S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H
Ayaan Shams Siddiquee
Teenage gang culture was brought to the limelight back in early 2017, when Adnan Kabir, a teenager (and member of a teenage gang) was brutally murdered by members of a rival gang. What started off as anti-social acts of hostility have now transformed into criminal activities.
Teenage psychology has long been an extensively explored topic. Rabindranath Tagore, in his short story Chuti, wrote, “তেরো-চৌদ্দ বৎসরের ছেলের মতো পৃথিবীতে এমন বালাই আর নাই। তাহার মুখে আধো-আধো কথাও ন্যাকামি, পাকা কথাও জ্যাঠামি এবং কথামাত্রই প্রগলভতা।” In his short story, he illustrated the psychological turmoil teenagers undergo when they assume the role of leadership of a group, but find themselves total misfit when it comes to their families and accepted social norms.
However, as time has changed, so have these misfit teenagers. With the exposure of teens to vulgarity and indecency and the consequent effects on their mentality and perception, a lot of juveniles have strayed far away from their regular flow of life. And as such, a new source of concern for the nation has arisen — teenage gang culture.
The rise and proliferation of teenage gangs has put forth a wave of concern and anxiety amongst the very people who put their faith and expectations on these deviants, namely, their parents and guardians.
Where does gang culture originate from?
Due to the recent cultural transitions (and subsequent societal degradation from generational difference), a plethora of teenagers are rapidly losing their ground to stand properly with their peers as properly functioning members of society. As a resultant effect, they are creating another (exclusive) society within society.
Most teenage groups and exclusive bubbles are composed of behaviour which may seem abruptly peculiar to the general masses. Be it casually-used vulgar language or very ‘modern’ articles of clothing, teenage societies are exceedingly different from the more mature sect of society, owing largely to generation gap. The prevalence of teenage gangs is given birth to in such societies.
Md. Aslam Hossain, Officer in Charge at Fatullah Police Station, upon being asked, told us, “Basically, we’ve seen teenagers get involved in such crimes as soon as they break out of family ties. At the age when adolescents gradually create a world of their own as a form of mental freedom, they become involved in these types of groups for various reasons. There are many reasons behind this. Sometimes it is for drugs, sometimes for the sake of gaining acceptance in the circle of friends, or to get involved in this kind of crime. Sometimes it happens that each of their favourite big brothers or seniors has an inclination, an attraction towards them.”
Moreover, in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, emphasis is on the innate natural lusting of teenagers after supremacy over others and their surrounding environment. What comes in the form of misguidance and attraction towards the wrong excesses, contribute largely to the rise of teenage gangs. Parents leaving little to no time for the budding children paves a path for radical thinking and bad company, further reinforced by their lack of concern and dearth of providing financial support for the children’s daily expenses.
However, as negligent parenting has negative effects, strict and tiger parenting has certain negative impacts on the mental hankering of growing-adolescents. Tiger parents’ constant attempt to over-monitor and enforce their authority upon their children, exposes the children to vulnerability. Lying, deceiving, and secrecy stem from this innate vulnerability and is slowly shaped up into delinquent activities. Peers, big brothers, and political leaders exploit this uncared vulnerability to divert the teens into their local gangs.
“Gang culture has always been around. The main cause of this is conflict among the people. Some aspects of crime exist naturally within society, others rise from poverty and discrimination,” says Hafisur Rahman, professor of the Department of Law, University of Dhaka.
However, a common misconception is that all juveniles involved in gangs live below or barely above the poverty line. According to The Financial Express, yawning social disparities, absence of chain of command in communities, deterioration of social values and lax or absent parental guidance, and affluence gained by foul means in families may react on sensitive young minds in peculiar and unpredictable ways. This is why in Uttara, lots of teenagers from rich families spoil themselves by forming gangs, perhaps under the influence of Mario Gianluigi Puzo’s Godfather-famed mafia culture. Political organisations and local ‘big brothers’ (বড় ভাই) play a massive role in this regard as well.
Mr. Aslam, upon being asked about the ties of teenage gangs with political parties, said that sometimes there are ties, sometimes there aren’t. “It just so happens that the leaders of these types of gangs have a relationship with the leaders or any emerging leaders of political parties. This relationship is not a direct tie with any political party, rather acquaintance with a leader, as a brother in the area. Because of these acquaintances, these teenagers get a sense of confidence, they think they are very strong. That may not always be the case. Sometimes, of course, there is a direct relationship.
Veteran lawyer MM Mujibur Rahman, when asked about the reasons political fronts engage children in criminal and unlawful activities, told Dhaka Tribune that the godfathers make use of the teenagers as there is no provision for penalising the teens. Delinquent youths below 18 are sent to juvenile correction centres, and in murder cases, the juveniles get a maximum 10 years imprisonment. Moreover, juveniles are easily given bail.
