The Department of Social Welfare (DSW) vide their letter of December 14, 2020, "temporarily dismissed" the Executive Committee (EC) of the Retired Armed Forces Officers' Welfare Association (RAOWA) and replaced it with a five member committee consisting of two serving army officers—a Brigadier and Major respectively, a retired member of RAOWA of the rank of Major, and two civil cadre officers of the rank of Deputy Secretary. RAOWA is registered with the DSW. There is yet another letter from the Ministry of Defense (MoD), on which we shall also dwell.
Needless to say, this was an unprecedented, unforeseen, and, for most of the members of the community of retired officers, an unexpected step. I am constrained to articulate my feelings on the matter, aggrieved by the arbitrary action of the DSW not only as a member of RAOWA for the last 20 years, but also because of my concern as an ordinary citizen of Bangladesh at the abrupt action of the DSW. The DSW has thousands of associations and organisations under it. Is this the normal procedure for dealing with alleged procedural flaws? It does not need repeating that RAOWA is an association whose membership includes retired armed forces officers. Highly decorated Freedom Fighters and war veterans are members of this association. RAOWA is graced by officers who had offered their lives for the independence of this country and to its service.
My anguish is at the manner of "dismissing" a body duly elected by retired members of the armed forces of Bangladesh, which numbers more than 4,000 members. Was dismissal of the EC the only option open to the DSW? It was an elected committee by members of a private association. It is answerable for its operation to the DSW, run as per its guidelines and as per rules and procedures deemed appropriate, formulated by it and adopted by its members, conforming to the law of the land in the conduct of its activities.
The Association was formed in March 1982 by a handful of retired military officers that comprised of persons of the ranks of three star generals as well as captains and of all ranks in between. It is a voluntary association, and as the name suggests, dedicated to the welfare of retired armed forces officers. The association is run, like other similar private organisations, by an executive committee headed by a chairman, a senior vice-chairman, a vice chairman and other office bearers, elected annually by its members through free and fair elections, a process that has never been questioned for its transparency and fairness in the 38 years of its history. The Association is run under a constitution passed by the general members, and approved by the DSW. It is amended as necessary from time to time in similar manner. Officers like General Wasiuddin, Jabbar, and Khalil etc, had graced the post of Chairman.
Three reasons cited for the step taken are, "Not approving the Executive Committee, not sending the yearly report regularly, and, not communicating for a long period with the registration authority."
I believe as a RAOWA member, I am within my remit to ask if the reasons cited in the said DSW letter merit the extraordinary action that it has taken. Did those necessitate the dismissal of the entire EC at the stroke of a pen, a body that was duly elected by members? Admittedly, the DSW has all the authority to take actions that it deems necessary for any act of commission or omission of the EC. But, is dismissal the very first action that is adopted by a government department in dealing with alleged lapses by agencies or associations under it? Were all the due processes employed before such a precipitate action was taken? Didn't an association like RAOWA deserve a modicum of deference? May I ask, if it was necessary to dismiss the EC at all, were there no other retired officers amongst the 4,000 members of the association, to fill the five posts of the ad-hoc committee?
Would I be remiss in asking if the EC was given a show cause notice about the three points mentioned in the referred letter of DSW? As far as I have learnt, nothing of the kind was done. If "not approving the Executive Committee, or not sending annual report" are acts of omissions, how long has that been going on for? And how many times had the DSW reminded the EC of the omission before sacking it? After all, it is as much the responsibility of the supervising authority to warn an organisation registered with it for non-compliance or violation of rules or regulations as much as it is the duty of that association to comply with those. Was that done? As far as "not communicating for a long period with the registration authority", I believe the latest communication between RAOWA and the DSW was through a RAOWA letter of November 25, 2020. What, may one ask, is the DSW definition of "long period"?
But this is not where the RAOWA saga ends. There is a letter from the MoD to the DSW on December 10. What is surprising are the directives contained therein, directing the amendment of the RAOWA constitution to include—firstly, the provision for nomination, not by direct vote, to the EC posts of Chairman, Secretary General and Member Beverage. The three would be nominated from the "willing" members of the association. Secondly, the other posts would be filled by direct vote. Thirdly, the post of the Chairman can be filled only by members of the rank of brigadiers and above. Fourthly, reformulating the articles of the constitution to lay out qualifications for participating in the election, and last but not the least, making provisions for cancelling the membership of officers declared persona non-grata (PNG) on disciplinary grounds.
I fail to understand the rationale of the directives. Why the nomination and that too, to the three posts only? Would persons so nominated be answerable to the association or to the authority that has nominated him/her? And what if there are no "volunteers" for the three nominated posts? Why should the general members be deprived of their fundamental right to have the person of their own choice hold these posts instead of having somebody imposed on them? Can an administrative fiat abridge the fundamental right of the general members, which the country's constitution guarantees? The third directive is even worse. Barring anyone below the rank of brigadier or equivalent will create a class, a situation that does not make for a harmonious environment. It will create the "Ashraf" and "Atrafs" in the association. Even more, that would deprive everyone below the rank of brigadier of his or her fundamental and constitutional rights to participate in elections as a candidate.
If captains and lieutenant colonels can become MPs and hold cabinet posts, and there are a few examples of this in the present government, why can they not contest in the post of Chairman of RAOWA? Rank has no correlation with competence or efficiency. Higher rank does not automatically induce higher levels of skill or ability to deliver. Many officers retire early for various reasons and not necessarily because of incompetence. This organisation was once headed by a retired Flying Officer. As for the PNG, the less said the better, and I shall venture on this issue separately later. Suffice to say that the provision of PNG should be well defined, since every government has used it as a political tool. There are several retired military officers who were declared PNG during the rule of different governments and had been members of parliament also. Should they lose their membership of RAOWA?
I firmly believe that RAOWA, being a private association, should be allowed to operate according to the existing general law of the land. And it should be left to the general body to decide how that should be done within those parameters. Nominated bodies or dictated constitutions cannot help the development of the association. Some may well feel that the directives lack locus standi. I feel the dismissal order should be rescinded immediately.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.