On the law and order problem
The first, and so far only, opinion poll on the performance of Bangladesh’s current government’s performance found law and order to be the area of its greatest weakness. That was in April. Casual observation of the media — newspapers as well as TV news and talk shows — suggest the law and order has slided a lot further in the months since. Anecdotal evidence from friends and family support the view. Syeed Ahamed puts it this way:
Such social disorder contradicts the whole purpose of having a national government. Citizens elect a group of persons among themselves as the government of the country so that law and order is maintained. It is perceived as a “social contract” between the people and the government, implying that the people give up some rights to the government in order to receive social order. Most historical accounts suggest this as the reason of establishing states and affirm that the principal task of the government is to maintain law and order. Issues such as taxation, budget, development works, and poverty reduction came much later as other government duties.
And the government’s reaction — return of the ‘crossfire’ under a new name — suggests that it is taking the problem seriously.
When one starts thinking about the issue, the following points/questions stand out:
1. Crossfires aka encounters aka gunfights aka extrajudicial killings are clear violation of Awami League’s election pledge.
2. It’s not even clear that we have a violent crimes problem that require such drastic measures.
3. The real law and order problem has no quick fix.
1. Crossfires are back.
Back in February Jalal Alamgir wrote:
In its election manifesto, AL has promised to stop extra-judicial killings. But it won’t be easy to rein back the security forces who, over the last seven years, have honed their aptitude for abusing power. AL’s leadership must send the message clearly that these killings will not be tolerated, and it must prosecute any offense fully.
According to Prothom Alo, 63 people had been killed summarily by RAB died in crossfires encounters gun fights with RAB. And this number doesn’t include the BDR jawans who die mysteriously in custody. Syeed Ahmed of Ain o Salish Kendra documents how the current home and justice ministers echo Lutfuzzaman Babar and Moudud Ahmed.
2. Do we need drastic measures?
Government ministers tell us that there is no extrajudicial killing, that law enforcement only fires back under attack. And pro-government pundits (under both the current and the last elected one) tell us that this kind of drastic measure is needed to curb crime. At least in Dhaka, anecdotally I found RAB and crossfire to be quite popular among the proverbial ‘ordinary citizens’. The basic argument is: we have a serious violent crime problem, and shooting a few of these criminals is the only way get on top of the situation.
Is there something to this claim? How do we know that we have a serious problem that requires state-sponsored murders?
According to the Home Minister, there were 2,279 murders in the first 8 months of the year. At this rate, we will see about 3,420 murders in the year. According to the UN, Bangladesh has a population of 162.221 million. That translates into 2.1 murders per 100,000 people. If wikipedia is to be believed, this down from 2.6 in 2006, and is lower than our neighbouring countries.
I suspect the murder rate is underreported. I suspect many cases are not filed because the victims simply don’t have any faith on the justice system. But I don’t believe that such distrust or underreporting is unique to Bangladesh.
Here is another metric. According to the World Bank Development Indicators database, less than 0.1% of sales were lost ‘theft, robbery, vandalism, and arson’ in 2007. In that year, over 10% of sales were lost due to electrical outtage.
Based on the available data, I am not sure we have a significantly drastic or deteriorating violent crimes problem that require extrajudicial killing to solve.
3. The real problem is elsewhere.
Someone with on-the-ground experience in small business in Bangladesh told me this:
Our problems are petty crimes … such as extortion, religious repression, mugging … which are big deterrents to economic security. Small businessmen cannot invest — they are forced out by thugs and extortionists, unhealthy monopolies and oligopolies. Cold storages do not get built because powerful thugs do no want them — since they want to take advantage of low supply and artificial control of supply. A parallel distribution channel cannot be created because the thugs control many of the truck networks. There are numerous of these everyday problems that we, the city-dwellers, do not know about and researchers do not write about — but these are the problems that make surviving in Bangladesh so difficult. These are the reasons why people beat a petty thief to death on the streets, why common people hail an unconstitutional body as RAB.
Someone else with law enforcement experience told me that outside the cities, land dispute is a major reason for murder.
A fellow blogger, and a staunch opponent of 1/11, wrote this:
If I could, I’d talk to businessmen of different-sized establishments: people with shops in Elephant Road or Rapa Plaza, people who runs industries in Tejgaon, and maybe, if possible, some of our FBCCI-sized tycoons. These are the people who are the first victims of political crime. People come to them ask for extortions in different ways: in person and through cell phones. And these are people who are energetic and optimistic by nature, so if they start spewing tales of doom and gloom on you, you’ll know things really are that bad.
Is there a quickfire, silver bullet solution to this? I cannot think of any way but the long hard slog of institution building so that the rule of law can get established. Yes, this will take years. No, there is no getting around to that.
(Update 15 Oct: according to Naya Diganta, reported crime has fallen since 2007.)