Like all things bad and ugly in Bangladesh, the latest offensive against our sanity is playing out in a wearily predictable fashion. First, a schoolboy dies while waiting in an ambulance after it got stuck for three hours on a ferry put on hold by a joint secretary of the government, a VIP no less. Then comes the chorus of public outrage. Soon a probe committee is formed, and compensations are sought. And now there are doubts if the probe committee would be able to perform its task and if the said VIP would be held accountable for his injudicious decision. Outrageous development, indignation, probe, rinse and repeat—nothing has happened so far to challenge this familiar pattern that follows nearly every crisis in Bangladesh.
But the bigger issue here is not the lack of accountability that perpetuates this crisis cycle, but our VIP culture, a colonial legacy that puts certain people ahead of the rest of the population and accords them undue privileges. It’s reminiscent of the now-defunct system of apartheid in South Africa, which institutionalised racial segregation and sought its legitimacy by promoting the perceived importance of a certain class for their nation. The tragedy of the schoolboy, however, has come as a jolting reminder of the dangerous consequences of such practices. As Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), put it: the tragedy demonstrates what happens when you accord special privileges to a certain group at the expense of ordinary citizens. “It’s unconstitutional, completely illegal, and discriminatory,” he said. Also note the High Court observation that government officials are merely servants of the republic, and not very important persons (VIPs).
But perhaps it’s no surprise that such a culture should exist, even thrive, in Bangladesh where deification is the norm and discrimination is permitted for parochial self-interests. The country has witnessed the simultaneous growth and decline in living standards of those who are at the top of the food chain and those who are at the bottom of it. During the last 25 years in Dhaka, household rent has gone up by a staggering 400 percent, while the prices of essentials saw a 200 percent increase. The household income of most citizens didn’t rise concurrently, however. Meanwhile, the rich got richer, accumulating more wealth and power than ever before. How do you reconcile these contrasting pictures? How do you get your head around the irony in the disenfranchisement of the masses by a system that also “celebrates” their empowerment through democracy and democratic elections? The VIP culture is but a symbol of this glaring contrast.
In Bangladesh, the term VIP is not recognised officially but there is a “warrant of precedence”, comprised of 25 articles, which lays down the order in terms of the ranks of important officials/individuals belonging to the executive, legislative and judicial organs of the state, as well as members of the foreign diplomatic corps. The warrant or order is generally used for the purpose of the invitation of dignitaries to important state functions including their seating arrangements. They are also provided with other benefits including police protection, accommodation, cars, etc. While such arrangements are primarily based on practical considerations, it is the unfair use of the status that can be problematic and at times tragic, as evidenced by the ferry ghat tragedy.
One may recall the iconic image of a brave traffic police official stopping a VIP car that was moving on the wrong side of the road. The incident, which occurred last year, sparked off a fierce debate about the status of VIPs in a democratic country, despite the problems they create on the roads by breaking traffic rules and making ordinary commuters suffer in the process. The general verdict, therefore, was that the VIP culture is an affront to our dream of building a just, fair society and should be gradually rid of. That verdict still holds, but there has been no sign that a policy shift in line with people’s expectations is imminent.
Interestingly, in India, the BJP government has recently launched a countrywide review of the status of many VIPs. According to a report, the security status of some 130 VIPs has been reviewed so far, and security details for some well-known public figures, including Rashtriya Janata Dal President and former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadab and Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, were removed. In Nepal, early in March, there was a spontaneous protest against the VIP culture when traffic was brought to a halt to make way for the movement of Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. People stuck in the gridlock got impatient after 30-40 minutes. First, they protested verbally, complaining to the officials on duty, and when nothing happened, a group of bikers broke through the barriers and eventually all the vehicles followed suit. A video-clip showing this defiant rejection of the preferential treatment for VIPs went viral afterwards.
The underlying message of these two developments is that when enough people want to change their VIP culture, change, however slow, is possible. In Bangladesh, the backlash generated by events such as last year’s resistance against VIP and high-profile traffic offenders, or the recent death of the schoolboy, didn’t lead to a strong enough call for change. Does it mean we, as a society, are okay with this regressive system? Does it mean that we’re comfortable with the continued use of ear-piercing hydraulic horns by the ministers, VIPs and police personnel, or their flagrant disregard for other traffic rules? The growing rumblings on social media and in the streets suggest otherwise. While the special treatment given to the VVIPs (president and prime minister) and state guests on the roads is reasonable, the same cannot be said about the many VIPs that exist today.
The VIP culture has to go, because it belongs in the colonial era.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
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