Like so many others of my generation, I consume only the news that floats around social media.
News from conventional sources like cable TV, chock-full of negative stories -- political turmoil, corruption, terrorism, violence, rape, and environmental damage -- always makes me feel cynical about the state of the world.
Earlier this month, while casually surfing the TV channels, I came across a news story, where a taped video of a thief being beaten in Madarpur (a village in Rangpur district) was broadcasted.
The video was graphic, intensely shocking, and distressing.
The incident was quite theatrical, showing elaborate arrangements to torture the two alleged thieves. To ensure that the offenders are completely defenseless and ensnared, the locals tied their hands and legs with thick sticks, letting their bodies suspend face-up parallel to the ground (like animals in slaughterhouses, before their skin and flesh are peeled).
The locals whipped the victims in gruesome fashion, repeatedly hitting the bare soles of their feet, bare backs, and heads with sticks and twigs. Within moments, a handful of people joined the initial aggressors in an ecstatic frenzy at this open-to-all-party.
People took turns. A few jeering onlookers were seen capturing the moment on their mobile phones, while some gloated, and others nodded in approval. Collectively, they ensured that the victims breathed their last on the spot.
To my despair, this incident was not an isolated one. A simple Google search reveals hundreds of similar results. Then again, like any other predominantly rural crime, they often go unreported.
Instead of being dismissive and ascribing “primitive” and “savage” labels to those villagers, we need to take a close look at these incidents to understand the root causes.
What drives people to beat people to death in public?
In most cases, the perpetrators have multiple motives. Beyond a few whose property the thieves tried to steal, there are others who may be driven by a desire to settle old scores, possibly because they have lost personal possessions to theft in the past.
Some may wish to teach the miscreants a lesson so that they think twice before entering the locality again. Then there is another group, potentially the most dangerous one -- the youth, with loads of untapped energy.
In any uneventful rural setting, bored and impulsive youth feel a strong urge to show their physical prowess to their peers. Captured thieves present a rare opportunity to release their suppressed energy and rage, and become a subject of local chatter. Thanks to social media, these youths can also broadcast their valour, and be appreciated by many.
Children will learn to not commit murder in the name of upholding the law
Where is the law?
These crimes reveal a pervasive sense of lawlessness and impunity that afflict our society. Often, local police have close ties with thieves. So people think filing lawsuits or handing over the captured thieves to the police will not work. Delinquents will eventually go scot-free within a day in exchange for a little cash.
Thus, the locals believe that the need of the hour is to take the law into their own hands. This dire situation of injustice, mistrust, and human rights abuse is reflected in the country’s position in law and order and public perception of corruption: Global Rule of Law Index (2017) ranks Bangladesh at 102 among 113 countries (only ahead of Pakistan and Afghanistan in South Asia), while Transparency International Global Survey (2012) reports that 93% of Bangladeshis view the police as corrupt.
Inaction by the police and public thief-beating create a vicious cycle, a social malady of a kind that is overlooked in the civic discourse. Also, more than the systematic corruption in the law enforcement system, we should be more concerned about our collective moral decay.
A healthy society embodies empathy, kindness, self-control, trust, and law and order.
It’s where these things are valued, preached, and practiced by the majority.
While mob violence is notoriously difficult to handle, the problem should be tackled from the most basic level, and we can start by ensuring the upholding of due process of law, and that no human rights abuses are tolerated.
Outreach and collaborative programs could be designed and implemented to bridge the age-old gap of understanding and trust between police and community. Citizens should be encouraged to help the police in maintaining law and order in society.
Lastly, to instill humanistic values among children and youth, we need to include progressive moral education in classes, coupled with practical drills to emulate real-life scenarios where students will learn, internalize, and apply ethics and empathy.
And, above all, children will learn to not commit murder in the name of upholding the law.
Sharif Mahmud is a city planning graduate from the University of Utah.