I still remember the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when the news of the brutal killing of 13-year-old Rajon broke on social media two years ago. Is this real? How could they do this to a child? Why did the onlookers simply stand there? Why did no one try to stop it? I tried, like many others, to make sense of it all, of the inhumanness. But then it dawned on me that this had really happened. The killers had suspected Rajon of stealing a rickshaw. And a mere suspicion sealed his fate—a group of sadistic grown-ups tortured a child to death in broad daylight as others looked on, as if this was nothing out of the ordinary. As if this was normal.
And then last week, I went through the exact range of emotions once again. The spine-chilling photo of a teenage boy named Sagor—suspected of a petty theft, just like Rajon—tied to a pole, beaten, his expression as if asking for mercy, splashed on the front page of newspapers evoked the familiar notions of normalised brutality in my country. Only this time there was no national outcry demanding “#JusticeforSagor”.
No, Bangladesh isn't unique when it comes to the most brutal forms of violence against children. But the Rajon and Sagor killings were much more than a murder. It was a public spectacle. It required an audience, reminiscent of Roman gladiatorial games. Onlookers who stood by, watching the slow deaths of Rajon and Sagor play by play, are an integral part of the story. The public nature of Rajon and Sagor's murders appealed to the basest human instincts of the killers, and curiosity, and fascination even, of the bystanders—is this what death looks like?
There is a difference between a private murder and a public killing—the latter seeking to enforce authority by indirectly telling the victim “law cannot protect you”. And when you think of it that way, the Rajon-Sagor killings begin to make sense. There is an amalgam of factors that have made the conditions ripe for public killings in modern-day Bangladesh. Lawlessness, widespread illiteracy, mass poverty and a culture of impunity combine to create a powder keg ready to erupt anytime into disorder and violence.
It is only when these incidents attract the attention of the urbanites and the media—thanks to the advent of smartphones and social media—that the perpetrators are captured and “justice” meted out. Meanwhile, the roots of the disease go unaddressed and the cycle repeats itself.
Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish, wrote, “A secret punishment is a punishment half wasted.” Foucault was talking about the Ancien Régime before the eighteenth century when public executions were a key form of punishment. In this seminal piece of literature, Foucault's analysis of the theoretical and social mechanisms that led to the evolution of the modern-day penal system provides much-needed insight. According to Foucault, as punishment shifted from public executions to the carceral system after the eighteenth century i.e. from exhibition (public) to confinement (prison), the justice system transformed from a spectacle to surveillance. Public killings, unlike a penitentiary, as a form of punishment are about the demonstration of power. This is not to say that Foucault thought the prison system to be the opposite; he didn't. In fact, he argued that the prison system, in turning away public gaze and using new technological tools, was about continued subjection of the body. Under the carceral system, the body of the offended was now at the mercy of technological powers which sought to modify his behaviour through repetition (strict timetables, military drills, etc). It was no longer a means to reassert the power of the king or the ruler, which is what public executions sought to achieve.
Public killings are not about numbers. Unlike terrorism—particularly of the breed based on religious-oriented ideologies and motivations—which seeks to maximise the casualty rate and provoke a response, public executions rely on the grisly nature of the act itself. The former seeks to obtain local or international recognition of a cause by attracting media attention and deems the loss of lives as irrelevant (or even a moral duty)—and creating disorder is the point. The latter, on the other hand, seeks to establish authority through the body of the offended to “reinstate order”—turning punishment into a theatrical affair. In both cases though, generating widespread fear is a common goal.
The Rajon-Sagor killings not only point to a penchant for violence against children, but are also a symptom of a society stricken with the disease of lawlessness and disorder where individuals strive to restore order through the assertion of power and violence. Where lawlessness prevails, people will always take it upon themselves to mete out their form of “justice”. In a country where custodial deaths and enforced disappearances at the hands of law enforcement agencies are rampant, the line between justice and violence will surely blur. Medieval forms of punishment by self-styled crusaders for justice will continue to kill many more Rajons and Sagors—and things will go on as normal.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.