`State within the state.’ Militarisation, and the women’s movement

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by rahnuma ahmed

`A state within the state is now ruling the country.‘ Recently uttered by Dr Mizanur Rahman, National Human Rights Commission chair, these words, ominous as they sound, are of immense concern to the nation’s citizenry.

To those who love this country. Who feed off its soil, off the labour of those who plant, grow, nurture, feed us. What sense can one make of his words?

Dr Mizan was speaking at a roundtable on granting constitutional recognition to indigenous people but his words were occasioned by something else. An incident which is proving to be the turning point.

Yes, Limon. People across the nation are outraged. At the shooting. If possible, more so, at the subsequent cover-up attempts by some ministers, by a senior civil-military leadership nexus.

Cover-up? How else but by `criminalising’ the victim? Limon is a `terrorist’, his father’s a `terrorist’. The whole family is nothing but a bunch of terrorists.

Limon’s left leg had to be amputated after the 16-year old Jhalokathi college student, the son of an agricultural day-labourer, was allegedly shot in the leg by RAB’s officers on March 23. RAB claims, the shooting occurred during an `encounter’.

But the real problem, from RAB’s perspective, is that Limon has lived to tell the tale. Unusual, for RAB’s victims generally don’t. Human rights activists allege, since the formation of the elite anti-crime, anti-terror force in 2004, the number of extra-judicial killings has crossed a thousand.

Another problem, yet again from RAB’s perspective, is the image of Limon: half-reclining on his hospital bed, leaning heavily on someone who stands next to him, his one `whole’ leg outstretched before our eyes. The other, a mere stub. A look of silent reproach in his eyes. It refuses to go away. Even if you turn away your eyes. Even if you refuse to think about it.

Look at what they did to to me. How could this happen? How could you let it happen? Silent questions, hence, all the more powerful. Questions that corrupt, power-hungry, and power-wielding nexuses lack the moral strength to address, turning instead to parroting out ever-more lies to cover-up the big one. Lies that flutter around us, making members of the public exclaim, look, how nakedly they lie. Look, how brazenly they lie. They think we are fools.

The occasion which elicited Dr Mizan’s words, was the cancellation of a news story by Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, the state-controlled news agency. The story ran for five hours on June 1, before being dropped.

According to it, sources close to Sheikh Hasina, highly-placed ones, said, she’d instructed government leaders and officials to withhold comments on Limon. Such comments are likely to prejudice the investigation. Ongoing investigations have not uncovered any evidence which indicates that Limon is a `terrorist.’ Very reasonable, no?

BSS’ explanations for dropping it? The story lacked authenticity, which of course, is a genuine concern for any news agency, but what is interesting is that Sheikh Hasina has spoken out on crossfire deaths, not only as head of the opposition—as our politicians are likely to, before changing colour, chameleon-like, when in position—but also, as prime minister.

In February this year, Sheikh Hasina divulged to the press that when she returned from abroad, her then political secretary Saber Hossain Chowdhury had come to meet her at the boarding bridge and said, ‘Don’t say a thing about crossfire. The waiting journalists will ask you about it.

But, ‘I had told him that I would speak against it,’ despite the fact that my outspokenness on the matter has raised the ire of `different quarters,’ even of diplomats, who have `tacit[ly] endorse[d] such killings.’ If trials can be held and my father’s killers can get executed through `due legal process’ instead of my getting them `simply killed,’ surely others deserve it as well? (February 3, 2011).

Maybe, that, is the problem. That she spoke out against crossfire not only when in the opposition, but now too, as prime minister. If people are as vocal against it in 2001 as they are now, she added, it would not have `continued for this long.’

BSS’s moves and shifts led Shahriar Kabir, acting president of Ekatturer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee, to ask, is there someone inside the government who is more powerful than the prime minister? Is there a government inside the government?

It led senior journalist ABM Musa to pick apart the state-controlled news agency’s terminology, based on his rich 60-years experience as a journalist. BSS, he pointed out, had not `withdrawn’, or `discarded’, or `killed’ the story. It had `cancelled’ it (`batil’). These acts, reminded him of military rule during both Pakistan and Bangladesh periods (`Cchapa hoyni tobuo khobor,’ Prothom Alo, June 3, 2011).  It reminds me of a shared joke among Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, forced to live during periods of military rule: CMLA stands not for the chief martial law administrator but instead, `Cancel My Last Announcement.’

Is there a state within the state? Is there a government within the government? Unfortunately, all fingers seem to point at the military top brass. One wished it didn’t, for one needs a patriotic armed force to defend the country, in case of invasion by external forces. And there’s no reason to forget that the world in which we live, is far from being a peaceful one.

If true, is it incidental to the present AL-led government, or, can such a state be said to have existed far longer? Where and how does one search for answers?

Since we are talking about RAB I think it is worth noting what preceded RAB, i.e., Operation Clean Heart, which commentators note, initiated militarisation of law-enforcement during civilian rule. The 85-day long operation, launched in October 2002 by the BNP-Jamaat led government to `fight crime,’ deployed more than 40,000 military personnel. Towards the end, after more than 10,000 arrests and 50 custodial deaths in unclear circumstances, members of the public had re-named it Operation Heart Attack. For, officials insisted, custodial deaths had been caused by `heart attacks.’

