On 17 February Awami League’s sub-committee on information and research affairs was announced. The announcement of a political party’s sub-committee is hardly a significant event. It is a routine matter. But the list of the names of this committee grabs our attention. Attorney general AM Aminuddin’s name is on the list. Mr Uddin’s Awami League proclivity is nothing new. He won the Supreme Court Bar Association elections from the Awami League panel and is still the president of the association. This indicates his direct involvement in the party, though some may claim the election was not a political one.
Questions may also be raised of his continuing in this post after being appointed as attorney general. But his direct inclusion as a member of a sub-committee of the party not only points to his personal political identity, but also gives a message about the nature of the prevailing governance, and this is something not to be overlooked.
The attorney general is the chief law official of a state. It is a constitutional post. It is not surprising that the ruling party appoints an attorney general of their choice though this has not always been the case. In the early days of Bangladesh, there were persons appointed as attorney general who were respected for their merit and non-partisan stance. Even in recent times there have been such instances. Mahmudul Islam was the attorney general from 1998 to 2001. After his death, Mizanur Rahman Khan in remembrance wrote that “he had been able to keep himself above party pollution till the very end. He was an example of how to draw a line between the law and the party.”
But the change in Bangladesh’s governance has given rise to a situation where this post has become more partisan than constitutional. That is why in 2018 we saw that they attorney general, while still in office, collected nomination paper to contest in the parliamentary election. When questioned about this, Mahbubey Alam had said, “If I was not an Awami Leaguer, would the government have kept me 10 years as attorney general?” He was not nominated eventually and remained attorney general till his death on 27 September 2020.
The manner in which officials of the administration make all sorts of statements on political matters and join various meetings on behalf of the ruling party, it is difficult to discern whether they are officials of the republic or leaders of the ruling party
The list of Awami League’s sub-committee for information and research affairs raises the question as to whether someone in a constitutional post can be in the post of a political party, particularly the party in power. There are no legal obstacles to this, we know, but as a matter of ethics, is this acceptable in consideration of the line between the party and the state?
The matter of ethics needs to be raised for several reasons. Firstly, even two decades ago we observed what the relationship should be between the attorney general and the government and the party. Mizanur Rahman Khan had written about a day of Mahmudul Islam, after he became attorney general. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina came on a visit to the Supreme Court. Tension prevailed. As a neighbour of the Supreme Court, even the vice chancellor of Dhaka University turned up because the prime minister would be coming. But it was only the attorney general who made no change in his daily routine. He left for home at the normal time. When people anxiously asked him about this, he replied that he saw nothing in the attorney general’s duties for his participation in the event. It is easy to understand that the attorney general has no function during the visit of the head of the party or the government. It is not a legal matter, but one of ethics. The second point is, any governance is not just a legal or constitutional matter. It is a moral matter too. The state must be conscious of this moral aspect for its own legitimacy.
In a sense, the inclusion of the attorney general in a committee of the party is nothing surprising. After all, over the past few years in Bangladesh, we observed how the state and the party have merged as one. State institutions have become loyal parts of the party. The actions of the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the National Human Rights Commission, make this obvious.
Is it the function of the country's chief law officer and the journalists to consolidate Awami League's state power?
In the 2018 election, the law enforcement agencies, the administration, the party and the election commission were all as one. This has been repeated in the ongoing local government elections. The fact that no part of the state is now out of the party ambit, has been proven in various ways in recent times. No matter what may be said about this, it will not vanish into thin air. This incident is an example of the fact that a one-party system prevails inside and outside of parliament.
The manner in which officials of the administration make all sorts of statements on political matters and join various meetings on behalf of the ruling party, it is difficult to discern whether they are officials of the republic or leaders of the ruling party. And in last December, it was seen that even the judges are not far behind in this matter. This does not indicate an independent judiciary. There is no way that these incidents can be viewed separately. These make it clear that Bangladesh's state structure has taken on a new shape. It is unfortunate that not only the opposition, but even the intellectuals are oblivious to this.
There are 'teachers' and 'journalists' on this sub-committee's list. Most of them have the party label from beforehand so this is nothing new. But when those known to be journalists 'enrich' some committees, then their role is very obvious. In the report about the committee, it was said that the function of Awami League's sub-committee on information and research affairs was 'to extend all-out assistance by providing information, data and research for the implementation of Awami League's election manifesto and the state's plans of action as well as to consolidate Awami League's state power.' Is it the function of the country's chief law officer and the journalists to consolidate Awami League's state power?
* Ali Riaz is distinguished professor of the department of politics and government at the Illinois State University in the US, nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and the president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.
This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir