Monday, January 31, 2005

BANGLADESH: Crossfire extravaganza: Mindless playing with fire?

Crossfire extravaganza: Mindless playing with fire?
CAF Dowlah


+ Like a gentleman's word, their story, however, does not change — they get tip-offs from secret sources, rush to the spot in the small hours, recover illegal arms, and the 'criminals' die in shoot-outs. They, however, hardly die in cross-fires. The story is downright consistent — and therefore, perhaps, can easily be dismissed as outright lies — as only blatant lies are always consistent, the hard truth hardly is. +

Not very long ago, people used to be dragged out of their homes, at midnight or in broad daylight, then ruthlessly beaten to death or given other sorts of brutal 'punishment', mostly in public, and almost always in a lawless and despicable manner. The assets and belongings of the luckless victims would invariably be looted, and often their daughters, sisters and better halves would be raped or assaulted. Those were the days when a newly liberated land, now known as Bangladesh, fondly called Sonar Bangla, had emerged in the global map after a bloodbath.

The perpetrator 'acted like a storm-trooper, a crack force for a lightning strike', who 'would enter any house, arrest anyone, detain any number of people including women and children', wrote Barrister Moudud Ahmed in his book, Era of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They would 'surround a whole village combing for arms, miscreants, and political opponents' and in the process 'they would kill, loot, and even rape', he noted. An American scholar who focussed on the Indian subcontinent, Lawrence Ziring, echoed Moudud in his book, Bangladesh: Mujib to
Ershad, describing the perpetrators as 'gangs of thugs… (who) roamed the countryside, looting the poor villagers and committing bodily harm on those resisting their demands'. Above all, the perpetrators had virtually nothing to worry about — they were completely immune to any prosecution, any accountability, any regulation, and any lawful recourse.

Yes, I am talking about the infamous Rakkhi Bahini — a paramilitary force that the founding president of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, raised in the immediate aftermath of the Liberation War, with the professed objective of assisting the civil authorities in the maintenance of the internal security of the country. Raised under the watchful eyes of Indian military advisers, and manned with his staunchest confidants, the Rakkhi Bahini, however, soon turned out to be a private force personally loyal to Mujib himself. Mujib and his party, the Awami League, if history is any guide, deployed this 'private army of bully boys not far removed from the Nazi Brown Shirts' to crush political opponents, wrote Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani journalist who fled to London after his account of genocide 1971 in the Sunday Times, in his book Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood. A key motive behind the formation of the Rakkhi Bahini was to root out opposition, from the 'Naxalites' in the far left to the 'Razakars' in the far right, Rounaq Jahan, a noted political scientist, pointed out in her book, Bangladesh Politics: Problems and Issues.

Unfortunately, nobody will ever know the exact number of the killings and atrocities committed by the Rakkhi Bahini, as ours is not exactly a well-recorded society, and understandably it was much less so three decades ago. The Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), which perhaps bore the major brunt of the brute force of the Rakkhi Bahini when it emerged as a formidable opposition to the Mujib regime, put the number of Rakkhi Bahini killings at 60,000. Most recently a BNP minister, Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, told the parliament that about 30,000 political workers and leaders opposed to the Awami League were killed by the Rakkhi Bahini. Earlier BNP secretary-general, Abdul Mannan Bhuyian, accused the Mujib regime of killing 35,000 opposition workers and detaining 65,000 others on false and politically motivated charges (Independent, March 1, 2001). Such is the fate of our society that the extent of killings and atrocities of the Rakkhi Bahini will never be known for sure, let alone bringing the perpetrators and their sponsors to justice.

As if history must repeat itself, the BNP-led coalition government has recently introduced something called the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has already earned quite a reputation for picking up anybody from anywhere, and killing a pretty good number of them in the so-called 'cross-fires'. Reports suggest that so far the RAB has already killed more than 150 persons in such 'cross-fires'. Like a gentleman's word, their story, however, does not change — they get tip-offs from secret sources, rush to the spot in the small hours, recover illegal arms, and the 'criminals' die in shoot-outs. They, however, hardly die in cross-fires. The story is downright consistent — and therefore, perhaps, can easily be dismissed as outright lies — as only blatant lies are always consistent, the hard truth hardly is.

Of course, the brutalities and extra-legal killings of the RAB have already succeeded in restoring some semblance of law and order in the country, and quite understandably the vast majority of the people, including some human rights advocacy groups, are pleased that people can now breathe relatively freely. This is the second time that the ordinary people have been lucky to enjoy such a breathing space since the current government assumed power. Earlier, Operation Clean Heart,
in spite of causing at least 140 deaths in custody, 'succeeded' in restoring law and order. Of course, after a brief lull, killing, mugging, looting and other gruesome criminal acts began to make regular headlines once again, prompting the government to deploy the RAB with renewed urgency.

