First News
Volume:7, Number:46
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COVER STORY
THIS WEEK

Profanity in Parliament

The parliament, instead of being a platform for constructive debate and discussion of national issues, has been a hotbed of abusive invectives to settle political scores

A parliament is the epicenter of people's power in a country. It is the House of People where the representatives they elect are supposed to formulate national plans and policies through constructive debates and discussions. Unfortunately, the lawmakers of Bangladesh often completely disregard the codes of decency, and use extremely offensive language to attack their opponents that bring shame at once to parliament, the country, and the people whom they represent.

Thus the use of slanderous words by a section of lawmakers is tarnishing the image of the legislature of the country as a whole. The use of unparliamentary language in Bangladesh’s parliament by lawmakers is not a new phenomenon, but the situation has crossed all limits of basic decency in the last couple of years. Despite the fact that most parliamentarians are educated, they are using words that are so obscene at times that it does not reflect their level of education and good taste. Members of all the major political parties have repeatedly used indecent and abusive invectives in parliament. As a result, not only is the sanctity of parliament being undermined, but also valuable parliamentary sessions are being wasted on unproductive exchanges.

The recurring use of offensive words and vulgar language in parliament is a clear sign of disrespect for parliamentary practices and demo-cratic values. Unfortunately, members of all the major political parties have perpetrated this shameful practice for years. In 1998, the then-opposition party leader ASM Rab described parliament as a “hog pit”. At a parliament session in 1996, Bangladesh Awami League (AL) leader Tofail Ahmed, and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, launched an insidious verbal attack on each other involving their paternal identities.

In 2001, AL MP Suranjit Sengupta and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury had another heated and obscene dispute between them. However, the country was stunned when some female lawmakers, including BNP parliamentarian Syeda Ashifa Ashrafi Papiya, Sammi Akhtar, and Rehana Akhtar Ranu, and treasury bench members, Apu Ukil and Nazma Akhtar, all carried out blistering attacks on each other with un-parliamentary and vulgar words in June 2013. Even after the main opposition party, BNP, stopped attending the parliamentary sessions, the national parliament is still haunted by the foul language nightmare.

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Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury Speaker of the Bangladesh National Parliament

TIB expressed its own opinion in its research, and anyone can interpret it anyway they want. I do not want to talk about it. However, we welcome any attempt to strengthen parliamentary activities. The way ruling party parliamentarians responded to the indecent stance taken by the opposition party in the last parliament is unacceptable. Nobody supports this sort of unruly behavior. Both the ruling party and the opposition party have the responsibility to make parliament effective. The people have elected them to perform these responsibilities. Unparliamentary language is not acceptable under any circumstances. Appropriate action was taken to control the parliamentarians who used vulgar language. No partiality was shown to anyone.

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ASM Feroz Chief whip of Bangladesh Awami League

Rather than counting how many times vulgar words were used in parliament, TIB should work on resolving the problems that common people face on a regular basis. They have created confusion in people’s minds by providing conflicting information about parliament. Lawmakers were deliberately undermined in their report. The 160 million people of this country are struggling with a wide range of problems, but TIB does not have any research about that. Counting the use of indecent language in parliament cannot be a sensible job for an organization. The estimate TIB provided regarding the quorum crisis is completely made up. To keep their foreign masters happy, TIB is trying to create confusion in the public mind. This organization always publishes negative research articles.

What happened in 2013?

In June 2013, BNP lawmaker Rehana Akter Ranu (Reserved Women Seat-40) stunned the nation when she carried out a tirade peppered with abusive words in her 17-minute speech. Ranu used extremely vulgar words and derogatory comments against prime minister Sheikh Hasina, her son Sajib Wajed Joy, and the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, prompting the speaker to switch off Ranu's microphone no less than seven times.

The entire house plunged into pandemonium with protests and counter-protests between members of the ruling and opposition parties. Some members of the opposition used derogatory terms to address the speaker and tried to throw chairs at their counterparts. Ranu’s comments on Sheikh Hasina, her late husband Wazed Mia, son Joy, and father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, were so disrespectful that speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury interrupted Ranu several times asking her to speak in conformity with Section 270 of the Rules of Procedure of parliament. Rather than restraining herself, Ranu went on to accuse the speaker of being biased towards the treasury bench, and called her “spineless”.

