Are we in a ‘dirty war’?
The term ‘dirty war’ refers to the way the Argentine military junta kidnapped, tortured, killed or simply forced the disappearance of its civilian political opponents during the late 1970s. Similar tactics were used by other contemporary Latin American juntas. The crucial difference between a run of the mill counter-insurgency and the Argentine-style dirty war is that the latter involves state sponsored violence against unarmed, civilian political opposition.
Are we in a ‘dirty war’ in Bangladesh?
Mashiul Alam Sentu, president of the BNP student wing Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal Barisal city unit and also former vice-president of BM College Students Union, was killed in a ‘crossfire’ with RAB during the early hours of 16 July. Here are how Prothom Alo, Naya Diganta, Shamokal, and the New Age report the event. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the plausibility of the ‘crossfire’ as described by these reports. Let me highlight a few other points about Sentu.
From the reports, it seems that Sentu was not from the affluent section of the society. His father is paralysed, his mother ‘works for the government’ – he was not a fortunate son by any means. From the reports, we hear that Sentu had multiple murder and attempted murder charges against him, and was a ‘listed criminal’. But then, other reports suggest that these charges were brought during the late 1990s, and was dropped after 2001 election. It seems that he was a committed JCD/BNP activist who would yield no quarters to his Awami counterparts. But at the same time, the fact that his funeral was attended by all major mayor candidates including the AL-backed Showkat Hossain Hiron suggests that Sentu had cross-party appeal in the area.
I can hear these words – RAB crossfire was invented by BNP, and now it’s their turn to feel the heat.
Let’s think about it for a minute. When the BNP government introduced the crossfire-style law enforcement through RAB and the Operation Clean Heart, its supporters put forward ‘end justifies the means’ kind of arguments – our court and law enforcement resources are stretched, those killed extrajudicially were criminals with prior convictions, and there were overwhelming popular support for the killings. Let’s make a principled, unconditional, unequivocal statement here: we condemn extrajudicial killing as a mean of law enforcement always and everywhere with no ifs and buts. Whether we are talking about Sweden Aslam or Salahuddin Kader Chowdhury, extrajudicial killing is no way to deal with them.
There is often another argument for extrajudicial killings. It goes like this: we are at a war with some extremists (religious fanatics, Maoists, anarchists, separatists), and killing them without a trial is part of the act of war. We can argue about the finer points of whether Bangla Bhai and Tapan Malitha were insurgents or not. We can argue that if Bangla Bhai could have been caught, tried, and hanged then why the same couldn’t be done to Malitha. But for argument’s sake, let’s concede the insurgency point.
Was Sentu an insurgent? Did he form an underground army that openly defied the People’s Republic of Bangladesh?
No. Sentu was a political activist. He represented how politics is done in the mofussil Bangladesh. I can imagine how Sentu would seem to most self-styled bhadraloks who cheered the military coup of January 2007. ‘He was a thug, a hooligan, the kind of muscle men who corrupt our politics, it’s for people like him that good people don’t come to politics’ – I can just hear these words.
I’m not going to debate these talking points. I’m not going to glorify Sentu as a martyr. Let’s agree that Sentu’s way of doing politics needs to change. But this is hardly the way to change politics.
Much more importantly, this extrajudicial murder was done for a political reason – it was done to send the message to the grassroot activists: fall into line, don’t raise your voice, do what we (the regime and central leaders who cut a deal) tell you, or else you too will be crossfired.
That, dear reader, sounds like a dirty war to me.
(Crossposted at UV).