But despite public concern, the government went ahead and passed the Joint Drive Indemnity Ordinance 2003, granting immunity from prosecution to armed forces and government officials for their involvement in `any casualty, damage to life and property, violation of rights, physical or mental damage’ between October 16, 2002 and January 9, 2003 (`Judge, Jury, and Executioner,’ Human Rights Watch, December 2006).

The government, to my knowledge, has not yet responded to a High Court show cause ruling which asks it to explain why the Ordinance should not be declared illegal. The petitioner was the sister of a torture victim who had died in Operation Clean Heart.

In March 2004, the government formally created RAB, comprising elite members from the military (army, navy, air force), the police, and members of various law enforcement groups such as, Bangladesh Rifles, Ansar etc.

But given the rush of crossfire killings, and of impunity, it is not surprising that soon enough, grave concerns were expressed by human rights activists about the force, and its modus operandi. Under conditions of anonymity, a Bangladeshi human rights lawyer had said, it is “martial law’ in disguise’ (Judge, Jury, Executioner, Human Rights Watch, December 2006).

When the prime minister instructed government leaders and officials to withhold comments on Limon, was it aimed at particular leaders? At particular officials? At the defence adviser, the 100% sure-man that Limon is a criminal? At the home minister, who vouched for the former? Does it indicate fault lines in the government? Those close to the powers-that-be know better, I can only raise questions.

Militarisation is a women’s movement issue. It is so in the rest of the world, and I find no credible reason for it not to be a major issue in Bangladesh. But although women activists, some, not enough, have spoken out against how militarisation affects women belonging to particular groups, or, have spoken out against particular cases, and continue to do so, it is yet to emerge as a women’s movement issue in Bangladesh. Why? How much longer will we have to wait?

Although the consequences of militarisation for women are complex and complicated, sexual violence, gender-based crimes, and the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war

— as birangonas know, as we all know — is common.

Hill women know too, for they allege, sexual violence was inflicted on indigenous women and their communities as part of military strategy before the signing of the Peace treaty in 1997. Paharis claim, state-sponsored political and sexual violence still continues. In August 2003, over 300 houses in 7 pahari villages of Mahalcchari were razed to the ground by the army, aided by Bengali settlers. Paharis claim, ten Chakma women were raped, some of them gang-raped, including a mother and her two daughters, aged 12 and 15. Including two daughters of another family, aged 14 and 16 years. Victims allege, armed personnel alongwith Bengali settlers took part in the rapes. There is no public evidence that the Bangladesh army has investigated those claims in any way. Nor do we know if the Bangladesh army has charged any soldier as a result of the alleged assaults. Nor is there any public evidence that any military personnel has been punished for any of the alleged rapes (`Violence against women and girls: breaking taboos,’ New Age, November 24, 2008).

Rape by law enforcement agencies in the rest of Bangladesh are also known to have occurred, to cite one report where a RAB official was implicated: in July 2008, RAB-11 member Abdul Gafur allegedly raped a 14-year old girl at Sonargaon, Narayanganj, near a bus stand. He was later captured by local people and police (`Violence against women in 2008,’ The Daily Star, January 24, 2009).

Was the allegation ever investigated? Was he tried? Probably not, for, till date, RAB officers have only been tried and punished for involvement in extortion, fraud, drug peddling, and hiring sex workers. Not for committing grave human rights abuses. Not for torture. Not for killing (The gift of a `death squad,’ New Age, June 6, 2011).  Not for rape. Not that I know of.

RAB personnel are also alleged to torture. Their methods include beatings with batons on the soles of the feet and other parts of the body, boring holes with electric drills, and applying electric shock (for details of how Shaka Chowdhury, a BNP MP, and an alleged war criminal, was allegedly tortured recently, see last week’s column).

But accounts of sexualised brutality and torture, although few and far between, are available, and leaders and activists of the women’s movement need to take them seriously, need to learn from them.

One such account of torture under remand is provided by Bidisha, former wife of ex-president HM Ershad (Shotrur Shonge Boshobash, May 2008). Her detailed account is chilling because of the brutality that it describes, but it also reaches out with great pathos, when midway through her account of torture, she muses, the men who tortured me must have gone home to their wives and children. They must have caressed them as people caress their loved ones. Could his wife tell? Could his children tell what deeds these very hands had performed?

I myself do not know whether the families of torturers here bear the brunt of what they do. Testimony from other places indicate that they do. Frantz Fanon, Algerian psychiatrist and theorist, in The Wretched of the Earth, wrote of a French police inspector who tortured not only colonised Algerians, but also his wife and children. ‘[o]ne evening when his wife…criticised him particularly for hitting his children too much… He threw himself upon her, beat her and tied her to a chair, saying to himself `I’ll teach her once and for all that I’m master in this house.” (A tortured image, New Age, June 26, 2008).

Dismantling a master-servile relationship is not easy, especially not when one is up against those armed. But non-violent protests against militarisation initiated by the women’s movement has led to compelling results in Latin America, and elsewhere. One can only hope that the lessons and struggles of 1971, will be re-imagined and applied now, when forces inimical to ideals of life and love, thrive within.

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Published in New Age, Monday June 13, 2011 http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/editorial/22194.html

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2 Responses to `State within the state.’ Militarisation, and the women’s movement

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