Several headlines of gruesome killing of individuals for one reason or another have recently surfaced in Bangladesh drawing both national attention and disgust. People are astonished that right here, in the middle of “gentle and kind” Bangladeshis, so many have lurked around with murder on their mind. But to those who look at their homeland without the assistance of coloured glasses, this has always been a violent land. It actually celebrates violence and in one form or another. We enjoy the spilling of blood and celebration of acts that make it happen. So if we could get less shocked and take a realistic look at ourselves, there is a slim chance, that it may be slightly reduced.
Historically, our common points of reference often ignore the violent episodes in our life. In 1971, there was extreme and wide spread violence and of many kinds. Pakistan army and its assistants were not the only ones who were active but many locals were too. War rips apart the social contract and everyone feels they have a right to commit mayhem, whether for profit or pleasure.
Grabbing property of others was the commonest act of the local powerful people and there would not be many examples of villages and towns where properties were not taken away or looted. In fact 1971 created economic opportunities for some and people took full advantage of that. Killing was commonest when associated with another crime such as looting or raping. Thus a new class emerged that was built on looted property. The social instability at the grassroots created conditions for negative social change all over. Since no one was punished for such criminal acts, the platform for impunity was created in the very bowels of national liberation. As a result, a tradition was generated.
This tradition became strong right after liberation when the newly emerged powerful in a new state focused attention of taking over property left behind by the Pakistanis or taking revenge. Property grabbing was seen as legitimate war booty and few questions were asked about it as it escalated to unprecedented levels of collective looting. This was twinned with widespread black marketing as most goods were in short supply and a section of Indian traders co-operated with criminal Bangladeshis to take over the market. Shortage also encourages marketing of spurious goods since public demand was is so high. And none were punished barring a stray few.
As this happened in the foundational phase of Bangladesh, public memory is also high that almost immediately or even as the liberation war was on, many were busy looting and committing violence in one form or another. Of course, this was being done by a small minority but they were also part of the most powerful. Hence power, legitimacy and corruption developed an intimacy that produced and produces the challenge to the notion of “independence” itself.
But if looting, raping, and violence have been institutionalised, so has been impunity. This is not just because the law and order system is/was weak. The decision to strengthen it would be counterproductive for the looters who controlled the system. For a system that is heavily dependent on corruption for continuation, protecting the system is an essential objective and a weak law and order regime is a necessary strategy.
Bloggers and children
In effect, the killing of the bloggers and the killing of the two kids are not different because they reflect the inability of the authorities to create a culture of accountability. This includes every aspect of public life so while the nature of the crime may be “political” in one case and “social” in another, their mother cause is the same.
The situation is visible in two instances. In case of the young boy Rajon who was beaten to death, the police helped the main killer escape. Some may be shocked by this behavior of the law enforcement personnel, but if one observes the trends over the last 40 years, it becomes obvious that the police and others play the largest facilitating role in protecting criminals. They don’t require individual bribes to make a difference but because of inversion of roles, they see no conflict in claiming to uphold the role of law and order and working against it at the same time to gain advantages. In other words, the system has re-described the role of law and order itself.
The police are not inefficient but the sectors in which they are used most effectively is in countering political violence not criminal acts. Thus their social role which applies to apprehending criminals is less of a priority while that of contesting political opponents of whichever government exists is. It’s through the gap between two roles, one dominantly political and another dominantly social that has allowed the decline of law and order and enhancement of impunity regimes to slip in. Rajon and other children have no idea that a confused system has hit them from afar.
The killing of bloggers may seem to be unconnected but it’s not. It’s true that their activist space is political but the situation is not. The position of the police is reflected in several statements which have in fact increased confusion. First, the IGP has said that “bloggers should not cross the limits’ when dealing with religious issues. This is a hugely problematic matter since censoring bloggers or even advising them is not exactly a police matter unless specific laws are flouted. The main focus has to be on catching the criminals. However, that duty seems to be a reluctant piece of thread to pick up by them and bloggers are left on their own to deal with the threats. More significantly, the perception of the bloggers is not constructed as “seekers of freedom” but “atheists” who are hated by the majority of the people.
It’s true that beyond the circle of supporters, the bloggers are disliked and it will be difficult for them to claim another space, but the fact remains that their killing is a law and order issue not a moral one. By taking a “moral” position, the police are ending up encouraging the killers who are convinced that the authorities will not act or will act only when pushed because taking action has a political cost. If the government becomes concerned about law and order, given the situation they might risk some unpopularity.
It’s this systemic impunity and sense of safety that is being spread by the law and order regime itself that binds the blogger and child killers. And in this, the authorities have contributed by failing to do their duty.
Afsan Chowdhury is a bdnews24.com columnist.