I waited, restless. Finally the sound of shrill whistles and a convoy of vehicles, escorting the VIP, sped past, police trucks in front and behind. The police in the vehicles kept the public at a distance as far as possible, waving their arms in warning. They wielded fat sticks tipped in red, a menacing warning to the people. They create a reign of terror with their loud whistles and red sticks, so the VIP can pass.
I cannot tolerate such uncivilised treatment and so I simply looked down. Suddenly I heard my seven-year-old daughter pipe up, "Baba, why are they shaking those sticks at us?" I sat silent. What could I say? On other days our car is at the back of the jam and so she doesn't notice the sticks. What do I tell her today?
Even after these stick-wielding police pass, we have to halt intermittently due to the traffic jam that has been created. My daughter's question has somehow lodged in my chest like a thorn. Why do these VIPs speed along in this manner, threatening our children, our elderly, our indisposed? Why do we have to be held up for them? How many VIPs are there like this in our country? What law gives them the right to move about in this manner? How many man-hours and how much fuel is wasted for this? How much suffering do people face?
I understand that the security of our president, prime minister and heads of foreign government is important. It is not unreasonable to halt other vehicular movement as part of their security protocol. But to assuage the sufferings in such traffic jams, and in consideration of the humanitarian and economic costs, they can perhaps cut down their movements on the roads or use alternatives such as helicopters.
As for the others, what justifies their halting the public so they can move down the streets? It is not just the ministers, but persons in senior positions of the government as well as high officials of the armed forces that move around in this manner. And their number is steadily burgeoning. I myself see people blocked in this manner at least two or three times a week. That means throughout the day people have to come to a standstill for so many hours because of these VIPs.
The government's minister and officials are given salaries, allowances, cars and houses with the taxpayers' money to serve the people. So why will the servant move down the streets waving sticks at the owners and obstructing their way? Why should the servant behave like the master?
There is no justification for this anarchy. According to the constitution, government officials and the heads of the forces are public servants. Article 21 (2) says, "Every person on the service of the Republic has a duty to strive at all times to serve the people." According to the constitution, they are servants and the public are the owners of the state (in the preamble and in Article 7). The government's minister and officials are given salaries, allowances, cars and houses with the taxpayers' money to serve the people. So why will the servant move down the streets waving sticks at the owners and obstructing their way? Why should the servant behave like the master?
The constitution has also given the people freedom of movement all around Bangladesh. This right can only be justifiably infringed upon by law in public interests. I do not know of any law that obstructs public movement for the convenience of the VIPs. Even if there is such a law, it is a reprehensible that must be abolished. In no way can it be justified for a servant to move around, using a stick to halt the masters. This cannot be in public interest.
I know, they may reason that they have no alternative than to stop others in order to save their time. But how to determine whose time is more important? A VIP's time surely cannot be more important than that of a critical patient or a child going to school. It also must be kept in mind that the excruciating traffic jams in the big cities have been created because of their failed urban planning, their incompetence and corruption. The people are not to blame. Why should they suffer on the streets for the peccadillos of the public servants?
To my knowledge, such anarchy doesn't take place on the streets of other countries of the world. Nowhere are the vehicles of the public brought to a complete standstill to ensure that the VIPs can speed down the streets.
In developed countries of the world, priority is given on the streets to ambulances, the fire service and school buses, not any "VIP" or officials of the state.
The VIP's highhandedness doesn't end with obstructing traffic. We see their audacity on the streets, river routes, on flights. We will recall how a ferry had to wait for a couple of hours at the terminal, waiting for a government official of the joint secretary level. An ailing student waiting at the ferry terminal, died. It was learnt that the government official had no legal right to hold up the ferry.
The VIPs and their lackeys beat up the young boys and girls of the safe Road movement, filed cases against them and quelled their protests. But the burning questions in their hearts have not been extinguished
When our students took up the Safe Road movement, they halted innumerable VIPs and so-called VIPs driving down the wrong side of the road, in the opposite direction of the traffic. Then there was another "VIP" who raised a hue and cry in an aircraft, unlawfully demanding to travel business class.
Many such stories pop up in the newspapers, many stories remain untold. Those in charge of running the country, are continually misusing their power in this manner. It has become such a routine matter that we forget to even question such atrocious behaviour. But our future generation notice all this and sharp questions arise in their minds. That is why during the Safe Road movement, they stood up against the arrogance of these VIPs. They allowed the ambulance carrying ailing patients to go first.
The VIPs and their lackeys beat up the young boys and girls of the Safe Road Movement, filed cases against them and quelled their protests. But the burning questions in their hearts have not been extinguished. The demand they raised for state repairs came to the fore once again in the question of my little girl.
When will these state repairs take place? When will the state officials become public servants? When will they learn to display respect and honour towards the people, the owners of the state?
We are going through difficult economic times. The prime minister herself has called for austerity. Under these circumstances, the government should take into consideration the man-hours and fuel being wasted for the convenience of VIP movement. It also must be seen just how legal and justified it is for them to move around with such large entourages and convoys.
Blocking people's movement for the sake of one's own convenience can in no way be ethical or courteous and is a total disregard towards human rights.
* Asif Nazrul is a professor of law at Dhaka University.
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir