Among the Thugs



“We are mere coolies working at the machines
in these terrible times.
We are mere dupes and fools
to discover the diamond and to make a gift of it
to the king, to adorn his crown.”

— Nazrul Islam.

Sohel Rana is a well-known figure in South Asia. He is the guy who, in my youth, would stand at the street-corner, holding court with a bunch of toughs, and offering his threatening ways as protection or intimidation for payment. As South Asian countries entered the pact of globalisation, the Sohel Ranas of the street-corner opened an office. They put up a signboard that said something like Property Dealer or Import-Export, they lost their cheap clothes for designer brands and handed out business cards to sharpen their image. Their clout came in handy for the main political parties, who hired them on to lead their youth wings and to deliver votes from the slumlands of the gradually overflowing cities. As neo-liberal policies became commonplace, these local thugs entered the real estate business, being given tracts of public land at throwaway prices by their grateful political benefactors. This land was either developed into housing or petty industry. Money was to be made from each. And this money strengthened the power of the local thug in his para (neighbourhood). He was a fish out of water as his Pajero went further and further from those few blocks. Locality was everything to him. There he was King. He was Rana.

Sohel Rana dropped out of school in Class 7. That was nothing to him. Now in his thirties, he had established himself in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka. Rana’s father was a local businessman who cultivated favours from local politicians. But neither talent nor timing favoured him. His son knew how to play all sides to his advantage, and the onset of globalisation allowed him to dance around the narrowed political horizons of the political parties. When the Bangladesh National Party was in power, Rana was with them; when the Awami League came back, he headed its local youth wing. Ashrafuddin Khan Imu, one of Rana’s rivals in the Awami party told the Associated Press’ Farid Hossain and Tim Sullivan, “He doesn’t belong to any particular political party. Whatever party is in power, he is there.” Rana is an equal opportunity scoundrel, whose own ideology is power, and its cognate, money.

Photo by Taslima Akhter.

Photo by Taslima Akhter.

A local political enforcer handles the transit of political bribery from local businesses to the national political class. As the money slides through his arms, some falls into his pocket. That is probably how Rana financed the apartment building and commercial building that took him into the lucrative property development business. It is also likely that such primary accumulation through bribery allowed him to claim the land upon which he built Rana Plaza in 2010. That land was a swamp, and once more it is likely that Rana was able to circumvent whatever restrictions existed about building on wetlands through his local muscle. It is already known that he only had a permit to build a five-story building. He confidently built eight stories.

The day before the collapse of the building which has so far killed 371 people (with an additional 900 missing) Rana was informed about cracks in the walls. Three thousand two hundred people worked in five factories in this building. “The building has minor damages,” he told the press. “Nothing serious.” Local inspectors, an anaemic bunch in the face of such institutionalised thuggery, had warned that something terrible might happen. Such people are not taken seriously in neo-liberal times. They are the ones who warn of calamities and are said to misjudge the dynamic of history. When the “accident” occurs, as it did the next day, it is these soothsayers who are ignored in the flurry of reportage that wants to suggest that this could not have been foretold, or of establishment voices that would like to point to this Rana as the main culprit and not the system of which he is essentially a minor pillar.

Rana has been booked for a number of infractions, including Section 304 of Bangladesh’s Penal Code – this would be a life sentence if he were found guilty. No-body will stand by the petty thug. The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for his arrest, and his political mentor, Murad Jang, Member of Parliament from Dhaka-19, which includes Savar, tried to say that he did not know him. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) disassociated itself from him, and of course the international firms along the global commodity chain hastened to say that they have never met him. The journey of someone like Rana from the street corner to the corner office to the corner prison is a familiar one. These are men who are as replaceable as the workers whose bodies are devoured by the garment machines. Loyalty to neither is necessary.

Payment for the deaths will rest with Rana. Arrears will not be collected higher up the commodity chain. At a press conference on Saturday, senior leaders of the BGMEA said that the impact of the tragedy had been “exaggerated.” It had created an “image crisis” for them. They want the building owner, Rana, to be prosecuted. They are not keen to have the factory owners in the dock. The November 2012 fire at Tazreen has only three managers in custody, while the owner is free and uncharged. The BGMEA wants to protect the owners, whose prosecutions woudl reflect badly on Brand Bangladesh. They are also the first line of defence of the commodity chain, with a frisson already passing from the rubble of Savar to the mansions of Gulshan and Bentonville.

The Ready Made Garment (RMG) workers of Bangladesh recognise that this arrest is significant but insufficient. On Saturday, they marched through Savar, Dhaka, Gazipur and Chittagong, unleashing their wrath at factories and cars. The police fired at them, but did not kill anyone. The energy among the RMG workers is clear. How it will run is unclear. Rana has been removed from his street corner. Others are ready to take his place. These old capillaries of thuggish power have thus far held in check the radicalisation of the workers, making them line-up behind the local brokers who ease their immediate consumption needs (water and electricity connections, a job for a child, a berth in a hospital) but who are barriers to any challenge to the status quo. Capitalist democracy on the ground requires this alliance of brutality and reform, of fascism and paternalism. It celebrates the Ranas of the world till it doesn’t; and then it simply replaces them.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, is out this month from Verso Books.


Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the editor of “Letters to Palestine” (Verso). He lives in Northampton.

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