from a private bank. He had been assaulted by miscreants in his own office, but did not compromise on principles.

Then I saw three PhD governors, Farashuddin, Fakhruddin Ahmad and Salehuddin Ahmed. While some of them may have had political stands, all three of them were professional. Their PhDs were earned through study and research.

Now let's come to why small men are in big positions.

Crony rule

Our democratic system of government has been transformed into a crony rule. The cronies in this rule are corrupt politicians and a sector of dishonest businesspersons. They have been joined by a section of teachers, and military, civil, police, revenue, judicial and bank officials. They are the ones who pull up the persons of their choice and place them in high positions so the crony interests are protected.

As a result, corruption has taken on proportions of an epidemic, financial and social systems have collapsed, and above all, public interests have been dashed to the ground.

In the interests of national existence, we must bring back lofty persons to top positions. That is the only antidote to the Aziz-Benazir-Matiur epidemic.

* Muhammad Fouzul Kabir Khan is former secretary and economist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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