The title alludes to a very famous folk song by Abdul Alim, Premer Mora Jole Dobe Na. The song pits true love against so-called flings, suggesting that mere water cannot drown the "body" who is in love. Figuratively speaking, the power of true love is such that water cannot wash away the feelings with the passing of time. The return of a teenage girl who was supposedly raped and killed in Narayanganj made me hum these lines.
By now, the Shitalakhya has earned some reputation for returning dead bodies. The most memorable instance was the seven-murder case where uniformed men took money from a political don to abduct and kill his opponents in 2014. The bodies were dumped in the river, but the river spewed them out exposing corruption in our power structure. Compared to the hype over the sensational case, the one I am referring to is trivial, but it involves issues of police power nonetheless.
For those of you who have glossed over the news, let me put the narrative straight with the benefit of hindsight. On July 4, a 15-year-old girl went missing, and her father lodged a case soon after. The investigating police officer took three individuals with whom the girl was last seen into custody; one of them was a three-wheeler driver and the other two were boatmen. On August 9, these three suspects gave confessional statements before the court of the Senior Judicial Magistrate stating that they had raped the teenager and gave her a watery grave in the river. The accused were thrown into the jail.
On Sunday, the family of the missing girl received a phone call from someone called Iqbal Pandit, claiming that the schoolgirl was alive and living with him. The police later detained the girl and her partner, and came to know that the girl had actually eloped with her then-boyfriend Iqbal with the intention of marrying him.
I don't know whether it was their conscience that made them come out of hiding, but the return of the couple saved three individuals from being wrongfully accused. The "suspects" in the abduction case—the three-wheeler driver and the boatmen—could not have known what the girl, "the body in love", was up to. One boatman, Khalil, has already been released. He has told the media that he is illiterate, and that police made him sign a document and threatened him with "cross-fire" if he tried to overturn his confessional statement in front of the judge. Meanwhile, his wife managed a hefty amount by their standard to meet the demands of the police. The said officer is now trying to return the bribe, now that the girl has returned.
According to media reports, Sub-Inspector Shamim, the investigating officer who had pocketed the money, processed the suspects for court hearings. He told the court that the schoolgirl had been murdered and her body was dumped into the Shitalakhya River by the suspects. He had the forcibly extracted confessional statements of the accused to back up his narrative.
There is no body as/of evidence, yet there is a rape-and-murder case. The ingenuity of SI Shamim's imagination would have even humbled William Shakespeare, the author of "Romeo and Juliet", featuring the eponymous eloped teen lovers. Dhaka Tribune reports, "The events of this case have raised concerns about police's methods of investigation and obtaining confessions, of committing a crime, even from innocents."
Clearly, the power exercised by a bad cop in a district town demonstrates how "capillary" power operates even on the fringe of the social body and manifests itself in everyday social practices. Simply put, power resides not only at the heart of the state or economy; it runs through the veins of the social body. But when these veins get infected with the pus of power, we see blisters erupting through the social skins. They appear like cankerous blisters and boils such as SI Shamim, or SI Liaqat and OC Pradip who have been arrested in connection with the Major Sinha murder case. The infection deteriorates when some police officers begin to uphold the poisonous thought that the role of a police officer is more than being an enforcer of the law—that he is the law incarnate.
There needs to be a healthy discourse to remind the police of their role as civil servants. They need to be reminded of the social mandate under which they are supposed to serve. Society grants law enforcement officials the power over citizens to maintain peace and preserve social order. The police force has been given the freedom to use their judgment to decide which laws to enforce, when and against whom. But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. The freedom sometimes is so great and wide-ranging that many officers end up abusing this freedom. Political patronisation and the cash nexus bloat the egos of the corrupt cops even further as they feel freer than they really are.
Custodial torture and death are examples of their abuse of power. These are unlawful. The same goes for extrajudicial killings. Law should follow its own course. Any unnatural course of action is going to have an unnatural reaction. One does not have to be a Newton to understand this simple physics. Hence, the reports of the three accused in the Major Sinha murder case being tortured in custody by the investigating authorities do not surprise us. Yet we should not gloat over the misfortune of the officers who are having a taste of their own medicine. To reiterate, custodial torture under no circumstances should be deemed lawful. If the government can ensure that, then the criminal investigation and forensic team will be encouraged to find evidence through creative, intellectual, scientific and lawful methods. The use of primitive brutal force to extract confession should be a thing of the past.
There is one silver lining though. On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Sessions Judge's Court in Dhaka sentenced three former policemen to lifetime rigorous imprisonment over the death of Ishtiaque Hossain Jonny, who was picked up from a wedding party in Pallabi in 2014. The judgment is the first of its kind under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013.
This is a refreshing piece of news that underlines legality amid the array of illegal items that flood our daily news stream. Imagine how one death in police custody (rather a tipping point following a flurry of systematic racial abuse cases) has sparked off the "defund the police" diatribe in the US. Can we at least start a dialogue to suggest "reform the police"?
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.