A once benign culture of ‘gangs’ has morphed into something macabre
The police in Hatirjheel went into a comprehensive drive last month to clear the area of young delinquents who, reportedly, were harassing the visitors. Hatirjheel is a recreation spot, especially for working people from areas like Badda, Rampura, Malibagh, and Moghbazar. However, for quite some time, it had become the operating zone for several young gangs who roamed around with the sole purpose of picking up fights with visitors.
Eager for a confrontation
These youngsters are members of the countless youth gangs which are now involved in a variety of despicable crimes. The word “delinquent” is perhaps too soft a word because as per a newspaper report alluding to a police finding, from 2018 till January this year, more than 300 muggings were carried out by teen gangs.
In mid-2019, I stopped at Hatirjheel to meet a friend and found that near one of the alleys which link Hatirjheel to the other part of town, a group of teens was hanging out with their motorcycles. The road was busy at around seven in the evening and there was a small collision between a car and a CNG.
I noticed that as soon as the incident happened, the youths became alert and the one sitting on the bike, possibly the ring leader, told his other mates that if the argument between the CNG driver and the car driver went on, they would go and beat up the car driver and smash his vehicle.
Luckily, the argument did not last long which seemed to have disappointed the teenagers looking for some trouble.
In March 2020, just before the lockdown, I happened to be near the Modhubag Bridge which connects Rampura and Hatirjheel.
There are some mobile restaurants in the area where people usually sit under the sky to have snacks. Since it was a weekday, most people were from the nearby areas.
I also noticed young groups moving about rather aggressively. One person from such a gang, a boy, who looked hardly 15, suddenly picked an argument with a couple and within seconds, other teenagers came to the scene.
They looked menacing.
Naturally, the pandemonium attracted the attention of others though no one came to the rescue. I do not claim to be courageous but felt something had to be done and since I was not alone, stepped in, said we were journalists, and told the kids to go away. What struck me was the defiant belligerence of the teenager who had begun the whole fracas.
In the end, we gave the beleaguered couple a lift.
Thankfully, the law stepped in last month; Hatirjheel appears safer than before. No youth gangs were seen near the Modhubag Bridge since two police vans are now stationed there permanently.
Young men moving in groups and throwing their weight around is not a new phenomenon. In the early 80s, while growing up in Elephant Road, we saw such teen gangs and must admit, I was also part of such an outfit. But the idea of extortion, eve teasing, or even drugs were never on our minds.
Back in our time, all the men were from educated middle-class families, wanting to show some bravado but hiding swiftly if someone heard that a senior brother or relative was coming. In short, the tendency to flex muscles never eclipsed the need to behave properly in front of elders.
A social analyst has pointed the rise of youth gangs with criminal tendencies to a steep decline of values within the family structure. Unfortunately, within the middle-class section of the city, a startling metamorphosis of ideology has taken place.
Behind the veil of convention lurks a vicious monster called greed and instant gratification. When children see parents attaching more importance to money rather than the way it is earned, any form applied to make a buck becomes legitimate.
Those involved in teen gangs have families though what their families do to instil some values in them is unknown. To mitigate the menace of teen gangs, the first priority is to understand the family backgrounds they come from. Immorality and degradation are the prerequisites for teens to turn into terrors.
The police work in Hatirjheel is commendable though in depth social study is essential to understand and eventually dismantle this creed which insidiously vitiates a significant portion of the mid and lower middle class. From drugs, to dysfunctional families, to parents without moral scruples -- the picture will be sordid.
Just to add another point -- in modern day South Asian movies, both from Bangladesh and India, there is a mobster obsession, with our own top film star getting super hits in his portrayal of an underground mobster. As far as I recall, eight out of 10 top grossing local films present the protagonist as a gun-toting crime boss.
The young at an impressionable age watch these and try to translate what they see on film in real life. Naturally, there are those who dismiss the adverse impact of such films on the youthful mind but unless a survey is done, we will never be certain. Without the incisive study, the decay in urban societies will remain deftly hidden behind a smokescreen.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.