Death penalty minus political will to stop rape is just good optics | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 18, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:41 AM, October 18, 2020

Death penalty minus political will to stop rape is just good optics

From harsh legal penalties to severe moral reprimands, from street protests and sit-ins to virtual seminars and teach-ins, from increasing mobilisation and visibilisation of pro-choice activists to critical interventions by state and non-state actors—nothing, and no one, seems to be able to deter the rapists or protect women and children.

Are we missing something?

Before we dig into that, we must acknowledge that few causes in recent times have united society in the way the fight to end violence against women did, especially after the Noakhali and Sylhet gang rapes. People are naturally outraged. Protestors are refusing to leave the streets even after the government hurriedly approved the death penalty as the maximum punishment for single perpetrator rape. On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators led by some left-leaning parties embarked on a two-day march from Dhaka's Shahbagh area to Noakhali's Begumganj upazila to protest against the growing incidents of rape. Earlier, the Rape Law Reform Coalition, a platform comprising 17 organisations, proposed a 10-point to-do list that includes changing the definition of rape to include all victims, regardless of their gender identity or marital status, prohibiting the use of character evidence in rape trials, enacting a Victim and Witness Protection Act, training police and court officials on sexual and gender-based violence, and providing consent classes to all children.

These legal and institutional reforms are long overdue and may prove vital in preventing rape and substantially increasing Bangladesh's appallingly low rape conviction rate. Will the government accede to the demands of the activists? Will it move away from the ill-advised adoption of death penalty (which, experts say, may exacerbate the problem for the victims rather than solving it)? In the unlikely event that it does, we will still have to contend with the fact that a law in Bangladesh, however well-made, is only as effective as the law enforcement. We have a history of having wonderful pieces of legislation rendered ineffective by lack of accountability within the institutions responsible for carrying out laws. So unless the reforms being sought are also accompanied by a strong political commitment to enact them, we may never be able to end our pervasive rape culture.

What causes rape? The answer is obvious. But what causes rape to keep happening with such morbid regularity? I would like to argue that it is the result of a climate where the world circles around political beings, granting them and those in their orbit near-immunity to any fallout of their action. Acknowledging this will require a painful reckoning for the ruling party of Bangladesh, and by extension all other parties.

Often, what emboldens a rapist in the first place is their belief that they can get away with it owing to their connection with some political leader or local boro bhai. They think either their victims will never dare to report them, or police will never accept charges against them, or investigators will never find incriminating evidence, or their case will fall through the cracks in the long, winding road to justice—all because they're "well-connected". Everyone is bound or beholden to someone in this giant orbit of power and money. How do you cure this with just legal reforms or even a "social resistance" (as one minister vaguely proposed)? Criminals know, as we should too, that beyond the carefully constructed facade of rules and laws and lofty ideals seemingly governing this country, what really runs it is a criminally motivated system of patronage, and politicians sit at the top of the heap.

There are ample cases to prove this thesis. Let me cite the two that triggered the ongoing national protests.

Exhibit 1: Delwar Hossain, the prime accused in the Noakhali gang rape case, committed various crimes under the protection of local politicians from both the ruling Awami League and the BNP. After the 2014 elections, Delwar reportedly joined Jubo League's politics and formed his now-infamous "Delwar Bahini". Prior to that, he was a follower of a BNP-leaning criminal. Despite being wanted in three other cases, two for murder and one for possessing illegal arms, he was never arrested before.

Exhibit 2: All the men behind the gang rape at Sylhet's MC College were involved with Bangladesh Chhatra League.

It suits some politicians to claim that rapists don't belong to any political party. This is partly true and partly false—the first because no political parties encourage their members and activists to commit rapes; the second because such claims are orchestrated to shield them from any blowback for their action and to dodge scrutiny of the inner workings of their organisations. The truth is, all such rapes are "political". Most of the rapists in recent times were reported to have been involved, directly or indirectly, with the ruling party's student or youth or other wings. This can't be explained away as coincidental. Serial rapists like Delwar and other political operatives who committed rape drew their courage from their party affiliations. Their "marriage" is one of convenience. It ends—does it always?—the moment it ceases to be beneficial for their party.

After the Sylhet incident, Chhatra League naturally demanded punishment for the perpetrators, but then sought to distance itself from the accused by denying their involvement with the organisation. For too long, such denial has been a cornerstone of the damage control policy of major political parties when hit by scandals involving their members or associates or operatives. They denounce such crimes and either expel the accused or outright deny their involvement.

One may recall that after the casino scandal hit the Jubo League last year, it followed the same strategy of expelling the accused and restructuring the party hierarchy, instead of restructuring how it functions. Chhatra League's strategy was more of the same when allegations of various criminal activities were raised against its then president and general secretary, who were subsequently removed from their posts. But the system that empowered them survived. It always does. We get an idea of how the system works from the confessional statement of Anik Sarker, a key accused in the Abrar Fahad murder case, given to the court last year. Anik, who too was expelled from his secretarial position at BUET's BCL wing, said, quite candidly, "We would beat students, regardless of whether they were senior or junior. Abrar's death was an accident. The Chhatra League high command would laud us if we beat someone whose view didn't match with ours. It's the system that made us merciless." The system gave them immunity until immunity was no longer in the interest of the system.

If we really want to end the culture of immunity emboldening the criminals, we need to investigate the interaction between crime and politics and how one pivots around the other. Rape is but the most socially distasteful manifestation of what comes out of this union, a tipping point reached through the building blocks of various other crimes. Rapists, murderers, arsonists, thugs, vandals, corrupt policemen or investigators or public officials… all draw water from the same well today. Rape cannot be seen in isolation from this interplay of crimes and politics. Yes, our rape conviction rate is very low, but in what areas of crimes is the rate not so? Unless we rob all criminals of their source of power, they will go on to commit crimes or be replaced by new players who will, regardless of how harsh the punishment is or what legal reforms we bring in.

Political parties may not encourage their operatives to rape, but they stand guilty of not doing enough to discourage them. This in turn encourages the non-political rapists. So unless political parties and their affiliated organisations are also held accountable for the crimes committed by their operatives, past or present, they will always find a way to deflect blame and not do what's really needed. A principle of zero tolerance against all crimes, not just rape, must be firmly embedded in how political organisations function in Bangladesh. Otherwise, we can't expect other public institutions and authorities including police, local governments and even courts to be free from its corrupting influences.

Rape culture is as much a political problem as a social one. We need a strong political commitment to end it.


Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email:

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