I am not a huge consumer of social media (FaceBook, Instagram, etc.). Since I live in 2017 I do check my FB page once a day. I follow my friend and the esteemed intellectual Afsan Choudhury on the pages of FB. He writes witty and weighty stuff and typically has an open mind on most things. I always learn something from the boy’s witty commentaries. Imagine my surprise when a few days ago on Afsan’s FB page I saw this, “Afsan Chowdhury May 7 at 10:16 pm • “The identity of all the rapists’ dads please”. He was calling for the identity of the fathers of the alleged rapists. Since my friend Afsan is a celebrity and well-liked personality the FB sort of blew up with lurid details, some true and some, ahem, fake news!
The back story is that some low-life rich kids lured a couple of university students to a hotel and raped them. They also videotaped the crime. Obviously, these crimes need to be thoroughly investigated, prosecuted and punished. However, the buzz surrounding this particular case is bringing out the fissures in the quickly evolving social structure of Bangladesh. Crimes like this happen to poor people all the time and everywhere with very little uproar. This is probably particularly true for Bangladesh. What made this interesting is that the victims are university students and the alleged perpetrators are wealthy Bengali upper class folks with homes in Gulshan and Baridhara.
The thought that keeps coming to me is this: yes it is a terrible crime, and yes the perpetrators should be punished. Yes, if the law allows, they should be drawn and quartered. But, why O why, do we want to drag their parents and relatives through the mud? What pleasure is there in vilifying the fathers who have produced these villains by accident of sperm? I did put this question to my friend but got no answer. Then things got even more interesting and bizarre. The parents’ businesses and livelihoods came under attack by the intellectual class. There were proposals by the chattering class to look into the jewelry business (Apan Jewellers) belonging to the father of one of the accused, Shafat. Lo and behold! Bangladesh Customs (that paragon of transparency and justice) has now sprung into action and subjected Apan Jewellers to what seems like an official witchhunt. They are “investigating” whether or not Apan Jewellers paid their customs duty and taxes going back to the day when Adam was thrown out of Paradise. I have no idea what that has to do with the rape case.
A mark of civilization is individual rights and responsibilities. With our rights come our responsibilities. We enjoy a lot of freedom, joy, safety and security as our right. In return we abide by various rules and not hurt other beings. Individual responsibility is the cornerstone of a civilized society. The key word is “individual”. After a certain age we are responsible for our actions and we must live with the consequences of our actions. This is why if I commit a crime, I alone should pay the price and not someone else who is related to me somehow but has not done anything. That is what individual rights and responsibilities are all about.
An atavistic desire to punish anyone related to the perpetrator has led to many atrocities throughout history. In Bangladesh alone the Pakistani army and the Razakars meted out countless horrific collective punishments to ordinary people. My father’s ancestral home was burned down by the Pakistanis not because he opposed them in any meaningful way but because my cousins and I were identified as troublemakers. The disproportionate punishment fell on my innocent parents and the extended family. It took my father and his brothers many years to recover both financially and emotionally.
So, why is there this tendency to mete out collective punishment, which is by the way specifically banned by the UN Charter? Why would perfectly sane people like Afsan Chowdhury derive such pleasures from these atavistic forms of revenge-seeking behavior? If I had to guess the core reason I would say, it probably has to do with a sense of rage that people feel about the apparent impunity of the wealthy class. This desire to bring the ‘Boro Lok’ a peg or two down comes from an apparent display of impunity by the wealthy folks. This has always existed in Bangladesh and other societies, but social media have made it all so public; and the law enforcement agencies are more prone to do something to curry favor with the chattering class when a case such as the Apan Jewellers rape incident comes up. This particular case has all the ingredients of a rich soap opera — wealthy perpetrators, educated victims, sex, lies and videotapes. It all goes into the making of a social media porridge.
While I do not know the folks at Apan Jewellers I feel bad that the father and the family are being subjected to collective punishment, which in itself is a violation of individual human rights. The problem is that Bangladesh really does not have an equitable Rule of Law. The laws are not uniformly applied and people with money and connections go scot-free. The country is almost conditioned to watch with bated breath the shenanigans of the wealthy and the connected. So, when something like Apan Jewellers happens everyone piles on. The tendency of collective punishment should be an eternal shame to our society.
What about the Customs and other government agencies acting as a result of the revelations of the rape case, and not when they think the duty and tax evasion happened? I am not taking issue with the fact that there might be duty evasion, but I am taking issue with the timing and the regressive and revengeful nature of these probes. The power of the government should not be used to seek revenge. There is a clear difference between revenge and justice. Seek justice for the victims and not revenge.
So, what should happen? The criminal case should proceed without any intervention by any party, the wealthy family as well as the chattering class. Let the case get to its natural conclusion. Customs and other agencies should stand down from the kneejerk collective punishment and maybe put the business under review in the future. The goal would be to separate this particular crime from all other collective revenge seeking actions. Let us try to get back to some sort of Rule of Law.