Bangladesh is a noisy, vibrant and even a turbulent democracy, though it has gone through military rule. And yet, there is a democracy deficit in that South Asian country of teeming millions.

Intolerance of the political opposition, boycott of elections by the opposition, drug trafficking, Islamic terrorism and extra judicial executions have marked the political landscape irrespective of the party in power.

The latest controversy is over the “war against drug lords and traffickers”. About a 130 people have been killed in the past three weeks and 9000 arrested and 12,000 prosecuted in an unprecedented armed campaign against drug traffickers.

As the death toll mounts, objections have been raised against the “extrajudicial killings” of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which is wearing three hats – of the judge, jury and executioner. There are also charges that the operations are targeted against opponents of the Sheikh Hasina regime.

In the latest “democracy index”, Bangladesh is ranked 80 out of the 129 countries reviewed. It shares the 80 with crime ridden and oligarchic Russia.

Though drug offenses invite the death penalty in many countries, rights activists are alarmed that Bangladesh is mulling to bring the death penalty for drug kingpins, with 32 ministries having recommended it. Condemning the current spate of extra judicial executions, US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat said: “Of course I express concern about the number of people dying. Everyone in a democracy has a right to due process.”

International rights campaigners believe that the Bangladeshi authorities are “seriously misguided” if they think they can tackle drug crime by committing even more violent, illegal acts. According to them, Bangladesh needs to implement policies that tackle the root causes of drug crime while respecting both human rights and the rule of law.

Raising apprehensions about a political objective in the on-going anti-drug campaign is the simultaneous attempt to weaken the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In February this year, BNP Supremo Begum Khaleda Zia was sentenced to five years’ Rigorous Imprisonment for embezzling funds of the Zia Orphanage.

Khaleda’s son and political heir, Tarique Zia, who lives in London, was sentenced in absentia. Sentencing of the mother and son has rendered the main opposition party leaderless with only five months to go for the next parliamentary elections.

Indeed, strong action has been the hallmark of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s regime since it was installed in 2008. In 2016, after a group of young upper class Jehadists brutally killed tourists in an up-market restaurant in Dhaka, Hasina had gone hammer and tongs at Islamic terrorists, ruthlessly eliminating them in “encounters”. Prior to that, Hasina had set up special tribunals to try those who committed crimes against Bengalis in the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan. International human rights organizations cried foul as many were sent to the gallows.

While rights bodies funded by the West cried foul against all her strong actions, Hasina felt that she had every reason to be harsh on the forces ranged against her and Bangladesh. It was for the good of Bangladesh that those who committed “war crimes”; joined Islamic terrorists with global links; became drug traffickers had to be put down ruthlessly. And former Prime Minister Begum Zia had to be jailed for corruption to show that the law does not discriminate between the hoi polloi and the politically elite.

While Western rights activists censured Hasina for transgressions as per their norms, Bangladeshis, by and large, felt that strong action was needed.

Drug Menace is Immense

Methamphetamine, called Meth or Yaba, is a cheap and highly addictive drug has become very popular in Bangladesh. There are 7 million drug addicts in the country, 5 million of whom hooked on Yaba. Most (63%) of the addicts are in the age group 15 to 25. A study by Manasreveals that minors (under 16) account for around 25% of drug addicts.

The addiction has spread from cities to deep into villages. A recent report also said that one out of every 17 youths is addicted.

A 2013 study found that people were spending Tk.200 million (US$ 2.3 million) daily on drugs. Drug addiction has led to dropping out of educational institutions.

70% of Yaba pills come from in western Myanmar. The drug is synthesized from pseudoephedrine and caffeine, which are smuggled from India, China and Vietnam.

Courts and jails are inundated by drug cases. In 2017 alone 98,984 narcotics related cases were filed. The total number of pending cases in 2017 was 213,529. Drug cases were 46% of all cases filed last year. As of March 19 this year, 35.97% of prisoners are in on drug related charges. And drugs are distributed in jails too.

A media report quoted Prof. Zia Rahman, chair of the Department of Criminology in Dhaka University, as saying that the government needs to return addicts to the country’s pool of human resources through psychiatric treatment and that punitive action would not help.

Mekhala Sarkar, psychiatrist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Department of National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is quoted as saying that if an addicted person gets proper treatment, chances of that person becoming addicted to drugs again drop significantly. Studies have shown that for every US dollar spent, good prevention programs can save governments up to US$10 in subsequent costs.

Reasons for Addiction

Excess money in the hands of the upper class youth due to rapid economic growth, and increasing poverty and joblessness among the youth of the poorer classes, have led to drug abuse.

“Bangladesh has seen economic growth but this has been jobless growth,” observed political commentator Afsan Chowdhury.

According to International Republican Institute (IRI), despite a growing economy, Bangladeshis complain of high unemployment, rising prices, and various other economic challenges. They also say bribes and other forms of corruption limit access to jobs, rule of law, healthcare, education, and other public facilities. All these have led to frustration and drug addiction. Massive smuggling from Myanmar is adding to the problem.

“While the people by and large approve the strong action taken by the Hasina government, the real problem lies in poor governance and faulty functioning of the organs of the State. The root of the problem is governance deficit,”Afsan Chowdhury said.

He stressed the need for a bipartisan approach because the State has behaved in the same way irrespective of the party in power. As regards the jailing of opposition leader Khaleda Zia, Chowdhury said that it is a judicial matter and has to be settled by the court. But he felt that applying undue pressure on her and the BNP will only alienate the voters and deliver sympathy votes to the BNP. The BNP, which is inherently weak being an urban-based middle class party with few cadres (unlike Hasina’s Awami League), may gain adherents, if Hasina is seen as being vindictive, he warned.

The West’s diagnosis of the problem in Bangladesh is not correct and its solutions will not work, Chowdhury said. The root of the problem is in the faulty functioning of State institutions, class discrimination, corruption and jobless economic growth leading to inequalities, he explained.