Violence in Bangladesh: The picture is disturbing, the wounds are deeper
If Marcellus saw the picture of college students brutalising an innocent man, he would surely have turned to Hamlet and said "something is rotten in the state of Denmark". These bahinis, Helmeted or not, by themselves, may not represent a major crisis, but they are certainly symptomatic of a malaise that is much more profound and troubling.
The emergence of sponsored groups to intimidate, assault, and terrorise others in order to establish control and facilitate exploitation, is neither new or novel in the world or the sub-continent (after all, the word "thug" is of Indian origin).
Typically, such extremist groups share some characteristics. They are usually radicalised by a charismatic leader, generally mobilised along racial, religious or nationalist lines (to facilitate the demonisation of the "other"), and commonly tethered to simplistic ideological notions with their own signs, symbols and semiotics. Other defining elements include unquestioned loyalty of the supporters, a sense of superiority in serving a higher cause, and a besieged masculinity (the protection of "our women" is part of the mystique).
The obvious examples would be the Black Shirts (the squadrismo) of Mussolini, or the Brown Shirts (the Sturmabteilung) of Hitler, who were part of the physical and psychological apparatus of threat and violence that both leaders had used cunningly and ferociously to rise to power. Groups which shared similar anti-socialist and anti-Semitic orientations also existed in several other European countries. A few extremist right-wing and racist groups remain in Europe today. In India and the US, we see irresponsible leaders slyly encouraging these groups tied together by their faith in the leader, and their agenda of unreason and hate.
In Bengal the practice of using muscle-power in the service of the ruling elite was institutionalised during the British period. Following the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793, the newly created zamindari class(es) used the latthiyals (fighting men armed with sticks and staves) to protect and advance their interests in an arbitrary and extortionist rent-receiving environment. Peasant rebellions, and the gradual extension of the rule of law, eventually began to moderate their power and presence.
In our own lifetime we saw the National Student Federation (NSF), patronised by the Ayub-Monem regime, establishing a dramatic and fearsome presence in the Universities in the 1960s. This infusion of muscularity in college campuses was new, confusing and frightening.
Those forces were eventually defeated. The resistance from general students, the outrage at some of their excesses (e.g., the man-handling of the highly respected Prof. Abu Mahmud of the Economics Department), and the forces of history turning against them as the nationalist agitation took on greater urgency and appeal, compelled a realignment in the NSF. Several joined the popular movements in the 1970s, a few fought, and even laid down their lives, in the Liberation War in 1971.
What is notable, both at home and abroad, is that while such violent groups may gain notoriety and have nuisance value for some time, and may help to advance the political interest of some leader or cause here and there, their role has always been temporary, illegitimate and tragic. Even leaders who used them (e.g., Hitler and Mussolini) gradually disbanded them, and many such groups either imploded internally or faded into irrelevance. Twentieth century European history is littered with the corpses of many such groups and efforts.
The presence of violent groups in Bangladesh today is qualitatively different from anything that obtained earlier here or abroad. There are no charismatic leaders mobilising these groups, no identifiable "others" to hate and eliminate, no ideological tropes to embrace, no "sacred cows" to protect, no historical wounds to avenge, not even any threats to masculinity to overcome.
The most intriguing and appalling aspect of this violence is that it appears to be happening in a vacuum—a nihilist, pathological, obsessive, dystopic, emotionally bankrupt, ideologically vacant, and a politically perverse exercise of force and fury.
They may advance some localised and passing interests. They may also have some axes to grind against some transitory opponents which, usually, has more to do with material needs and territorial control than political commitment (hence the beating up of shop-keepers in the New Market area). They may be manipulated by partisan interests, but the relationship is not ideological or strategic but purely tactical, episodic and transactional.
The identities of these perpetrators are always shadowy, their beliefs fluid, their loyalties fungible. They never carry a poster, shout a slogan or carry a flag. There is little organisational unity, and they are as apt to fight internal factions as external "enemies". They are more Mafioso for rent than rebels with a cause, more criminal gangs seeking political protection than ideological warriors proud of their actions, more sick practitioners of collective violence than "strong men" demonstrating their courage, manhood, or power (very little of that can be proven by hacking away at a helpless man lying inert on the ground). None of this is consistent with the idea of "extremist groups" as defined in the social sciences.
They are mere mercenaries, entrepreneurs of violence, human beings reduced to their bodies, weapons and egos, easily bought and manipulated, and just as easily discarded and trashed. The lure and the thrill of raw "power", the adrenaline rush of hurting and humiliating somebody, and the impunity which allows them to "get away with it", eventually becomes the "black hole" which swallows up their dreams and hopes.
Their rise in Bangladesh lately can perhaps be traced to the social context in which they are located. There are several inter-related factors which are relevant.
First, they indicate weaknesses in governance, particularly public disenchantment with questionable elections, pervasive corruption, limitations on free speech and expression, increasing inequalities, environmental degradation, the vulnerabilities of women and minority communities, and disregard (often contempt) for the rule of law.
These provide the enabling conditions for such aggressive behaviour. Some members of Parliament (e.g. from Noakhali) can publicly advocate "lynching of all miscreants", and those entrusted with upholding the law allegedly flout it through enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture in jails, and illegal and unconscionable delays in resolving cases. Almost all "politics" in the country occurs in a polarised environment of confrontation and intolerance with violence as a sub-text.
