The godfather syndrome: Inevitable or preventable?
Star Report  

The scene of charred or torn bodies of alleged snatchers, victims of public wrath has brought up in a literal roar of flame, the critical position of law and order, crime and punishment. Because such incidents have taken place in recent months but has a history rooted in the earliest days of the republic, they have shaken everyone up. The state itself has been put under a microscope.

The issue of law and order has been a social, political and economic issue as never before. It's not just affecting electoral results and the subsequent legitimacies but domestic and foreign investment as well. It's impinging on the life of ordinary people and squeezing their social and physical space. It's being discussed but somehow not attended to.


Mujibul Islam is a resident of a Dhaka slum where he leads a half legal life. As a government employee he lives in a slum which has actually not yet been fully acquired by the government, hence his dicey residential status. Everyone knows that this place is not for semi-squatters like him but everyone goes along and lives there and so does he. The place has been a residence for them for over a decade. To his children, this is home.

But Mujib is already feeling the problems enter his life. Like in any other city slums, this is over lorded by a crime syndicate. This syndicate pays a decent sum of money to the police and in return, a small number of people are allowed to run their drug and black market rickshaw spare parts business. He also gets illegal access to electricity for which he pays no bills but a salami to the man who manages it for all the residents. Water too is irregular but supplied. The rent that he pays is one/fourth of the market level. It's a two-way traffic between him and mastan.

But if he has managed to hold on to a job, do a part time job in the afternoon and get provisions from his village home. His wife helps out with her income as a part time faith healer to those who can't fully afford medical services. So his world is tattered but intact. He knows the world will be very different for his children. It wasn't till he was 25 years old that he got knifed the first time in Dhaka. But his 16 years old son has already tasted blood. His brother has run away elsewhere chased by a gun toting gang, a bullet in his leg and his neighbor's son died in a shoot out just before big money and elections came. Mujib is desperately looking for another place to live but can't afford the rent. He is sure that if he stays any longer here, his children will become criminals, by choice or by force. He is in fact too scared to find out.


To Shahana, the explanation for Dhaka's overbearing gang driven life is clear. It lies in the criminalization of politics. She knows this from close angle because one brother has died and another has killed in the same cause. Her older brother who ran a ubiquitous phone fax center was shot down when he fell foul of the mohalla mastans. They were once his friends but the "macho" hassling of neighbourhood shops grew into an organized toll collection racket. Her brother, a college drop out had taken a loan to start the shop, a trade that requires little skills was mowed down when he failed to deliver the weekly due.

The next day, his brother took revenge on one of the killers. He disappeared for a month after that but surfaced when the election time arrived under the protection of one candidate. He had already joined a gang and after the election became a big mastan for his desperate deeds. He lived apart and dropped all contacts with his family. But since then Shahana has learnt that his "criminal money" has fuelled the family from survival to comfort. Shahana is not threatened in the para anymore and she has a feeling that her brother will fund her wedding when the time comes. But she has decided to leave Bangladesh, hoping to runaway to Canada as a secret bride of a campus boy who was illegal in Canada for years and now can afford to flash the papers, which will let him in. His relatives are already there and so settling in problem will be less. She wants to see the back of Bangladesh and its party politics. "That's where all law and order problems begin."

Her brother is already the youth chief of the party in the area and after the last election switched sides without problem. In fact, he led an attack on his erstwhile leader and also helped lay a trap, which got him arrested. "He isn't afraid, he is just flowing with every event. He has many cases against him. More the cases, more is his market value", she says without much emotion about her brother Rafiq.

"We can't survive without each other. They need us and we need them. This is a new world and I don't understand it but I am part of it. It gives me security, income, prestige and self-respect. What could I have become if there was no politics like this?.

Nobody lives forever but many do. How many mastans get killed? Many survive. I have enough money and if need be, I will run away to the USA or India or anywhere. Many leaders have bought houses there. I can take care of my family. Can you?"


But Rafiq knows that many have died as well and that most people are not mastans like him but he can do little about it. He has crossed the line and must live by the momentum of his life. He doesn't look for logic, he looks for survival and looms for the things, which are enjoyed by the wealthy. He also enjoys them and he also has guns, which makes him feel safe. His godfathers move openly and use him. Once, he was heavily into drugs but as the trade has become more organized he has moved into protection. Even drug dealing needs protection. His godfather is the convergence point of it all. He deals in drugs, takes a salami from the protection rackets, runs garments factories, did manpower and also a few legitimate business as well where the fact that he had mastans and could provide critical favours during times of stress all paid off. When he took over a huge chunk of land, he doled out free chunks to all those who mattered. He is the math-maidan man around whom everything revolves. He likes to be called a Godfather when his close friends are around. He knows the trade inside out. He has supped with many ministers, he will dine with many more. People know him as a man of thousand hearts. He has kept a thousand poor family going. Once, many years ago, he too was poor.


The rise of the Godfather is as much worth scrutiny as the speed with which they rise. In fact they may become rich and powerful within a matter of months. The fact that rising is the key and not the process, through which they rise, makes the issue a serious subject. A Godfather's assistant said it more straightforwardly. "In Bangladesh everyone rises, and nobody asks any question, so why should people be so bothered about us? My mahajan looks after many of us and without him, we would have been lost. You never ask these questions from the people who order the kills and sit in the parliament. Why pick on us. But at least we work for a living. The leaders don't."


There is surprising unanimity amongst all sections that the links politics and crime. Most people feel that decline in state management leads to erosion of confidence in institutions and eroded institutions can't prop up the necessary structures of the state. Which comes first is a chicken and egg question but nature of politics as the dominant factor that determines the level of law and order is an established one. It's also increasingly convincing to many that the space between organized politics and organized crime is also receding. That the Godfather is also the public representative.

"Being a candidate isn't enough. You have to win the election and to do so, you have to have muscle. So politics means muscle and muscle means money. Even a child knows that this is all part of the same thing." Mujib knows from first hand experience.

It also appears that there are godfathers at various levels and the hierarchy of crime and politics may exist not just in parallel but also be one and the same. The overlapping identities issue is now a fact that most accept.

"Just as in the slum there is a slumlord, there is also the ward chief of a party. The ward commissioners also have their counterpart and as the system goes higher, so does the stake. Thus an MP will have hundreds of people under his command and this will include many top-notch gang lords. Now whether the MP is the godfather or a criminal is, I can't say. But the MP needs the gang lord and they can't survive without him. In fact everyone needs everyone." Rafiq is aware of the complex web that surrounds him but doesn't wish to see it end because his own survival also depends on it.


But this linkage is nearly universal and the "godfather" syndrome is not a person based but a systemic one. Neither the state nor society has evolved systems and it's this gap that's filled by informal power groups. The police exists but is ineffectual, the administration exists but can't develop equity based meaningful governance, judiciary exists but generates fear more than respect because of the cumbersome process and increasing corruption allegations, social censure has ceased to exert pressure and new forces like drug and exploding urban society has emerged. And with this all we have growing poverty, which because of its sheer number overwhelms existing social structures.

The state battles for control but this battle is for power to distribute, access or deny resources rather than the right to initiate good governance. The role of politics in providing economic dividends and the failure to manage corruption has set new rules of politicking. It's now obvious that impunity of the powerful is a fact of life proven since the first regime. It has created an environment where godfathers have in fact become substitutes for governing institutes of the informal state that has come into being. It's a kind of state where even classes are unable to form. The godfather structures are props of the new state serving to keep it intact.

In such states the godfathers are not faces of crime but of the state itself.


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 13, 2002


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