It was a tragedy that was just waiting to happen. Living in Bangladesh one learns to expect the unexpected. However even by the standard here it was shocking and resulted in great public outrage in the social media..
A tragic incident associated with the noxious VIP culture allegedly claimed the life of Titas Ghosh, 11, a student of grade six school student who has died in the ambulance as the authorities delayed the departure of a ferry at Khathalbari jetty in Madaripur for three hours for a joint secretary. This is something unthinkable in a civilised polity.
The official, a joint secretary Md Abdus Sabur Mondal ironically was working for a2i or the Access to Information, a flagship government project that promises to “improve the lives of citizens”–some improvement!
The family of the dead student implored the police and BIWTA not to delay the ferry further, as it was a race against time for the child. That went in vain. Calling 999, the emergency number for government services, also proved futile. The ferry, named ‘Cumilla’, departed only when the car carrying the joint secretary boarded the vessel around 11 pm but, died from brain haemorrhage within half an hour while the family was still in the middle of the river. While this is an extreme case the VIP culture as is practiced in this country is causing suffering to a huge number of, for all itents and purpose ‘not very important’ on a daily basis.
The very idea of VIPs or VVIPs is inherently undemocratic. It goes against the idea of equality, for the simple reason that it makes some citizens inferior to others. When VIP treatment become status differentiators and they come at the cost of the dignity of the ordinary citizen, there’s reason enough to challenge the idea.
There can be no argument that some people deserve special treatment. However, it’s conveniently forgotten that the treatment is reserved only for the special offices they hold, not for the individuals per se. The president or the prime minister of the country, for example, is protected across the world. It is because of the offices they represent and the symbolic importance they carry. In this country though, we have managed to subvert the logic of the 'office' to create an unhealthy subculture revolving around government-assigned artificial statuses.
And this menace of VIP culture has taken deep roots within our society. Previously it was only attributed to the political elite but now it has engulfed all sections of society, including unfortunately the senior public servants. VIPs through their underlings coerce citizens to break traffic rules and give them way intimidating and traumatising citizens through different means. As a matter of fact VIP mentality has become part of the DNA of this republic’s ruling elite. Contrary to Abraham Lincoln’s famous definition of democracy, Bangladesh may well face a scenario where the country becomes of VIPs, by VIPs and for VIPs. Today many of them do what they can and the people suffer what they must. In the heyday of European empires, colonial masters ruled imperiously over conquered subjects. During the Raj, the British class system created systems to entrench social divisions even more rigidly. During the Pakistan period the West Pakistanis continued the trend. After independence, Bangladesh proudly declared itself a sovereign democratic republic and included the word socialist in the constitution. The central tenet of the constitution is the sovereignty of the people. Politicians and officials are there to serve the people. Unfortunately in reality the ruling elites like the colonisers have managed to capture the privileges while the disempowered populace is saddled with general apathy and misery.
We have observed that more that the quality of public services (health, education and infrastructure) decayed and institutions were degraded and corrupted, the greater was the distance between the lifestyle of the closed circle of the elite and ordinary citizens. Inevitably this morphed into the VIP culture that Bangladeshis by and large detest with a depth of contempt, anger and resentment that is difficult for outsiders to fathom.
Every person must be considered important in this country of 180 million people. How did this noxious culture develop when our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself shunned pompous security? In the early years after independence many famous political leaders including cabinet members had minimal security and other paraphernalia.
Terrorism gave an excuse for all to travel with heavy intimidating escort vehicles. Even comparatively small leaders travel in big cars escorted by their armed bodyguards in SUVs resembling police protection units, waving their walkie-talkie sets through open windows to intimidate other drivers.
An ordinary driver has no means of knowing whether the "VIP" is genuine or not. VIP culture is not about the VIPs of the country, it is about us, the general Bangladeshis who get denied the basic rights because certain authoritative people are making the wrong use of theirs. VIPs have become synonymous people who have power, and people who do not care about the general public, often exploit their rights to get ahead or to get their work done. Why should the public be held back and the road blocked to let a VIP pass by? Why can’t the VIP be stuck in traffic and enjoy the woes this country has to offer to its citizens? Why should only the citizens have to put up with the bad side? Also, who bestowed these people with the honour of being VIPs? Why are they treated like deities in our country? Gone are the times when the public figures used to work for the public of the country, nowadays you will see full beefed up security when a politician is visiting an area, so what does that exactly mean? We care about the politician and give him/her high security, but the general public can die under a threat? Why can the security not be at that level 24/7? Is it too costly for the state to afford? Exactly! It is too expensive for the state, but we happily provide it for the politicians and the VIPs.
All the citizens of the country, whether VIP or not, should come under the same rule book, which means the rules should be the same for everybody and the non-abidance should be equally punishable regardless of the position of the citizen. It is time to end Bangladesh’s pompous VIP culture-- the sheer misuse of the state machinery and drainage of public money; blocking roads for priority passage, flashing beacon lights, sounding megasonic horns, blowing sirens zipping in neck breaking speeds, in company of escorts, no queues, enjoying in posh lounges, no tolls, all by the self proclaimed VIPs, just to intimidate the common man.
This ridiculous culture is reminiscent of the British Raj and is a show off of power by the power-crazy, media-savvy new age VIPs.
The privileges they enjoy are countless vis avis the common man. If in a democracy, the common man is supreme it is then indispensable that this ugly culture should end.
All over the world coloured beacons are allowed only in emergency vehicles and India too should follow that. Blowing sirens is strictly forbidden, unless in cases of emergency. I have, however, seen that many so called elites use mikes, blow horns and intimidate other on the roads.
While an airport can have amenities and recreational facilities made available to those who can pay, for certain purposes an airport ought to be equal to all. For example, no one should be allowed to fast track through airport security. Security check at airports is a matter of national defence, not an amenity, and hence, all air travellers should be treated equally.
The 'queue' is just a symbol. Jumping the queue is symptomatic of a larger attitude problem -- of 'VIP mindset'. It is like this: no matter how important or rich you are, you cannot be allowed to buy a red beacon for your car. The same logic goes for the sale of "special number plates" for private vehicles and the "pay-and-join the VIP line" practice followed at some of our public places. These may appear trivial but they manifest the VIP mindset, which has pervaded our society.
A citizen should stand up for what they believe in and stand up against what they feel is totally unnecessary. We have all seen a police vehicle breaking the traffic signal while everybody is standing there, waiting for the light to turn green? And they more often than not do so when not in any operation as such. If there are rules, they should apply to everybody, or they shouldn’t exist! Say no to VIP. It is a boorish culture, not practised in the civilised and developed world. Let’s wage a relentless war and hope that the lawmakers will accede to it soon.
The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent