IN FEBRUARY 1994, I was covering a street agitation of the Awami League against the then incumbent BNP government. The procession had stopped near the police barricades at Gulistan. I went to the leaders — Md Nasim, now health minister, and the late Abdus Samad Azad — and asked if they wanted to break the barricade. Both said no and that it was a party decision. The now remanded photographer Shahidul Alam was also one of those standing close with his cameras.
Beyond the barricade were the police and Ansars who stood almost fatally watching the militant crowd. Their drawn anxious faces were a good reflection of their mental stress. I asked the police what could happen. ‘Sir, we don’t know. Nobody ever knows what happens at these times.’ Almost on cue two things happened.
A cracker suddenly was thrown at the wall of the Pir Yemeni Market and the already unsettled crowds became immediately became volatile. We know from experience what follows. Stones began to fly towards the police from the back benchers in the AL procession and the police got ready for the counter.
One brick landed on Nasim bhai’s head and the open wound began to bleed. The crowd began to push at the barricades robustly. By then, tear-gas shells were landing close and the situation went almost immediately out of control.
As the crowd broke through and streamed out, angry and militant, we knew the cracker had done the job and the days of peaceful agitation was over. The police did what they were expected to do and so did the crowd.
The gunmen on the roof
THE crowd was dispersed soon by lathi-charge and tear gas but they assembled an hour later near the Fulbaria railway station. As brick batting began once more, we waited to see the outcome. And then suddenly gun fires began. There was immediate panic and people took shelter wherever they could. I and many others straddled a drain and each held the shoulder of the one ahead for balance. The man I held was shaking in fear. It was a policeman.
But I managed to crane my neck and look up to see that the guns were blazing from the roof of a building where civilian activists were busy firing. But the crowd after a spell of retreat was soon back. The shooters disappeared too, the civilians with guns. They were not the police. I reported this fact that night for the BBC.
Later, I was invited to lecture on media-police relations at Rajarbagh. He police hate the media, not the activists. ‘They never report on what we go through.’
In this current phase, the media has again been beaten up and many are angry with the police. But does the police act unless ordered to? The police are prisoners of orders and we forget that. The more anxious and angry the authorities are, the more rough the orders can be.
Scaring people does work
WAS it necessary to send 20+ police personnel to arrest Shahidul Alam at his home? Who needed to mask the CCTV camera and all that? Why blindfold him and keep him handcuffed?
By treating him this way, a message was sent to all that the government can be as rough as this and no one is immune from such treatment. The message has been immediately clear to some, will be partly so for many and not so for a few. The activists come from the third group and they are not usually affected. The police know this even as they crack down. It is the decision-givers who may think this is a permanent solution.
The police are again blamed for the traffic mess and so are the vehicle drivers but these are small fries in the bigger fish pond of Bangladesh. Real power belongs to the economic system that operates in Bangladesh which is network capitalism.
The transport sector plays many roles in economic, political and enforcement management. To clean up the sector would require radical changes not in police management or the transport system but the process of governance itself. But reform of the transport sector may in cases threaten the existing political power management method in existence since the last four decades. So the question of reform is not real.
Repairing transport sector is beyond all?
THE latest round of unrest around the two child deaths has displayed the immaturity of the transport system. It does not work and will not work unless the economic system which pushes it does. The latest deaths are a problem of the urban middle class and that it why this newly denied middle class can link it to other angers such as quota systems, chaotic road services, etc. But every day rural areas see death and injury. It kills nearly 20,000 people annually and eats up 2 per cent of the GDP. But we are not touched.
Governments need the police; so, the situation will not change. However, shooters on the roof and helmeteers on the road will be more frequent as law enforcement becomes a political and law enforcement issue both.
No one lives by the law and that includes the police. Most car owners are also in the same position. When that is the case, blaming the police is unfair. This is how the state functions and will continue to. Before looking for answers, it is best to frame our questions properly.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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