You will be abducted with no custody, then you will remain abducted for good, or you will be detained under one of the many draconian laws. Last but not least, your dead body will wash ashore on the banks of a river. No one killed you, or you simply did not exist!
Bangladesh is passing through an extremely suffocating period in its political history. A mighty regime has reduced the lives of its citizens to that of a domesticated animal devoid of any political rights. In the midst of an unprecedented, bewildering epidemic like Covid-19, a terrible steamroller of repression tramples over people from all walks of life, including political dissidents, intellectuals, teachers, activists, journalists, and cartoonists.
It is like a self-destructive attempt to spoil all the dynamic present and future potential of a population through a political ‘shock therapy’! While I am writing this piece, horrific political realities, such as the threat of ‘crossfire’ death in the name of drug peddling, police extortion, and the killing of people by state forces in the name of encounter are still prevalent in different parts of the country.
The Orwellian dystopia is no longer fiction but turned into a political reality.
Enforced disappearance as an oppressive tool
The current regime, which is crushing the political and biological life of the people of Bangladesh, is so intolerant to any dissent, to any kind of criticism, including political opposition, that there is no oppressive tool that it does not deploy to suppress dissent.
The most repressive tool is ‘goom'(enforced disappearance) and nowadays associated with any regime in Bangladesh, past and present. More specifically, over the past decade, ‘enforced disappearance’ has become a powerful tool against political opposition, dissent, and criticism and, in some cases, independent journalism.
Even a young Islamist activist, Ashraf Mahdi, was mysteriously abducted — allegedly by a rival pro-government Islamist group a few days ago. He was found at the same place from where he went ‘missing’ in an alleged abduction that took place on 6 August 2020. The abductors freed him on the condition that he will not write anything on Facebook against a coterie of Islamic leaders. It entails that anyone can be abducted, even by any powerful non-state actor at any time. When the state creates a climate of fear, it is reproduced in society and the political space.
The worst part of such reality is the fear of being forcibly disappeared at any time. This is more dangerous than the forced disappearance itself. Because not everyone in a society becomes a victim of disappearance. But when the chilling message reaches all levels of society that disappearance can be the ultimate consequence of any opposition to power, then all the independent intellectuals of that society, who rebel against injustice, start practising self-censorship.
As a result, society becomes benumbed. At different times in history, the inhabitants of different countries of the world have toiled under the yoke of such repressive political regimes.
Enforced disappearance: legitimised through denial
Enforced disappearances are increasingly on the rise in Bangladesh since the current regime assumed power in 2009. According to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), between 2009 and 2018, at least 507 people were subjected to enforced disappearances. Of them, 62 people were found dead, 286 returned alive, and the fate and whereabouts of 159 are still unknown.
These types of enforced disappearances have always remained shrouded in mystery. The state denies any liability for disappearances, doesn’t investigate into who may be involved in disappearance or abduction, where the ‘missing’ people are, or who are returning, how they returned, what makes them reappear, why many people are yet to return, Also, no attempt is carried out to find out why the ‘missing’ persons turn up as dead bodies.
But a considerable amount of taxpayer’s money is spent on monitoring the political activities of the citizens, the movements of journalists, activists, opposition politicians and supporters. The increasingly intolerant government has turned totalitarian to roll out deep surveillance-techs targeting the critics and dissenting voices.
On the contrary, everyone in charge of the government, from the prime minister to the home minister, has either blamed the ‘missing’ persons for the disappearances or made highly insensitive remarks about disappearances that eventually legitimise such enforced disappearance. It has even been said that people are disappearing on their own — intending to tarnish the ‘image’ of the government.
But we have seen evidence that the ‘missing’ people have been able to return alive if the government wants so. Following their ‘disappearance’, journalist Utpal Das and academic Mubashar Hasan turned up alive.
Journalist Utpal was missing for about two months, while academic Mubashar was ‘missing’ for 45 days. While they were missing, facing criticism and pressure from the media, human rights organisations and political activists at home and abroad, the Home Minister remarked that the missing persons will return.
Then both Utpal and Mubashar, almost like a miracle, turned up. Since their return, they have been utterly silent about the disappearance for a very understandable reason; they were totally silent about who took them away, who released them. However, why hasn’t the state shown the slightest interest in unravelling the mystery of the disappearance of its ‘missing’ citizens?
Even the law enforcers sometimes acknowledge that they pick up people but do not admit custody for ‘tricky’ reasons. On December 14, 2017, a senior police officer of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, made such remarks at a seminar organised at Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital (SSMCH). The official told the audience that law enforcers ‘have to play some tricks in teasing out information after catching militants’.