At one point, Ranu made offensive comments about the birth identity of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, prompting a huge protest from the ruling party lawmakers. Awami League leaders Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, Tofail Ahmed, Abdul Matin Khasru, and Fazilatun Nesa Bappi, stood up and urged the speaker to turn off Ranu's mike. Amidst the chaos, the speaker turned off the mike but turned it on again after the urging of BNP leaders MK Anwar, Shahid Uddin Chowdhury, and Mahbub Uddin Khokan. However, Ranu resumed her broadside, right after the mike was turned on. The BNP lawmaker claimed that the deputy speaker dreamed of becoming the speaker but his dreams had been dashed. At one stage, Ranu started talking about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, saying that "Zia brought success in every area where Mujib had failed”.

The Speaker switched off Ranu's microphone again when she started talking about Joy and Wazed Mia. When Ranu said that Wazed had been tortured by his wife, prime minister Sheikh Hasina, the speaker for the last time switched off the microphone and announced a 20-minute recess for Magrib prayers, without extending the time for Ranu, despite her repeated requests. After the recess, Awami League lawmaker Fazilatunnesa Bappi took the floor and made offensive remarks about late president Ziaur Rahman, BNP chief Khaleda Zia, and their family. She also wanted to know about Khaleda's relationship with “the man who accompanies the opposition leader every time she goes to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah”. In protest, opposition lawmakers staged a walkout for around 10 minutes.

Protesting the vulgar words, Awami League lawmaker M Abdul Latif refrained from taking part in the budget discussion and walked out of the sitting. “I felt ashamed at the way abusive and un-parliamentary language was used in as sacred a place as the national parliament. Instead of taking part in the budget discussion, I am leaving this place in protest against such bad mouthing,” said Latif. As opposition MPs started clapping, Latif told them, “Why are you clapping? I have not mentioned any particular party’s or any particular MP’s name. You should be ashamed of what happened today in this parliament.” Following his exit, pindrop silence ensued in parliament for a while. Even the most disruptive members of the opposition sat silent. After a while, the speaker gave the floor to cultural affairs minister Abul kalam Azad to discuss the budget.

Although the speaker said all the offensive words would be expunged from the proceedings, the session was aired live on Bangladesh television and Bangladesh Betar (national radio). Even though those horrible words have been extricated form the parliamentary records, they remain etched in public memory, engendering shame and embarrassment.

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Sultana Kamal Chairman of TIB Trustee Board

TIB has made this report based on facts. We have witnessed the main opposition party to be more active than before, but the questions they raised remained largely unresolved. The opposition party could not hold onto the important issues. The government has huge dominance over parliament. Despite making some progress, we cannot conclusively say that the parliament is more active than before. We are yet to reach the position where the opinion of the mass of people is valued in parliament. The use of unparliamentary language did not decrease either.

Misuse of Points of Order

The Bangladesh National Parliament is losing millions of taka because of misuse of the points of order in its many sessions. A point of order is a question raised by a member of parliament, who believes that the rules or customary procedures of the house have been incorrectly applied or overlooked during the proceedings and which point out any breach of relevance or repetition rules and/or unparliamentary remarks. However, parliamentarians are misusing this system by either launching personal attacks on their opponents or by talking about unimportant or irrelevant issues, or both.

According to Section 301 of the parliament’s Rules Of Procedures, “A point of order shall relate to the interpretation or enforcement of these rules or such articles of the constitution to regulate the business of the House and shall raise a question, which is within the cognizance of the speaker. Subject to conditions referred to in sub-rules (1) and (2), a member may formulate a point of order and the speaker shall decide whether the point raised is a point of order and, if so, give his decision thereon, which shall be final.” However, parliamentarians are showing very little regard for these rules of procedures. When senior leaders raise their hands to speak, the speaker hardly ever refuses to give them the floor. While misuse of the point of order started from the eighth parliament, it completely went out of control in the following year. At every session of the ninth parliament, parliamentarians hurled abusive and vulgar language at their opponents after taking the floor in the name of point of order. During that time, the word “killer” was ascribed to general Ziaur Rahman a staggering 75 times. In retaliation, BNP lawmakers called Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman “Feraun” four times.

