Significance of a ‘gunfight’-free September

After 11 years we have finally witnessed a month free of gunfights. Can that instill a sense of hope within us? Were we reassured with the declaration of ‘zero tolerance’ against extrajudicial killing made in January 2009 at the United Nations human rights forum? Did we not write that the pledge made by the government in January had been materialised in March? But how long did our optimism last?

There are more questions. Last month, September, was ‘zero’, but the state did not declare that. After all, that development was not brought about by the state. The similarity between March 2009 and September 2020 is coincidental.

Ain O Salish Kendra relies on the media for its facts and figures. When a state picks up people and whisks them away, does not inform their families and does not make the law enforcement agencies follow the Supreme Court’s guidelines regarding arrest and remand, then it would be hardly justified to imagine that the state is set to become ‘good’, simply because September has passed with no gunfight.

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We will continue to question because that is our duty as citizens. That is why we question whether this September is just a ‘ceasefire’, an armistice following the outpour of shock and anger following the killing of retired army major Sinha.

If they bring an end to extrajudicial killing, the state must realise that no one has been able to curb crime by killing people. Then again, who is to say that the government is doing this with the intention of curbing crime? After all, they hardly show any interest in controlling crime through the judiciary.

Immediately after the Sinha killing, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) directorate in August issued a notice stating that the police had assured that this was the last such incident and this would not be repeated in the future. And herein lies hope, and questions. So does that mean this is the police’s stand on principle? Will we be reassured that this one force will never again carry out ‘gunfights’? That even if there is a hardened criminal concerned, or political opposition, the police will not take such action even if directed by the state? It would be good if it had been verified who exactly made this reassurance and on whose behalf. We will never know.

There are certain parallels between the seven murders of Narayanganj and the killing of retired major Sinha. The victims there were all members of the general public. The killers were members of the security forces or law enforcement agencies. The suspected killers in the Cox’s Bazar incident are members of the law enforcement and the victim was a former member of the army. There was so much hue and cry over the Narayanganj killing, but did we get any statement then as we did this year on 6 August? We did not.

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Over 3,000 people have been killed in ‘gunfights’ from 2001 till 2020 so far. What is the source of these figures? Do those who carry out the killings keep records? If not, why not? We must know why they do not keep these records. The figures are not official figures. Will anyone tell us why these killings or the number of the killed persons are not recorded on the police website or in some other place? People can die in genuine crossfire or encounters. They claim that the miscreants were killed by bullets purchased with the taxpayers’ money. So why will the statistics not be made public?

If they bring an end to extrajudicial killing, the state must realise that no one has been able to curb crime by killing people. Then again, who is to say that the government is doing this with the intention of curbing crime? After all, they hardly show any interest in controlling crime through the judiciary. The security forces are so smart and impressive and their budget is on a constant upward spiral. The court’s budget never sees such a rise. A comparison between the expenditure of the criminal magistracy administration and that of the general administration is enough to indicate the state’s intentions or what they want.

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An interesting incident occurred in the last session of parliament. The members of the opposition made a demand to reduce the budget of the law ministry to one taka. That was quite unthinkable. Jatiya Party’s Shameem Haider pointed out that, “With such few judges, the logjam of cases will never unravel even in 30 years.” This state needs an elite force, but does not need an elite court.

Coming from Jatiya Party to the present government, former minister Mujibul Haque is a witty man. He said, “The law minister is an efficient man. Why did he ask for less money? That is why I have proposed to give them one taka.” The law minister is no less witty. He said, “I got scared. Even if I ask for Tk 1,700 crore, I am told to take Tk 1000 crore. If I asked for Tk 2000 crore, their hearts would fail. That is why I am asking for the money gradually. I want to satisfy the finance minister with my performance.” This is indeed a classic reflection of the judiciary’s helplessness.

To understand the character of the state, one can take into consideration the nouveau alliance of the two large parties in parliament, in support of extrajudicial killing. BNP’s liability is not towards the government, but towards the state. They want such a state that believes in crossfire, forced disappearance, blindfolding and abducting, dumping in a foreign land and torturing in remand.

The change of such a situation is linked to the change of the state’s character. One must choose between either controlling crime through selective orders, or controlling crime through the rule of law. I must say in this regard that in recent years the state is taking up sterner and sterner sentences – newer laws and sterner punishments. But they have observed that all these are headed towards failure.

Let the duplicity of the two parties in support of gunfights be expunged for the parliamentary proceedings.
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While the world is proceeding towards abolishing the death sentence, while India and Pakistan have accepted a moratorium on the death sentence, we have brought about a mandatory death penalty law. Before 2012, India did not carry out any death sentence for a stretch of eight years, but that did not mean their law and order collapsed. At the same time, it is not as if India has been awash with the milk of peace since 2012 either.

Civilisation demands abolition of the death sentence. And where are we headed? Let’s hope against hope. The republic’s executive head on 10 September, speaking in parliament, said that extrajudicial killing began and was institutionalised during the rules of Zia and Khaleda respectively. She said, “We (Awami League) are trying to bring an end to this.”

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We don’t know if this has anything to do with the ‘gunfight’-free September, but I will say that much, this statement of the leader of parliament does not tally with the statements made on the floor by some members of the two parties. They had opposed the fundamental framework of the constitution by speaking in favour of legal gunfights. The constitution does not say that it is not punishable if the constitution is opposed in parliament. The parliamentarians do not have freedom of speech here. On top of that, a senior Awami League politician and member of parliament this September had called for a law to legitimise gunfights.

Article 32 of the constitution states that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty save in accordance with law. In 15th Amendment to the constitution brought about in 2011, Article 7 (A) (b) states if any person subverts or attempts or conspires to subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this Constitution or any of its articles, his act shall be sedition and such persons shall be guilty of sedition.

At least let the duplicity of the two parties in support of gunfights be expunged for the parliamentary proceedings.

Mizanur Rahman Khan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and can be contacted at mrkhanbd@gmail.com.

*This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir