SUVs and Rickshaws
THE key facts of the case I analyse here are as follows: An underage driver crashed into two rickshaws. He was caught red-handed. Police officers who responded to the incident have given statements confirming that the perpetrator was drunk, that he did not hold a driver's licence and that alcohol had been found in the vehicle. He was taken into police custody. The perpetrator is reported to have family ties to the ruling party. He was released from custody that same day.
Not only does this sequence of events clearly demonstrate the dysfunctional state of the justice system in Bangladesh, but more interestingly, it sheds light on why the system has been made dysfunctional. Those in positions of power and privilege make the system dysfunctional because they benefit from the injustice a dysfunctional system inflicts upon the powerless as I illustrate below, using this case as an example.
The perpetrator of this particular incident is the son of a director of a private bank and the chairman of a boutique hotel in the exclusive Gulshan area of the capital. It has been reported that his family is connected to a former lawmaker from the ruling party. At sixteen years of age, he drives an SUV, but on this day he did so after sharing a picture of a bottle of twelve-year-old scotch next to the steering wheel with the caption,"My life > Your Life". In short, the perpetrator of this injustice was as privileged as they come, in stark contrast to his victims.
The victims who the press have been able to identify are rickshaw pullers, among the most visibly disenfranchised members of our society.When we exploit their hard manual labour for cheap transportation, we count our change, but not the ribs poking out of their malnourished bodies. We pass laws that ban them from our main thoroughfares, because those bare ribs compete with our polished cars for the scarce space on our public roads. In searing sun, and torrential rain, we are content to have them dressed in rags (and the occasional plastic bag), so long as our air is well-conditioned. When they break the laws we have passed to favour our cars, our policemen beat them. When they scratch the paint jobs of our cars, our chauffeurs beat them. And when we drink and drive, we do not care if we kill them, because we know we will be able to buy our way out.
And buy his way out, our privileged perpetrator did. He walked free on the same day, and no case has been filed in connection with this incident till going to press. When interviewed by a national newspaper, one of the rickshaw pullers who was injured in the incident said, "I need money more than I need justice." Thus poverty reduces the demand for justice. Another victim has confirmed that he has received Tk 8,500 in "compensation", and will not be filing a case. A national newspaper reports that police sources say they will not be filing a case because they are "facing pressure from above." And so the privileged benefit from injustice.
This case clearly demonstrates not only the existence and extent of dysfunction in the Bangladeshi justice system, but also why the system is made dysfunctional. We, the privileged elite benefit from an unjust system. When the laws favour our interests, we exert our power and wealth towards their ad-hoc enforcement. But when justice demands that we pay our due, be it for violations of traffic, tax, land zoning, or public health and safety laws, we choose to weaken and dismantle the system, law by law, officer by officer, institution by institution.
The social media outrage that has been targeted at this single, underage perpetrator is at best partially misplaced, but completely unproductive. This is not a case of one bad apple doing one bad thing. Rather, it is a symptom of privilege and poverty creating systematic injustice. And nothing will change unless we, the privileged hold ourselves to account for abusing our wealth and power to skirt the duties that justice demands of us. It is up to each of us to stop living in the nauseating spirit of this child's now infamous post: "My life > Your Life".
The writer is a PhD. candidate at the University of Sussex, UK.