Bangladesh: a state of impunity

A land whose citizens suffer injustice and cruelty without protection from law or state needs attention, says Delwar Hussain.
Delwar Hussain
7 March 2011

What, beyond horror at the events themselves, connects the murder of a 14-year-old girl accused of carrying out an illicit affair with a married man, and an armed attack in 2010 against a remote border village which left two residents dead and multitudes homeless? On the surface, not much. But both occurred in Bangladesh. And there, the links between these two incidents are as binding as the fates they prescribed.
Scene 1: at the end of January 2011, Hena Begum bled to death six days after she was publicly whipped. Her guilt had been decided by a village court that consisted of local elders and religious clerics, who issued a fatwa against her. Under Islamic law, the man with whom she allegedly “fornicated” was to receive the same punishment, but he managed to abscond during the sentencing. Newspapers in Dhaka claim that she may have been raped by the man who was related to the family and also from the same village.
The high court in Dhaka then ordered that Begum’s body be exhumed and a second post-mortem examination performed on it. The first examination was carried out by the local hospital in Shariatpur district, where Begum was from, and it claimed to have found no discernible injuries. But according to the high-court report, “heavy wounds” were discovered all over Begum’s body. Since the story broke, a number of arrests have been made, including that of the alleged rapist and also one of the clerics.
Scene 2: in February 2011, 534 homes belonging to the Chakma in the district of Rangamati were attacked. A Buddhist temple was looted. Two people died in the rampage, which lasted several days. The minority ethnic Chakma are one of many indigenous groups who live in this densely forested hill region of southwestern Bangladesh. Commonly known as the Paharis, their lands have been forcibly occupied by Bengali settlers for several decades now.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, a watchdog that monitors human-rights abuses in the region believes that Bengali settlers carried out these acts of violence in collusion with the Bangladesh army and other state-security forces. The army has long kept camps and even a garrison in the location where the incident took place. It had promised to withdraw from the area following the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord of 1997, but has so far failed to do so.
In both scenes, the victims have been among the most socially marginalised and economically disempowered groups within Bangladeshi society. In the first case, it is poor, single girls and women dependent on their patriarchal family units; in the second, it is rural ethnic and religious minorities reliant on state protection.
In both events, the perpetrators acted with a sense of impunity, secure in the belief that their actions would go unpunished. And why should this not be so? Indeed this is the usual state of affairs in Bangladesh.
What is more, authorities may have actively participated in both violations.
In many parts of Bangladesh, state protection is little more than a rumour. Instead, other bodies step in to dispense justice. In Begum’s case, it was Islamists that filled the vacuum the state leaves empty.
For the Paharis, paradoxically, there is too much state presence. Their home is located in a region considered to be geopolitically sensitive, as it borders both India and Burma. More importantly, they sit on massive reserves of timber and other natural resources, which the Bangladeshi government wants its hands on.  And so it allows - or orchestrates - abuse of the community.

The layers of justice
This is what links these two unlikely events: the fact that there are many people in Bangladesh, if not the majority in that country, who are so utterly beyond the reach of state protection that absolutely anything can happen to them - without, in some cases, even the threat of  government intervention.
For Begum and the Paharis, the overwhelming deprivation of justice is what connects them. They are subject to daily injustices, state and social brutalities and absolutely no security or recourse. Begum’s murder will be investigated, but her life has already been lost.
Often it is left to the local media or to local human-rights organisations to drum up attention for cases of abuse or injustice in the hopes that an international organisation picks up the thread. If it gets enough attention, as in Begum’s case, the Bangladeshi government languorously moves into action. Sometimes the state does something about it; but at other times, it simply makes the right noises at the right moments and when the dust settles, goes back to silence and inertia.
Here, as is the case in many developing countries, a graduated sense of citizenship exists whereby protections that the laws of a state may guarantee do not get extended to every citizen. Justice is differentiated.  It is simply not for everyone.
This is not to say that lawlessness prevails. Far from it. Justice, privileges and protection exist in abundance for those who can afford them. The payment for these “rights” is made in two forms, depending on those accused or threatened. For the growing legion of nouveau riche in Bangladesh, it is monetary. For the equally expanding neo-Islamists, puritanical zeal serves as a kind of spiritual currency which can be traded for protection.
It shouldn’t be like this. The last government came in with such hopes for change. But elections have ceased to mean anything anymore. A face or two may be different here or there, but they have changed nothing. Impunity prevails.

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