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Dhaka Tribune

An institutional failure

Update : 20 May 2013, 04:06 AM

In countrywide clashes that followed the verdict on Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 41, people have been killed, including three policemen. I see this as an institutional failure. I don’t know the details yet, and I don’t think anyone does – how many have died by Jamaat’s knives and how many as a result of police gunfire. But judging by reports in the media, it appears that most of the deaths have come about due to shootings by the police, and three police personnel have perished in attacks by extremists. It must be said that those who attacked the police have committed heinous crimes and they deserve to be punished to the full extent of the law.

On the other hand, I find it even more alarming that so many protesters have died at the hands of the police. The police are a state institution. And as an institution it must never take sides in any debate or situation. The role of the police is to maintain law and order. Thus if police decide to start shooting, they must be 100% certain that this is the last, last, last resort.  Otherwise, people will get killed and the police themselves will come into harm’s way. That is why, as far as I can see, the police must show the utmost restraint before opening fire upon anyone. Because, I repeat, the police are a state institution.

From the fact that three policemen have been killed, it may be concluded that in some places the attacks by the extremists have been so severe as to endanger the lives of both the police and the general public. I wouldn’t raise any question if in responding to such a situation the death toll was 41 or 41,000.

In some places, there have been attacks on Hindu temples. If in situations such as these, the police are forced to shoot and kill someone in order to maintain law and order, I have nothing to say. Let there be an independent inquiry into the justification of such shootings.

But it is different when one sees images of the police firing upon marching protesters, or police continuously shooting from within moving armoured vehicles, or shooting with hand-guns upon retreating groups of demonstrators in open fields on TV. These are chilling scenes and it appears that the police feel justified in shooting at the slightest provocation. I was under the impression that for a police officer to open fire, he needed permission from a magistrate. I am sure that the police have some sort of a standing order procedure (SOP) regarding under the circumstances or situations where shooting is justified.

It really scares me when I see plain-clothes policemen shooting. Are they actually police or Chhatra League? In many of the images, I saw people in plain-clothes shooting from among the ranks of the police. Who are those people? Why should plain-clothes policemen shoot during riots and clashes? Is that allowed?

No one is raising questions as to why the correct processes are not being followed in each and every case. Because, I repeat once again, the police are an institution. An institution is obliged to follow the rules imposed upon it to the letter. This is vital for the structural integrity of a functioning state. But just a couple of days ago, I saw four or five policemen take a boy into a room and shoot him at point-blank range (which many well-bred friends have tried to justify as a shooting with a rubber bullet.)

You can expect a robber to rob, a murderer to murder, and a Shibir extremist to slit someone’s veins – there is a due legal course of action to deal with such actions. But the police cannot open fire on an angry mob without first conducting due diligence with regard to its own standing order procedure (SOP). If the police get used to such a way of doing things then very soon they will start killing random people and claim, as Rab does, that they died in “cross-fire." For those who are disturbed by Rab’s “cross-fire”, yesterday’s incidents ought to disturb them as well. Otherwise, their moral arguments become invalid. Because if the police fail as an institution, if they don’t follow any procedure, if they get the right to shoot down people like birds, then the very basis of the state’s moral and ethical system breaks down.

In my opinion, this situation with the police shows us the first example of an institution that should remain sacrosanct and inviolable, becoming dysfunctional and losing its independent character as a result of the massive nepotism practiced by the Awami League. I repeat: what happened recently was an institutional failure. If the police, as an institution, breaks down, the structure of the state breaks down. An institution must remain completely neutral. The institutions of a state are bound to treat every human being equally – whether that person is from Jamaat, Shibir, or Chhatra League, whether they are poor or rich, atheist, Hindu or Muslim, it doesn’t matter. To quell those who went out to demonstrate against the verdict on Sayedee, or went on an angry rampage, by shooting them is not equal treatment.

The lives that are being lost, the people who are being shot today are from villages or small towns, they are from the lower classes, they are the blind followers of Sayedee, people whose live are of “little value." But very soon the police will turn on those from the upper classes, the secular and well-bred people with “valuable” lives. If we calculate the probabilities then people like us, those who have internet connections at home, those who have comfortable middle-class existence, it seems unlikely that we will become victim of such incidents, but it will happen. You can take it for granted that this sort of thing will happen to you or your children. So, even if you think you are not being affected, despite your comfortable existence, you ought to take a stand on this in order to preserve our institutions.

Because, when institutions break down the state becomes dysfunctional. In such events, the whole moral structure of a country becomes compromised.

An abbreviated version of this article was translated from the original Bangla by Tibra Ali and first published on

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