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> Former Foreign & Law Minister of Bangladesh on  ‘Democracy in South Asia; Challenges and Prospects’
   Special Lecture by Dr. Kamal Hossain
November 24, 2004
Hotel Avari Lahore

Special Lecture by Dr. Kamal Hossain | 



Dr. Kamal Hossain, Former Foreign & Law Minister of Bangladesh delivered a Special Lecture on the topic of Democracy in South Asia: Challenges and Prospects under the auspices of Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency – PILDAT on November 24, 2004 at Hotel Avari Lahore.
The session was chaired by Mr. Sartaj Aziz, Former Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance and was attended by prominent personalities from all walks of life such as Members of the Punjab Assembly, officials of the Punjab Assembly, students, media persons and Civil Society representatives, etc. Prominent among the gathering were former President of Supreme Court Bar Association Mr. Hamid Khan, Gen. (retd.) Nishat Ahmad, Principal Officer American Consulate Mr. Brian Heath, Vice Consul Mr. Brian George, Director British Council Lahore Dr. Iftikhar Ilahi and Mr. F. S. Aijazuddin, etc.
Introduction of the Speaker

Dr. Kamal Hossain is a Senior Advocate Supreme Court of Bangladesh and has been Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, Constituent Assembly of Bangladesh. Apart from Foreign Affairs and Law, he has also held the portfolio of Petroleum and Minerals as a Minister in the Government of Bangladesh. A Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh by profession, Dr. Kamal Hossain received his bachelors and doctoral degrees in law from University of Oxford, England. He has been Vice-Chairman, Bangladesh Bar Council and President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Bangladesh. He has also been active on the international scene in the area of human rights and has served as election observer Commonwealth Election Observers Group in South Africa, SAARC Election Observers’ Mission, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, member of Hong Kong Pre-Election Mission, member, Human Rights Mission to Indonesia relating to situation in East Timor and UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan.
Lecture by Dr. Kamal Hossain

