An open letter was published in the Washington Post on March 7, 2023, as a full-page advertisement costing 73,033 US dollars. It has abruptly brought forth a settled issue and intended to stir up an unnecessary debate in Bangladesh. Forty world leaders have urged in this open letter that the Prime Minister of the government of Bangladesh should “take positive steps to support and recognize the great contributions of one of your most notable citizens, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus.” What did they mean by ‘positive steps’? Should Prime Minister violate the rule of law and reinstitute Dr. Muhammad Yunus as the managing director of the Grameen Bank? Do these world leaders want the same thing to apply in their countries? Certainly not! It should have a universal application without any exceptions.
Though the open letter we discuss is not investigative journalism, we will try to refute its claim through legal arguments. One of the renowned jurists A V Dicey argued that equality is one of the three principles of the rule of law. Similarly, Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh states: “All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law.” This principle finds its place in the United States Declaration of Independence. It states that all men are created equal. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” proclaims the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789. It adds that the common good could only be the basis of social differentiation.
Anyone could provide services to society through one’s business and maximize profit. So any person could be appointed as Managing Director of a bank if she fulfills the eligibility requirements. A person not having proper qualifications cannot claim ‘equal rights’! In this era of democratic constitutionalism, any person who has the required qualifications is discriminated against on the basis of gender or religion could file a writ petition before the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
However, any distinctions made in any laws are valid only if they stick to reasonable classification tests. We have to follow two principles to pass the reasonable classification test. Firstly, classification must have intelligible differentia. Secondly, such intelligible differentia must have a rational connection with the object that we aspire to achieve. For example, the Income Tax Ordinance, 1984 provides different classes of taxpayers. Following the principle of progressive taxation, the rich need to pay more tax than the poor. This legal provision passes the reasonable classification test.
Dr. Muhammad Yunus established Grameen Bank in 1976. After seven years, the President enacted the Grameen Bank Ordinance, 1983 and authorized the Grameen Bank to operate as an independent bank. Following the provisions of the 1983 Ordinance, the board of directors are empowered to appoint the Managing Director of the bank following some rules. It was this law, and the rules thereunder, which were violated at the time of the reappointment of Dr. Muhammad Yunus in 2011 as the managing director of the Grameen Bank. The Bangladesh Bank canceled his reappointment and removed him from the post on the ground of the service age limit.
Being aggrieved by this action taken by the Bangladesh Bank, Dr. Muhammad Yunus filed a writ petition following article 102 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. But, be that as it may, the High Court Division did not find any merit in his arguments and therefore dismissed the writ petition. It proves that being the founder of the Grameen Bank and a Nobel laureate cannot absolve Dr. Muhammad Yunus from legal obligations. “Be ye never so high,” adds British physician and writer Thomas Fuller (1654-1734), “the law is above you.” Even if we think very hard, we cannot claim that Dr. Muhammad Yunus belongs to a different category and that the doctrine of reasonable classification applies to him. Every person attaining an age of retirement cannot work beyond the age limit.
The open letter goes on to state that it is “painful to see Prof Yunus, a man of impeccable integrity, and his life’s work unfairly attacked and repeatedly harassed and investigated by your government.” It is surprising that the leaders who live in democratic countries with a history of democracy and the rule of law have gone against the very principle of the rule of law i.e. no one is immune to the due process of law.
Moreover, the Grameen Bank’s activities are not beyond criticism. A Norwegian documentary film “Caught in Micro Debt” alleged that it evaded the tax payable to the revenue authority. The government could have utilized this money in any activities relating to poverty alleviation. Moreover, the hype of microcredit, though not discredited, has been criticized. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two Noble prize-winning economists, recognize the contribution of microfinance in their book Poor Economics (2011). However, they argue that “[t]rapped by decades of overpromising, many of the leading players [including Grameen Foundation, an organization run by Dr. Muhammad Yunus] in the microfinance world have apparently decided they would rather rely on the power of denial than take stock, regroup, and admit that microfinance is only one of the possible arrows in the fight against poverty.” (2011, p. 171)
Thus, it was not surprising when, in response to the open letter, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh commented (10 March 2023) that the “appeal” appeared to be an attempt by friends of Dr. Yunus to create political instability in Bangladesh and intimidate the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. This wouldn’t be the first time that Dr. Yunus attempted to dabble in Bangladeshi politics. One still remembers his futile attempt to form a political party named the “Nagorik Shakti” (Citizen Power) during the emergency declared by the erstwhile unconstitutional military-backed government in 2007.
We are aware of our own imperfections when it comes to democracy, human rights, and rule of law. We also value the constructive suggestions from our international friends in these regards. However, the open letter does not advance any of those noble aspirations. On the contrary, it sends a wrong signal that having powerful international friends and a Nobel Prize provides justifications to disregard those very aspirations.