In its life span of a decade, Rapid Action Battalion, popularly known as Rab, has never faced such public wrath as it is now. This after some of its officials' alleged involvement in the recent kidnapping and gruesome killing of a panel mayor of Narayanganj City Corporation, a lawyer and five other people. Three of its officials who were allegedly involved in the heinous crimes in exchange of Tk. 6 crore have already been sent on forced retirement. The High Court has ordered the Inspector General of Police to arrest the three Rab officials on charge of the barbaric incident in Narayanganj. Some more actions are all set to be taken against them.
What has happened in Narayanganj is not an isolated incident. Activities of the elite force have been mired into widespread controversy since its formation in 2004 for their link with extra-judicial killings. Initially, a section of people, frustrated by the culture of impunity enjoyed by listed criminals who seemed above the law, had welcomed some extra-judicial killings. Human rights activists and civil society individuals, however, from the very beginning, were scathingly critical of the extra-judicial killings and kept warning the government of dire consequences of the menace. But the government paid no heed to their warning. Rather, some of the ministers and ruling party leaders blasted the human right activists and civil society individuals who had questioned the extra-judicial killings. And the government has kept taking various measures to make the Rab stronger with modern arms and equipment. The past BNP-led government that formed the Rab, moreover, gave the force the Independence Award in 2006 for its anti-crimes operations including the one against dreaded militant groups JMB and JMJB.
Thus, the Rab members had been given a free rein and unquestioned authority. Over the years, many officials of the Rab members were accused of being involved in unlawful activities - abduction, extortion, etc. Rab men looted Tk 2 crore from a Chittagong shrine in 2011. Rab men kidnapped Mridul, a goldsmith of Chittagong, tortured and robbed him of 80 tola of gold. Now the allegations are even more shocking – that they are being used as mercenaries to carry out nefarious tasks like kidnapping and killing private citizens.
According to reports published by Bengali daily Kaler Kantha on May 7 around 2,000 Rab members have been punished on different charges in the last 10 years. But most of the allegations against the Rab members have yet to be disposed of. So, what has happened in Narayanganj is a continuation of this trend. And finally, the warning issued by human right activists and civil society individuals has come true. The unlawful and criminals activities by the Rab members have turned the force into a monster. The situation could have been different had the Rab members been held accountable for the extra-judicial killings from the very beginning.
Again, our politicians are playing foul. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia on May 12, alleged that the Rab has turned into a political organisation and threatened to wage a movement if the government did not disband the elite force. “Disband Rab as the country's people cannot sleep in peace due to its horrific activities, including abduction, killing and forced disappearances. There will be no peace in the country until Rab is disbanded,” said Khaleda, also former prime minister. The same day her deputy, acting Secretary General of BNP Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir accused the Rab of "working as hired killers and abductors." Khaleda Zia and BNP leaders should not forget what she had done in defence of unlawful and criminal activities of Rab when she was in power.
Only a few months after the formation of the Rab, the then main opposition AL leaders in October, 2004 demanded disbandment of Rab, terming it a "killing force." “The Rab cannot be a law enforcing agency. This is a killing force and violator of human rights,” said then AL presidium member Suranjit Sengupta in a press conference at AL’s Dhanmondi office. Asked whether the AL will take legal action challenging the Rab activities and against its members, then AL General Secretary Abdul Jalil said, “We'll take the right decision in time.” The AL leaders had also expressed their apprehension that the government may indemnify the Rab dominated by armed forces officers against the killings. They had inferred the apprehension from the indemnification of the armed forces for killing over 50 people during Operation Clean Heart launched by the BNP-led government from October in 2002 to January 2003 to restore law and order.
Then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her party leaders had strongly blasted the AL leader for their stance against the Rab. For example, Khaleda Zia in January 2005 blasted the AL saying that a party does not want the anti-crime force as their “terrorists” cannot now unleash terrorism. The prime minister said that the Rab had been formed through enacting a law to curb crimes in the country–one of the main election commitments of her party, BNP.
Now, the ruling AL leaders and ministers have been doing the same things the BNP leaders had done when they were in power. The AL though had pledged before the 2008 parliamentary polls to stop extra-judicial killings, has failed to deliver on its promise and opted to remain silent about it. And the AL leaders have now been blasting the BNP for the demand and ruling out the possibility of disbanding the Rab. Food Minister Quamrul Islam on May 9 alleged that some civil society members and leaders of BNP are politicizing the issue of disbanding of the RAB to destabilise the country. Urging the BNP not to 'do politics over the elite force', Quamrul Islam said those who are advocating the abolition of RAB are the allies of militants. The same day, AL advisory council member Suranjit Sengupta also expressed his views against the disbanding of the RAB.
It is now clear that politicians will keep waging war of words against each other centering the Rab. And there is no possibility of taking any common stance on the issue. They will not be able to hold any constructive discussion on how to resolve the crisis. This is the nature of the country's pervasive politics which itself has appeared like a monster against the people of Bangladesh. Reform in both politics and Rab is an urgent need to serve people's interests.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.