On February 18, while raising a supplementary question in parliament, Jatiya Party leader Fakhrul Imam offered a glimpse into two of the great paradoxes of today. Using expressions that are bound to enter the local political lexicon, he questioned the wisdom of appointing former shipping minister Shajahan Khan as the head of a committee that will advise the government on how to bring discipline to the road transport sector: How practical, he asked, is it to expect “Bodi to curb narcotics trade or Shajahan Khan to curb road accidents?”. He was, of course, referring to the chequered career of Shajahan Khan as a transport leader which has earned him quite a bit of notoriety. Imam's reference to Abdur Rahman Bodi—the former Awami League MP who was reportedly tapped to assist in the government's war on drugs despite his reputation for leading a sprawling drug empire in Cox's Bazar—was only meant to accentuate the absurdity of such engagements.
Clearly, Shajahan Khan didn't like to be compared to Bodi—he said as much in his reaction—nor would Bodi have liked the comparison had he been in a position to respond. But both men share more commonalities than they would like to admit. Both are proud, outspoken and quite sensitive to how they are viewed. Both have their political capital built on values and assets that are not political. Their rise in power, headline-grabbing gaffes and failures, and eventual ascension to such “feel-good” advisory roles, which almost seem like a “reward” for their past deeds, present a moral quagmire that is hard to ignore. It also represents the inconsistencies between what is expected and the reality in how the State functions, and questions its ability to respond to the most urgent concerns of the citizens.
In his defence against the accusations brought in parliament, Shajahan Khan was quite persuasive. He enumerated a list of his achievements and demanded that Imam's comment be expunged. It is not a new phenomenon for him to try to rewrite his legacy, but this time it was particularly brazen. However, his words can only be of limited reassurance given his track record. And it is his record—not his account—which should matter while evaluating his fitness to serve in a position so important for public safety, a fact apparently ignored by the administration. This much was clear from the flawed justification given by Obaidul Quader, the road transport and bridges minister, which reminds one just how hard it must be to speak for a colleague who has courted controversy on a near-regular basis.
Obaidul Quader's argument pivots on Shajahan Khan's “experience” in dealing with matters related to the transport sector. Taken at face value, this line of argument would be reassuring. However, the experience of the man in question was gathered not in any official capacity as a public servant, but as a union leader representing the interests of transport owners/workers, which often put him on a collision course with his own government and even the general public. As far as past records go, he was not part of the solution—he was part of the problem. And his experience has evidently benefitted him more as a person than it did the citizens who he had promised to serve.
According to his affidavit submitted to the Election Commission before the December 30, 2018 election, during his ten years as shipping minister and a unionist, Shajahan Khan's wealth had increased by a staggering 93 percent while his wife's wealth increased by 12 percent. Even a decade ago, the couple didn't have any house or land in their names in Dhaka. Now, they have houses and plots in Lalmatia, Badda, Meradia and Purbachal areas. Clearly, he has lived his life in the fast lane, aided in no small part by his “superior” experience and the immunity of his ministerial portfolio. During the same period, many people died or were injured as a consequence of his failure to regulate our chaotic roads as well as decisions that he, as a leader of the transport sector, was either privy to or had a part in making. This glaring incongruity is what prompted the road safety campaigners to call his selection in the 15-member advisory committee “laughable”—for lack of a more politically correct word.
It's hardly surprising that the decision has brought renewed attention to his unresolved credibility issues. But the administration appeared unmoved by the conflicting nature of his representation and its relation to the task at hand. In response to Fakhrul Imam's reference to Shajahan Khan's now-infamous smirk, which he reportedly gave following the death of two students in road accidents last year, the road transport and bridges minister said: “I would not dwell on a person. I would not like to see what a polite smile in a man's past caused what trouble.” Well, the past matters, and this particular “polite smile” happened to ignite a nationwide student protest, paralysed all major cities, thoroughfares, and educational institutions for days on end, and led to furious calls for his resignation.
When it comes to calls for resignation, few politicians are as familiar with the experience as Shajahan Khan. The report about his appointment published in this paper carried an infographic on some of the occasions when he made headlines for his inappropriate comments and unbecoming actions, much to the consternation of the public. On one occasion, in August 2011, he said a driver does not need to be educated to get a driving licence: “If a driver can sign his name, can read traffic signs and signals, can tell a cow from a goat and has 'good' driving skills, what's the problem in giving him a licence?” On another occasion, his involvement with a transport strike generated front-page news. The strike, which he defended publicly, held the whole country hostage for days because of a court verdict that gave life sentence to a driver over the deaths of director Tareque Masud, cinematographer Mishuk Munier, and three others.
I remember writing an article titled “Oh! Be careful little tongue what you say!” after that, lamenting his penchant for inflammatory sound bites and the unbridgeable gap between the wavelength on which he functions and the wavelength on which most ordinary citizens do. That was about two years ago. Since then, he was criticised for conflicts of interest between his roles as a minister and as a representative of the transport owners/workers. There's no telling how impartial he can be now that he has been relieved of the burden to “act” ministerial.
That said, one can also question the very existence of this committee, given how such committees fared in the past. Despite what Obaidul Quader believes about the useful inputs that the committee can provide, overriding any personal bias that a member may have, “it's hilarious that those who have created the problems in the sector have been given the responsibility to solve them,” said Prof Moazzem Hossain, former director of the Accident Research Institute at Buet. Besides Shajahan Khan, according to The Daily Star report, five other members of the committee are also involved with transport organisations, who will no doubt hold sway over all its decisions. The irony of the whole spectacle is obvious.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.