Dr. Kamal Hossain welcomed the opportunity to speak and share his thoughts and experiences on strengthening democracy in South Asia at the PILDAT forum. He believed that sharing of experiences in the region on this issue was crucial. Analysts from South Asia have reflected on the shared 50 year history to analyse the expectations that people of subcontinent had of independence from the colonial rule, he said, as the region had set on the post colonial journey with a similar set of expectations.
All constitutions are autobiographies of their respective nations as they reflect the aspirations of the people which have been shaped by historical experiences. Constitutions ensure political equality and freedom which must be used to achieve social and economic justice. Constitutions serve as vehicles for achieving political and economic empowerment of the people, he held. Sharing his experiences of drafting the Constitution of Bangladesh, he said that articulating the aspirations of the people in a constitution is a daunting task and an enormous responsibility of reflecting peoples’ yearning for a political, social and economic order. Legislators have a huge responsibility to represent their people and make decisions on their behalf and therefore have to be very cautious and responsible towards making their decisions, he held.
Dr. Hossain believed the real challenge of a democratic order is to make the constitution come to life and fulfill the promises a constitution holds out to the people. Democracy building in South Asia is still a work in progress in this regard. Even in India, which has seen a systemic continuity of democracy, a lively debate and a discussion is still going on about the deficits of constitutional order. Analysing the case of Pakistan and India he said that the democratic process was brought to a halt many times in the history of the two countries. Major issue has been the systematic weakness of the legislatures in the process which has hampered the growth of democracy even during democratic periods. Without strong and empowered legislatures, no real empowerment of the people can take place, he said.
Discussing the problems encountered in fulfilling the promises that constitutions hold, he quoted Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru who described the most difficult tasks he had to face during his premiership as follows: ‘building a just society by just means’ and ‘building a secular place where religious feelings affect people so strongly.’ Dr. Hossain believed that these problems bear relevance not only to India but also to Pakistan and Bangladesh since independence. India was fortunate to have continuity of democracy and democratic leadership. He said he can not help but wonder that if Mr. Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan were alive for a longer period after independence, the situation in Pakistan would also have been different.
Dr. Kamal Hossain believed that one of the major causes for lack of sustainable democracy in the region was that the process of transition from colonialism to post colonial democratic state could not be triggered in the positive and constructive direction. Pakistan and Bangladesh have a shared history therefore the problems were the same initially. There was uneven distribution of power; executive had more powers and legislature was not able to put a check on it even before any military intervention. The shortcomings of the colonial rule were carried on in almost all the departments. To make matters worse, there was a trend of official secrecy; public was denied information and colonial legacies persisted to the detriment of the society. Independence from colonial rule meant that people of subcontinent were no longer subjects but citizens of their respective independent democratic countries. The general populace had expected democracy to prevail which meant empowerment of the people but after the independence this could not materialize, he said. He quoted what he termed as an illuminating insight by Mahmood Mamdani, a post-colonial historian of Africa, an anthropologist and author of the book ‘Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism’ that after independence the status of the people is changed from subjects to citizens and this is declared so in the Constitution, but the relationship between rulers and the ruled does not immediately get transformed into reality. It is so because the attitude of the subject towards the rulers, and the attitude of the ruler toward the subject is not easy to change.
Dr. Kamal Hossain said that the shared history of 24 years of Pakistan and Bangladesh shows that the attitudes of police and administration, etc. were very different from what was expected after independence. This critical change in the mindset was not brought about. Those who were expected to bring about this change of altering the attitudes were the legislators. But the legislators themselves needed to change their mindset to understand and employ the power vested in them to oversee the administration. The control and oversight by elected representatives over those who were exercising executive power was slow in emerging. This, believed Dr. Kamal Hossain, is the sad part of the history that institutional evolution and growth of legislatures did not take place as sovereign institutions empowered to represent the people, legislate on their behalf and oversee the executive.
Discussing the pre-1971 phase of Pakistan, he said that democracy was never given a chance to thrive and it was subjected to various forms of manipulation. The Chief Secretary or the Governor represented the Centre and not the people in the smaller provinces which were manipulated by the centre. The true democratic set up implies that those who are formally in control are supposed to be under the control of elected representatives but reality during that period defied that commitment, he added. The initial distribution of power right after the independence in 1947 was not according to the democratic norms as various power centres were injected in the system of governance. Parliament and Assemblies were weakened deliberately and executive accumulated more and more power without any system of checks and balances.
Dr. Hossain said that the key to strengthened and sustainable democracy in the region is to ensure a system of conducting free, fair and transparent elections is available. People should be given their basic right to vote for the candidate of their choice and there should be no manipulation of any kind to gain political ends. Empowerment of the people will in turn ensure less political corruption and will ultimately lead to equal distribution of power which is the basic requirement of a democratic society. People should build up a consensus among themselves to be vocal about their political rights regardless of differences in caste, creed or ethnicity. In order to raise awareness in people, the enlightened elite have to speed up their efforts and work relentlessly to uphold the values of democracy in society so that the monopoly of predatory elites has to be minimised. Election Commissions should be ensured absolute autonomy and all their provisions should be clearly defined that must entail the power to hold inquiries and enforce their decisions in the lights of those. Media, he felt, was a crucial institution towards change and democratisation and needed to be mobilised to stimulate awareness in people about their fundamental political rights to ensure exercise of choice.
Praising the role and efforts of PILDAT as an independent and non-partisan institution dedicated to strengthening democracy, he said that such institutions were required in the entire region to accelerate the process of democratisation. It is very crucial for the civil society to have the courage to criticise the wrongs in an autocratic setup and work towards strengthening democracy just as it is crucial to have a space to criticise, he added.
Answering a question about the ways and means to stop military interventions, he said that the solution in this regard is to put in place an independent, powerful and objective election commission which should ensure free and fair elections. In Bangladesh’s Constitution, it was written that there should be elected administrative members or representatives on all levels of state as a bulwark against military intervention. The situation is far from perfect over there as well but it is necessary to have elected representatives at the helm of affairs. The structure of civil society and military must also be defined and power must rest in the hands of Legislature. Democracy is always vulnerable to powerful interests therefore concerted efforts must be undertaken to eliminate threats to democracy. True democracy means that people are empowered for exercising their choice without manipulation and holding their elected representatives responsible, he held.
Synthesis by Session Chair

