Dr. Yunus, Rustam Mandal and the rule of law

Published : 07 Sep 2023 08:41 PM
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December 1998. A small news article on the inner pages of a daily newspaper - 'A farmer commits suicide after failing to repay loans from Grameen Bank.' This incident occurred in Sharsha, Jessore. Many farmers in this region had taken loans with high interest from Grameen Bank. They hoped to repay the loans with the proceeds from the new harvest. However, the devastating flood of 98’ ruined everything. The farmers went to the Grameen Bank's office, hoping that at least during the famine, they would be exempted from repaying the installment of the loans. But the district office of Grameen Bank informed them that this was beyond their authority. The burden to repay the loans intensifies on the people affected by the wrath of the flood. Not only in Jessore but borrowers of Grameen Bank all over the country were in dire straits. Many local Members of Parliament from various areas brought this issue to the attention of the Finance Minister. Considering the overall situation, the Finance Minister instructed all NGOs to waive or to refrain from receiving it immediately. Several small lending institutions like ASA, Proshika and several other micro-credit institutions followed the government's directive. They waive one month's interest during floods. Deferred payment of installments for two months. But 'Grameen Bank' refuses to comply with the government's decision. In this context, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the Managing Director of the Grameen Bank, describes how the bank's operations will be adversely affected due to a certain decision. Without waiting for the government's decision or response, the organization sends letters to all regional offices to maintain the previous practice of collecting loan installments without any disruption. At this time, a special team (force) was formed under the initiative of Grameen Bank to collect the installments. Powerful, muscular youths from the area are recruited into this team. They started threatening the borrowers by going door to door. Then, they forcefully confiscate household items like rice or other assets if necessary. They were often physically tortured to collect the installments. And legal charges against the borrowers were frequent. From August 1998 to January 1999, Grameen Bank filed around 13,000 cases across the country to recover installments. At least two hundred poor farmers were arrested in these cases. They were taken to the police station and court with a rope around their waist, as if they were any violent criminals. At that time, many farmers fled from their land to escape the oppression of Grameen Bank. Rustam Mandal was a victim of such ruthless exploitation. The news reported that Rustam Mandal had five due weekly installments. Unable to pay the installment, a case was filed and an arrest warrant was issued against him. Unable to find a way out, Rustam Mandal committed suicide. 

Rustam Mandal was not the only victim. During the challenging period following the flood, numerous farmers across the country resorted to taking their own lives due to their inability to pay the installments of Grameen Bank. Mirza Azam, a young member of parliament raised the issue in the national parliament on a 'point of order'. He stated, 'It's inhumane and unjust to drag a farmer to the brink of suicide for a mere 200 taka.' He demanded the withdrawal of these cases against the farmers. Mirza Azam also alleged that those who are committing 'suicide' due to the inability to repay loans are essentially being killed. After this issue was raised in the National Parliament, a heated discussion ensued. 

At this time, a statement was issued from Grameen Bank led by Dr. Yunus. In the statement, Grameen Bank completely denied allegations of harassment against farmers. At the end of the statement, it was written that, "The law is equal for everyone. There is no opportunity to differentiate the law for any special individual." After 25 years, that incident has resurfaced before my eyes, with Dr. Yunus at the center of international outrage and concern. On August 17th, former U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his concern about Dr. Yunus is being harassed. The letter, kept secret for 10 days by Dr. Yunus, was published on August 27th by the 'Yunus Center.' On that day, 34 members of the country's civil society expressed their concern about the government's actions towards Dr. Muhammad Yunus. The next day, 160 prominent personalities from around the world, including Nobel laureates, collectively wrote an open letter urging the suspension of ongoing legal proceedings against Dr. Yunus. A day later, Hillary Clinton declared on Twitter a formal battle against the Bangladesh government on Dr. Yunus's behalf, calling on world leaders to stand by him. As I read this passage with deep concentration, the scene of Rustam Mandal's house flashed before my eyes. At that time in 1998, I used to program an investigative report called 'Perspective' on Bangladesh Television. Based on those news reports I did an episode on installment payment harassment. I had visited the home of Rustam Mandal in Jessore. As they could not pay the installments, the tin roofs of the house were taken away by the people of Grameen Bank. Rustam Mandal's daughter was pale, in despair. His wife, a widow, was grieving deeply. In an interview with the regional manager of the Rural Bank in Jessore, he said, ‘There is no option to withdraw the case.’ International pressure to withdraw the case against Dr Yunus. And after the death of Rustam Mandal, there is a legal excuse to continue the case of collection of installments. What is the truth? Is the law equal for everyone?

