An independent judiciary is an institution that politicians like the least. It can show them for what they truly are. If democracy has failed to strike root in Bangladesh, it is primarily because the country never had a truly independent judiciary. The interim administration that is now running the country may not be an ideal solution to its problems. The army’s complete control of the administration raises uncomfortable questions in a country that has bitter memories of several army coups. But there is little doubt that people will welcome the interim government’s decision to free the judiciary from the control of the executive. It is the best thing that has happened to Bangladesh since Emergency was imposed last February. The timing of the decision is significant. The interim government’s attempts to clean the country of corrupt politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats earned it the people’s confidence. But its moves to remove the leaders of the two main parties — Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party — made the people suspicious of its intentions. Bangladesh, like Pakistan, has unhappy experiences of military rulers trying to impose their versions of controlled democracies on the country.
A controlled judiciary has not only harmed democratic politics in Bangladesh and denied the people justice, it has also caused major problems for its national identity. The nation was born of a search for identity. The rulers in Islamabad denied the people in the erstwhile East Pakistan their distinct linguistic and cultural identity; worse, every attempt since the Fifties to assert this identity was brutally suppressed by the army and the police. It is a measure of the failure of the judicial system in Bangladesh that most of the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s founder, have evaded arrest and punishment. If the politicians have made the judiciary dysfunctional, they could do so because the system did not clearly demarcate the powers of the executive from those of the judiciary. The result was a situation in which a ruling party used judges of their choice to control the electoral system and the administration. In their turn, the judges would think nothing of bending the law in order to enhance their career opportunities and also to plan political careers after retirement. The important thing for the present rulers in Dhaka is to ensure that a free judiciary is part of a truly democratic political culture.