Our past ceremonial presidents and hope for the next
Md. Anwarul Kabir
Article 48(2): The President shall, as head of the state, take precedence over all other persons in the State, and shall exercise the powers and perform the duties conferred and imposed on him by the constitution and by any other law.
–The constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh
In Westminster style parliamentary government, the president has been perceived as a ceremonial one. However, unlike the British constitutional monarch, the constitutions of India and Bangladesh have rendered more privileges and executive powers to the Presidents of their respective countries. Especially, during the period of Non-party Care-taker Government, the constitution of Bangladesh provides the President with enormous executive power.
The Indian parliament, traditionally, elects its president among the outstanding scholars or non-controversial renowned politicians. So, the names of many distinguished scholars and dignified personalities like Dr. Razendra Prasad, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Dr. Zakir Hossain, Justice Mohd. Hidayatullah, Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam have been surfaced in the list of India’s presidents out of its total 13 presidents till to date. Other presidents of India whose names are not cited here were the renowned and non-controversial politicians including the incumbent President Mrs. Pratibha Patil.
In Bangladesh, under the parliamentary system of Government, Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury (January 1972-December 1973), Mohammad Mohammadullah (December 1973-January 1974), Abdur Rahman Biswas (October 1991-October 1996), Justice Shahab Uddin (October 1996-November 2001), Prof. Dr. A.Q.M. Badruddoza Chowdhury (November 2001-June 2002), Prof. Iazuddin Ahmed (Septmeber 2002-till date), so far, assumed the post of president. Among them, the first president Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, under the premiership of Bangabandhu was a high profile scholar who also worked as a special envoy of Mujibnagar Government during the liberation war. In his colourful career, he worked as the Advocate General of the then East Pakistan, a Judge of the High Court and also as the VC of Dhaka University. In 1971, while in Geneva Abu Sayeed Chowdhury resigned his post as VC as a protest against the genocide in East Pakistan. After liberation, his appointment as the President was much appreciated. However, it was quite unfortunate that after the brutal killing of Bangabandhu, he became a minister in the Mustak government. Like many prudent politicians (e.g. General Osmani, Moulana Bhasani) at that time, Justice Chowdhury too failed to grab the essence of the August massacre of 1975 which indeed led to the triumph of the anti-liberation forces of the country.
The second President of Bangabandhu’s Parliamentary Government, Mohammad Mohammadullah, though a veteran politician, seemed to be a low profile personality to augment the apex position of the country. He also, after the killing of Bangabandhu, served the Mustak government as Vice President of the republic.
After the long military and pseudo military governments, Bangladesh re-entered into the parliamentary form in 1991. Under the premiership of Begum Khaleda Zia, Abdur Rahman Biswas became the President of the republic in the new phase of our politics. This veteran leader was an elected Legislative Assembly member of the then East Pakistan in 1962 and again in 1965 from Muslim League. However, Mr. Biswas was defamed as war collaborator because of his activism in the Peace Committee in 1971. Naturally, progressive minded people of the country at that time were frustrated at his appointment as the President.
In 1996 Sheikh Hasina, took the most judicious decision by appointing Justice Shahab Uddin Ahmed, a dignified and highly respectful person as the President of Bangladesh. In 1991, Justice Shahab Uddin as the chief executive of the Caretaker Government successfully conducted the election after the end of the prolonged autocracy. So, naturally, the people of the country applauded Hasina for her prudent decision. However, it was quite unfortunate that Sheikh Hasina denounced Justice Shahab Uddin as her party AL lost in the election 2001.
Prof. Badruddoza Chowdhury, a renowned physician, popular leader and one of the founders of BNP was elected as the President of the country by the government of Khaleda Zia in 2001. Badrudozza, although a leader of BNP, tried to uphold the presidential roles in impartial manners. The common people of the country much appreciated Badrudozza for this brave step. However, his relinquishment from the post in June 2002 due to tremendous pressure from the BNP high-ups frustrated the people.