Article 27 of the Constitution of Bangladesh states, "All citizens are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law." So, why two different policies for Dr. Yunus and Rustam Mandal?

Former Attorney General Advocate Aminul Haq Amin used to fight against the allegations of corruption against Ershad. On the day he passed away, he had gone to the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court in the morning to oppose the bail in a corruption case against Ershad. At that time, this fearless individual became agitated. He said, ‘If a farmer cannot pay 10-taka installment, they tie rope around their waist and send them to the jail. Due to a lack of money, that farmer cannot go to court. And by embezzling crores of state money, big crooks hire barristers and get out through loopholes in the law. This is not justice.' As he was leaving the Appellate Division, he suffered a heart attack and passed away. I remembered the words of Advocate Aminul Haque again in the lamentation of some prominent people about Dr. Yunus. The statement made by 160 world-renowned personalities on behalf of Dr. Yunus has been published on their website by Chicago-based public relations organization "Cision PR". These 160 individuals have been invited to sign a declaration through a contact form on the website. Cision PR is one of the renowned global communication firms, headquartered in the United States. The firm specializes in promoting any brand, company, organization, or individual skillfully. It has branches in 170 countries worldwide and communicates in 40 different languages. This organization works on enhancing the image of over a thousand clients. My question is, who gave them the responsibility of getting the signatures of so many prominent people to prepare such a statement on behalf of Dr. Yunus? How much did it cost? Earlier, a statement of 46 people on behalf of Dr. Yunus was published in the form of an advertisement in an influential media of the United States. Crores of money were spent on that advertisement campaign. is Dr. Yunus trying to influence the judiciary with money? Why can't a case be filed against him? Is he above the law? Earlier, the Nobel Peace Prize winning economist had fought in several cases. Those cases were filed by Dr. Yunus himself. Due to crossing the age limit, he was sent to retirement from the position of managing director of Grameen Bank. He challenged the government's decision and had faith in the judiciary at that time. Why is it different now?" However, Dr. Yunus lost in that case. The Supreme Court of the country declared the government's retirement notification valid.

In the fiscal year 2020-21, Dr. Yunus donated all the money from his personal account to the Yunus Trust. NBR (National Board of Revenue) claimed a 15% donation tax during that time. Dr. Yunus objected to making this donation and filed a case against NBR. On May 31st, Dr. Yunus lost in three income tax reference cases. He then deposited over 12 crore taka (more than 120 million taka) to NBR through a pay order. Now the workers of Grameen Telecom have filed a case alleging violation of labor laws. Now the workers of Grameen Telecom have filed a case alleging violation of labor laws. Dr. Yunus wanted to settle the case out of court with money. Money transactions were also done in illegal ways. The case has reached the Supreme Court and now proceeding in the Labor Court on the order of the Supreme Court. Dr. Yunus has filed a case, and there are no issues with that. However, when the workers file a case, there is a problem. What kind of justice is this! I believe most of the people who signed the petition to stay the case against Yunus do not know a single thing about it. They have been misled into this matter. Former American First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a separate bias towards Dr. Yunus. She is always enthusiastic about doing something special for Dr. Yunus. When Dr. Muhammad Yunus retired from the position of Managing Director of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, she violated all protocols and called the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. United States always talks about the rule of law. 

However, they themselves often ignore the rule of law for their own interests. They constantly talk about human rights in the United States. But they do not consider it a violation of human rights to deny workers their rightful wages. So, does the rule of law mean granting freedom to individuals like Dr. Yunus who are loyal to the United States? 


Writer Syed Borhan Kabir is the Editor in chief of Bangla Insider

Email: [email protected]