Brahmanbaria is not Gulshan

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 23:32, Nov 01,2016


THE area in which violence took place in Brahmanbaria is far away from Gulshan and no one significant lives there, certainly no foreigner or a cluster of apparel factory owners. The way things move in Bangladesh, address matters. And in that sense, we can’t even say that something very serious has happened. After all, who are these anonymous Hindus, whom we have never heard of, who are pitiably poor and matter little if they live or die? But the attack has been a body blow to Bangladesh and its idea itself. And in the end, it does not matter where the victims live; the address of violence is Bangladesh itself.

THREE things are important when it comes to figuring out why such a matter did happen. It seems that the government never expected that there could be a crisis and the complacence caught it on the wrong foot. Yet, everything points to the short-sightedness of the authorities, lack of monitoring of violence in known hot spots and a general neglect of the extremist triggers that exist followed by quick and decisive action. It seems that to the authorities it was a simple law and order problem like a traffic violation or the usual that happens when someone is run over by a bus on the road.

THE first matter of concern is that the attack was triggered by a Facebook post which was a doctored image of an idol atop the Kaaba. This was a crude bit of Photoshopping that sent Facebook and other parts of social media into a meltdown. The man accused of doing it, who is now in jail, denies doing so and has said that his account was hacked. It could be, it may not be, but why wasn’t it noticed as soon as such an offensive image made its appearance and triggered a massive and violent reaction?
The reason we ask such a question is that we are all aware how much web surveillance is in place today and many companies are also doing the job on behalf of the government. Millions are being paid to do this work; so, shouldn’t this have been noted by the security agencies whose job this is? We know they are quite successful in tracking down any insult of the Father of the Nation and his family, but how come this was allowed to happen? Shouldn’t someone have the responsibility to monitor such activities on the net?
Obviously, it’s either high incompetence or deliberate disregard of the trigger that led to this crisis.

SECONDLY, the government’s law enforcement machinery is very competent and the way the jangi crisis has been handled is a good example of their ability level. In this matter, intelligence plays a major role and the police have a vast and extensive network. It is regularly tipped off and in today’s world being told what is about to happen takes only a few seconds. When that is the case, what prevented the local Brahmanbaria police from alerting the higher authorities to take drastic but necessary action to prevent the carnage? This is a law enforcement agency which uses ‘crossfire’ regularly to get rid of its targets; so, why did it hesitate to inform and if informed, why did it not act?
Acting long after the mayhem is done makes little sense. Filing cases is not a substitute for police action. Hundreds had joined the rampaging procession but why is it that nothing was done to stop the procession. It’s not that the government doesn’t do that and the attack by the police on the national committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power and ports recently when all it wanted to do was hand over a letter to the Indian High Commission shows that it’s willing to disperse even peaceful processions. In that case, why was this allowed to go ahead and attack temples and houses of the innocents? Or were they not worthy of protection compared with the kind of bother that is generally made available to the Gulshan class including cutting off boat transport of slum dwellers?
THIRDLY, the government does run an excellent hot spot monitoring system and it has millions of supporters who are also active on the web and on the ground. One negative comment made against the party in power and its leaders leads to major abuse and trolling on Facebook; but, how come this was absent here? Brahmanbaria has been a problem spot for long and it’s impossible that the kind of people who are using the madrassahs there to exert control and terror on ordinary people were unknown to the authorities. How is it that the ruling party and its vast political network, the police, Rapid Action Battalion and every other agency that operates in town never considered that this was a big problem and deserved attention and prevention of the violence we have seen?
Or is it possible that they were not considered citizens worthy of protection? Address matters?
THE timing of the event is also unfortunate as it comes almost on the heels of the Awami League’s national council session. The meeting at Dhaka was the peak of the party’s history and the prime minister has taken the salute of gratitude of the party activists but the Brahmanbaria disaster shows how things can happen that makes it look very embarrassing making 10 per cent of the total population feel very insecure. The incident has not affected the Hindu community only but all members of various minority groups and this has made the AL victory look less shiny. The government may have been lulled into complacence by its many victories over the BNP and Jamaat and it thought that the safe passage of the puja which was one of the most peaceful in years meant easy time. It underestimated the enemy and, in doing so, misread the situation and blundered. All the old accusations that had been buried under the corpses of the jangis have reared its head and the government has to start from a much earlier mark to explain to the people that it’s committed to the protection of all and not just the Gulshan class.

WHAT seems to have become a problem for the policymakers is that they have made a distinction between communal extremism and jangis. The jangi threat has been handled very well and the consequences have been positive because it seems that the government cares about such attack targets as mentioned before. There is political will in trying to deal with the jangi crisis and the law enforcement agencies have shown how good they are at it.
However, it doesn’t consider the attacks on ordinary and not so well-off people such a serious threat to its well-being and rule. It may also be concerned that any hard line against fanatics might alienate many, almost certainly a misconception. But by doing so, it has given a signal to the extremists that they can go and hurt their enemies if these are ordinary people who don’t matter as long as they are not from the privileged class. This presumption may or may not be fully accurate but what else can one sum up when its inaction when it comes to bloggers, priests, NGO workers, villagers, etc is well documented.
The onus of the burden to prove that this is not the case lies with the government and law enforcement agencies squarely.

Afsan Chowdhury is journalist and researcher.

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