The incumbent president Prof. Iazuddin Ahmed was appointed after the resignation of Prof. Badruddoza. In the history of Bangladesh, definitely, he will be treated as the most manipulated president of the country. His first controversial act was recorded in August 2005 when he, by dint of presidential clemency (stated in the Article 49), pardoned a convicted killer Mohiuddin Ahmed Jhintu, a BNP activist.
Perhaps, the most controversial role he played in appointing himself as the Chief Adviser of the Caretaker Government in October 2006 violating the constitution. Perhaps he dared to violate the constitution as the constitution provides special immunity to the president by the Article 51(1). Moreover according to the Article 93 (1), in absence of the parliament, the President of the country is not accountable to anybody. So, during the period of the Caretaker Government, the titular president may be transformed into a monster. In true sense, by assuming the roles of both the President and Chief Adviser, Prof. Iazudding during the tenure of his Caretaker Government (October 31, 2006 –January 11, 2006) became a monster. As the head of the Caretaker Government, he left no stone unturned to manipulate the postponed general election in favour of BNP. Thanks to the four advisers, namely Dr. Akbar Ali Khan, Lt Gen (retd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, Sultana Kamal and CM Shafi Sami for their bold steps for resignation in protest of the partisan role of the Chief Adviser. Replacing Iazuddin’s Caretaker Government, the subsequent installation of the army-backed government, headed by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed rescued the nation from the possible bloodshed out of war like confrontation between the two major parties.
The two years span Dr. Fakhruddin’s Interim Government too manipulated the president’s authority of declaring emergency (Article 141A and 56E) and enjoyed the fruits of prolonged emergency. Moreover, Prof. Iazuddin as the President introduced 117 ordinances presumably as instructed by the army backed government to facilitate many of its activities. So, in essence, it can be argued that Prof. Iazuddin was manipulated twice — both in pre and after 1/11 setups of Bangladesh politics.
At present turning of our politics, the newly installed democratic government should take prudent decision in electing the next President. Although the President in parliamentary form of government is a ceremonial one but according to the Article 48(2) of the constitution, the president signifies the prestige of the country. Besides, during the period of caretaker government as par constitution, the titular president may become a monster as we have witnessed in the case of Prof. Iazuddin. In the past, unlike India, in most cases, our democratic governments elected controversial persons with relatively low profile for this topmost position. This time, in the wind of changes, the people are eager to see a different scenario. Especially, we have the bitter experience about the roles that were played by Prof. Iazuddin Ahmed as the head of the state. We do not want to see another Iazuddin be elected for the apex position. Thanks to the newly sworn-in Premier Sheikh Hasina as she refused the appeal of General Ershad, the former shameless autocrat and fickle minded politician for this position.
In the era of moral decay, in our country there are some people still around who have become the role models for the country. For instance, just think about Justice Habibur Rahman, a former Chief Justice. A person with versatile capabilities, Habibur Rahman has already reached the pinnacle position in many spheres of the country. Tagore’s fan this gentleman is a true Bengali in real sense and always nurtures Bengali nationalism in his scholarly write-ups. Besides, he has already proved his distinguished administrative acumens in discharging his roles as Chief Justice and later as Chief Adviser of the Caretaker Government in 1996. If the man of his status were elected for the highest position of the republic then no doubt as a nation we would be gratified.
However, the Prime Minister has already made up her mind to nominate Mr. Zillur Rahman, the senior most presidium member of AL as the candidate for presidential position. As a close associate of Bangabandhu, Zillur has contributed much to our efforts in nation building. In our language movement he was one of the forerunners. Besides, his contribution to our liberation war was also remarkable. The nation also remembers his sacrifice for the politics as his wife was brutally killed in AL public meeting during the last BNP regime. Moreover, at the critical juncture of politics, during the tenure of the army-backed caretaker government, this veteran leader in absence of the party president Hasina, led AL efficiently and effectively. Due to his prudent leadership, AL could escape its possible fragmentation defusing all ill motives of the conspirators. So, no doubt, he deserves the position as he has been offered. Our only hope in this context is that despite his old age Zillur will try to uphold the post above politics. We don’t want to see any partisan president. Whoever comes to this position he should be the president of all, — not of any particular party.
(Md. Anwarul Kabir is an educationalist and a freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com)