Along with abusive language, parliament members are using points of order to talk about completely irrelevant issues. On September 4, 2014, Awami League lawmakers took the floor on point of order and blasted former planning minister and retired air vice-marshal AK Khandker for "distorting historical facts" in his book " Vetorey Bairey," (1971: Inside and Outside,) for over two hours. Previously on June 19, point of order was used to make a proposal to rename the Padma Bridge after prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s mother, Begum Fazilatunnesa. On June 12, Awami League lawmaker Hasan Mahmud used point of order to criticize BNP senior vice chairman, Tarique Rahman. Misuse of the point of order is also financially draining for the national exchequer. Over BDT22.5 million was wasted during the 21 sessions of the 9th and 10th parliament assemblies. The 9th parliament had 18 sessions followed by three in the concurrent 10th parliament. Information Technology costs about BDT85,000 per minute when the parliament is in session. In the 21 sessions of the 9th and 10th national assembly, a total of 250 minutes were spent on points of order and discussion of unscheduled issues, thus costing the parliament over BDT25 million.

Executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Iftekharuzzaman said, “Breaching the Rules of Procedures in the House of the People should not be tolerated. Misuse of the point of order is unethical. The speaker should control the situation more strictly. Alongside, parliamentarians should be more responsible about how they carry themselves in parliament. They already know what kind of language is appropriate for parliament.”

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Badiul Alam Majumdar Secretary, Citizens for Good Governance (Sujan)

Some parliamentarians use language so vulgar that it’s completely inapplicable in civil society. Their language is destroying the sanctity of our national parliament. Parliament is known as the “House of the People”, so we don't expect indecent behavior from the representatives of the people. Unfortunately, both the ruling party and the opposition are guilty of the same attitude. Some female politicians have used such indecent language that it broke all previous records. The people do not expect such behavior from their lawmakers. The speaker has every authority to take punitive measures against MPs who use crude language in parliament.

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Shahdeen Malik Constitutional expert

Considering the level of indecency shown by some parliament members, the speaker should declare the parliamentary sessions, adults-only sessions. The political parties are more responsible for the use of vulgur language in parliament than the person who actually speaks it, because our political parties think that these people are eligible to be members of parliament. These types of comments are a reflection of the party's ideologies. It is our misfortune that they are the bearers of democracy in our country.

Irrelevant questions for the prime minister

On January 8, 2016, prime minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated three 475MW power plants in Ashuganj, Brahmanbaria. With these three new plants, the number of power plants in the country rose to 100. The PM described this event as a “big achievement”. “We are elated to have scored a century today… in setting up power plants,” she said by video conference. The speech was covered by all the newspapers, television stations, and online media of the country. Yet, during the prime minister’s question-and-answer session in parliament, Awami League lawmaker Fazilatunnesa Bappi asked her, “Is it true that Bangladesh scored a century in setting up power plants?”

This is just one of too many unnecessary questions asked of the prime minister by lawmakers during the par-liament sessions. On February 10, 48 questions by MPs were submitted to the prime minister. Most of the contents of those questions were nothing but information divulged already. Instead of focusing on issues that have a tangible impact on society, they waste the valuable time of parliament by asking unnecessary questions. Many of those questions do not even require the insight of the prime minister; anyone can browse the website of the relevant ministry to find the answers to those questions.

Experts say that before asking the prime minister any question during a parliamentary session, lawmakers should carefully assess the significance of the question. No one should waste the valuable time of parliament and the prime minister by asking trivial questions. Some lawmakers have very little consideration for national issues. They often ask irrelevant questions in parliament in a bid to be noticed by the prime minister, ministers, and people in their respective constituencies. The question-and-answer sessions should be focused on issues that reflect the interests of the country and the common people, who elected the MPs to be their voices in parliament, the experts added.

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Muhammad Jamiruddin Sircar Former speaker, Bangladesh National Parliament

When I served as the speaker of parliament, I tried my best to stay neutral. Parliament heated up more than once during my tenure, but I managed to control matters every time. At that time, the members of parliament maintained decency in their use of language. A lot depends on the speaker. I am against all kinds of indecency. Everyone should be courteous, especially while speaking about the most responsible person in the country, such as the incumbent prime minister, or the former prime minister. Alongside, it is mandatory to maintain decency and respect in saying anything about deceased politicians. As a voter, a citizen, and a veteran politician, I am requesting MPs to make an example of decency.

TIB observation

A research report of TIB claimed that although the “culture” of walking out of parliament has decreased compared to previous years, nonparliamentary attitude and language are still going strong in parliament sessions. The report titled Parliamentary Watch highlighted the sessions of the 10th parliament.

