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Fear, Patriotism and Torture


The truth has been placed before us that the passing of laws does not mean people will benefit from them without proper implementation through the criminal justice system in the particular country. In the words of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, “facts are many, but the truth is one.”

Recent violence in Bangladesh just a few days after the landmark law criminalizing custodial death and torture was passed, revealed that right without remedy is nothing but an illusion. Since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the victims of the bloodbath at birth are unknown, and this event has been classified as the ‘forgotten genocide’ in modern history. This forgotten genocide was carried out by Yahya Khan who earned (according to the account by the late B. Raman, then a key player in the India’s external intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing, R&AW), the gratitude of  both the US and China by making possible the secret visit of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser, to Beijing in 1971 for talks with Mao and his associates. It helped Pakistan’s military dictator cover-up the most ruthless elimination of unarmed innocents, including women, and children, in the region. The dark annals of the cruelty that occurred in Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, ranks bloodier than Bosnia and to some may be compared with what happened in Rwanda.

Cartoon_CP_Art Cartoon by Awantha Artigala

After years of continuous bloodshed Bangladesh has been trying to archive a rational formula to correct the wrongdoings of the past. In this context the criminalization of custodial death and torture in  Bangladesh is none other than the twilight of a new dawn in the nation. But as Saber Hossain Chowdhury, a driving force behind this law, also a member of parliament from the ruling party, explained in an interview with us, “Now that the law is in place, implementation is of course the clear priority and challenge. The context I think needs to be in terms of capacity rather than competence and it needs to be seen and addressed as a broad and across the spectrum issue.”

Torture is endemic, not only in Bangladesh, but in most countries around Asia. In fact, many countries are spending more effort trying to find new techniques of torture to bamboozle the criminal justice system, instead of abolishing this cruel practice.

Political Culture

What we are repeatedly seeing is that torture is well instituted in the country where the system has deteriorated due to political nihilism and motivations of cultural extremism. That is why, despite all international conventions signed and laws passed, torture and other inhuman practices still occur with impunity in too many countries. As we pointed out earlier, we need to create a culture against torture.

Creating such a culture is a complicated task and needs to deal in higher respect of humanity. We need to discuss the importance of personal liberties and freedoms, and make a path for our generation to follow and value. Unfortunately, the idea of freedom has been evaporating and replaced with consumerism which is not freedom at all. It has been able to disconnect our hard earned personal liberties while giving us thrilling and emotional events in our daily life.

As this writer pointed some years ago, the question that begs to be asked is: how are we going to continue from the point of disconnection? What is the role that we should play regarding not only the prevention of torture but also the protection of human rights?

Today, in many countries, morality in intellectual discourse is absent and political vulgarism has spread from top to bottom. Social control at any cost has become a norm of governance. The regime is not using anything special, but instead our own people to eliminate our own people.

Freedom replaced “patriotism”

This is how an absolute power cynically manipulates the people, while dividing the nation into various multitudes. It forces us to accept that these micro–multitudes are separate nations. If we are unable to recognize this as madness then we will certainly become citizens of blind nations, not just that of blind-folded ones.

A nation is an idea for people to enjoy their “freedom”, without hesitation, within a legislative framework. This law should be above every citizen who has been guaranteed equality and fraternity, through co-habitation within an institutional framework. But what has happened in many countries is that fear has replaced freedom.

Fear has become normal and is covered by the idea of “patriotism”. Have we recognized our dream of freedom, when the country has become the paradise of “patriotic” criminals? Patriotism, currently, is nothing but the deadly evolution of narrow minded politics which has distorted language.

Many countries around the globe are still under tremendous stress and ordinary people have more difficulties than in the past. The tragedy of what we have seen in history is that, at the end of many  crisis, by default the people tend to create absolute power. What we have to understand here is what Étienne de La Boétie pointed out, “The tyrant, indeed, has nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you?”

What is ordinary man to do with their political engagement? In other words, we are witnessing in many countries, even after the overthrow or death of the most ruthless, unlawful, and corrupt authoritarians, the rise of the same type of regime in a difference face. This is the reason why most countries touched by the Arab Spring lost their way to personal liberty and social change.

As George Battett, elaborated, “…the strength of the government rests not with itself, but with the people. A great tyrant may be a fool, and not a superman. His strength lies not in himself, but in the superstition of the people who think that it is right to obey him. So long as that superstition exists it is useless for some liberator to cut off the head of tyranny; the people will create another, for they have grown accustomed to rely on something outside themselves.”

The elimination of the practice of torture hinges on this political complicity. Without an understanding about the nature of the functioning of the system the chance to change the system is a myth. Social systems are neither a consumer product that we can buy or rent from the market nor a material that we can import from another country. It is not a creation of the almighty gifted from the heavens. A social system is a creation of mankind. That is a reflection of our responsibilities. In other words, the social system is the result of our behavior and the decisions we take in our way of life.

An understanding of the real breakdown of law enforcement agencies and structural destruction is more important than engaging and wasting time with popular titles. How can we change this kind of society?

It is obvious that without an in-depth understanding about the society itself, restoring it is a daydream. At the same time, having a comparative understanding of history will guide us to create alternatives.

Understanding history will stop us from repeating the same tragedies. It is only then that we can continue our real discourse on what we want, how are we going to achieve it, and how we can achieve public understanding to change attitude and create the culture.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa, editor of the ‘Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives’, a bi-monthly magazine   published by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), based in Hong Kong and the Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) based in Denmark, where this piece appeared as the editorial of its latest  issue. He also edits the Sri Lanka Guardian, an online newspaper based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is Editor of Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives. He also edits the Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper. He is the author of the recently released non-fiction books, “Nagna Balaya” (The Naked Power), published in Sinhalese, and “The Conflation”, published in English. 

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