Have you ever lodged a complaint with any government office in Bangladesh?
Maybe you were denied a basic service that you are entitled to as a citizen and wanted to take the issue up with higher authorities. First of all, you would have a very difficult time even trying to locate where or to whom you should lodge the complaint with. If you do find the person or office, chances are you would still be outright denied the right to complain, or be held back by numerous excuses or procedures that are tantamount to harassment.
And past that, if you are one of those with an infinite well of endurance combined with romantic notions about your rights as a citizen, and are eventually able to file a complaint, best of luck with seeing a resolution to your complaint. Days, months and years will have passed, your children will have grown up and your parents will have passed on, but that bit of resolution you sought will become an exercise in 'Waiting for Godot.'
That was however not the experience for an esteemed gentleman named Imrul Kayes, who boarded the Sundarban Express train, along with two others, on 5 May, in an AC cabin, heading to Dhaka from Ishwardi. Kayes and his fellow travelers were aggrieved at being confronted and then fined by the Travel Ticket Examiner Shafiqul Islam for travelling without a ticket. Kayes knew right away whom to complain to – his mother Yasmin Akhtar – and within a few hours Shafiqul was suspended for 'behaving rudely with passengers.'
So what is it that Kayes has that you didn't? He had what is known in common parlance as 'the right connections.' His mother is a cousin of the wife of the Railways Minister Md Nurul Islam Sujan, who, on being told of the incident, promptly called up the Pakshi Railway Divisional Commercial Officer (DCO), Nasir Uddin. Nasir Uddin, in an astounding feat of bureaucratic 'efficiency' immediately suspended Shafiqul over a phone call.
It seems the railway office moved superfast just at the drop of a complaint by a passenger about the alleged misbehaviour of a ticket checker. Within minutes of the complaint, the ticket checker, who forced three passengers travelling ticketless to leave the AC coach despite them being the rail minister's relatives, was suspended from service.
That certainly does not go with your and our experience of filing a complaint about the most blatant irregularity.
And this instant action in the case of the rail minister's relatives (the ticket checker has vouched he has not misbehaved but only asked the ticketless travellers to leave and we tend to believe the poor ticket checker) speaks a volume about how the powerful reign in this country, how the poor are trampled, how mean people can be when given unbridled power and how lowly they can think about the rest of us.
It also shows the contrast when the British police fined their prime minister and finance minister for breaking the lockdown law. It also shows the difference between societies where rule of law is equally applied and not.
There are of course hundreds, if not thousands, like Kayes in Bangladesh who can metaphorically 'move mountains' with their right connections. And hundreds like Shafiqul often get punished for standing in the way, while millions of others, cognizant of the power of people with the right connections, don't even dare to stand in the way. But it would appear Shafiqul was a bit different. Not only did he have the courage to stand up to nepotism, but he further had the courage to speak to the media about his predicament.
All hell broke loose once he did that. At first, Minister Sujan denied any connection to Kayes and the two others before Yasmin Akhtar spoke to the media later in the day and confirmed her relationship to the minister's wife. On Sunday, the minister admitted to his relationship and lifted the suspension on Shafiqul, only to declare that Nasir Uddin would now be served a show cause notice for suspending Shafiqul.
It would appear a new scapegoat has been found.
Boarding a train without tickets is not wrong, name dropping your minister uncle is not wrong, calling up a government official who works for your husband and asking him to take action against another official is not wrong, denying any connection to a relative who abused power in your name is not wrong, but apparently doing your job or following a superior's instruction is.
People around the country were rightly enraged as soon as Shafiqul's suspension and the story behind it was reported in the media. For years, we have been reading about such incidents, hearing about them through the grapevine and even seeing them with our own eyes. From low resolution events like cutting the line at a railway or bus counter, to securing government contracts worth millions, the might of right connections rules supreme in our day to day lives. It doesn't matter how good you are at a task, it doesn't matter what your rights are as a tax-paying citizen, what matters is who your 'Mama' is.
Transparency International Bangladesh on Saturday called on the Railways Minister to temporarily resign until a thorough investigation into the incident. This, it would appear, is the right call. There really is no way for the minister to first deny any connection, and then casually claim that he was not aware of the involvement of his relatives in the incident and dump the entire blame on Nasir Uddin.
Now that he knows, what has the minister done about his relatives using his name in the first place? Why was his wife calling up a DCO in the first place? What guarantees does Shafiqul have that he will not face any retribution once the media furor dies?
These and other questions can only be answered through a thorough investigation and until then, it is best that the minister steps away. It is also high time we took on this culture of 'right connections' that has reduced our institutions and society to a 'mamabarir abdar.' A thorough investigation could be the first step.