In January 11, 1975 Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said: “I have spent the best part of my life in jail. I cannot look at impoverished people in the street, their sad faces….Be honest and respect Idealism…. I go outside of the country with begging bowls. A bunch of thieves and looters are destroying the country and depriving my people from minimum comfort with little food and little clothes. In spite of this situation, I have not declared Emergency. Why? Because, the Pakistani dictators – from Jinnah, Ghulam Mohammed, Chowdhury Mohammed Ali, Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan – I have fought against all of them. Why? I have fought for you and you gave me the courage. Three million people sacrificed their precious lives. Responding to my call they made supreme sacrifice. If I could bring Independence for you, why can’t I make the country corruption free?”ii
No wonder; Gaetano Mosca, columnist and writer and an Italian political scientist of 19th century wrote: ‘Level of civilization corresponds to the grade of JURIDICAL DEFENCEiii‘. Corruption is as old as human civilization. Bribe taking or ‘consideration’ for services rendered is an ancient practice. A few words may be some of interest of readers for better understanding of corruption in the history of human history.Edward Gibbon in his “Decline and fall of the Roman Empire” termed corruption, in chapter 21- “as most infallible symptom of constitutional libertyiv“. Prof. Ali Ahmed, former Principal of Dhaka College and a noted research scholar on the subject simply termed corruption as speed money to ‘accelerate the process of work or business in any institution’. But to my mind this is a rather narrow definition: in the World Bank report - government that works is termed as hidden expenditure. In whatever name you call it, pejorative or otherwise, corruption in one form or other can be discerned in almost all the countries of the world.
Bureaucracy has been always a target of charges for corruption, abuse of power and nepotism. In ancient Greece Plato is reported to have expressed his despair by saying that with such a corrupt bureaucracy, Greece will not be able to maintain its political and intellectual superiority over the Persians, then the arch enemy of Greece.’
Not a democrat in the modern sense of the term – Plato thought of philosopher-king as the best ‘administrator, but it was an oligarchic-aristocratic administrator. For Machiavelli, the Florentine author and statesman, the Prince could adopt any means right or wrong, to achieve his ends.
Gregory Rasputin, the charlatan and religious crank under Czar Nicholas II, had become a byword of corruption and malevolence in the Russian Empire. His death, with poisoned cake and wine, and several gunshots, resting under the ice of the Neva, does not cause much unhappiness even after so many years.
In a modem-day democracy, accountability and transparency have replaced the divine rights of monarchy or dynastic rights of Emperors over subjects and as a result over people’s property. But the mighty and powerful have always tended to exceed the limits set by statutes or customary law. This prompted Lord Action to pronounce - “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.v“
Checks and balances have, therefore, developed over the centuries in all the democratic societies. But time and again one is confronted with stories of scams and scandals, individual or collective. In the recent American history, Nixon proved that democracy, like the army, does not crawl on stomachs alone as someone has suggested. It needs to be based on certain values, call it moral or ethical. The great American democracy came out stronger with Nixon’s resignation. And bureaucratic malfeasance was penalised with Oliver North’s conviction in Iran-Contra affairs. ‘Democracy, as Will and Ariel Durant argued, ‘is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent as we made ourselves sovereign!vi‘In the old continent of Europe, the reaction on corruption and malfeasance is more sophisticated. Experience of history has a leavening impact on their conscience: it works as a sort of mental starch. During the reign of Napoleon, the British were financing monarchist uprisings in France and Napoleon ran a Jacobin fifth column in England to undermine the British monarchy. The opposition Labour Party termed the Conservatives “corrupt” because arms were sold to Iraq without keeping the Parliament fully informed. The Scott Report is indeed a masterpiece of judicial prudence representing the wisdom of centuries of Her Majesty’s government. In countries like France and Italy as opposed to Germany and Scandinavian countries, mutatis mutandis, cushioned by Teutonic Philosophy, the Latin ethos could be as varied as the modes of warship prevailing in the Roman world: considered by the people as true while - Philosophers termed them false but Magistrates thought them very useful! Even in modem Europe the Magistrates are using their authority not always with equal probity and equitable priority.
In recent memory of the stock and money-market-related developments, Bernie Cornfield stole the thunder. As head of the Swiss-based IOS in the late sixties and the early seventies, the Istanbul-born and Brooklyn -raised American rambunctious Bernie, partly inspired in the words of Ray Vicer by super-swank jet-set milieu of Playboy’s Hugh Heffner and the British Socialist leader Aneurin Bevan,who is known to have often failed the British Establishment, took the British poet John Betjemen’s words. “Nothing succeeds like successvii,” too seriously. He assured all the investors to get rich quick. In the eighties a Wall Street whiz-kid reportedly defrauded and bilked investors of billions of dollars in the twilight zone of long-and-short selling and insider-trading. He was indicted by the USG and made to pay back reportedly over several billion dollars!
