Do we really need RAB? Has RAB really lost its relevance? Is it really time that the government disbanded the outfit?
The answers are not as simple as politicians make them look in their often irresponsible rhetoric.
While the BNP chief is all for dissolution of RAB, government ministers are going all guns blazing to defend it. The former founded it when the latter group would find nothing right about it.
Which only points to the almost universal allegation that RAB has been used for political purposes. One would only infer that Khaleda Zia needed it then and “used” it, and now the party in power needs it and using it to its political benefit. But how does one define political use?
A violent opposition campaign that threatens law and order breakdown in major cities will often require rapid response from law-enforcers. Will you call it political use if RAB is deployed, in aid of or along with other forces, to quell such chaos?
Violence unleashed by right-wing radicals – that often paralysed Bangladesh in recent years – will require a force superior to regular police. RAB’s operational superiority makes it a feared outfit that boasts battle-ready soldiers and agile officers from the armed forces.
Yes, police need a special unit to deal with special situations. Such a unit with real rapid response capability has to have more sophisticated logistics, more useful weapons and, most important, better-trained manpower. One, however, tends to forget the fact that police are very much part of the criminal justice system in addition to being responsible for law and order.
These jobs are better performed, in all decently organised societies, by police officers. But are armed forces, who are trained more to kill, meant to produce police officers who ought to be trained more to prevent crimes? After all, RAB’s perceived superiority is based on the fact that its key commanders are all drawn from the army. But are they good police officers? Are they prepared to be part of the criminal justice system when one fine morning they are asked to take on the role of a civilian officer?
In the mad quest for speed, quality of service often becomes the casualty; disproportionate, unlawful in many cases, use of force has been a common complaint. No wonder RAB has often been branded as one band of enforcers that fails to get convictions in the courts.
In the mid-1980s, when H M Ershad needed a special force to secure himself he relied heavily on the army and drafted the smartest officers. The President’s Security Force or PSF that he created went through one small change under Khaleda Zia who succeeded the deposed military ruler. It became SSF or Special Security Force. The SSF officers carry state-of-the-art weapons and are armed with extraordinary powers while on duty. But more important is perhaps what is believed to be its no-nonsense approach as well as the public perception of its prowess and invincibility– these officers can shoot and kill anyone appeared to be threatening the safety of the VVIP they are assigned to protect.
That means a positive image of a public institution is key to delivering the service. Today, RAB has lost much of it. Narayanganj is just the latest on a long list of aberrations across Bangladesh.
The rise and the call for fall of the Rapid Action Battalion have been rather rapid – only in March it marked 10 years with much fanfare. It is good that RAB’s founders made it clear that it would be a unit within the national police force reporting to the Inspector General of Police. The ‘elite’ unit itself is headed by a senior police officer, and there are quite a few mid-level police officers who perform operational duties. But its short-sighted founders did not envisage a time when military officers would make way for an all-police RAB. This failure to foresee such a transition stemmed from the nation’s collective failure to recognise the non-military nature of these activities – law-enforcement to VIP protection.
“Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.”
On RAB: Toufique Imrose Khalidi on a live show broadcast on 13 May 2014
Police in recent years have raised new units such as SWAT or SPBn. The Dhaka-based elite tactical force, SWAT or Special Weapons And Tactics unit, has been in business since early 2009, being part of the Detective Branch of DMP. Police officers say SWAT has the training – at home and abroad – to deal with terrorist attacks or hostage rescue situations.
All 64 districts in Bangladesh have a unit of Special Armed Force (SAF), which is designed to deal with emergencies such as outbreaks of unrest, communal riots, anti-terrorist operations and even organised crime.
As recently as 2012, the all-police Special Security and Protection Battalion or SPBn was raised to provide protection for VVIPs including both the president and the prime minister. One only hopes that someday SPBn will replace army-dominated SSF for VVIP protection.
But until the de-militarisation of such forces becomes a reality, RAB, with its army-led structure, may have to stay as a special police unit. And all its flaws can be scaled down with some effort.
The to-do list would be a long one, but just to give one example: Does it really work when a junior or mid-ranking military officer – on a three-year attachment – serves under a police officer? How much does that police officer matter in assessing the army officer’s performance? Is that why there are many incidents of alleged violation of the chain of command? Why did the police need permission from anyone to arrest or detain officers suspected of role in criminal offences in Narayanganj? Police might be required to notify relevant authorities – in such cases the army and the navy. This one incident is good enough to create a situation when chain of command would not work.
It is true that those gun-wielding men – very rarely women – in black outfit roaming around the streets or alleyways have often deterred petty criminals and evoked fear in anyone aware of RAB’s treatment in custody.
But the many murders they have allegedly committed in their “encounters” (allegedly is being used for legal reasons only) are many black chapters in their “glorious” 10-year history. The murders they wrote were all poorly scripted – borne out of brains that are probably taught to believe all other species that walk the earth are way inferior. The problem has been that, in all these years, the men in black got away with all that, thanks to the opportunist proponents of RAB. The policy to appease them has actually backfired. They are much less credible today, and thus much less capable of hitting the target.
The RAB, as it is today with the army virtually running it, has to be done away with some day. The sooner the better, because a tainted RAB only taints the military. Bangladesh has to protect the reputation of its armed forces – a resource this poor nation heavily invests in to create, manage and maintain. If the decision for now is to keep RAB as it is, the government must act, without any procrastination, to improve the force’s and thus its own image. It must deal with all the rogue elements, irrespective of their roots, that ail RAB.
Now, a simple question for Khaleda Zia: What has changed when you felt it necessary to raise such a super police battalion and now? A similar question for today’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina: Is it worse than 2004?
Toufique Imrose Khalidi is the Editor-in-Chief of bdnews24.com