When we read how indivi-duals accused of a crime—drug peddling, terrorism or murder—get shot during a gun fight between their cohorts and the law enforcers we shrug it off without a bat of an eyelid. We know that these “gunfights”, “shootouts” or “encounters” are euphemisms for extrajudicial killing. It barely warrants more than a few seconds of acknowledgement before we get on to more “juicy” news. Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) has recorded 204 victims of extrajudicial killings in the first six months of this year. Last year ASK reported 466 deaths in crossfire and in police custody.
So why this gross apathy for the death of so many fellow citizens who may or may not have committed the crime they have been accused of? Why are we not concerned that these individuals did not go through the due process of law? Why the lack of outrage regarding the identical official accounts of how they ended up dead? One of the reasons for this apparent absence of empathy is that violence has become normalised in our society, in particular violence perpetrated by those in charge of our security. Extrajudicial killings give the message that law enforcers are showing no confidence in the judiciary thus eroding people’s faith in the judiciary and by implication, on law.
Take the number of enforced disappearances—344 between 2014 and July, 2019. Forty of the victims were later found dead, 66 shown arrested in different cases, 35 returned while 203 are still missing, according to rights body Ain o Salish Kendra. There was no disclosure regarding why these people were abducted although, given the description of the incidents by family members it is widely suspected that law enforcers were involved. When individuals with no criminal record are picked up and many of them “disappeared” forever, why should the suspiciously identical deaths in crossfire of alleged criminals arouse any sympathy?
The normalisation of violence as a means of disciplining is related to the politicisation of institutions created to ensure public safety. Since colonial times, governments have used law enforcement agencies for political gains. Both undemocratic and democratic governments have been unable to let go of their fondness for this convenient tool to clamp down on dissent and political rivals or allow favourites to settle scores with perceived enemies. All throughout the 90s, after the restoration of democracy, BNP and AL governments, while taking turns in being in the driver’s seat, thought it best to consolidate their power by having law enforcement and other agencies at their beck and call. And that’s how the annoyingly repetitive term “the culture of impunity” was inserted into our daily jargon. Because as long as members of a law enforcement agency remained loyal and obedient to the government in power “a little bit of violence” would not be an issue.
Thus the terror invoked by the word “remand”, which is automatically associated with torture and sometimes confessions under duress. In fact this very terror has helped to keep opposition and dissenting voices practically silent. The scenes of unnecessarily brutal clampdowns on opposition party rallies (of both BNP and AL when they were in the opposition) are hard to forget—with even women activists being physically assaulted by law enforcers and pushed into vans and journalists left bleeding from indiscriminate beatings. But violence, once unleashed and unchallenged by higher powers, cannot be contained and will seep into everything. And for the really corrupt members of such agencies, fear tactics have been used to extort huge sums of money in exchange for not filing cases against rapists or murderers or to make sure an arrestee is not beaten too brutally.
When violence becomes the main modus operandi of law enforcement it is emulated by other groups that enjoy the indulgence of the powers that be. Which makes it less surprising that members of student wings of dominant political parties have carried out systematic torture that have led to death of their victims using tactics similar to those of law enforcers. So it is hardly surprising that Abrar was subjected to such brutality at the hands of members of Buet’s Chhatra League who had a history of cruel bullying of fellow students. In addition, these members enjoyed an implicit immunity from any kind of accountability either from their parent parties, the university administration or from the law enforcement authorities. In fact, on many occasions the law enforcers and Chhatra League members have worked together as a team to clamp down on protestors perceived to be defying the government.
Violence when it becomes institutionalised in this way with no checks from anywhere, will inevitably seep into other areas as has been the case with Chhatra League and other student wings in the past. And we cannot isolate the growing violence among teenage gangs who draw inspiration from these “Big Brothers” of political parties who derive seemingly limitless powers by being feared for the violence they are capable of inflicting. This August, 17-year-old Mehedi Hasan Shuvo, was killed by his rivals in the capital’s Dakkhin Khan area. Mehedi belonged to a teenage gang and he had allegedly stabbed a member of a rival gang which drew its wrath and ended in his death. According to police, clashes between gangs are to establish supremacy or to “draw respect” from peers. Gang members, to show off their power, drive motorbikes rashly and are often engaged in violent fights with rivals that can even lead to casualties. Many of them take drugs and carry out crimes like mugging, extortion and stalking. Some of these gangs are supported by local political leaders and take part in political activities. Does any of this sound familiar?
Law enforcers have arrested Abrar’s murderers and the Prime Minister has assured Abrar’s mother that there will be a speedy trial to bring the criminals to book. These are commendable moves as are the diligent drives against Jubo League leaders running illegal casino businesses and the expulsion of Chhatra League leaders in Jahangirnagar because of extortion charges. But will this stop the culture of torture, violence and complete absence of accountability that have led to individuals being given death sentences without a trial in the name of “crossfire”? Will it end the terror faced by ordinary citizens when their loved ones are taken away by plainclothes or uniformed men with no means to know if they will ever be returned? Even if student politics is banned in the universities will the violence stop if there are perpetrators who continue to enjoy the backing of the ruling elite and the tacit support of law enforcement agencies?
The essence of a functioning democracy is accountability of all public institutions, especially those responsible for maintaining law and order. Sadly, politicisation has weakened most of these institutions removing accountability and autonomy, making them mere tools of suppressing real or imagined opponents while looking the other way when ruling party associates abuse their authority. This may seemingly give extra power to ruling governments in the short run but ultimately, they become thorns in the flesh when crimes committed by so-called loyalists go out of control (as in the case of Abrar’s murder) and lawlessness threatens overall security creating disillusionment and resentment among the public. And that is not a healthy formula for any government.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.