As the Chair of the Session, Mr. Sartaj Aziz summarised the issues that Dr. Kamal Hossain highlighted during his lecture to uphold the democratic values in a given society including holding of free and fair elections, dealing effectively and quickly with political corruption and the need to change the attitudes and the role of media, bureaucracy and the military. Mr. Sartaj Aziz commented that democracy could be strengthened only through creating a positive synergy between these factors which becomes increasingly more difficult once the democratic process is interrupted by military interventions. Once democracy is interrupted, the process of empowerment and transition does not take place, institutions get weaker, vested interests become stronger and money has a larger role to play, he added. Mr. Aziz believed that Dr. Hossain offered a sobering analysis of the task Pakistan faces in terms of building democracy and strengthening democratic institutions, adding that research and sharing of best practises on these issues was required in the region.
Mr. Sartaj Aziz held that one reason for the smooth flow of democracy in India is that after its independence, it realised that a chunk of its territory – one fourth – was taken away from it by immigrants who had come from outside the country and divided it, and wanted to avoid further division in the future. India was not one nation like Pakistan and had eight (8) major religions, several languages, several hundreds sects and ethnic groups, etc. Indian leadership realised from the very beginning that they could not build national unity without the democratic process; hence from 1947 they adopted 14 national languages while 4 more languages were recognised and added to the list recently. Pakistan did not learn any lesson from that as Urdu, which was neither the language of Bengal, nor Punjab, Sindh, Frontier and Balochistan, was adopted as one national language. It was this issue of the national language in Pakistan which was one of the reasons for the separation of East Pakistan, he added. In India, a well-demarcated structure of provinces and their functions was introduced to counter differences; the Sikh independence movement in Indian Punjab was weakened each time there was an election. India, hence, preserved the unity of its nation only through democratic process and this became the motivation to politicians, despite corruption, not to question democracy, he said.
Mr. Aziz believed that the key point that emerges out of Dr. Kamal Hossain’s lecture is the importance of the empowerment of people as without empowerment, there is no democracy. Empowerment of the people depends upon political and economic power structures. Socialist countries draw their power from the grass roots i.e., the poor while in truly democratic societies, public is empowered as ultimately the electorate elects its representatives. In countries where both these models are not operational, the political and economic power is controlled by vested interests, feudal landlords or tribal lords or bureaucracy which serve as the main obstacle to empowerment. Change is difficult in such an environment as the election process is controlled and dominated by them to perpetuate the power structure. In such a scenario, a civil society movement of one kind or the other is required on various issues such as politics, minorities, education, human rights, etc that can snatch power as otherwise the power structure is too strong to allow change and empowerment of the people, he said.
Mr. Sartaj Aziz thanked Dr. Kamal Hossain for his sharing of thoughts while praising the role of PILDAT in providing such a forum for discussion.
In the end Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, Executive Director PILDAT thanked the chief guest Dr. Kamal Hossain and the session chair Mr. Sartaj Aziz for their invaluable input. A PILDAT Memento was presented to Dr. Kamal Hossain to commemorate his lecture and interaction at the PILDAT Forum.









(From left to right) Mr. Sartaj Aziz, Dr. Kamal Hossain and Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob


(From left to right) Mr. Sartaj Aziz presenting a PILDAT Memento to Dr. Kamal Hossain while Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob claps on


Participants at the Lecture