The ‘legacy’ of crossfire

The Daily Star  August 29, 2020

Bangladesh has inherited many legacies by virtue of its long history as a constituent of a larger geographical entity, of which it was a part till not very long ago. Some of them make us proud, some we would rather shun. But one common trait of most people of South Asia is the propensity to hide behind abhorrent legacies of the past to hide our failings as well as our incapacity or unwillingness to change the status quo, and instead blame the past regimes for one’s shortcomings. We have the most recent example of “legacy” being cited as the reason why we are witnessing instances of crossfire.

The issue of crossfire killings has come into national focus more acutely after the preplanned murder of Major Sinha. But extrajudicial deaths are not recent phenomena. We have been witnessing this practice for a long time. But when some of our leaders resort to blame games and citing the past as an excuse, what they expose is a selective memory (or selective amnesia if you like), basking in the self-serving feeling of satisfaction that it is the predecessor and not them, who is the villain of the piece.

We prefer to blame this legacy because that perhaps suits our purpose no matter how blatantly obvious those practices may be in the present. We still blame the “bloody Brits” for many ills but do nothing to change the rules, practices or traditions we have inherited. Every regime, irrespective of the party in power, has blamed its predecessor for all the wrong policies and for all the evils that were happening in the country. However, not only were those policies not done away with—they were generally made even more stringent by adding more draconian features. In recent times, the floor of the parliament was used to root for crossfire as a way to resolve law and order issues. The number of deaths since the start of the anti-narcotics drive suggests that as an expedient, crossfire may have come to be accepted as a tactical norm.

The latest example of the blame-the-past inclination is a minister’s frank admission that crossfire deaths are illegal—being a lawyer, he couldn’t say otherwise—but he quickly added that it is a legacy the Awami League has inherited. He also, somewhat ruefully, acknowledged that bad legacies take a long time to purge. Indeed, legacies, particularly bad ones, are like the second layer of human skin, the dermis, which is impossible to peel off. But one would have thought that a decade was long enough a time to get rid of a practice for which the country has had to face severe internal and international criticisms.

The most unfortunate aspect of governance in Bangladesh is that although there have been changes in government from time to time, the bad policies have been steadfastly continued with. Operation Clean Heart may have been a well-intentioned undertaking—to arrest the rising incidence of crime and lawlessness and recover illegal weapons, but at the end of the day, at least 58 people were dead, allegedly killed by the security forces, and about 10,000 arrested. The Act of 2003 to indemnify the killings was declared illegal by the High Court. In similar vein, the Rakkhi Bahini was given indemnity in 1974. As we have stated before, one hears critical and discordant notes only when a ruling party cadre has the misfortune of falling victim, as was the case of Arzu Mian, a Bangladesh Chhatra League leader, who was allegedly killed in a “gunfight’ with Rab in August 2015. And it was an AL MP who reportedly claimed that “Arzu was murdered” and said, “the government could not function depending on Rab, which was formed during the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government.”

The country today is caught between crossfire and self-defence. Although one does not have any issue with the security forces resorting to genuine self-defence, the narrative of self-defence has been so overused that it no longer accords legality to the killings; the official statements following such deaths are too repetitive to satisfy one’s credulity. The law enforcing agencies can ill afford to follow the tactics of the gun and narcotics runners; doing that degrades them to the level of injustice of these elements. But even more than that, resorting to such extrajudicial means, where the police become the judge, jury and executioner, denigrates the legal system and the court, and as Albert Camus has said, it mutilates justice. Such police actions also betray a lack of confidence in the judicial system. And if it becomes a common trick of police trade, it often becomes a weapon of extortion and fear wielded by some errant police officials.

No society can endure a situation where law keepers break the law. While the government is justified in undertaking drives to arrest a deteriorating law and order problem, it cannot justify the extrajudicial actions resorted to by the police. One wonders if trade in yaba and other narcotics have reduced in the two years of the drive, despite the nearly 400 dead.

Extrajudicial methods have both national and international repercussions, apart from the deleterious effect on the rule of law. And the lawmakers, instead of blaming the baggage of the past, should do away with those instead. Is there the political will to do so?


Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.