It could have been just another episode in the regular show of police and ruling party men merrily clamping down on the "disturbers of public peace" who love to play with people's emotions with their pesky ideas and noisy chants of human rights abuses. Usually, there would be the clean-up after that, with the cheerleaders stepping in and going through the ritual of handing out half-baked stories about who attacked whom first, and that would be the end of it. No subtlety would be expected, because there would be none.
But this particular episode went off the rails to become a farce so incongruous and so bleak that it tests the mind. It took place on Saturday, in Feni, although the story began a day earlier. On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators led by some left-leaning parties embarked on a two-day Long March from Dhaka to Noakhali to protest against the growing incidents of rape in the country. Their spray-painted slogans—"Silence is unjust when humanity is affected", "End the culture of impunity", "Rape and crossfire are the government's weapons", "Say no to victim blaming", and "We want the resignation of the failed home minister" (The Daily Star)—offered a condensed history of yet another tumultuous week in Bangladesh which began after the brutal assault and gang rape of a Noakhali woman, on video, by men loyal to the ruling Awami League. For many in the crowd, it was the final spark to a reservoir of pent-up anger and despair.
At around 11:30 am on Saturday, the demonstrators came under attack allegedly from the activists of local Awami League, Jubo League and Chhatra League units after they had concluded a rally in the Shaheed Minar area of Feni. According to media reports, the attackers used sticks and rods to beat the protesters and vandalised several buses carrying them. Police have given a different version of the story, however. Mainul Islam, an additional superintendent of police in Feni, told The Daily Star that it was not an attack but a "scuffle" that broke out after "derogatory comments" were made against the local MP at the rally. "In protest, his followers brought out a procession. Activists from the Long March chased the followers of the lawmaker and a scuffle ensued," he said.
If you have seen the video clips that surfaced on social media following the attack, you may have different ideas about what really transpired, but the glib label of "scuffle" will surely not be one of them. One somewhat graphic clip takes us inside one of the buses where a protester lay unconscious, with several others with cuts and bruises, and blood stains visible on the floor of the bus. The camera then cuts to a scene in a hospital where you hear the wailing of the injured, and then to another scene showing shards of broken glass strewn across the road near the buses. What police described as a scuffle initiated by anti-rape protesters ended up injuring at least 35 of them, 10 suffering severe injuries. Equally shockingly, it was the police that reportedly abetted the ruling party thugs to launch their attacks and ransack the buses.
With "friends" like these, who needs enemies, right?
The juxtaposition of the three protagonists of this episode—the protesters, the police, and the ruling party men—acquires special significance when we consider the following facts. First, what police officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, did is significant not just for the fact that they were supposed to aid peaceful protesters instead of their attackers but also for the timing of their unholy cameo performance. As it transpired, the day the police chose to crack down on the anti-rape protesters was also the day when Bangladesh Police held rallies in 6,912 beat areas across the country to "create public awareness against rape and violence against women!" The irony of the matter is inescapable. The irony thickens when, the next day, the DMP commissioner claims that more than 95 percent of people "expressed satisfaction with the police service in filing GDs and cases with police stations", although police have yet to file a case against Saturday's attackers in Feni. All this throws into sharp relief the enormous divide between what the police say and what they do in terms of law enforcement.
Moving onto the next protagonist—men from the Extended AL Universe, particularly Chhatra League. No one would like to hold Chhatra League to its word, but if you closely observe its responses during the last three nationwide movements—road safety, quota reforms, and now rape—a chilling pattern emerges. Let me just lay out the facts and you can have your own conclusion.
The organisation that was allegedly behind the assaults on anti-rape protesters in Feni and has had allegations of rape slapped against many of its members is also one that, just last week, brought out a "celebration rally" after the cabinet's approval of an amendment to our central law on women and children repression (with the provision for death penalty as the maximum punishment for single perpetrator rape). In August 2018, this same organisation allegedly caused immense sufferings to the students involved in the movement for safer roads, and yet it had the nerve to bring out a celebration rally after the cabinet's approval of the draft of Road Transport Act 2018, which literally ended the movement. In April 2018, this very organisation again allegedly tried to derail the quota reform movement, and yet it was the one that brought out a celebration rally after the provision for quota in government jobs was abolished.
What do these facts tell us about this organisation? There can be many explanations. But several stand out to me: first, its moral and ideological fluidity; second, its proclivity to simultaneously sabotage (through attacks) and hijack (through organising celebration rallies) the biggest student and sociocultural movements of our time; third, its strategic position as the first line of defence against any movement involving students; fourth, its lack of concern for the well-being of general students; fifth, its eagerness to use force and lack of tolerance for critical thoughts; and finally, its immunity as an organisation, regardless of what crimes its members and operatives commit. From the frequent collaborations of law enforcement agencies with the organisations affiliated with the ruling party, it would also appear that the state is outsourcing part of policing tasks to these unruly groups, which is a disturbing development in and of itself.
The Saturday attack marks a dangerous turn in the so far largely peaceful trajectory of protests to end our pervasive rape culture. It lays bare the truth behind the fiction, and portends a long and difficult journey for the anti-rape activists. Some have questioned Chhatra League and Jubo League's moral organisational stand on rape following the attack. But I think it's immaterial to the wider question of violence against women, and has more to do with men as individuals.
By announcing the provision of the death penalty for single perpetrator rape in response to the anti-rape movement and then allowing attacks on those protesting rape the government is giving mixed messages to the people. The government has made its sincerity to stop the rape culture clear. Statements by ministers and state officials will attest to that. But we need more in the way of action. Can it walk the rest of the path by bringing in necessary legal and institutional reforms to prevent rape from happening, give boost to rape trials and protect the victims and witnesses? The contrasting pictures that are coming out of its camp do not leave much room for hope.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.