In January 2016, SSMCH’s interns staged demonstration when one of their peers Shamim Khan went missing. He was later found unconscious in front of the office of the Detective Branch of police at Minto Road in Dhaka after 30 hours on Jan 3, 2016.
The high official made the remark indicating that event. That they cannot reveal information on picking someone up all the time. Not everything can be said.
The return of the traumatised…
Another critical case study could be the sudden disappearance of Sourav, the nephew of former Awami League Home Minister Sohel Taj and current Member of Parliament Simin Hossain Rimi.
Sourav was dropped off a vehicle in Battala, Mymensingh, blindfolded and his hands tied up 12 days after his family made a specific complaint against the RAB and publicly threatened to investigate his disappearance on behalf of the family. He had no shirts on at the time, police and family sources said. During his captivity, he was kept blindfolded with his mouth gagged for most of the time; the family claimed said citing Sourav. Police later “rescued” Sourav, who had already been released alive by the ‘unknown’ abductor.
What is most noticeable in this case is that Sourav was picked up and interrogated at least four times before being finally abducted — allegedly by law enforcers and an intelligence agency over his relations with the daughter of a businessman in Dhaka.
This particular case proves that the government is forced to take a different course of action if appropriate evidence is provided and adequate pressure is applied, or the government itself realises the gravity of the situation.
The never-ending wait….
But not everyone is as ‘lucky’ as Utpal, Mubashar or Sourav. The cruel irony is that even the highly traumatised, mute people who have returned after having disappeared for a few months in a row, are regarded as ‘lucky’! Because many people have not returned yet, it is uncertain whether they will return or have been disappeared for good. BNP central leader Ilias Ali has been ‘missing’ for eight years, Kalpana Chakma’s friends have not given up the hope of her return even after two long eras, Michael Chakma has been ‘missing’ for more than a year.
There is no guarantee that those whose disappearances have escaped public attention will ever return.
Every year, the family members of these missing persons come to Dhaka under the platform ‘Mayer Dak’(Mother’s call) to protest and search for their relatives. In some cases, the husband has gone ‘missing’ leaving his pregnant wife; the child born has already started school, but yet to be meet its father in person.
Such was the fate of Farzeena Akhter, wife of Parvez Hossain, a Chhatra Dal leader from Bangshal. Farzeena was four months’ pregnant when her husband was “picked up by some plainclothes men” on the night of December 2, 2013. Her seven years old son is yet to see his father!
In some cases, the abducted person was the sole breadwinner, and his disappearance has shattered the entire family.
The ‘missing’ person is not only missing, neither are they alive nor dead. As the years go by, the family can never give up hope of the missing person’s return. In this sense, disappearance is more heartbreaking than murder.
However, we must also keep in mind the warning of Professor Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan: that we should not normalise murder again by saying that disappearance is more dangerous than murder because it will further spread the deity of violence in society.
The political significance of ‘goom’ from the perspective of a totalitarian power:
But the question is in under what political circumstances does ‘disappearance’ become an inevitable term? Considering the perspective of power, why does ‘disappearance’ become a tool of totalitarian control? This is because the omnipotent power is so determined to eradicate all dissent from the society that it becomes a monster — which exploits every ‘legal’ loophole.
Although historically the state, whether liberal or at least pseudo-democratic, has often terrorised all within the legal framework. But for an omnipotent state, it seems superfluous to conduct state-terrorism in a ‘legal’ way, which is why it has to keep the door open for ‘illegal’ violence (this ‘illegal’ violence is the structural twin of ‘legal’ violence).
Anthropologist Bokhtiar Ahmed, in one of his excellent writings, has described ‘forced disappearance’ as more tragic, more deadly as a narrative of murder. According to him, enforced disappearance is much more effective when viewed from the perspective of power.
Power has a character of its own. When power is vested into someone to commit murder, that power then assumes the role of history itself and sits in the driving seat. When that power becomes totalitarian, and shows zero tolerance to any dissent, what happens then?
Remember what happens when a person goes ‘missing’ in Oceania, a fictional country in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Orwellian Ministry of Truth — it will be coincidental to compare the fictional Ministry of truth with today’s ministry of information — was responsible for erasing every memory of those who were abducted.
Such were the expertise of the Ministry of Truth that those who once knew the disappeared will be confused as to whether this missing person really existed or not! The same thing happens in the case of forced disappearance. It is a coup against the human agency.
First of all, it is a strategy to prove the law as a farce. Because in the eyes of the law, no one is dead until the body is ‘recovered’. As a result, enforced disappearance cannot be proved as murder, at least not legally. Only victims know how inhuman it is to be in such a situation. The money deposited in the missing person’s bank account cannot be claimed even if his family has a nominee because legally the person is not ‘dead’.
