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gavel-judgeHumayun Ahmed has been advised by the High Court to follow actual history in writing his new historical novel. Apparently that sounds logical. I hate sci-fi stories that distort established and deeply entrenched scientific concepts – such as the constraint on travelling back to the past, which would allow one to go back and kill one’s grandfather before he marries, creating a paradox resolvable only by an alternative “parallel universe”, where the grandpa he kills may not be actually his own, etc. But Humayun had already written another historical novel, on his namesake, the Mughal emperor, with no outcry about lack of historical accuracy. His famous TV serial “Oyomoy” was also declared to have been based on some historical characters. This case, obviously, is more alive and touchy, and quoting from Tagore about the poet’s imagination being more real than the real Oudh where Rama is believed by some to have lived, would not do. Disappointingly, a weakened Humayun has capitulated.

When Humayun was not as big a celebrity as now, but still well-known enough, he wrote a TV play where a judge was shown to fall asleep in the court. While we laughed out loud, we also expected a summons from the court for the young playwright, and it arrived faithfully. He was already too famous, and got away with a simple “sorry”, as far as I remember. Our effervescent PM also received only a polite warning from the court in her earlier novice term for talking without due respect for the court. No such luck for the poor traffic policeman who had the temerity of stopping a black-flag car at a traffic signal.

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Dr Kamal Hossain recently expressed his displeasure when Prof. Nazrul Islam, a.k.a. Asif Nazrul, was kept standing in the court for more than an hour. For a teacher, standing for an hour is routine business, because he has to give so many lectures every week standing up anyway. But I suppose Dr Kamal Hossain was questioning the intention. A man is innocent until proved guilty, and cannot be punished in any way until the case is proved against him.

In Hollywood court room scenes we regularly observe the accused, even when the case is murder, seated beside his lawyer, and rising only when giving testimony or hearing the judgment. Not here in Bangladesh. Our institutions have retained both the good and the bad of the colonial days, partly because of inertia, partly because it gives somebody a sense of power.

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What power? Quite a few years ago, and I do not recall who was in power then, one of my Physics thesis students appeared at the BCS Exam after his MSc and got a job as an Assistant Commissioner. He came back to see me in less than two years.

“So, how are you enjoying your work?”

“Actually, Sir, I want a recommendation from you for a scholarship. I want to go to Japan to study Physics.”

“That is not a bad idea. It would be nice to have a bureaucrat with a PhD in Physics.”

“Sir, I am giving up my job”.

I stared at him. “Why?”

“I can’t stand it any more, Sir. I am ordered to give decisions that are manifestly unjust.”

We stood in silence for a minute and then I took the papers from him. I felt nostalgic. So many decades ago, Abdus Salam, a top Bengali bureaucrat, gave up his secure government job to join the “Pakistan Observer” with an uncertain future, because of the environment of dominance created by non-Bengalis in the government services. I also remembered a cousin who had secured the top position in the CSP Exam and after many years of varied assignments, got out disgusted and joined the Grameen Bank, to serve as its Deputy MD. There was no place for him in the plane to Sweden, because that was filled up by carefully chosen showpieces for the foreign audience, not the people who worked in the background day and night, under a larger than life shadow.

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Only one of my school friends remained with me all the way from grade 2 to the final MSc Examination of the Physics Department of Dhaka University. He was a good student and extraordinarily mature. While studying for MSc, he also completed the law degree and joined the bar. Later, he was appointed a Justice of the High Court Division. I was so glad that we had a rationally thinking physicist as a Justice. In course of time, after some hitches, he was promoted to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court and gave some very important verdicts in favour of restoring democracy during the two-year army rule. After the general election I told him jokingly that I was looking forward to his becoming the Chief Justice and then the Chief Adviser of the next caretaker government, and that I would not mind becoming an Adviser working for him. He sighed: “No such chance, I have the wrong brother.” I remembered then that Brigadier Hannan Shah had gone back to BNP. Justice Shah Abu Nayeem was twice superseded by junior justices for the position and then resigned. The last retiring Chief Justice gave such an ambiguous verdict about caretaker governments that the ruling party found it easy to dispense with the system of caretaker governments altogether.

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According to Islamic belief, after death everybody would be questioned by two angels, and if anybody fails the test he would have to suffer miserably. I have been trying in vain to get an answer from enlightened religious leaders as to how one can be punished before the Judgment Day. It might be convenient to have Dr Mizanur Rahman, our energetic and outspoken Chairman of the Human Rights Commission in the next grave when the time comes at some distant future, even without his suspenders. But nobody can force him. That would be a violation of human rights, dead or alive.

Ahmed Shafee is Vice Chancellor of East West University.