Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks in New Delhi. Her feelings of personal obligation to India are well known. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

In an article in The Diplomat on September 4, Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), wrote about Bangladesh’s “crossfire” culture.

This piece is particularly telling. He recounts meeting Sheikh Hasina in 2008 in London and her promise to end the extrajudicial killings if she won the elections the following year.

“I will not let these killings happen. You can believe me,” she told him.

The reality is that 12 years later, under her authoritarian rule and that of the Awami League without the people’s mandate, Bangladeshi security forces have committed at least 2,400 extrajudicial killings, according to Odhikar Bangladesh, a leading human-rights organization in the country.

What are ‘crossfire killings’?

In his article, Adams says a crossfire killing in Bangladesh is “a staged gunfight in which security forces pretend to retaliate in self-defense.”

Also read: Bangladesh’s deadly ‘crossfire’ plague

These incidents have usually entailed killing the “person of interest” whom the security forces have been instructed to eliminate and consequently declaring that narcotics were found on the victim, that he was a drug dealer and/or consumer, and that society is better off without him.

A gag order is then placed on the matter and life goes on. People move on until the next time it happens. This has in essence been the pattern in Sheikh Hasina’s “war on drugs.” 

Who really are the victims? A good guess would be that they were anti-Awami League, anti-Sheikh Hasina, and opposed to Indian hegemonic dominance in Bangladesh. Another hypothesis is that they could be in possession of incriminating evidence against the regime. 

Extrajudicial killing of a former army officer

Army officer Major Sinha Rashed Khan was a part of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s security detail. Recently, he retired and although it is said that he did so voluntarily, there are questions.

On July 31, he was shot dead at a checkpoint after being stopped by police. Police claimed it was in self-defense, but witnesses said Major Sinha complied with the police and was shot nevertheless. It is also said that he was left injured for 45 minutes and could have been saved. 

The final, lethal bullet was said to have been fired by Pradeep Kumar Das, the officer in charge (OC) of the local Teknaf police station, who had, in his position of 22 months as the OC, “given orders for about 144 crossfires where 204 people were killed.” He has also allegedly amassed wealth through killings, torture, abductions, and collaboration with drug dealers. 

The most crucial point in these revelations is that Major Sinha’s tragedy is not an isolated case, nor is Officer Pradeep’s astonishing levels of corruption. None of these are exceptional in Bangladesh. Crossfires, extrajudicial killings, murders, disappearances, rape, extortion and all other vices under the sun make up the landscape of the Awami League-led reign of terror in Bangladesh. 

There is an orchestrated nexus between the student wing, goons and politicians of the Awami League and law enforcement. This is widely known known to Bangladeshis. When the opposition in the country is diminished by force and only one party reigns, there is left no space or reason for accountability. 

The killing of Abrar Fahad

In 2019, the brutal beating and killing of a brilliant engineering student, Abrar Fahad, by the student wing of the Awami League is yet another example of the brutality and corruption experienced by the citizens of Bangladesh. All Abrar did was post comments on social media about the state of sovereignty of his nation vis-avis the encroaching powers of India in every facet of Bangladeshi governance and society.

Abrar was correct in posing questions that millions of people want to ask, but do not dare. A social media post was all it took for Abrar to be killed. 

The ‘election’ of 2018

The 2018 parliamentary election has been referred to as “farcical.” As much as the Awami League tried to pretend that it was conducting a free and fair election, BBC footage of a ballot box stuffed the night before destroyed that narrative, as did many other incidents demonstrating that the election was the furthest thing from free or fair.

“Farcical” is an understatement. The complete disregard for the rights and dignity of 170 million people is far greater than a farce. It is tantamount to severe human-rights abuse, committed every day. 

Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of electoral mandate are just some of the rights guaranteed to Bangladeshis by their constitution but only on paper, definitely not in practice. 

India 

Most Bangladeshis did not vote for Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League and do not share in the joy of allowing India to get involved in all aspects of its governance. However, any show of opposition will invoke a fate like Abrar’s. 

India sheltered Sheikh Hasina after the assassination of her father, Sheikh Mujobur Rahman, and she personally feels unlimited gratitude toward New Delhi. It is wrongly assumed that all Bangladeshis must agree to relinquish their nation’s sovereignty for that reason.

Whatever help India had given during the 1971 War of Liberation against Pakistan, it has taken back many times over in the last 49 years with respect to trade, water sharing, defense, border killings and culture. 

Even the death last month of former Indian president Pranab Mukherjee, a close friend of Sheikh Hasina, was marked by a day of mourning in Bangladesh. It is perhaps the first time that a day of mourning was observed by a nation for a foreign leader.

This complete subservience to India has been possible because Sheikh Hasina has allowed it, disregarding the will of the people she is supposed to be representing, albeit without their mandate. The people remain silent for fear of death. But they are watching. And waiting. 

So, who is in charge?

Bangladesh is suffering from a dearth of accountability. Random, frequent “crossfire” killings, false accusations about the victims, deep-rooted corruption within law enforcement and society in general, rampant extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, unhealthy and intentional handing over of national sovereignty, high unemployment particularly among youth, crumbling health services made more apparent during the Covid-19 crisis, vast income inequality, a spike in the crime rate, the deterioration of educational institutions, the list goes on and on, raising the question: Who is in charge? Where is the leadership? 

No one is in charge. It is high time to usher in new, patriotic and innovative leadership, a leadership elected by the people, for the people, of the people.  

A cleansing from all the corruption, crimes, debauchery and authoritarianism is way overdue. 

Sheikh Hasina promised Brad Adams that she would not let killings happen if elected. Well, she has not allowed Bangladeshis to elect whom they wanted to lead them since 2009. She also allowed the killings to happen. She broke her promises. 

These things did not go unnoticed by 170 million Bangladeshis. 

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Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the US and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party Abroad, she is currently a board member of The Right to Freedom, a Washington-based non-profit organization working toward peace and democracy in Bangladesh.