The anger that exploded around the murder by fire of school girl Nusrat Rafi can’t be fully explained by the public outrage at the painful death of the victim. It’s not even sexual violence that triggered the same. Bangladesh is like many other countries is a depot of such barbarism. Despite many calls, the level of violence against children hasn’t declined.
What was at work was the collective loathing against impunity in general of the powerful that has built up over time. Specifically it was directed at a socially repressive and opportunistic force- the newly enriched and increasingly political religious orthodoxy. It has been the platform of much radicalization- social and political- in Bangladesh. The social impunity they had enjoyed often under official patronage cracked this April and they are less blessed they were before though their power is undiminished.
But as evidence increasingly comes forward the madrassa criminals were helped and abetted by a section of the law enforcers and local political elements. It was obviously a joint effort which shows how the culture of impunity thrives in our society, an alliance of all those who wield power.
The rise of the “alem shomaj”
Unlike 1971, ML is gone now and Jammat is at bay but the rise of religious forces independent of indigenous society is high. New funding patterns have emerged from local, national and internal sources giving the alems- religious orthodoxy- a great deal of clout and leverage. Although many are not expressly political, their political power was recognized first by the BNP when it tried to topple the AL regime by using Hefazot and later by the AL as it made a series of alliances with the same group considered the most influential of the lot.
The madrassas were once the refuge of the rural poor children and unsupervised institutions left to themselves. The result was a long tradition of various kinds of abuse that has often been documented by child rights groups but always ignored by the authorities. They were not considered middle class institutions and thus outside public interest and scrutiny.
A feeling was also there that it’s best to let religious institutions alone. The result was a parallel world with rules of its own run by its own economics and sociology. This religious orthodox world has grown roughly outside the state and many are certainly operating outside the purview of the constitution.
The culture of impunity and cruelty
Nusrat’s murder was not an isolated act but a continuation of such cruelties that has been on for long. Her murder touched a raw nerve of public sentiments possible because of the ever vigilant social media. People have been resenting the rise of this new ‘autonomous” socio-political religious orthodoxy when many common rights were being denied to common people.
The impunity of the groups, the complicity of the police in protecting the alleged criminals, increasing intolerance of violence perpetrators, linkages with the ruling party cadres etc. made them seem immune. But the public today is also less submissive and reverent of child abusers, religious institutions that are forcing their own faith interpretations on people, making money in the same process etc. The issue had finally become too embarrassing and forced the government’s hand and action was taken. But will it reach the AL bigwigs named by the perpetrators?
Frustrated by inadequate governance
Current political situation also contributed to the public action and official reactions. Conventional party politics is almost all gone and public attention is focused entirely on social issues. It came in the wake of the Churihatta, Banani and other fires, massive number of road accident deaths, increasing corruption and a general atmosphere of a weak governance system unable to cope well with rising demands.
Had the Government administration been more effective, many of the cracks could have been patched but the powers that be behaved with a business as usual attitude. The remark by a pro-AL VC that the street movement around the road transport crisis was a “great failure’ shows the attitude and intent of the ruling party. There is happiness that it couldn’t succeed though the responsibility of making roads safe is the government’s responsibility. The students protested but the government failed to initiate reforms. The failure was not with the movement but the ruling class.
The decline of politicians
Public interest in politics is less than ever before. Most attention has shifted to the Government’s performance where political party or power issues are absent.
In fact politicians are rapidly exiting the scene and so is their importance. Several of the arrested around the murder case are from the ruling party and even the killer Moulvi is an ex Jamaati and current AL supporter. This may be at the bottom tier but with every opportunist now wanting to be a member of the AL, its capacity to protect every member is limited too. If public wrath rises as it did around Nusrat’s death, just being an AL supporter or member won’t be enough to be immune.
Absolute political/electoral victory doesn’t guarantee permanent endorsement of the voters. Nor will the swelling ranks of the ruling party. Just as the political state is in decline and the administrative state is firmly in control, people are not interested in political goods much. Social services will have to deliver and alliance with special interest groups will not guarantee political safety as that is no longer the issue.
The public venom is being directed not at the criminals only but at the system in general that is unable to look after its own people.