Bangladeshi Police: An Institutional Failure

by Zia Hassan

[Adapted from the Bengali original by Tibra Ali]

In country wide clashes that followed the verdict on Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 41 people have been killed, including 3 from the police. I see this as an institutional failure. I don’t know the details yet, and I don’t think anyone does – how many have died by Jamaat’s knives and how many as result of gunfire by the police. But judging by reports in the media, it appears that most of the deaths have come about due to shootings by the police, and 3 police personnel have perished in attacks by extremists. It must be said that those who have attacked the police have committed heinous crimes and they deserve to be punished to the fullest extent under to the law.

On the other hand, I find is even more alarming that so many protesters have died at the hands of the police. The police is a state institution. And as an institution the police must never take sides in any debate or situation. The role of the police is to maintain law and order. Thus if the police is to shoot at someone, they must be 100 percent certain that this is the last, last, last, last resort.  Otherwise, people will get killed and the police themselves will come in harm’s way. That is why, as far as I can see, the police must show the utmost restraint before firing on anyone. Because, I repeat, the police is a state institution.

From the fact that 3 policemen have been killed, it may be concluded that in some places the attacks by the extremists have been so severe as to endanger the lives of both the police and the general public. I wouldn’t raise any question if in responding to such a situation the death toll is 41 or 41,000.

In some places, there have been attacks on Hindu temples. If in situations such as these, the police are forced to shoot and kill someone in order to maintain law and order, I have nothing to say. Let there be an independent inquiry into the justification of such shootings.

But one can see on television, images that show the police firing upon marching protesters, or the police continuously shooting from within moving armored vehicles, or shooting with hand-guns upon retreating groups of demonstrators in open fields. These are chilling scenes and it appears that the police is feeling justified in shooting at the slightest provocation. I was under the impression that for a police officer to shoot he needed permission from a magistrate. I am sure that the police has some sort of a standing order procedure (SOP) regarding under what circumstances or situations shootings are justified.

It really scares me when I see the plain-clothes policemen shooting. Are those police or Chhatra League? In many of the images, I saw people in plain-clothes shooting from among the ranks of the police. Who are those people? Why should plain-clothes policemen shoot during riots and clashes? Is that allowed?

No one is raising the question why the correct processes are not being followed in each and every case. Because, I repeat, the police is an institution. An institution is obliged to follow the rules imposed upon it to the fullest. This is vital for the structural integrity of a functioning state. But just a couple of days ago, I saw four or five policemen take a boy into a room and shoot him at point-blank range. (Which many well-bred friends have tried to justify as a shooting with a rubber-bullet.)

You can expect a robber to rob, a murderer to murder, and a Shibir extremist to slit someone’s veins – there is a due legal course of action to deal with such happenings. But the police cannot shoot on an angry mob without first following due diligence to its own standing order procedure (SOP). If the police gets used to such a way of doing things then very soon they will start killing random people and claim, as the RAB does, that they died in “cross-fire”. Those who are disturbed by RAB’s “cross-fire”, yesterday’s incidents ought to disturb them as well. Otherwise, their moral arguments become invalid. Because if the police fails as an institution, if they don’t follow any procedure, if they get the right to shoot down people like birds, then the very basis of the state’s moral and ethical system breaks down.

In my opinion, this situation with the police shows us the first example of an institution, that should remain sacrosanct and inviolable, becoming fully dysfunctional and losing its independent character as a result of the massive nepotism practiced by the Awami League. I repeat: what happened yesterday was an institutional failure. If the police as an institution breaks down, the structure of the state breaks down. An institution must remain completely neutral. The institutions of a state are bound to treat every human being equally – whether that person is from Jamaat, Shibir, or Chhatra League, whether they are poor or rich, atheist, Hindu or Muslim, it doesn’t matter. To quell those who went out to demonstrate against the verdict on Sayedee or went on an angry rampage by shooting them is not equal treatment.

The lives that are being lost, the people who are being shot today are from the villages or the small towns, they are from the lowly classes and strata of society, they are the blind followers of Saydee, people whose live are of “little value”. But very soon the police will turn on those from the upper classes, the secular and well-bred people with “valuable” lives. If we calculate the probabilities then people like us, those who have internet connection at home, those who have comfortable middle class existence, it is less likely that we will become victim of such incidents, but it will happen. You can take it for granted that this sort of thing will happen to you or your children. So, even if you think you are not being affected, despite your comfortable existence, you ought to take a stand on this in order preserve our institutions.

Because, when institutions break down the state becomes dysfunctional. In such events, the whole moral structure of a country becomes compromised.

Source: Alal O Dulal

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