It was not until the seventeenth century that English jurists realised that the law has a tendency to become the Frankenstein. That is why in 1679 England made another law called ‘Habeas corpus’. The ‘corpus’ here actually means the body. The basic premise of this law is that when a law enforcement agency takes someone into their custody, whether it is arrest or detention, the law or the court has the power to order that agency to bring the person to court “physically”.
Since the law of Bangladesh is also based on the English Common Law, there is a provision to hand over the detainees to the court within 24 hours. Failure to do so may result in an application of the habeas corpus, or an order from the court itself. But the way to avoid this provision of the law is not to accept anyone’s custody. This is what our forces do now. At first, they do not admit that they have arrested or picked someone up, but later it is found out that that person has died in a “gunfight.” The court cannot issue a habeas corpus if the law enforcement agency does not acknowledge that anyone is in their custody. As a result, habeas corpus has never been very useful.
When someone is abducted, whether they will be shown arrested or not, or whether crossfire will be executed against him, depends entirely on the will of the law enforcing agencies and the ruling party. In the case of journalist Kajol, we saw that he was kept in hiding for 54 days and later was shown arrested in another case. He is still incarcerated under the draconian Digital Security Act.
In other words, for such a monstrous regime, enforced disappearances, Crossfire killings, and the Digital Security Act are the different strategies of suppressing political opposition and criticism to create a society purged of dissent.
In some cases, these mechanisms are complementary to one another. You will be abducted with no custody, then you will remain abducted for good, or you will be detained under one of the many draconian laws. Last but not least, your dead body will wash ashore on the banks of a river. No one killed you, or you simply did not exist!
Manufacturing a climate of fear
If we borrow words and analysis from Professor Ali Riaz, disappearances or ‘extrajudicial’ killings are just a tool to produce a climate of fear and inject it into the pros and cons of society. According to professor Riaz, the Awami League-led incumbent regime lacks ‘moral legitimacy’; as a result, ‘coercion was the only tool left in its political strategy toolbox. Through various measures, the regime ensured that a culture of fear permeates the society which will not only deter the political opposition from taking to the streets, but the members of civil society will be afraid of persecution and humiliation’. On top of that, the ‘weakening of the political forces was matched by the erosion of space for dissent’.
Professor Riaz opines that even shattering ‘the freedom of assembly and the freedom of expression were serious matters with grave consequences, they were pale compared to the rising incidents of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances’.
Between August and November 2017, businessmen, journalists, university professors, book importers, bankers, a student of a foreign university, and former diplomat were in the victim lists. On the contrary, comments from the home minister, the police chief, and even the Prime minister Sheikh Hasina on enforced disappearances actually indicate the ‘government’s attempt to normalise’ the gravity of the situation. Such arrogance and denial from the government officials ‘sent a chilling message to almost everyone: nobody is safe.’ (Riaz 2019)
Professor Riaz correctly marked these series of incidents: from denying the opposition permission to hold rallies to muzzling press, from wanton extrajudicial killings to enforced disappearances, to choking the cyber-space — all these have created a climate of fear. A sense of anxiety sets in day by day. Fewer voices are heard, but the silence has begun to speak volumes.’ (Riaz 2019)
In such a dystopian political reality, not only the dissidents face forced disappearances, but the whole society with all its potentiality, the human agency, and the courage to oppose the repressive status-quo also disappears.
This unprecedented arrogance of sovereignty and totalitarian reality must be met with democratic responses. Enforced disappearances, ‘crossfire’ killings have blatantly exposed the undeclared ‘state of exception’ imposed by the Bangladesh state. The monstrous state has itself become a political ‘pandemic’ for the individual and society. In consequence, it has become more critical for the state to deal with dissidents or critics than to deal with genuine crises; in other words, to wage an endless “war” against its own citizens, and to turn citizens and society into colonies of the state.
We need to claim the street to resist all forms of ideological and repressive oppression. There is no alternative to forming a republic based on equality, human dignity, and social justice instead of this current totalitarian status-quo. The system should be “an association of independent human communities replacing the lifeless machinery of political and bureaucratic institutions. Structurally it should be horizontal and federative, and free of hierarchy. That is possible only through the abolition of all economic monopolies and all repressive political and social institutions within society.”
Where the state possesses absolute power, we need to push it to ensure human rights and expand the scope of human liberation. Our society needs to be formed in a non- hierarchical & non-authoritarian order based on social organisations and self-management — and run by mutual cooperation and solidarity.
Sarwar Tusher is an author and activist; interested in studying the state, power, authority, sovereignty, violence, and social relations.
Riaz, Ali. 2019. Voting in a Hybrid Regime: explaining the 2018 Bangladesh Election, Springer, 2019