All are equal in the eyes of law, Haji Salim is a bit more equal

Haji Salim

Before coming to the topic of the father, Haji Salim, let's talk about the son, Irfan Salim. He drives a huge flashy vehicle around town and if any other car or motorcycle gets in his way, he doesn't hesitate to get down and rough up the driver. But on 25 October 2020 things didn't quite go his way.

He was in his massive vehicle that day too, with a 'Member of Parliament' sticker prominently on display, when a motorbike rider incurred his displeasure. He and his men got down and beat up the bike rider, but it turned out that their victim so happened to a naval officer. The incident immediately went viral on Facebook live. If any common person like us is slapped and assaulted, it makes no difference, but in the Bangladesh context, this was no 'common' man and things turned sour for Irfan. He had to go to jail.

A case was filed against Irfan. The very next day RAB carried out a raid on his house, led by the well-known executive magistrate Sarwar Alam. Not giving two hoots to Article 22 of the constitution, even today the mobile court operates under an executive magistrate at the behest of government bureaucrats and magistrate Sarwar Alam has earned quite a reputation too.

Based on intelligence information, the raid was carried out at the Chan Sardar building on Debidas Lane in Chawk Bazar. Irfan's personal staff Zahidul was frisked and a black pistol, 406 yaba tablets and two cell phones were seized. Irfan Salim's bedroom was then searched where an illegal foreign pistol, magazine and beer were recovered. Air guns, knives, Chinese axes, foreign liquor, walkie-talkie sets, handcuffs and a drone were recovered from around the house. All these items were seized upon directives of executive magistrate Sarwar Alam.

There is never a dull moment in this country. One sensational incident occurs after the other and we forget the preceding ones. That is why we perhaps have not kept tabs on what was the eventual consequence of all that flurry of events at Irfan Salim's house. We will come back to that after finishing our discussion on Irfan's father.

Haji Salim could have been an excellent example used in the government propaganda about the 'excellent rule of law prevailing in the country.' He could have been sent to jail and the government spokespersons could have cried themselves hoarse, spewing out rhetoric about the government's zero tolerance towards corruption, with such a powerful leader and MP of the government being sent to jail for corruption. We recall just a few years ago how the government touted their cleansing operation when Samrat, GM Shamim, Papia and the likes were sent to jail. But apparently Haji Salim's clout is much more than the use of such propaganda and so he did not have to go to prison.

In the reports and op-ed of some newspapers, an exclamation mark was used about Haji Salim going abroad. But if you know Bangladesh and keep tabs on the country, this really is nothing to be surprised about. Then again, even if he was detained, that would be nothing to be surprised about either. We would understand that this was nothing to do with the so-called 'long arm of the law', but just the consequence of the party's inner equations.

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It was mid-2020. All flights to and from the country were shut down due to coronavirus. The civil aviation authorities were only permitting certain selected emergency flights of a few private aircraft with permission from high up. On 25 May 2020 two special 'patients' flew from the country to Bangkok by a private plane. The 'patients' were managing director of the Sikder Group, Ron Haque Sikder and his brother Dipu Haque Sikder.

These two brothers were accused in a case for attempting to murder to bank officials. They went abroad despite the arrest warrant against them. We surely remember the sequence that followed -- they came back, were arrested, were granted bail and them both were let off hook when the police submitted their report to absolve them from the case, and the court acquiesced.

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Back to Irfan Salim. The police report stated that in the raid carried out in public, Irfan Salim was not found to be guilty. The reasons were shown to be errors in the investigation report, the location being incorrect, and no evidence. Mostly importantly, the final report said, "RAB's executive magistrate Sarwar Alam was present at the time, but he refused to give any statement to the investigating officer."

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We need to look at another section of the final report about the seized pistol. It was written, "Though the investigation report and the list of seized items indicated that the pistol was in Irfan's bedroom, it was actually not there. It was in the guest room. Some person or persons had placed the pistol in his guest room with the ulterior motive of destroying Irfan's political career, damaging his dignity and humiliating him."

If Haji Salim's son is given such misplaced, unlawful and unjust indulgence, then surely we understand how things will be for Haji Salim himself. It is like we understood how things would turn out for the two Sikder brothers.

Speaking to a TV channel about the issue of Haji Salim going abroad unobstructed, a former justice of the Appellate Division referred to the law in this regard, saying that there is no way that he could be given permission to go abroad. These words were absolutely unnecessary in the context of this country. It is a joke to quote the law and talk about what is legal and what is illegal in Bangladesh.

When the topic of the rule of law is raised, when Article 27 is brought to attention about everyone being equal in the eyes of the law, the novel 'Animal Farm' comes to mind. George Orwell wrote this book as a satire of the communist system. In the novel, all the animals on a farm revolt and remove the human owner. Then all the animals take over to rule the farm on their own and usher in equality. Seven laws were enforced after the revolution on the farm. The first six were that, any two-legged being was the enemy, if the two-legged being had two wings, then it was not the enemy, no animal could wear clothes, sleep on a bed, drink alcohol or kill other animals. The seventh law was the most important. It stated, 'all animals are equal'.

At a certain point, circumstances began to change. Certain animals put forward various reasons to increase their own benefits. And the rules and regulations began to be bent and broken one after the other. Only one rule remained intact, rule no. 7. But that too was not untouched. It was amended to, 'all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'

'Equal' is an absolute adjective which can't be more or less. It's like 'pregnant', no one can be more pregnant or less pregnant. But George Orwell created an extraordinary and immortal use of the word 'equal'.

When we are told how long the arm of the law is, when we have to listen to the rhetoric of how 'everyone is equal in the eyes of the law', we also know how in this country there are many who are 'more equal'. It is not that just powerful persons like Salim and Sikder are 'more equal', these 'more equals' have spread down to the grassroots. Surely there is no need to elaborate who are the ones who become 'more equal' in the eyes of the law in this country.

* Zahed Ur Rahman is a teacher at the Independent University of Bangladesh

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