Autonomous or subordinate? Ministry of Cultural Affairs directive stirs anger, controversy

After the culture secretary pushed for the ministry’s name to be added to the Ekushey Book Fair, conflicts with the Bangla Academy came to light

Pavel Rahmanbdnews24.com
Published : 13 Jan 2024, 05:31 AM
Updated : 13 Jan 2024, 05:31 AM

The Ministry of Cultural Affairs has issued directives to various autonomous institutions, including the Bangla Academy, instructing them to incorporate the ministry's name into their titles.

The move has worried legal experts, intellectuals, and civil society, who see it as interfering with the institutions’ autonomy.

The ministry asserts that since it oversees all tasks, including budget allocations for these organisations, the directive complies with the law.

In a letter signed by Joint Secretary (Admin-2) Md Asaduzzaman on Monday, it was stated that the ministry's name should be included with that of the relevant office/agency under the ministry.

bdnews24.com has seen a copy of the letter, and Asaduzzaman confirmed its dispatch.

The letter was sent to the heads of 18 organisations, including autonomous bodies like Bangla Academy, Shilpakala Academy, the National Museum, the Directorate of Archives and Libraries, the Kazi Nazrul Institute, and smaller agencies and ethnic and cultural institutions which operate independently and are regulated by law.

However, there are provisions to keep the ministry's representatives involved in managing these institutions.

Bangla Academy Director General Muhammad Nurul Huda declined to comment on the letter, while Liaquat Ali Lucky, director general of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, did not pick up the phone when bdnews24.com attempted to contact him.

BANGLA ACADEMY WAS AUTONOMOUS BEFORE MINISTRY FORMATION

After the Language Movement, there was a strong desire to create a research institute like Bangla Academy for the survival and development of the Bengali language.

Established in 1955 during the United Front government's rule in then East Pakistan, the Bangla Academy gained autonomous status within two years of its founding.

When Bangla Academy was established, the ministry did not exist, Prof Syed Anwar Hossain, former director general of Bangla Academy, told bdnews24.com, adding that the government’s lack of understanding of its history is leading them to try and place the academy under bureaucratic control.

Hossain noted a longstanding attempt to place Bangla Academy in a ‘subordinate’ position.

Recalling his time as the director general, he shared, "I received a letter from the ministry inviting me to a meeting, referring to the academy as a 'subordinate institution.'

“I clarified that Bangla Academy is 'not subordinate' to them.”

“They revised the letter, and I attended the meeting after receiving the updated version,” he said.

“Viewing Bangla Academy as subordinate, in my opinion, is an unwanted and undesirable intervention by the ministry," he added.

Former Director General of Bangla Academy Prof Md Harun-ur Rashid highlighted that the officials sending the letter and assuming control over Bangla Academy lack an understanding of the law.

He emphasised that the law is constitutionally recognised by the National Parliament, clarifying that while the academy is part of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, it is not under its control.

Prof Rashid added that they must amend the law through parliament if they want control.

He also said that the ministry’s secretary doesn't have the right to interfere in Bangla Academy matters.

According to the Act, a representative of the joint secretary rank from the ministry sits on the academy's executive board.

He pointed out that if the academy were under the ministry's control, the representative's role would be different, advising ministry officials to carefully read and understand the law.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

On Apr 3, 1957, the East Pakistan Legislative Council enacted The Bengali Academy Act 1957, granting Bangla Academy the status of an autonomous institution.

The institution now operates under the Bangla Academy Act, 2013, which outlines the government's powers.

Regarding the naming of the Act, it is said, "As soon as this Act comes into force, an academy named 'Bangla Academy' shall be established to fulfil the purpose of this Act.

The Academy, recognised as a statutory body, possesses continuous existence, a common seal, and, per the Act's provisions, the authority to acquire, possess, and transfer movable and immovable property.

It has the ability to bring legal cases and can also be the subject of legal actions using its name.

According to the law regarding the formation of the academy, it will be formed by four types of members. (a) the president of the academy; (b) the president of the executive council; (c) fellows; and (d) members.

The executive council, responsible for managing the academy, includes an officer of joint secretary rank nominated by the ministry.

The general assembly holds the overall authority of the academy, overseeing and reviewing its activities while providing necessary directions to the council.

