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In democratic system, research and dissents should be countered with more research and another dissent, not through putting pressure. What happened with professor Tasneem Siddiqui will clearly discourage the university’s practice of freedom of thoughts and expression, and research. As a parliament researcher, this step of the parliamentary standing committee is disappointing for me as well.

Section 202 (1) of the rules of business of Jatiya Sangsad (parliament) has given the parliamentary standing committees the authority to summon any person, expert, information or document. Section 248 has given the parliamentary standing committees the jurisdiction to investigate into any affairs related to the concerned ministry. As a general rule, it is the responsibility of a citizen to respond to the call of the parliamentary standing committee. Parliament and its standing committees are responsible to ensure accountability of the administrative system. It is supposed that the parliament has the power to summon any government bureaucrat or official.

What happened with professor Tasneem Siddiqui will clearly discourage the university’s practice of freedom of thoughts and expression, and research

But as per the section 203 of the rules of business, the Speaker has the jurisdiction to give decision when questions are raised on the necessity of any summoning. The section said such issues have to be sent to the Speaker. We suppose president or member of any committee or any ministry official will do so if he is summoned. It seems any general citizen does not have the privilege to raise objections to the Speaker of parliament as the Speaker is not a trial court. People’s fundamental rights are well protected in the constitution. According to the constitution, there is no right to force any people to confess or issue statement on anything. The jurisprudence of Bangladesh Supreme Court says parliamentary committees, even the Jatiya Sangsad, is not beyond the constitutional limits.

Like Bangladesh, the US is also a country of constitutional sovereignty. Different committees of the US Congress investigate various issues continuously. It summons experts of different fields, witnesses and sometimes the accused. The US Supreme Court acknowledges that the Congress has the jurisdiction to summon any people before its committees or take actions on charges of contempt of the Congress if any person neglects the summon. But, the US Supreme Court has established, through its verdicts in Watkins v. United States (1957), United States v. Wilkins (1961) and Eastland v. United States Servicemen’s Fund (1975), that the Congress’ right to summon any citizen does not ultra vires the citizen’s constitutional rights. The Congress’ summon must be consistent with its essential legislative business.

What I want to say is, though the jurisdiction of any parliamentary standing committee to summon and seeking explanations is not denied, constitutional limitations of the jurisdiction is well established as well

The Congress or any of its committees do not have the jurisdiction to summon and seek explanations from any person only for his criticism of the Congress or for issuing any statement or publishing any fact which is politically uncomfortable for any politicians of the Congress. The reality is the US Congress did not even try in the last few decades to punish any person on charges of contempt of the Congress for neglecting its summons.

The UK parliament, the oldest parliament of the world, also respects this spirit. The British parliament is more powerful than the US Congress or Bangladesh’s parliament. The country is a parliament sovereign, not constitutional sovereign. Despite this, history says House of Commons handed down punishment to a person last on charges of contempt of parliament in 1666. A joint committee on parliamentary privilege, formed by the House of Commons and House of Lords in 2013, asked to abstain from facing any parliament contempt charges through criminal process.

What I want to say is, though the jurisdiction of any parliamentary standing committee to summon and seeking explanations is not denied, constitutional limitations of the jurisdiction is well established as well. Such instance of summoning is intrinsically connected with the citizens’ freedom of expression (section 39 of the Constitution), right to safety from seeking confessions by force (section 35 (4) of the Constitution), autonomy of the universities and its academic freedom in research, thought and of expression and in some cases with the jurisdiction of constitutional court. There could also be raised questions whether it is parliament’s essential legislative business or the task of the parliamentary committee to summon and seek explanations from any citizen for his dissents regarding any information or statics that the government provides.

There is no contempt of parliament allegation against professor Tasneem Siddiqui for her interview. Such a “summoning” is very alarming when in any democracy the parliament is established for expressing opinions, counter-opinions and dissents. Executive or the ministry could be aggrieved with Tasneem Siddiqui for her remarks on remittance income. If the concerned ministry wants to put pressure on professor Siddiqui, in that case, the task of the parliamentary standing committee of the concerned ministry is to give her protection.

According to the constitution, parliament is there to encourage criticism of the executive department to ensure its accountability. The responsibility of the parliamentary standing committees is to ensure accountability of the executive department, not putting pressure on the critics of the executive.

* M Jashim Ali Chowdhury is an assistant professor of law department at Chittagong University and a PhD researcher on parliamentary affairs at King’s College, London, UK

* The article, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten for English edition by Shameem Reza

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