John Strachey, War Minister in the British Labour government in his book “The End of Empire” in 1959 made some interesting revelations about Bengal: Lord Clive, in an effort to lessen the rampant corruption of the East India Company officials, legalised their right to private trade even though they were paid servants. Every officer got his share strictly according to seniority –a colonel got 7000 a year, a major 2000 (about 90,000 and 40,000 in present day value). This culture of loot and plunder begun by the East India Company has surfaced with greater vengeance in our dear landviii.
While it is wrong to attribute all our woes to the doors of the British colonial rule, it is interesting to note that the syndrome obtaining in post-Plassey Bengal seems to have returned to independent Bangladesh with renewed vigour. Before Plassey, the British in the absence of any other goods for which there was a market in India, were exporting gold and silver to buy our cotton, piece-goods, cotton yarn, muslins, indigo, redwood, silk, etc. The exchanges of these precious metals were a kind of net investment in our country. But following Plassey this transfer stopped. The unrequited value of the drain from India between 1757-1815 according to some researchers amounted to 1 billion (today’s value of over 50 billion dollars).
The Bengali Muslims, throughout history, have shown tremendous amount of resilience and creativity in spite of the unfriendliness of the British and even the Moghuls. But they have not, unfortunately, shown much sense of history. It is not a surprise, therefore, that the recorded history of this region stretches only over seven hundred years, although there was human habitation in this area for thousands of years.
We could hardly set our house in order when history again stopped in Bangladesh with the brutal assassination of the founder of the nation. Again, the Bengalees tried to turn the clock back on history as they did in 1757. The events of August 15, 1975 happened under the cover of darkness, the result of a cabal, a conspiracy. An extra-ordinary level of Bengalee energy was spent to put the clock back, to distort history, to vandalize our natural persona and our true identity.
It is not a surprise that unlike other countries of the world, we Bengalees have not learnt the art of building Libraries and Museums. A society without a sense of history and respect for historical memories is an ideal breeding ground for corruption and corrupt practices. We have got it here in more than our normal share. We notice that many of us have little respect for traditions, little respect for law and discipline. The ‘rallying power of law’ has very little meaning for them. There is always a search for bending or going round the law. Lack of respect for our traditions makes it even easier for many of our compatriots to smuggle out the cultural heritage of our country.
The Mainamati plunder of the early eighties is a glaring example in which 12 rare Buddhist period statues were stolen and later found in the personal baggage of an officer at Chittagong port. The investigating officer ruefully closed the file in these lines, ‘I can see the face of the thief in the mirror but I cannot catch him!ix Rule of law did not work because of scant respect for governmental accountability.
A new genre of corruption has come up with the introduction of development assistance to developing countries. The donors, globally, are demanding better utilisation of funds and greater transparency in the use of funds. But the donors bear as much responsibility as the recipients. It is important to remember that the developing countries now are ploughing back more money/assets to the donors by way of debt repayment and debt-servicing than the capital inputs they are receiving annually. Secondly, and more important, if there is corruption and misuse of funds, the donors cannot perhaps be completely absolved: it takes two to tango!
Writing over two hundred years ago Edward Gibbon, was prophetic with his remarks on corruption. But it is equally true that human ingenuity will work in parallel to uphold the values of constitutional liberty in furthering the need for transparency and accountability.
In his city of God, St. Augustine likens the growth and development of mankind to a ‘river’ that has carried from time immemorial man’s virtues as well as his vices. He exhorted us that the idea of progress is inextricably linked with its moral and eudemonic aspects as well.
On February 23, 1977 the New York Times quoted an American thinker - “The worst the society, more law there will be. In Hell there will be nothing but law and due process will be meticulously observedx“.
In Bangladesh there are frequent calls by various groups - social forces, belonging to business, land, religion, education, labour, press, bureaucracy, professionals and also military asking for more laws for safeguarding their ‘rights’. But very often we tend to forget that the mere existence of laws does not necessarily ensure protection by these rights. It is the application or the use of those laws which guarantee the rights and benefits of various conflicting groups and interests eventually contributing to the growth and development of civil society.
In Bengal the theme of accountability and transparency has always been distorted. In a country where the murderers of the Father of the Nation can be pardoned and an Indemnity Act is passed in the Parliament, humanity touches its nadir.
It is the intellectual corruption and malfeasance in Bangladesh that does more damage to the social fabric than what is commonly known as corruption in money. This has been termed as bureaucratic malfeasance.
In light of the above, recent discovery of gambling and Casino culture makes us wonder what has gone wrong. Bengalee persona has such beautiful quality. But, as Bangabandhu in January 11, 1975, said: ‘We should all sit up and introspect what went wrong. Instead of panicking, we should not only look into the physical discoveries but also the psychologies of the criminals who are siphoning off or laundering hard earned treasure of Bangladesh. Perpetrators must be brought to book’. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, ‘We need to do some introspection’. The bold initiative by Prime Minister has come not a day later in punishing the wrong doers through due process of law. We need to simultaneously educate the people. Why? It is our national duty to prevent such activities while we are moving on at a supersonic speed to becoming a developed country within a short time. It should be our national effort to make sure that patriotism for our dear motherland is inculcated in every Bengalee at home and abroad.
The writer is an author and researcher.
Email: [email protected]