Now that the transport strike is over, thanks to the intervention, of all persons, of shipping minister Shahjahan Khan and state minister for Rural Development and Cooperatives Moshiur Rahman Ranga, one wonders what happens to the judicial verdicts, which prompted the strike in the first place. No one seems prepared to talk about the clear case of contempt of court here, for contempt it was when the transport owners and workers wildly went into a strike in fraternal defense of the convicted drivers.
Not a soul in the transport community gave any thought to the sufferings they were putting people to through their adventurism. Futile appeals were made to their good sense to step back from the brink and restore normality in citizens’ lives. It did not matter that the unleashing of a mob on the roads and highways of the country was a brazen defiance of the law. Those who egged the mob on from behind the scenes did not worry about the terrible message they were sending out to everyone, which was that the judiciary did not have to be listened to.
That raises the question of the degree to which Shahjahan Khan and Moshiur Rahman Ranga were involved in the creation of the crisis. That theirs was, indeed has been, a pivotal role in the transport industry is borne out by the fact that both men are leading figures in the transport community. That would have not mattered much were it not for the fact that the two men also happen to be part of the government. When they swore the oath of abiding by the Constitution and promised to uphold the public interest, they naturally abjured the right to hold any other position from the justifiable perception that it would throw up the issue of a conflict of interest. Shahjahan Khan and Moshiur Ranga each hung on to their dual positions.
It should have been for the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure, once the two men had been named to their ministerial positions, that they turned their backs on their trade unionism. The failure to do that is now beginning to raise all sorts of questions, not least that which speaks loudly of the patent defiance of the rule of law by the transport owners and workers. Perhaps the two ministers in question did not call the strike or call for action, but there is that suspicion, which refuses to go away, that they condoned the chaos into which the striking men plunged the country when they took to the streets. What followed such scenes of chaos only reinforces the question of the degree to which Shahjahan and Ranga, in their class interests, may actually have had a role, certainly not bright, in the rise of anarchy in the transport sector.
It was a sad sight of two ministers, that of law and road transport, negotiating with the shipping minister and the cooperatives state minister on a quick end to the crisis. Obaidul Quader, on the day the work stoppage ceased to be, and prior to a resumption of transport movement, informed the country that a solution would be found before the day was out. The solution, of course, lay with shipping minister Shahjahan Khan. Out of his hat it came. The government, said Shahjahan in his unquestioned role of trade unionist, let the media know that ‘assurances’ had been given by the government to the striking transport people. He did not spell out the ‘assurances’. One wonders. Did those ‘assurances’ relate to the judicial verdicts, which provoked the owners and workers into fury in the first place? Were they told, through the shipping minister-cum-trade union leader, that the verdicts did not matter, that they might as well be ignored?
In his take on the situation engendered by the strike, law minister Anisul Huq in proper fashion suggested that if the transport owners and workers were unhappy with the judicial action, they could have appealed against the judgment. He did not say, though, what action would be taken, under the law, against these transport owners and workers given the fact that they had demonstrated a clear defiance of the law by suspending transport services and by going wild and angry on the streets in protest.
As for road transport minister Obaidul Quader, that promise of bringing the strike, or the impasse, to an end within a time frame, worked out very well. His colleague in the shipping ministry stepped in to inspire his constituency, in this case the striking owners and strikers, into lifting the work stoppage.
Where does all of this leave citizens? The answer is without ambiguity: a bad precedent has been set. Our grievance relates to the reluctance of the government to stand firm in its position against the strike. The authorities capitulated rather quickly. They may not realize it, but they have probably ensured that no action will be taken against those who violate the law today and in the times that are yet to be. Impunity will be all.
Even so, we ask: On what ‘assurances’ did the transport men agree to get back to work?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age