The Morbid Accomplishments Of Bangladesh's Vigilantes

02/08/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

In some places in the world where justice is a far cry, vigilantes are born.

Take for instance, in the past two months in Bangladesh, there have been seven incidents of public lynching by people who have probably given up on the police and decided to save the day on their own.

They didn't, however, have Spiderman's code of ethics - they went for the kill. Save for two, all the individuals lynched were dead by the end of it.

This included children who were dealt the punishment of death for doing things that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn would have gotten a spanking for.

One of those killed was a 16 year old boy who stole a pigeon from the neighbour's coop. The boy was killed in early April but the incident got lost among the multitudes of crimes happening daily, and only came to light in the last week of July when the footage surfaced.

He was beaten, burned with lit cigarettes, and when the teenager begged for some water out of exhaustion, he was bound and thrown into a river. All this while crowds stood by jeering and applauding.

"[T]he owner of the fence, who was a de facto village chief, saw it fit to shackle the child vandals to a tree and stuff their mouths with dead snails."

Even the two victims who were lucky enough to escape death were minors - one nine years old, and the other eight. In legal terms, their action can be at best described as vandalism - they had removed a neighbour's fence. In their defence, the fence was made of prickly date-palm branches, and had hurt them when they tumbled into it while playing. Maybe the children thought it was a public safety issue, maybe they wanted to keep their play area free of thorns, we shall never know. However, the owner of the fence, who was a de facto village chief, saw it fit to shackle the child vandals to a tree and stuff their mouths with dead snails. There they stayed for six hours, until their grandmothers begged forgiveness and promised to fix the fence.

In the middle of the month, another 13 year old called Rajon was beaten to death after he tried to steal a three-wheeled van. At one point, to make sure they drive home the point, the men asked the 13 year old boy to take off his pants.

To put things into perspective, a transgender was killed while asking for money despite the fact that she was technically not doing a crime. She was only indulging in a long-standing tradition of livelihood. In countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh transgenders are ostracised, disowned by their families and refused education and jobs. Their only way of earning a livelihood is by appearing on special occasions like weddings to celebrate and ask for gift money. Their appearance is supposed to bring good luck according to local superstition.

That is precisely what the transgender woman Lucky Akhter was doing when she was lynched. Lucky and some of her mates had joined a rural village wedding for celebrations and then asked for gift money. She was earning money the only way society lets her. These nuances, however, were lost on the vigilantes who rushed in for the kill.

"[T]he institution of civilisation is the only wall between humans and savagery."

Vigilantism is an accepted phenomenon in societies like Bangladesh where the police are corrupt, there is no insurance for health or property, and conviction rates are low. When an alleged felon Shamul Islam Monir was lynched to death on July 14, the religious leader of the village, the imam, had drummed up people using the loudspeaker used to call for prayers.

His message was that a local robber has been caught and the village people should come deal with it.

The problem with vigilantes is that they do not look into the eyes of a felon and see past the crime. They do not scrutinise the way a judicial system would. In a courtroom, an accused has his/her entire life - beginning from infancy - inspected by the jury before a verdict a reached.

Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies is familiar with the concept that the institution of civilisation is the only wall between humans and savagery. The absence of justice brought out the monsters of revenge in us - and I do not just mean the vigilantes. This includes every person who remained quiet for years and years while lives were shed in the hands of mobs. It may just be time to prove that people can recognise a wrong for what it is.

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