Many of us have been left stunned after witnessing a series of mob attacks on people being accused of kidnapping and murdering children. In the past weeks, several such attacks injured 25 people and killed at least seven people in different parts of the country. The attacks were sparked off by a rumour that the Padma Bridge requires “human heads” for its completion by December 2020. That rumour spread quickly through social media and mob attacks on the suspected kidnappers have become rampant.
The most tragic of these attacks took place at the heart of Dhaka. A mother of a four-year-old child went to a school in Badda to enquire about the admission process. She was accused of being a kidnapper and was beaten to death by an angry mob. Videos of the event have gone viral on social media. A few young men had beaten her mercilessly and scores of others, including women, stood idly by watching and recording the event on their mobile phones. One of the attackers who was instrumental in the killing even seemed to be posing for pictures with the motionless body of the suspect.
The basis of the rumour is an age-old myth regarding human sacrifice needed for construction of sturdy structures (e.g. bridges). Of course, the myth (or urban myth) is not unique to Bangladesh. Similar urban myths are found in different countries of Asia, Africa, or even Europe. Part of the myth concerns the use of human sacrifice for some desired outcome. If we want to ask, “why has this resurfaced in Bangladesh now”, anthropological literature may give us a head-start in that investigation. For example: different occult practices, such as witchcraft, remerged in South Africa after the apartheid led to killings of suspected witches. In this context, scholars propose that the answer to the question: “why now?”, must be found in the existing socio-economic conditions that relate to the globalised, capitalist economy. Even though some may claim that conspiracies were at the heart of the rumours and mob attacks, it is perplexing to see thousands of people believing in them and participating in the attacks.
To explain why people are believing in “rumours” during a time of rapid economic development, we must analyse the current historical “situation” that has generated a mixed feeling of possibility and powerlessness, modern desires and vast despairs, as well as cohorts of jobless youth. These have been the corollaries of “development” and “accumulation of wealth” by only a few—as evident by the fact that the youth unemployment rate has risen significantly in the last 20 years. According to the “Asia-Pacific Employment and Social Outlook 2018” of the ILO, youth (age 15-24 years) unemployment increased from 6.32 percent in 2000 to 12.8 percent in 2017. Dr Fahmida Khatun in a 2018 article mentioned that the youth of the country have not benefitted from Bangladesh’s economic growth. Furthermore, a large proportion of the total youth population (29.8 percent) is neither in education, nor in employment or training (NEET). In fiscal year 2018, the GDP growth rate stood at 7.86 percent, however, most of the jobs created remained in the informal or unorganised sector resulting in 28 percent unemployment rate among the youth who received secondary level education. Data suggests that young people in Bangladesh do not have the right skill set for the emergent economy. Consequently, the gap created by the unemployability of our youth is bridged by hiring skilled workers from our neighbouring countries. The result of this social phenomena has been multi-dimensional—increased stress, depression, and feeling of futility among the youth, which result in them falling for rumours and forming a mob mentality.
There are two distinct features to be noticed in the circulated videos of the mob killing mentioned above: firstly, hundreds of people are spontaneously participating, and secondly, those who are beating the suspect are taking pride in committing the heinous act. This shows that most of the people believed the rumour and perceived their action as a way to achieving social justice. Why is this happening? I suggest that forming violent mobs give the youth an opportunity to exercise some agency—as they otherwise feel left behind while the country is “developing” and a few are getting richer economically. Despair among the population makes them vulnerable to believing in rumours, as they have already seen the “rich” always benefitting at their expense. The mob provides a potent opportunity to find their worth, which they otherwise feel they are being stripped of at this current socio-economic juncture. Participation in the mob exemplifies their desire to take control of the social situation against the futility that has grown over the years of promised but unmet development. Moreover, the tendency to take selfies while the mob beating takes place also demonstrates their desire of being part of something that works towards some form of social justice.
Young people not only took part in the mob activities that were based on the rumour of “human sacrifice”, they have participated in similar situations when miscreants have been caught by the people, and also during emergencies such as the fire incidences in Banani and Old Dhaka recently. The essence of the argument: the paranoia about human sacrifice for bridge construction (as such “development”) amidst the huge progress in almost all the socio-economic development indicators signifies an occult modernity in Bangladesh. The belief in the occult does not imply a retreat into the past/ traditions, rather it is an expression of discontent with modernity, the neoliberal state of affairs, and dealing with its paradoxes, i.e., hope and hopelessness in different avenues. Therefore, rumours spread and mobs form, and many accept these as “normal”, remaining reluctant to intervene—a reality incompatible with the law of the country. Therefore, stricter law enforcement alone will not be able to tackle this issue. The fragments of mob killings echo the futile existence of the youth, wherein pessimism runs up against the promises made by capitalism.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org