Oceans apart, the context of George Floyd and Nikhil Karmakar’s death may have been similar, but the responses were not. In Bangladesh, already battered by the reality of an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, media attention was brief. Except for a section of progressive students’ body and human rights activists, a-30-year old young farmer’s `death largely went unnoticed, writes Nahid Riyasad
The protests ignited by the death of an African-American, George Floyd, on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA were still occupying the streets in many major cities when on June 3, Nikhil Talukdar, a young farmer was allegedly brutally assaulted by police in Gopalganj. Deaths in police custody or encounters with police is nothing uncommon in Bangladesh or even in the USA, what triggered protests, is the nature of the death and marginal status of the victims.
In the case of Floyd, three police officers knelt down on him, one of them had his knee right on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. During this time, Floyd was heard pleading, ‘I can’t breathe’. He was being arrested for an alleged counterfeit USD 20 bill.
In case of Nikhil, he was playing cards with his friends when he came in contact with police. His friends were able to flee the scene, but he couldn’t and bore the brunt of police brutality. He succumbed to his injury while taking treatment at hospital in Dhaka. His post mortem report showed, his spine was broken at least in three places.
An uncanny similarity between the fate of these two men, falling victim to police brutality, are their socio-historical marginality.
When an African American in the United States or a poor farmer and an ethnic minority in Bangladesh come in contact with the law enforcement agencies, their experience is historically very different. Racial hatred, class, gender, ethnicity all plays a role in it. As raging global protests were taking over the streets after Floyd’s death, police brutality continued in the USA.
Oceans apart, the context of Floyd and Nikhil’s death may have been similar, but the responses were not. In Bangladesh, already battered by the reality of an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, media attention was brief. Except for a section of progressive students’ body and human rights activists, a- 32-year old young farmer’s death in the face of police violence largely went unnoticed.
‘On June 2, along with his cousin Milon Karmakar and other acquaintances were playing cards. Paddy harvest is already taken home. Besides, the COVID restriction left not much choice for people like Nikhil to do these days,’ Iti Karmakar, his wife said while talking to the media after his death. She added, ‘as they were playing, assistant sub-inspector of police Shamim Hasan spotted them and began recording them from a distance. Others fled the scene, but he bore the beating. We took him [Nikhil] to the Barishal Sher-e-Bnagla Medical College, then the doctors referred him to Dhaka and he died under treatment early afternoon on June 4.’ Nikhil’s family asked, ‘why was he beaten so badly that his spine was fatally injured? Had he done any crime, why wasn’t he taken to the custody ? Why was he called?’
Nikhil’s family is not alone in asking these questions. On June 3, on the very day Nikhil died, in another encounter with the police in Jashore, Imran Hossain a second year student of Kazi Nazrul Islam Degree College was violently beaten. Intimidated Imran ran in panic, but the police caught him after a chase and continued beating him until he lost his consciousness. Police reportedly planted marijuana on him and demanded Tk 25,000 from his father, but Imran was released in exchange of a bribe of Tk 6,000. The beating damaged both his kidneys. On June 8, a kidney specialist at Jashore Medical College Hospital said, ‘Imran’s kidneys had stopped working, and he needs regular dialysis.’
Initial response of the police, in both Nikhil and Imran’s case were the same, echoed chilling indifferences demonstrated by Minneapolis Police Department after Floyd’s death. In all cases, police denied any allegation of abuse of power. Nikhil’s family was intimidated; they were reportedly asked to settle the matter out of court before they could finally file a murder case. For Imran, the police alleged that he was arrested in possession of illegal substance. While the accused officer in Nikhil’s case was arrested, the involvement of officers Imran’s assault is being investigated. Meanwhile, families struggle with medical bills and children to feed. Justice has taken a backseat in this struggle. For them, the idea that law is equal for everybody is a myth.
New Age Youth talked to Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua and youth leader Golam Mustafa to understand their perspective on this question whether everyone is equal before the law.
Golam Mustafa, president of Bangladesh Students’ Federation, also thinks that custodial death has a characteristic of victimising socio-economic marginalised people. ‘Police would casually give a rickshaw puller a few slaps, if he breaks traffic law but fine someone on a car. So yes, police misconducts are very class specific. It happened progressively. Political parties in power have made the habit of politically influencing the law enforcement agencies. They are given impunity to ensure their political and partisan benefits. Laws exists to protect citizens in custody, but they are not enforced.’
To legally address the issue, the government enacted the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act in October 2013. The law came following the death of a university student Shamim Reza Rubel, who was brutally tortured and killed in police custody
on June 23, 1998. His autopsy report shows he died from hemorrhage and shock caused by severe beating.
Later, on April 7, 2003, the High Court directed that prior to sending an arrested person to remand, s/he should be examined by a doctor and the medical report should be submitted to the magistrate concerned, and that after the interrogation ─ which can only be carried out by the investigation officer ─ the accused must be produced before the magistrate. Maintaining this procedure could ensure that basic human rights are not abundantly violated in police custody. Then, where and how the law has fallen short?
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua during a conversation with New Age Youth emphasises on the amendment of the 2013 Act. ‘Investigation power is only with police and police investigating police misconducts create serious conflict of interest. In many cases the investigations are biased, intimidation of the victim’s family is very common and there is visibly no protection for the plaintiff. This is a major reason of significantly low number of cases under this Act,’ he said.
Barua continued, ‘the components of a legal and judicial dispensation system are heavily influence by the political culture of the nation. As a result, even though there are laws to protect the citizens of Bangladesh, but in real life, the level of implementations is seriously low. Without an overall change in the political philosophy and culture of the country, the citizens will not enjoy the benefit of any given law.’
Global protest against police brutality is precisely calling for this cultural change questioning the allocation of public money in maintaining a force that protects the privileged class and race, but endangering the life of the commoners. Political debates are rife in the US where anarchist quarters are arguing that the police force is becoming redundant. Public money is used to create and maintain a force to control and surveil the public.
Many in the US have argued, when a large majority of the citizens are in poverty, working many jobs, money allocated for an anti-people police is unjustifiable. After the murder of George Floyd, ‘defund the police’ has increasingly becoming a popular demand. The disproportionate allocation for police and national defense in our national budget, an issue that left political leaders raises regularly speaks to their concern.
The deaths of Nikhil and Floyd compel us to reflect on ideas such as police, law and security that are foundation of our state machineries, ideas that excluded and victimised the socially, politically and historically marginalised.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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