Yes, desperate problems often require desperate solutions. The Mujib regime also had its rationale for launching the infamous Rakkhi Bahini — it faced a formidable challenge from armed hooligans, especially from unruly freedom-fighters who refused to lay down their arms and turned themselves into tiny warlords in their respective areas, and also from countless hoarders, smugglers, anti-liberation forces, leftist outfits and outright criminals. The Rakkhi Bahini was allowed to operate above the law, and the government simply overlooked, if not actively encouraged, extra-legal killings and torture of criminals and political opponents alike. And, of course, it had to pay a rather heavy price for this — when the curtain eventually fell, few in the country had sympathy enough to shed tears for someone who had commanded near-absolute loyalty only a couple of years ago.

If a towering personality like Sheikh Mujib could be trampled down, perhaps it would be a grave mistake for the BNP-led coalition government to presume that it might not have to pay any price for the extra-legal killings and torture by the military and paramilitary forces during its rule. Yes, indiscriminate arrests, torture and killing of people under Operation Clean Heart (OCH) has been given legal cover by the Joint Drive Indemnity Bill, 2003. The Indemnity Act provides impunity to the security forces involved in the OCH from prosecution for 'any casualty, damage to life and property, violation of rights, physical or mental damage' between October, 2002 and January, 2003. Given the legislative majority of the ruling coalition, a similar indemnity protection can well be given to the RAB as well, but as the fate of the country's first indemnity act demonstrates, the guarantee of such indemnity acts can hardly be taken as granted, and with the swing of the pendulum of history anything can happen.

Of course, the state-terrorism unleashed by the RAB or the OCH can hardly be compared with that of the Rakkhi Bahini, which was, indeed, a completely different breed. It worked above the law, it was officially loyal to Mujib himself, and it had no rules of business to make it accountable. Neither the RAB nor the OCH was expected to serve as bully boys loyal to Khaleda Zia, or her party, or her coalition. Also, the killings and tortures of the RAB or the OCH have not been of the same magnitude as that of the Rakkhi Bahini. Moreover, as current law minister Moudud Ahmed is well aware of Rakkhi Bahini's operational details, it can perhaps be safely assumed that these forces were given clear legal guidelines for their operation.

At the same time, however, none can deny that the extra-legal killings and tortures of the RAB are hardly defensible in a law-based society, and most certainly not in a society that also claims to be a democratic one. Any law-based society, as anybody knows, presumes the innocence of any citizen before he is found to be guilty in a court of law, and guarantees a due process of law even to notorious criminals. A government with a commitment to the rule of law cannot allow its law-enforcing agencies to kill anybody — no matter how heinous the criminals are and how gruesome the crimes are. The current government, perhaps, cannot easily absolve itself of the legal responsibility for failing to restrain its law-enforcing agencies from meting out brute 'justice' on the spot.

The Khaleda Zia regime is further disadvantaged by the fact that a society that found the Rakkhi Bahini's tortures and killings intolerable three decades ago, can hardly have the stomach to digest extra-legal killings and state-terrorism now, when the society is presumably more educated, more enlightened, more globalised, and much
more sensitive to human rights. Moreover, however dysfunctional the state may be, there is a parliament in the country now. On the other hand, much of the Mujib regime was undemocratic — there was no functioning parliament for the first and last year of Mujib's three and a half year rule.

There may well be still another looming danger for the coalition government, stemming from modernisation of the country's outdated legal system, which will be expedited by changes of legal norms around the world as well as by the pressure of a more assertive judiciary at home. As demonstrated most recently by the conviction of former Chilean junta leader, Augusto Pinochet, the long hand of the law can haunt tyrannical rulers for decades. His Operation Candour was responsible for killing several thousand people, mostly political opponents. If Pinochet can be tried and convicted today, three decades after those massacres, perhaps the victims of the tortures and killings of the Rakkhi Bahini and the RAB might well be able to seek justice some day under a refined legal system and independent judiciary.

The policy-makers of the coalition government should also realise that with the almost instantaneous flow of information and communication in the contemporary world, the task of running a state has been becoming ever more complex and difficult — ordinary people around the world are increasingly demanding conscientiousness and rationality from their governments. And there are scores of ever vigilant non-governmental organisations — with domestic and international agenda — and as well as powerful foreign capitals closely watching events and developments all over the world. The current rulers of Bangladesh, now honeymooning with the cross-fire extravaganza, will be well-advised to read the handwriting on the wall.