by Adnan R. Amin for AlalODulal.org
A thirteen year old boy has been beaten to death.
Samiul Alam Rajon had studied up to the fourth grade and used to sell vegetables to make a living. His father is a microbus driver by profession. He and unnamed accomplices were suspected of stealing a rickshaw van. The boy was beaten, poked, tortured for nearly half an hour, resulting in his death.
See how easy that was to read?
We read such news every day. On the same day, hijra (transgender) Lucky a.k.a. Jahangir was beaten to death in a Noakhali mob attack. As was an RMG worker in Shiddhirganj and a young man in Rajshahi. Just days before that, some 23 people died trying to collect zakaat clothes. That is the world, the country we live in. Before the latest sensational content appeared online, I would have thought we had dealt with that fact.
Realize it or not, the distinguishing feature of this case is that it was captured and distributed on video. Why? Well, it’s because we have become completely desensitized to violence and death on paper. But work is still in progress when it comes to the visual medium. It is this discomfort that online activists and common people are finding themselves incapable of dealing with. Hence, the righteous rage.
Bangladeshi social media has reacted in a thousand different ways. Many opined that the Bangladeshi Tiger’s famous victory over the Proteas was marred by a deluge of images from the crime scene; that, in reality, Bangladesh had lost. Many have said that the time for due process and civility is at an end; the perpetrators must be beaten to death in public. Many have shed tears and many are finding it difficult to even believe that this is our reality. Most commentators are pleading others to stop sharing the video, giving rise to the endless debate of whether it is okay to callously share graphic content for its shock-value.
While posting graphic/violent content on social media is most distasteful and inconsiderate, sometimes it becomes not only justified, but also necessary. Let us recognize that it was the video (or the idea of it) that moved so many. And that is not nothing! Social media comments, while frequently ridiculed online as representing an echo-chamber of the urban middle-class, are not without merit. They reveal the degree of sensitivity, moral stances and transient fancies of this class. These are important metrics. But more importantly, this extended social circle also consists of journalists, activists, lawyers, writers and artists who can take up the cause and thus mobilize public support and legal action. Such citizen activism is not unheard of in Bangladesh and, with the advent of modern communication technologies, it can only be strengthened.
One commentator on Facebook asks us to keep our crocodile tears to ourselves: the Bengali conscience is not aroused without photos and videos. Given that murders and deaths practically engulf us, he argues, it is a farce to mourn only one Rajon. More chillingly, he points out that it is virtually a tradition in Bangladesh to subject thieves and pickpockets to ‘mob justice’.
Any one of you, even without the help of Google, can confirm that this is true. Why! Just last month an alleged cattle thief was beaten to death in Bhuapur, Tangail. Before that, it was Fatikchhari, Chittagong where a thief was killed. Let us not kid ourselves: mob killings are a regular feature of local-news pages. And those are just the ones that reach a media outlet! We are moved by Rajon’s death because we see the images, we hear his voice. Imagine if the incident were reported as “thief beaten to death”! It is common knowledge in this country: label someone a ‘thief’ and beat him on the streets; you will only find collaborators; hundreds with pent-up rage, powerlessness and frustration, eager to land a blow or two on any cornered human being. It has nothing to do with righteousness, nothing to do with justice – it is only about channeling a helpless, hopeless rage. This is our reality.
Still, the video and the fact that someone thought it okay to film this episode is revolting and shakes us to the core. It is not as though the BSF had not killed adolescents before poor, iconic Felani was photographed hanging from a barbed wire fence at the India-Bangladesh border. And it is not as though children have not been murdered before poor, puzzled Rajon was beaten to death. The truth, if we let that vicious, foul, malodorous thing in to our bubble of middle-income comfort, is that it is a brutal world.
We have known all along this to be a violent country with its own brand of social ‘justice’ that prevails over weak law enforcement. So why are we so shocked? Well, what is new is that the images can now be captured, stored and distributed. That in turn just means that our experiences can transcend time and continue to have meaning long after they have transpired. Photos of the 1971 genocide or the 2009 BDR mutiny have come to embody their own meaning in our history. Perhaps, some images become iconic and symbolic of a social-malaise. Thus, we are able to deal with it by introducing these ideas and symbols into our discursive space.
In the next two to three days, there will be much theorizing and analysis on the murder. It may become evident that this was not a clandestine operation. In fact, killing Rajon may not have been the original intention at all. Otherwise, why post the video on Facebook? But such conversations only temporarily distract us from the monstrous reality that is extrajudicial violence in Bangladesh.
Rather, there is value in mourning Rajon. If you have watched that heart-rending 28 minutes of shaky video, you have been party to the inhuman crime that was perpetrated that day. If you have seen a screenshot of him begging for his life, then you have felt a pang of guilt that you could not save him. That aching, writhing pain you feel is real. If channeled, it will help Bangladesh. Start at home. Stand up to that shopkeeper who slaps his little assistant. Talk to that abusive mother. And if hesitation creeps in, let you and I both remember that on the same day that Rajon was killed, another boy was beaten to death by his uncle in Chandgaon, Chittagong. The deceased, Tikon Dey, was 8 years old.
His death was not filmed.