A train runs over six. A terrible incident anywhere in the world. In Sirajganj, on Monday the 11th of October, it leads to a rampage. A crowd of hundreds showers the train with rocks, storms onto it, starts assaulting the crew members, loots passengers of their belongings, sets the vehicle ablaze and doesn’t stop beating the train driver until law enforcers finally manage to lead him to safety – unconscious, but still alive. If the mob had their way, he would have been incinerated along with his train. In Bangladesh 2010, this horrible scene by the railway tracks in Sirajganj is unfortunately not an isolated incident. Rather, it’s a frequent occurrence. Civilians collectively take on the role of law enforcers, judges and even executioners. And they expedite sentences faster than you can yell, “Stop, thief!”
According to Professor AKM Firoz, formerly Head of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health, what makes a crowd turn into a mob is the subconscious unity of the crowd’s individuals. “In the case of Bangladesh it’s a sense of shared frustration that provokes people,” he says. “ Most people are unhappy. Some are unhappy with their personal lives, some with their professional lives. The majority of the people are dissatisfied with the social, economic and political system in the country.”
Dr. Mokaddem Hossain, Professor of Sociology at Dhaka University, elaborates on the societal causes of the prevalent mobbism. “Globalisation and technological advances have raised many people’s social, economic and political expectations – the dissatisfaction of seeing these expectations being left unmet can be difficult to overcome. Also, as we are a society in transition, there is always the conflict between keeping with traditional values and adopting to modern ones.” Professor AKM Firoz asserts, “With all these difficulties piling up around us, we eventually reach the boiling point”.
Anwar Mahmud, a university professor in Dhaka, was feeling pretty good as he started the engine of his brand new Mazda RX8. He had been giving extra classes for the last two semesters to save up for this, his dream car, which he referred to as his “Sweet Ride”. This August, after getting a great deal on his run down ‘97 Toyota Corolla, he had finally been able to afford the down payment, and along with him to the car dealer he brought his best friend and a couple of his students. As the engine responded and he slowly started to drive out of the showroom, his passengers were cheering him loudly. Steering out onto the road, Anwar set course for a Mexican restaurant in Gulshan, where he had promised to treat everyone to a celebration dinner. However, just as he is about to enter the restaurant’s parking lot, the air is split by a loud, screeching noise.
A rickshaw has bumped into the car, ripping a long, rough scar right across the midnight-blue exterior. Normally a calm and composed character, Anwar now loses his temper. He stops the car, steps out of it, walks up to the rickshaw puller, grabs him by the collar and starts beating the living daylights out of him. It takes Anwar’s friend and students a moment to realise what is going on, but as soon as they do, they rush out of their seats to join in the assault too. Soon, the rickshaw puller is curling up, receiving kicks and punches from all directions, lying on the ground in a fetal position.
After a while, passersby start telling the assailants that it’s enough, and “Sir, please let him go”. Calmed down, the five young men leave the scene and resume their drive to the restaurant. Afterwards, they express remorse. Nevertheless, they also agree that they had been justified in what they did. Azhar, one of the passengers, says, “We shouldn’t have beaten him up the way we did, but you can’t really blame us. These rickshaw pullers think they own the streets. How else will they learn?” Abir, who also took a part in the beating, says, “You have to look at both sides of the coin. Sure, I admit we probably shouldn’t have beaten the guy up the way we did. But Anwar Sir is a good man, he pulled 12-hour workdays to afford this new car; and then this rickshaw puller just bumped into it and tore a big, ugly scar along its side. That would have aggravated anyone into doing what we did.”
When it comes to heavier crimes than scratching up someone’s vehicle, however, the punishment often reaches higher levels; as passersby rather than hindering the beating find an opportunity and justification to relieve themselves of some frustration as well. This was the case when the Dhaka University student Alamgir Haque was mugged outside his apartment in February this year. Yelling, “Thief! Thief!”, Alamgir caught the attention of half a dozen neighbours, who managed to stop the mugger in his flight. Arriving at the scene, Alamgir hears the mugger trying to turn the whole story around, saying that Alamgir was really the one doing the mugging. Infuriated by this statement, Alamgir starts punching the tall, well-built man, and soon his neighbours join in. And not only them, but people all around start pouring in for the brawl. From a construction site nearby, a crew of construction workers arrive, carrying their hammers and sledgehammers. In just a matter of minutes, the mugger is beaten to a pulp. Bones protrude from all parts of his body, his skull is cracked and his life rapidly seeping away. Before the police has been informed about what is happening, the man is dead.
