Tuesday, February 15, 2005

BANGLADESH: We must talk some more about RAB and crossfire killings

+ Crossfire is a euphemism that shelters a gross wrongdoing behind a facade of innocence. There is little doubt that much of RAB "crossfire" killings are deliberate acts to eliminate "criminals" from society without due process of law. It so happens that many believe this indeed is the case. It is seen as an open secret. And many approve of it +


We must talk some more about RAB and crossfire killings
Mahfuzur Rahman

NEWS item: Three more killed in RAB crossfire; with this, the number of deaths in that category since June last year rose to 221.

"The majority never has right on its side.” -- Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People.

THE news item is from The Daily Star of February 9, 2005. By the time these paragraphs go to press, the number is almost certain to be out of date. Among statistics that emerge from Bangladesh nowadays, this must be the fastest growing.

Much has been written about killings in crossfire by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the recently created law enforcement agency that was supposed to stop violent crime, especially killings. Given the prolixity ingrained in our national ethos, one might think enough has been said on the matter. For a change, that would be wrong. Let us talk some more. The national stakes here are very high.

Note that in Bangladesh, English words do not always mean what they say. Innocent- looking words can have quite sinister intents behind them. The killers of the founding father of the nation and his family were, for example, granted immunity from prosecution by an ordinance that "indemnified" the killers, as if they were the people who most deserved indemnity, by which, in ordinary English, one would mean security against harm, or compensation .

The current use of "crossfire" --a word that has quickly found a place in our vernacular too -- is equally bizarre. That word, in English, is supposed to describe a situation where two parties fire at each other with guns and it so happens that someone is caught in the middle and pays a terrible price for simply being there. The deaths by "crossfire" that newspapers in the country have been reporting in recent times are nothing of the sort: they are in the main cold-blooded shooting of the "criminal" caught by RAB.

Crossfire is a euphemism that shelters a gross wrongdoing behind a facade of innocence. There is little doubt that much of RAB "crossfire" killings are deliberate acts to eliminate "criminals" from society without due process of law. It so happens that many believe this indeed is the case. It is seen as an open secret. And many approve of it.

Those who sanction such killings make a starkly simple point. Normal police action, or rather the lack of it, has failed to curb violent crimes. Murder, mugging, hijacking, extortion ("toll"collection, in local parlance) and kidnapping for ransom had been rising to unprecedented levels. Thanks to the strong arm tactics by RAB, a sense of personal security has returned. People can now sleep peacefully in their homes or go about their business unmolested. They can now build a house or run their shop without having to pay "toll," and parents do not have to worry that their children may not come home from school. One can almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

The attractiveness of the scenario should be overwhelming but for a number of major caveats. The first of these is empirical. Has RAB action actually turned the country, or even a good part of it, into a haven of peace and tranquillity? I do not think even the most ardent supporter of the killings really believes it has. To be sure, the elimination of some thugs in some localities, especially in large cities, has reduced crime. But the size of RAB is simply too small, and the level of its technical competence still too low, to bring about a significant country-wide improvement in crime statistics. For a select community, the killing in crossfire of a well-known local criminal might bring about an immediate sense of relief, but this scenario can hardly be extrapolated to the rest of the country.

Crime, of course, has many faces and it is important to recognise that RAB action, or other police action for that matter, has been singularly inadequate in curbing some major categories of crimes that now threaten the very foundations of the society. The focus of attention on the quotidian killings by RAB has tended to obscure two crucial aspects of that failure: the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism and the criminal activities that have accompanied it, and the recent spate of political assassinations, the latest of which was the killing of SAMS Kibria. In neither of these categories of crime has there been any progress in finding the perpetrators of the crimes, far less punishing them. And who is to say that these criminal activities are any less deserving of attention of the law enforcing agencies than crimes normally pursued by RAB? At the most generous interpretation of the situation, the "success" by the Battalion may have been at the cost of failure in these two critical areas. To conclude from RAB killings that the country is on the threshold of a golden era of peace would be a tragic delusion.

This inevitably brings up the issue of the social priorities. There is little doubt that muggings, extortions, and hijackings have brought misery to large sections of the society. But crimes connected to rising religious fundamentalism and political killings erode the very foundations of that society. Those who applaud RAB "successes" appear to make a facile choice of some short term gains, to the exclusion of other, far weightier and longer term, considerations. We must ask ourselves where our society is heading.

A tolerant, pluralist society remains, I hope, an overriding long-term national goal, and is not something that exists only in the minds of a few liberal thinkers and dreamers. That goal cannot be achieved through violence of any kind, particularly not one at the hands of a law enforcement authority that has been tasked to end violence. In fact, extra-judicial killings and other acts that usurp the rule of law will help to perpetuate the very aura of violence that supporters of RAB killings say they abhor. I believe there are two major factors working here: the inability of law enforcing authorities to achieve their goals except through violence of their own is likely to be seen as a weakness by those who commit crime; and the flouting of law by those who are supposed to uphold it is unlikely to raise the public's respect for it.

The means that we choose to achieve a given end are not irrelevant. In a letter to the editor in this newspaper a reader, evidently a supporter of RAB killings, glibly quoted a Bengali saying, the gist of which can be summed up as: you need a thorn to extract another. In the present context, the observation seems to me as dangerous as it is frivolous. Unfortunately he is not alone in his judgment.

Finally, it is often said that a large majority of the population supports the often lethal action of RAB. I do not know of any properly conducted survey of public opinion that leads to the conclusion. But even if a majority of the people of Bangladesh does support RAB crossfire killings, which I doubt, would that make it right? Not all questions can be settled by majority decisions, particularly not questions of right and wrong. Human history is not devoid of instances where majorities were proved dreadfully wrong in retrospect.

Mahfuzur Rahman is a former United Nations economist.