THE MINISTRY IS VIOLATING THE LAW: SC ADVOCATE

The Ministry of Cultural Affairs is deemed to be 'violating the law' by Supreme Court Advocate Tanzim Al Islam, who asserts that instructing the addition of the ministry's name to an autonomous institution like Bangla Academy, despite its legal recognition, constitutes a breach of the law.

Tanzim points out that autonomous institutions have their own boards and operate independently, with the ministry having oversight but not direct control.

He questions whether other autonomous bodies, like Dhaka University, will also be required to add the Ministry of Education to their names and suggests that the ministry's letter indicates interference with these autonomous entities.

“The ministry seems to be mixing up terms like department, organisation, directorate, and autonomous bodies,” he said.

“It appears that the ministry is treating all institutions in a similar manner and interfering with autonomous bodies through this letter.”

CITIZENS VOICE ANGER

Many have questioned why the letter was sent a day after the national polls. Some of the concerned citizens are of the view that this ‘unwanted intervention’ of the ministry is a clear violation of the law.

Liberation War Museum trustee and researcher Mofidul Haque told bdnews24.com, “Bangla Academy was born before the birth of Bangladesh and has been running as an autonomous institution. The ministry should re-evaluate their outlook on such institutions.”

“The ministry has set a dangerous example with their lack of vision regarding institutions like the Bangla Academy,” he added.

“Bangla Academy will not continue its work if the ministry’s title is added to its name,” said Mofidul.

Criticising the ministry’s use of the words ‘under its jurisdiction’ in their letter, Mofidul said that the government should be more careful while using such terminology. He argued that the Bangla Academy cannot be under the purview of the ministry just because the government allocates a budget for the institution.

“Funds are allotted for many private libraries as well. Do these institutions belong to the ministry as well?” he questioned.

Renowned playwright Ramendu Majumdar believes the addition of the ministry’s titles to the names of autonomous institutions will not add to the glory of the government.

He told bdnews24.com, “Writing the ministry’s name will make it appear to the general public that the government controls autonomous institutions. So we don’t need to add it.”

Poet and advisor to the prime minister, Dr Kamal Abdul Nasser Chowdhury, said that writing the name of the Ministry in an autonomous department like Bangla Academy is inappropriate.

He told bdnews24.com, “The ministries have offices which are run by the ministries themselves. The name of the ministry can be added to those offices run by them.”

“Bangla Academy has a separate board of directors and is more autonomous than other institutions. I do not think that the name of the ministry should be added beside the name of Bangla Academy,” he added.

THE MINISTRY’S VIEWPOINT

When asked whether the ministry's letter directing the incorporation of its name to autonomous institutions was in breach of any laws, Md Asaduzzaman, joint secretary of the ministry of cultural affairs, said, "Why would it be a violation of the law? Aren't those institutions under the Ministry of Culture? The ministry is allocating their budget, is it not?"

However, institutions like the Bangla Academy or the Shilpakala Academy are not under the control of the ministry. They are, in fact, managed by their Board of Directors or the Executive Board.

When informed about the law, Asaduzzaman said, "Does the addition of the ministry's title diminish the power of the Executive Council? These institutions are under the supervision of the ministry."

He added that the 'name' of these institutions is recognised by law, and they are not being changed.

"Bangla Academy is under the Ministry of Culture, and we want the title of the Ministry of Culture to be written below it. This is not wrong to ask. We will still look into the laws if you say so," Asaduzzaman concluded.

SUCH INTERVENTION HAS HAPPENED BEFORE

This is not the Ministry of Cultural Affair's first attempts at interfering with the Bangla Academy's work.

The conflict between the parties came to light last year during the Ekushey Book Fair when the ministry demanded the addition of its name to the event. However, the Ekushey Book Fair has been organised by Bangla Academy since its inception.

A storm of protests erupted on social media when the news was published by bdnews24.com last year.

According to Bangla Academy, there has always been some pressure from higher-ups to invite someone from the ministry as a chief guest to all of its events. As a result, in the past, many officials from the ministry have been seen on stage in the majority of programmes hosted by the Bangla Academy.

The academy also alleges that speeches made by the ministry's top officials have irritated the audience in the past as they were not well-versed on the topics of discussion.

Researcher Mofidul Hoque openly expressed his resentment about this during an event and also wrote a letter of protest on the matter to the academy.

However, several academy officials say they had not received Mofidul’s letter and were unable to find it.

[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi and Ruhshabah Tabassum Huda]