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   Volume 12 |Issue 06| February 08, 2013 |


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The hartal on 31 January, enforced by Jamaat-e-Islami, saw cocktail blasts, torched and vandalised vehicles and attacks on members of the police force who had been assigned to contain the violence. These incidents took place in the capital, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Narayanganj, Sylhet, Dinajpur, Natore and Laxmipur among other areas. On the night of 4 February, arson on a bus in Uttara claimed the life of an innocent passenger. This practice of damaging private as well as public transportation prior to, and during hartals has been growing for many years. The assault on law enforcement officers and lack of regard for any civilian lives lost during the attacks indicate that the severity of violence is increasing as the perpetrators are not held accountable for their crimes.

Jamaat - Shibir members leave the scene after beating a policeman senseless. Photo: focus bangla

Although many would like to believe that private vehicles are targeted because they represent wealth and affluence, and therefore become an outlet for the pent up frustrations of those belonging to a lower socio-economic class, psychologists differ with this opinion. Dr Shalauddin Quser Biplob, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) says, “This is a common misconception. Vandalising private transportation has little to do with mental imbalance and socio-economic status. Breaking and damaging is merely a tactic for pro-hartal activists to instill fear and panic in the general public and clear the streets in the fastest possible way. That is the ultimate objective of a hartal after all- to obstruct daily functioning and create chaos.”

According to Dr Biplob, if this was a social issue, then other property such as office buildings and homes would be vandalised and the rich would be attacked on the streets. “This is something entirely different,” he opines, “This violence comes from years of social modeling and learning which tells us that we can get away with this type of barbaric behaviour without any consequences.”

It is curious, that despite the escalated violence, little has been done by the government to ensure public safety. The ruling parties are busy pointing fingers at the opposition, letting civilians witness the brutality they are capable of. As the attacks on the police force increase, citizens begin to lose faith in those assigned to protect them. “We usually have 200 to 300 officers to handle situations of conflict and can get up to 600 during hartals if necessary,” says Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) Ashrafuzzaman (Dola) of the Narayanganj crime branch. “We have a number of weapons at our disposal, such as the Chinese 7.62 rifle, gas guns and shot guns (MSG) and if the need arises, we don't hesitate to use them. There are however many restrictions and protocol we must follow, before we can use these weapons on the pro-hartal activists and picketers,” he explains.

A law enforcer is ambushed by Jamaat - Shibir members in Narayanganj last Saturday. Photo: focus bangla

At all metropolitan and district levels, police officers must respond to a chain of command within their organisation. Police officers are also answerable to designated civil government officials in many matters. These multiple lines of command sometimes cause confusion and prevent the police from taking immediate action. “In metropolitan areas, the ASP can give the permission to officers (inspectors, sub-inspectors, constables etc) to use weapons,” says ASP Ashrafuzzaman, “However, on the district level, the chain of command is different, and the police superintendent answers to the Deputy Commissioner and the District Magistrate who have to issue permission to fire a weapon. Now this takes time and delays us from taking action. For example, in my area there were incidents of violence in three different places and by the time we got permission to act, the damage was done.”

As the police continue to face attacks, public insecurity and fear grows all over the country. “The police of course have a right to defend themselves as do all civilians in life threatening situations,” says Ashrafuzzaman, “We also have in our possession new bullets that are designed to graze the skin and injure, but not cause grievous injury or death,” he explains, “But once we fire weapons to defend ourselves or the public without permission, a number of internal investigations open up and at times our jobs may be on the line. We are not wealthy people and we need to hold on to our jobs. So at times, we just take it when picketers are violent toward us. This of course lowers the morale of the force and we hope that in the future, officers such as the ASP and higher ups within the force will be given the power to make the decision to act.”

The short term solution of this problem will be to simplify the chain of command and enable the police force to do their jobs efficiently. “The technological support of the police force also needs to be updated,” says Ashrafuzzaman, “We need a proper finger print data base and a photograph data base of people involved in these crimes so it is easy to identify them in the future. Often these people come from different areas and localities to join in the demonstrations, so, if we do arrest them, the locals cannot identify them and it becomes difficult to present them in front of the magistrate without real names or addresses. We would like to pick up the sticks and weapons they use during rallies and take the fingerprints from them to identify these people and use these as evidence against them so they can get the punishment they deserve. People have been getting away with these crimes for too long.”

ASP Ashrafuzzaman believes that in the long run, in order to get to the root of this problem to prevent violence on the streets national politics needs to change. Political parties need to resolve their differences in a civilised and educated manner. They need to remember that their commitment is toward the people of Bangladesh and their first priority must be their responsibility toward the safety and protection of basic rights of their people.

Allowing vandalism and violence to go scot-free sends the wrong message to both the innocent and the guilty.


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