The greatest joke in Bangladesh consists of two words: human rights. At one word, the greatest crime in Bangladesh is even shorter: dissent. They have been made possible by the unflinching dedication of law enforcement agencies – led by the police and their elite force, the Rapid Action Battalion – sanctioned by the government, and sponsored by the submission, apathy and sycophancy of the populace.
In the wake of a catalogue of forced disappearances and deaths of several Islamists during alleged encounters with law enforcers, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina attended the Police Welfare Parade on January 23. Her first attendance at such an event is indicative of the close relationship between the government and law enforcement agencies, and the former’s growing dependence on the latter to remain in power. The police took the opportunity to demand that the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, 2013 be repealed, on the grounds that the force found it demoralising, thereby diminishing its effectiveness.
Saber Hossain Chowdhury, a leader of the ruling Awami League, had placed the bill in Parliament in 2009, and its passage suggested the government was interested in instating accountability of those entrusted with the nation’s law and order. This could have reversed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami coalition’s use of the police and Rapid Action Battalion to solidify its rule (2001-2006), including the escalation of torture, intimidation and extrajudicial killings, and the civil society-backed military regime’s (2007-2008) iron fist approach to governance. It was logical for a party that had pledged on the campaign trail to dismantle the incorrigible British-trained Rapid Action Battalion, to bring the police to heel. Since then, however, the Awami League government’s reliance on law enforcement agencies to cement its reign has produced the simultaneous undesirable outcomes of state-mandated aggression and extracurricular indiscretions.
On April 14, the police stopped the LGBTQ+ community from holding its annual Rainbow Rally. And they arrested several of its activists when they participated in the public Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year) celebrations. Influential activists, who had received death threats from Islamists, and other members of the community became subjects of police intimidation, to prevent them from proliferating views incongruent with both the law of the land and the moral compass bestowed by fundamentalism.
The police have also been arresting freethinkers, and refusing to provide them with protection when approached with pleas as the Islamist tide rose. These vulnerable groups are naturally reticent about seeking assistance from law enforcement agencies because the state has been inclined towards oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-free speech and expression laws, extrapolating them to restrict fundamental freedoms. The diktat was clear: citizens had to be controlled, not protected. The police and the Rapid Action Battalion firmly became extensions of the government.
An internal dispute between two factions of the Awami League in Narayanganj, a city near the capital Dhaka, was settled when Nur Hossain, an associate of parliamentarian Shamim Osman, orchestrated the murder of seven people by Rapid Action Battalion officers in April 2014. Osman is a disreputable politician humoured by the upper echelons of the Awami League, and amongst the victims of the plot was Nazrul Islam, an ally of his political rival and mayor of Narayanganj, Ivy Rahman, who has a reputation for being honest and fair. When the Narayanganj district and sessions court delivered its verdict on January 16, Rapid Action Battalion commanding officer Tareque Sayeed Mohammed, the son-in-law of an influential Awami League leader serving in the current cabinet, was one of 26 to be given the death penalty. Aside from Nur Hossain – who had absconded to India with the assistance of his political friends before being captured and repatriated in 2015 – the rest of those sentenced were officers of the elite force.
This case is symptomatic of the depraved relationship between the government and law enforcers. Further evidence of this arrived when the police and Rapid Action Battalion carried out planned attacks on the indigenous Santal community in November, at the urging of members of the ruling party over a long-standing land dispute. The unjust treatment of those Santals in police custody would qualify as torture, although that no longer seems to be an impediment.
Once the use of law enforcement agencies as political attack dogs is established with little opposition from the citizenry, they can be unleashed on anyone the government identifies as a threat, real or imaginary. So it proved when activists of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports organised a hartal on January 26 to protest the construction of a power plant in Rampal, near the Sundarbans. The peaceful strike action, harkening back to Gandhi, has long been a part of Bangladeshi politics. However, political parties have established a monopoly on it, and distorted it by equating hartal with violence. A determined group of conscientious citizens reclaiming the sacred term and restoring it to its peaceful roots was cause for celebration. The encouraging image was shredded by the state response. Policemen sporting riot gear and rifles were deployed. They fired water cannons from armoured vehicles, teargas shells from standing positions, and ordered a bus to drive straight through the public demonstration. They extended the courtesy of their extreme use of force to journalists covering the protest. As if scything down the assorted people on the streets was not enough, those arrested were assaulted in custody. Journalists count amongst them, proof that silencing the media is within the ambit of police procedure, if not a special directive. In December, when readymade garment factory workers had protested demanding higher wages, a journalist was arrested alongside the workers on the charge of disseminating false news.
Encouraging state oppression
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s rescheduled visit to India in February is an opportunity to address a myriad of issues and concerns. Transparency and details are notoriously lacking in the aftermath of talks between the Bangladeshi premier and her foreign counterparts. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that the power plant in Rampal will be on the agenda, but the prime minister’s reproval of the January 26 protesters, echoing the obduracy she displayed at the World Economic Forum, indicates that the conversation will centre on reassuring India that the joint initiative between the two countries will go ahead as planned. Dissent will be completely criminalised, to dismiss any obstacle or lingering doubt. India, beholden to nationalistic fervour and despotism, is unlikely to object to the Bangladesh government’s heavy-handed approach. Rather than being reined in, the domineering law enforcement agencies’ resolve in other matters will, thus, be endorsed.
The practice of a government adopting the oppressive measures and variations of corruption its predecessor made palatable, and going further is enshrined in Bangladeshi politics. The abuse of power through domestic militarism, state and otherwise, by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat coalition, and the civil society-backed military regime that followed, has evolved as a principle to its current form. Thus, the disproportionate and unconscionable oppressive state action against anyone who does not conform at present is a most dangerous precedent to set. The public apathy – especially amongst the upper and upper-middle classes, ensconced in their palatial cocoons – that has nurtured authoritarianism, will ensure the continuation of an indomitable police state regardless of who is in power.
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