In a country where the upper class enjoys almost total impunity, they suddenly faced an unexpected furor over an alleged rape incident. It allegedly happened in an upscale joint called Raintree Hotel located in Dhaka’s hyper rich residential area.
Reports say, two girls were invited to a party there where at some point, they were raped, they claim after drinking and at gun point. No cases were filed for nearly a month as the rapists were children of the very rich, they had videoed the rape scene and were also threatening violence, say the alleged victims. When they did go to file a case, the police refused to register it for almost 48 hours because of their family identity. But once the case was lodged, the matter leaked to media and it became a digital cause.
Rapes are a dime a dozen in Bangladesh but the difference was the class and status of the two alleged rapists. One Safat, was the son of Apon Jewellers, the largest jewelry chain in town and the other Sadman, the son of a major RMG group and the high-profile Picasso restaurant which is part owned by a retired General, part of the 2006 military takeover.
The media ‘blitz’ was largely social media led followed by most members of the professional/ traditional media. The venom level of the FB comments showed the deep fissures of Bangladesh society along class lines. The rich of Bangladesh are some of the most indulgent and arrogant anywhere as they fund most of the political parties and grease law enforcement machines regularly. However, social and online media seems to have significantly adjusted power relations. For the first time, power, cash and influence were pushed into a corner by public opinion however disorganized.
The police and the authorities had ignored the pressure initially but online rage became so high that the two main alleged criminals were arrested from Sylhet, a resort town 200 miles from capital city Dhaka. In a post arrest briefing, the police said, that the ‘the case is being substantially proved.”
The episode is causing unease in the upper class, not used to such offensive attacks. The public hostility displayed was not anticipated and the power of social media which forced the Government to act has been a rude shock. Social media has become the new battlefield for the conflict between the rich and the middle class. For once, the upper class was on the back foot and the Government has been forced into damage control mode to reduce possible political fall out.
Cases have been filed against the Raintree Hotel, owned by a ruling party MP’s family- B.H. Harun- and the Apon Jewelers group’s future life is uncertain.
Dildar Ahmed, the jewelry group owner had defended his son in a bizarre interview saying that “a little bit of such youthful fun is normal”, even hinting he was also into such indulgences too is in deep shit. All his shops have been raided, the main outlet shut down, money laundering and other cases started and 10 million dollars worth of ornaments seized.
Media has also been accused of irresponsibility including failing to keep the victims’ identity secret though it’s the hyper media overdrive, unethical by normal standards which forced the government to act. Meanwhile, Basundhara Group, one of the biggest business groups which own a media empire blacked out all rape news in its outlets. This group had faced public rage a few months back when it dubbed students beaten up by its security guards as “Islamic terrorists”. Later it backed down and apologized. Now they faced ire for siding with the alleged rapists.
The FB reaction has taken the upper class by surprise as they are not used to scrutiny but their sleazy lifestyle, inevitable in any crony capitalism scenario has been exposed and as a group they look vulnerable. Media owners belong to the upper class but many online outlets are small affairs. Police and officials can be bought but social media can’t which has emerged as the most significant voice of protest today.
Technology has changed the nature of protest and like it or not the Government can’t ignore it anymore. It can’t also shut social media easily though it will keep on trying and may try again but with millions of members, it is a very tough task. One can’t have elections and a FB shut down simultaneously and still look electorally positive. The rise of social and online media has created a new space which no authority nor can money buy or control. It’s an uneasy thought for any ruling class.