Neighbourhood Watch

In Bangladesh, the government’s ‘war on drugs’ is turning into a bloodbath

With over a hundred alleged drug dealers killed in under a month, human rights activists accuse government forces of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Bangladesh’s ongoing anti-narcotics drive has turned into a bloodbath, leaving over a hundred citizens dead in less than a month.

The Sheikh Hasina government claims the soaring popularity of methamphetamine, a cheap and highly addictive drug commonly known as meth, has forced it to launch a “war on drugs”. But human rights activists accuse the state of carrying out extrajudicial killings under the cover of the anti-narcotics campaign.

In Bangladesh, meth is mostly sold as pills called yaba, a Thai word meaning “crazy medicine”. The pill is usually melted on tinfoil, releasing plumes of scented vapor which the user inhales. According to the country’s Department of Narcotics Control of Bangladesh, there are seven million drug addicts in the country, five million of whom are hooked on yaba.

The narcotics department estimates that over 70% of yaba pills come from laboratories across the border in western Myanmar. The drug is synthesised from pseudoephedrine and caffeine, which are smuggled from India, China and Vietnam.

The law enforcement agencies reportedly had all the information needed to tackle the menace but chose not to act for years. But they launched an all-out offensive on May 15 after Hasina directed the elite police force Rapid Action Battalion to tackle the drug problem as it had the “militancy problem”, another offensive campaign marred by allegations of extrajudicial killings.

Since the prime minister’s call, a total of 129 suspected drug dealers and traffickers have been killed, allegedly in “gunfights” with the Rapid Action Battalion, the police or “gang members of with rival gangs”.

The state has also arrested around 12,000 suspected drug dealers and tried them in special courts, with many handed jail sentences of seven days to six months.

Referring to the drug problem, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan recently told AFP that “this war will continue until we bring it under complete control”. He brushed aside allegations that innocent people had been killed, insisting that there was “no question” that those killed were drug dealers. “They are not good people,” he said. “There are 10 to 12 cases against each one of them.”

Police raid a place suspected to be used by drug dealers. Photo credit: Mahmud Hossain Opu
Police raid a place suspected to be used by drug dealers. Photo credit: Mahmud Hossain Opu

Culture of impunity’

Independent South Asia analyst Olof Blomqvist argued that the killings bear all the hallmarks of extrajudicial executions that the Bangladeshi security forces have been guilty of in the past. “It is well documented that the security forces, including the Rapid Action Battalion, have been responsible for unlawful killings and enforced disappearances in recent years, with victims including both political opponents of the government and ‘ordinary’ criminals,” he said. “If the same tactics are now applied to alleged drug dealers it rings all kinds of alarm bells.”

Drawing parallels with the situation in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte is running a deadly “war against drugs”, Blomqvist warned, “The murderous drug war in the Philippines shouldn’t be a model for any country.”

Activists are also alarmed that Bangladesh is mulling to bring the death penalty for drug kingpins, with 32 ministries having recommended it already. The argument is that exemplary punishment will help tackle the drug menace. The activists point out that Bangladesh’s drug control policy is already skewed towards harsh measures that criminalise users, yet it has failed to contain the drug trade or catch the kingpins running it.

“The Bangladeshi authorities are seriously misguided if they think they can tackle drug crime by committing even more violent, illegal acts,” said Blomqvist. “Bangladesh needs to implement policies that tackle the root causes of drug crime while respecting both human rights and the rule of law.”

He said the recent spate of killings of suspected drug dealers must be investigated and “those responsible for rights violations should be held to account”.

Condemning the alleged extrajudicial killings, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said, “There is a pervasive culture of impunity for violations by security forces, and regardless of political affiliation the authorities deny these abuses and refuse to hold those responsible to account.”

She said her organisation has previously documented numerous cases of custodial deaths involving Bangladeshi security forces. “RAB, when it was initially set up, was notorious for this,” she added, referring to the elite police force, “and we have said that it should disbanded.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.