Where is the justice?
The security guard at Alamgir’s house, Faroq, echoes Azhar’s and Abir’s sentiments, “These lowlives almost never get caught, and the cops rarely take action against them. Mob beatings are the only way to stop them.”
Psychology Professor AKM Firoz partially agrees, saying that, “Can you really blame people seeking justice in any way they can? How many of the criminals that are reported actually stay in jail long enough to repent for their sins? They get arrested today and they are out on bail the next. Where’s the justice in that?”
SM Shiblee Noman, officer-in-charge of Ramna police station, denies that the police are not doing enough to curb the crime rates. Instead, he lashes out at the ones taking the law into their own hands, “Regardless of whether the victim is a criminal or not, he can’t be punished or beaten to death without due process of law. We take mob violence very seriously and will prosecute it vigorously.”
Barrister Raghib Chowdhury of the Supreme Court agrees with Noman that mob violence is a very severe offense. “It is completely unacceptable in a civilised society that for instance cars should be smashed in the streets after an incident that is completely unrelated to the owners of the vehicles,” he says. However, he also points out several difficulties with prosecuting mob participants. “If a hundred people have beaten a guy to death, it’s difficult to identify the main perpetrators,” he says. “But the main problem with prosecuting a mob killing is the lack of witnesses. When the victims are notorious criminals, there is tacit public support of the killing. No one will testify against the people involved in it. Because of this strong public opinion, even local political leaders and government officials don’t come out in favour of the victims of mob violence.”
Barrister Chowdhury adds, “When it comes to the train killings in Sirajganj it becomes even more difficult, since the dead reportedly were members of the BNP. In pursuit of the perpetrators, whole villages have virtually been emptied. This is something that local politicians are now trying to use against their political opponents”.
A threat to society
Mob violence is common wherever and whenever the justice system fails to deliver and where there is underlying frustration. Similarities can for example be found between the present day situation in Bangladesh and the century in Rome leading up to the fall of the empire. During that time, the first century B.C., a major war had just settled, and soldiers were returning to Rome with vast riches. Soon, a new, affluent class was emerging in the cities, spending their wealth on lavish lifestyles. As a consequence of this, the politics grew more and more corrupt. At the same time, the middle class were worse off than ever. Having greatly indebted themselves during the years of war, they were having to sell their lands and move into the cities to seek better opportunities. Combined with the sense of an evaporating identity, due to the Roman religion’s simultaneous loss of influence to new ideas arriving from the East, it did not take long before the dissatisfaction among the population led to widespread mob violence.
Even though his “Sweet Ride” will never look the same, Anwar Mahmud has now had the scratch mended that was ripped up by the rickshaw puller. When he thinks back on the whole episode, he remembers it as a “brutal punishment for what the puller did”. “I regret my actions,” he says, “But at the time I was so ticked off that I couldn’t think clearly. When my friends joined in the beating, I was not in the right state of mind to stop them.” Not only Anwar, but most people would not have been able to stop themselves when pushed over the limit. Let alone would they have been able to stop their fellow citizens. Mob justice is however a violent and dangerous path for the country to tread.
According to Psychology Professor AKM Firoz, however, it is a path that Bangladesh has been moving down ever since the country’s inception. “It dates back to 1971 or ‘72, right from the birth of the nation, when hijackers would be beaten to death if caught,” he says.
Barrister Chowdhury says of the current situation that, ”Mob violence is a sign that the government machinery is not working”. More than just a symptom of frustration and a flawed judicial system, mobbism is also an act of disavowing the society. Without a state-monopoly on violence and the rule of law, the society as such is in great peril. In Rome, the politicians’ subsequent use of the mobs in their power game eventually led the empire to crumble.
In Bangladesh, we’re far from there yet. But it is worth noting that diverting the country from this path requires a multipronged approach. Dr. Mokaddem Hossain states that what is needed is efficient governmental mechanisms, “What we need first of all is strict enforcement of the law and clear guidelines on what is permissible and what is not. Then, a high quality education could instill a sense of rationality and general civics in people. Unfortunately, however, our education system is mostly biased. Even the justice system is partisan to a degree.” What Dr. Mokaddem Hossain points out as the greatest challenge, though, is something that encompasses all of society. “We must strive to lessen the societal disparities that result in so much frustration in the first place,” he says. Where events might lead us otherwise is something we perhaps prefer not to think of. There is no avoiding it, however, if we do not want occurrences like the onw in Sirajganj to be repeated.