Bangladesh: A treaty, an FB post and a killing

Afsan Chowdhury, October 10, 2019

In a most shocking incident recently, almost two dozen members of the ruling Awami League’s student wing Chatra League beat up a fellow student for five hours till he died. They were all studying at the elite Bangladesh Engineering University.

The crime of the murdered Abrar Fahad was that he had in a Facebook post criticized the Feni river treaty with India which was signed last week between Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi.

The Feni treaty is universally unpopular in Bangladesh as India has not implemented the Teesta river treaty while Bangladesh has ordered the release of its own river water.

A treaty, an FB post and a killing

The treaty is being read in Bangladesh as part of the overall humiliation which India subjects Bangladesh to on most issues.

Senior journalist Moniruzzaman, Editor, ‘Daily Sangbad’ said on ATN News that if a referendum is held on the issue, “100% will vote against it.” Perhaps an overstatement, but it certainly is reflective of the general mood.

India’s popularity in Bangladesh, never high, has dipped remarkably low. It is also being asked why a Hindu student leader, alleged to be involved in the killing, wasn’t arrested. The police had to give a clarification.

The Feni treaty, like the Farakka and the Teesta river treaties, has created a new wave of anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh.

The murder of Abrar Fahad has touched a raw nerve in every Bangladeshi. It has showed the impunity enjoyed by ruling party activists.

CCTV footage of the beating has reached every phone screen and the reactions are as expected. In a country which experienced genocide in 1971 by the Pakistan army, the Chatra League’s conduct is scarily reminiscent of that.

The University authorities had refused to hand over the footage to the agitating students but ultimately the police did.

Culture of Impunity

19 students have been arrested for complicity in the murder. That a person could be beaten to death for criticizing a treaty may well be the first in the world. But Chatra League as an organization has impunity that few have in the world.

They are the enforcers of the Awami League’s political will. They have beaten students and others at will, whenever they wished or whenever needed. It is just that the person beaten up this time died. Otherwise beating up dissidents or opponents is quite common and people are used to it.

In fact, a top Chatra League leader speaking on Ekattor TV blamed Abrar’s friend who did not respond to the call for help as he lay dying. The appeal was made when the assailants had taken a break to watch a football match on TV.

The number of times Chatra League had beaten up a student or a group is so many, that people take them to be a normal part of student politics. The beatings usually take place in full view of the police and media as well.

During the anti-quota movement, many students were attacked and the university authorities refused to be move. Helmeted youth with sticks beat up activists during the “safe road” movement along with the police.

The media screamed in outrage but the ruling party didn’t even bother to respond. Many more beatings have followed. The difference this time is that the victim died. Otherwise the chance was that this was another incident before the next one. The beatings were supposed to be a show of loyalty to the party, the Awami League.

Following a tradition

The students are now in police custody. In view of the public outrage this is the least that could be done to them. But the students bear only part of the blame. The beating up of political opponents and using muscle to make money by ruling party men are so common that they are thought to be the norm in politics.

Th Chatra League controls the universities, including their Vice Chancellors. The latter are happy to comply as it ensures their jobs. Several university VCs are full time members of the ruling party and often talk like their students.

The VC of the Engineering University didn’t appear on the scene of the crime even two days after the murder. This caused massive ire. As Prof. Anwar Hossain, a senior Professor at the army-run Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP) told ATN News: “VCs are hired for their loyalty to the party not qualifications.”

Violence-based governing model?

The present government operates on the basis of absolute impunity in return for absolute loyalty. It is a party cadre-based governance model.

An interesting find in the premises of the recently caught Jubo (youth) League leaders were torture machines. Using them for political or extortion needs is common and acceptable in the Bangladesh political arena.

Alas, the system can’t be reformed easily as it may threaten the power structure itself.

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