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The politics of secret games

  • Published at 12:02 am September 24th, 2019
Casino Dhaka
Our law enforcers cannot turn a blind eye. SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

What happens when a criminal is not treated as such because of politics?

I’ve stopped writing on domestic politics for some time now and wanted to steer clear of that topic because I realized writing or complaining about the state of politics will not cure us of the ills of bad politics.

But I also realized that writing about politics or political conditions need not be for curing the ills, it could be to raise red flags in case our leadership may see. 

The recent sensational news reports of the “discovery” of so-called casinos or gaming places in the city, which thrived under the alleged patronage of leaders of the youth wing of a political party, should hardly be a surprise in a city that is known more for scofflaws than for law-abiding citizens.

This is a city that saw law enforcers becoming law breakers, gave shelter to elements which openly demanded rent or commission for every business that operated in the city and took a cut of the money that was earned by anybody from the sweat of their brows.

This is a city, or indeed country, where a job’s worth is judged not on the salary it officially provides, but on its potential to yield several times more than that salary in illegal gratuities.  

In such an environment of corruption and venality it is not a surprise that gambling dens and speakeasies will operate and law enforcers will turn their faces the other way.

What is appalling is that these establishments often operated under the banners of sporting clubs, which were apparently under the sponsorship of leaders of the youth wing of the political party in power.

Even more interestingly, many of these clubs with gambling dens have some politically powerful names on the front end. It is possible that these people who are shown as committee chairs or members may not have control over day to day operations or under-the-cover activities of the club.

But is it possible to think they would be oblivious to the type of activities their clubs undertook year after year without their knowledge? 

Did these clubs never have their business discussed in an open meeting? Did the committee chair or member delegate all responsibilities to the club operators? 

As it turns out from newspaper reports, several of the club operators were powerful leaders of the ruling party’s youth wing. They in their turn must have recruited mostly loyal party men to run other daily activities. Since these clubs have been running their gambling operations for several years, we have to assume that they benefited from the benign neglect of law enforcers.

And since these club operators also benefited from the patronage of powerful political leaders ushering their names in the so-called management committees, they had no fear of facing the wrath of the law.

This was a win-win situation for all. That is, until something went topsy-turvy and matters reached the highest power in the land. So, all hell broke loose for them.

As I was following the still unraveling story of the secret game parlours of Dhaka, I was reminded of the morbid story of the rise of the gruesome underworld gangs and gang bosses of Mumbai that showed the nexus of politics, crimes, gang leaders of the underworld, and their political patrons.

The story told through an Indian TV series (Netflix’s Sacred Games) describes the rise of a gang boss of Mumbai, from his childhood through middle age, in stages that ran from stealing to street violence, and founding gambling houses to illegal alcohol and firearms.

In graphic detail, the story narrates how he was befriended by local politicians, and how he contributed to their coffers as well as political influence by buying vote banks.

Despite the dramatic exaggerations of the TV series, the story is a stark reminder of the nexus of politics and criminality, law’s abstinence, and growth of individuals with contempt for law and morality. 

There cannot be a comparison between what is described in the Mumbai story and what is being unfolded in Dhaka now, as gleaned from the developing gambling enterprises of Dhaka and their politically powerful executives. 

We have yet to see the likes of the underworld crime bosses of Mumbai in Dhaka, but we cannot rule out their future appearance if political musclemen are allowed to carry on acts of venality or criminality with impunity because of high political connections. 

The situation can change rapidly for the worse in a country where law enforcers seem to act only under political signals. A criminal is not treated as a criminal because he has political patronage, or because he holds a political office. This view led to the growth of the underworld in Mumbai because the gang leaders were in cahoots with political leaders who instructed law enforcers about whom to pursue and whom not to.

This dangerous nexus of politics and the criminal world can bring benefits only to two classes, people who seek political power and people who seek easy money, leaving the common people in the same morass as before. Unfortunately, democracy as it is practiced now -- in both India and Bangladesh -- cannot alone rid us of this nexus.

The ways to redress this are through the rule of law, freeing law enforcers from political pressure, people’s resistance to these forms of venality and corruption in our politicians, and a resolve by our top leaders to get rid of elements from their own parties who indulge in venality.

I do not know when this will happen, but I do see signs of a Mumbai-type criminality gripping our country unless authorities wake up and take strong action. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.