Second, there are some disarticulations and disruptions inherent in capitalism where traditional norms of social decency and solidarity are replaced by, what "the young Marx" had identified as alienation, "commodity fetishism" (the mindless acquisition and flaunting of possessions), false consciousness, and increasing exploitation of people and resources.
In most other countries the excesses of capitalism are mitigated through the discipline that the market imposes, the controls established by regulatory mechanisms and legislative oversight, and the reassurances offered by social programs and the recognition of worker rights (unions, minimum wages, safety in the work-place, etc).
But in Bangladesh the development of capitalism has been sudden, chaotic and unbridled. The safety-valves and restraints provided by the market or the institutions of social democracy were non-existent, and the practice of acquiring as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and in whatever manner possible, became the norm. This culture of overwhelming greed, vulgar display and immediate gratification almost invited social tensions and criminal behaviour.
Both political and economic conditions generated some psychological displacements, a sense of powerlessness, and a level of resentment, anxiety and desperation that is typically expressed as impatience and intolerance in our daily interactions with others, and sometimes as unspeakable violence that is inflicted on innocent people.
For example, in Sirajganj a woman was tied to a tree, beaten and hospitalised because of conflicts over a plantain tree. A woman, suspected of being a kidnapper, was beaten to death when she had gone to check out a school for her child in Uttara. A little boy was killed by pumping air through his rectum because he had dared to change employers. A student at BUET was tortured to death by his fellow students for a Facebook post critical of India. A Madrassa student in Feni was doused with kerosene and burnt to death in the school premises because she had refused to withdraw her case of sexual harassment against the Principal.
Every day there are reports of clashes, beatings, assaults, rapes, vandalism, kidnappings and disappearances. It is most disconcerting that even when the perpetrators engage in horrible acts publicly, for example while they viciously pounced upon the anti-quota activists (most of whom were University students), or their unprecedented attack on road safety demonstrators (almost all of whom merely school-children), and even after their pictures are widely published with knives, rods and firearms, little is done.
Apart from the political and economic conditions, the failure of our education system also deserves to be emphasised. This refers to more than the content of the syllabus or the pedagogical techniques of imparting knowledge at the school level, though both may be relevant. More importantly, it indicates our obsession with quantity rather than quality, with enrolment numbers, graduation rates and GPAs rather than what is being actually offered or learned in our schools.
History, the social sciences and the humanities, when taught at all, are reduced to rote memorisation of dates and names (with teachers teaching to the test). More alarmingly, there is no effort to encourage students towards critical thinking, aesthetic appreciation, or humanistic ideals. They are not educated about moral values, social graces, traditional curtsies ("adab"), civic responsibilities, distinguishing right from wrong, importance of community and shared spaces, respecting contrary opinions, protecting the environment, caring for the less fortunate, or accepting the "other". Schools churn out barely literate pupils but totally unenlightened citizens.
University education has also been severely damaged by partisanship and corruption. Out of 52 public Universities, 18 Vice Chancellors are under investigation for various transgressions, 12 reports have been submitted, but no action has been taken against anyone. Similarly, University professors have been found guilty of plagiarism, sexual predation, and unethical conduct. They are also well aware that their jobs, promotions, and lucrative administrative stints or foreign trips, depend not upon the quality of their teaching, service or research, but on "playing the game". Students realise this too. Thus, while OUR teachers served as inspirations and moral exemplars, most of today's educators lack that "standing" or authority.
Moreover, the systematic "depoliticisation" of the universities (by not allowing elections to student bodies for more than two decades, and severely curtailing free speech and expression), inevitably led to a single party hegemony. Student "leaders" were provided with considerable financial and social perks, particularly in the Halls which they "controlled".
Apart from extortion of nearby businesses or "cuts" from university construction contracts, these leaders also demand ritual genuflection from dorm residents. An inability to demonstrate this satisfactorily could result in a warning, a beating, or even expulsion, depending on the perceived nature of the violation.
The Vice-Chancellors, most selected on non-academic considerations, "bravely" looked away, or actively courted such elements (paying them out of development funds at Jahangirnagar University, calling them to "rescue" the VC from students demonstrating against quotas at Dhaka University, or rewarding many with jobs at Rajshahi University). Very few challenged their swaggering presence. This provides fertile ground for widespread cynicism and rudeness among the general students.
Consequently, in the moral chaos and the free-for-all environment that exists in the country and the educational institutions, where honesty is synonymous with stupidity, politeness is interpreted as weakness, and being law-abiding is a sign of low status, where the usual restraints provided by legal structures, responsible leadership, individual conscience and civic consciousness become irrelevant, violence becomes natural, if not inevitable.
The Helmet Bahinis and their ilk are not the Frankensteins created by this or that party or leader. Nor do they reflect just some administrative or policing failure. They represent an intellectual, ethical and structural rot that is much deeper and more corrosive. We are all complicit in helping to privilege physical force over moral authority. We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Dr Ahrar Ahmad is professor emeritus at Black Hills State University in the US, and director general of Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation in Dhaka.