According to the report, abusive words and unparliamentary language are widely used during parliament sessions. Giving a statistical overview of the use of indecent language in parliament, the report said that MPs have used non-parliamentary language at least 2,101 times, spending 15 percent of the total time of the sessions. They also targeted their rivals who have representation in the parliament 433 times, the study concluded. Regarding the speaker's role in parliament, the TIB study added, in most cases the speaker played a silent role when MPs used abusive words and non-parliamentary language. During the presentation of the report, TIB executive director Iftekharuzzaman said, “We have witnessed some positive changes at this point of the 10th parliament. The main opposition party in the current parliament played an active role compared to the previous 7th to 13th sessions of parliament. The overall attendance of lawmakers has increased as well. In parliament, the opposition in recent times has tried to become more active. The tendency of boycotting parliament has stopped, and we do not want it back ever again. We want an effective parliament. However, the use of un-parliamentary language is still going on, which is quite embarrassing for everyone involved.”

He also called upon the opposition Jatiya Party to leave its “dual role, to play the role of a competent opposition in parliament”. “They are simultaneously part of the government and the opposition. Their controversial role continues. If they can come out of the dual position, they can perform better in playing the desired role of a useful opposition,” he added. The report shows that quorum crisis slightly declined in the current parliament. There was a quorum crisis for an average of 28 minutes in every sitting during the first seven sessions of the Bangladesh parliament, which was 33 minutes during the 9th parliament and 39 minutes in the 8th parliament. According to the report, the average quorum crisis on each working day of the seventh parliamentary sessions was 28 minutes. An average of over BDT162,000 is needed per minute to conduct the sessions. More than 48 hours 26 minutes were wasted due to a quorum crisis in the 103 working playdays of the seven sessions of parliament. As a result, a total of BDT472.33 million was wasted.

The report also mentioned that while 32 percent of lawmakers attended over 50 percent of the working days, they did not participate in any activity. A total of 66 government bills were passed during that time and an average of 31 minutes was spent to pass each of the bills. Apart from the finance bill, proposals seeking public opinion on every other bill were canceled by voice votes. Of all the lawmakers, 71 percent participated in the budget discussion. Both the government and the opposition parties talked about various irregularities and corruptions in the financial sector,and the finance minister agreed with them. The TIB report made a number of recommendations to overcome persisting problems in parliament which include passing of the code of conduct for MPs, holding a parliamentary debate on international agreements, amendment of article 70 of the constitution to promote self-criticism, free expression of thoughts, independent parliamentary voting and more.

Use of indecent, vulgar, and unparliamentary language is a shameful part of our politics. All the major political parties of the country have contributed to this problem. A parliament is a place where immensely important issues of national stature are supposed to be discussed. Parliament is supposed to make the government accountable, make important national policies, and resolve disputes through logic and debate. It is not a place to settle personal or party scores against opponents. The most frustrating thing about this practice is that indecent com-ments are always visibly supported by the affiliated political parties. When an MP of the ruling party makes a derogatory comment about his or her political opponent, other members of the same party also support it. This is not only an incredibly unbecoming conduct, but also a crime.

Parliament has a Privilege Committee, which is supposed to protect the rights and interests of parliament and its members. Indecent language is a way of showing disrespect to parliament and its members. The committee and the Rules of Procedure have the authority to take action against persons who violate decency in parliament. They can even be banned from parliament if repeated warning fails to tame their behavior. Our neighboring country India once kicked out 11 MPs at one go for making vulgar comments. Similar examples should be set in our country as well. When a public representative acts indecently, he or she transgresses the trust of the people reposed in him or her. So, strict measures should be taken against them to discourage future recurrence of un-parliamentary attitudes and behavior in parliament.

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Akbar Ali Khan Former advisor to the caretaker government

Those who have used derogatory language in parliament in recent years have shown very poor taste. The relationship between the government and the opposition parties is already very strained in our country. If the bad behavior displayed in parliament continues, the relations between the two parties will only get worse. Whenever parliament members utter an indecent word, the speaker should immediately turn off their microphone. The type of language that has been spoken in parliament in recent years is a clear sign of an erosion of political values. Such incidents increase the heat in the political arena. Both sides should be more tolerant, because such behavior cannot bring good results for anyone.

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