Officials of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) escort Erfan Selim, ward councillor of Dhaka South City Corporation and son of Awami League MP Haji Md Selim, out of their Old Dhaka residence on Monday, October 26, 2020. He was arrested after RAB raided their house and found illegal firearms, ammunition, and liquor (Photo: Collected)
The state of power, its limits and usage, the hierarchies in the ruling class were all exposed in the incident involving Erfan, son of the most powerful politician in Dhaka’s Old Town (and then some), Haji Selim and a Navy officer.
Haji Selim’s power or ‘hold’ could hardly be enhanced by his MP status- these days it doesn't mean much for anyone- compared to the mohalla power he carried. He was a survivor not because he was an astute player but one who represented old power, going back even to colonial roots. That on Monday October 2020 began to say a not so find good-bye. As his son Erfan and his bodyguard, began to beat up Lt. Wasif of Bangladesh Navy, every blow that landed on Wasif was basically a death knell for the traditional power base of the old city godfather and patron.
Zone of power
The family had been far too long in power to be bothered by the identity of the person who stopped Erfan's car that night. Or its possible they were intoxicated or whatever to care. But that the era of Haji Selim would be ended by his son that night wasn't clear to any.
To any other observer not intoxicated by power, it would have been. One doesn't beat up a member of the armed services and gets away with it. Erfan didn't and as events show nor will Haji Selim.
As always social media got the story first which was followed by paid media and soon the news was too big to be cowed down by any censor. Media insiders say that the initial request was to tone it down but soon it had gone viral in every sense. It really wouldn't have mattered by then. The officer had complained to the police and let his own people know and soon action was on.
RAB moved by mid morning to surround Selim's house. The 8-hour hold up by Erfan - his father in law was also an MP was also was a signal that not all power was lost by that time. But once Selim went missing and his son was tried by a RAB mobile court inside the house and handed a year long sentence, the house of Selim had begun to crumble.
Erfan was not remanded but an initial year's jail plus other charges show that he no longer has any backing. The exposure of drugs, walkie-talkies and that gun always unlicensed along with the usual paraphernalia in front of media ensured trashing of the Selim house beyond recovery.
A clean reputation doesn't matter in Bangladesh and many carry dirty stickers which is fine. What is not fine is that one doesn't tangle with those who have institutional power. It's ok to beat up any civilian as nothing matters but once a member of the armed forces is touched, price has to be paid and it is being paid.
Power equations and hierarchies
The incident shows two things. Individual power which is gained through connections are fragile as it has no institutional backing. If the connections die or is withdrawn, they also do. It’s fine as long as the connection works but once missing, it has no power of protection.
This was also observed in case of the casino biggies, Chatro League biggies, Shamim contractor, Regent Shahed and many others. Once the rug is pulled away, the person standing on it falls flat. They basically are here because someone or a few allowed them to be so. Just as it's easy to make and use connections, they are also the least strong and can be snapped anytime.
Haji Selim case was a different kettle of telapia with his clan and area power. But Erfan was up against the armed forces. And that has the most organized and institutional clout in the country. It's the cluster at the top of the ruling class pyramid. Whenever there is a conflict with it, the other will lose. As it has assiduously built its fortress, it's quite impregnable by other power sharers now looking rather mild.
Old city as a social fortress is gone in general but Haji Selim. He can't be resurrected by the ruling party because he is now a liability and nobody will want to be seen as his rescuer. Worse, the armed forces might be offended. And no one certainly wants that.
Politicians are weaker
Meanwhile, there are other pretenders to the throne of Selim and they will make a move now. The absolute power can no longer be exercised. Political parties wanted his brand but that brand is now deeply damaged.
It also shows how fragile is the power construction of the politicians. It confirms what many have said before- politicians are the weakest link in the power cycle. As no institutions have been built, they have become a gathering of individuals and not much else. It lies at the bottom and is not likely to go up as an institution.
As the wags of Dhaka are saying, powerful politicians and children should be given training to beat up civilians only because as the most powerless they don't matter at all. Erfan had no idea the man and wife he was messing up belonged to their nemesis.
(This article was first published in Dhaka Courier and has been reproduced without any change)