A study carried out on behalf of the Criminology & Criminal Justice (CCJ) dug deep into the roots of gangs in our country, analysing the prevalence of hierarchies within organised crime. A three levelled pyramid structure was proposed, wherein the first echelon was denounced to be mastaans (local gang leaders). The data demonstrated that mastaan groups operate criminal businesses with clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and methods to earn and divide profits.
Gangs are headed by a mastaan, who is supported by a right-hand man, or assistant, who controls the lower echelons of the criminal group. Mastaans conduct their activities in collusion with politicians, who provide them with immunity. Mastaans give politicians a share of the extortion money and provide ‘political muscle’, threats, violence, and intimidation on the streets to secure votes and muster political support, in exchange. They hire children, promising them holistic security and support, to conduct political violence, ‘grab’ land, carry weapons, sell drugs, collect extortion money, and oftentimes, commit murders.
Another interesting theory behind the prevalence of gangsterism is the over-romanticisation of power in mass media and society as a whole. As dominance and supremacy is overly-emphasised on and strength is seen as the social norm, teenagers are wrongly incentivised to showcase their power over others through joining and creating gangs. Following toxic masculinity and toxic male role models, teenagers are influenced into feats of heroism.
Why is gang culture an immediate concern?
In the period between 1990 to 2000, around 3,500 teenage gang members had been active with different gangs. In the following 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, the numbers increased up to 4,882. The next survey was no longer available, but a rough estimate suggests that gang members may have risen between somewhere 8,000 to 10,000. (Source: RAB Legal and Media Wing Director Lt Col Md Emranul Hasan)
With an estimated 50-60 active teenage gangs in the country, the proliferation of teenage gang culture is rising higher and higher. While gang culture was mostly centred around the capital city of Dhaka, reports of teenage gangs and gang wars in divisions like Chattogram, Khulna, Sylhet—are on the rise. Lt Col Mozammel Haque, additional deputy inspector general and commanding officer at RAB-4, said, “Many adolescents join gangs with the intention of showing heroism. As they help each other in moments of crisis, they think that maintaining a gang is a must.”
News of horrendous murder cases commited by teenage gangs have been surfacing on the news and social media rapidly, putting an end to the archaic assumption that teenage gangs didn’t pose a significant threat to society.
However, legal authorities are not lagging behind in bringing justice for these crimes. Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) Commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia has announced that all kinds of teenage gangs would be wiped out of the capital soon. “We have adopted a zero tolerance policy towards gang culture, and we are committed to eradicating all teen, adult, and local gangs.”
“We are conducting regular drives against these gangs, and we hope their influence will wane very soon. But the families of these gangs will have to play a vital role in bringing them back to the right path,” said Mohammad Sarwar Alam.
What happens to these ill-fortuned juveniles in the end
Following the Child Act, 1974, three correctional facilities were established in the country, intended for the rehabilitation and psychological correction of delinquent juveniles. In theory, Juvenile Detention Centres, or JDCs, are institutions for the rehabilitation and reintegration of juvenile delinquents into society, mandated by The Child Act, 2013 which required delinquent children under 18 to be sent there.
However, news of horrific incidents occurring in these institutions are quite regular. An example would be the August 13th event, where 3 juveniles were beaten to death with pipes, stumps, and sticks; 15 others were injured.
Delinquent juveniles are supposed to change themselves for the better in these institutions, and later lead a fruitful life in the future. However, the function of these institutions is more akin to a prison than a place for rehabilitation and growth. Callous and inhumane behaviour from the staff and poor dwelling conditions are a regularity for the juveniles who stay in these facilities.
They also face extensive mental and sexual abuse, especially noticeable in the case of girls. A report by Dhaka Tribune showed that sexual abuse by the facility staff was pervasive in the female Juvenile Detention Centres.
With such gross ineffectiveness, these institutions do nothing but further aggravate these juveniles, mentally scarring them and hindering their ability to function properly in society through initiating an utter lack of comprehensive ability, brought forth by an absence of any kind of helping hand that might have taught them.
And, more often than not, these prosecuted juveniles face resentment from their families and their societies. They are seen as unworthy of reintegration into society. In these sensitive times, gang leaders and mastaans take advantage of the situation, validating and falsely-motivating the juveniles in order to lure them back into their gangs. The emotional turmoil they go through makes it likely for them to reinforce themselves through criminal activities.
Be it the Adnan murder of 2017 or the Rifat murder of 2020, teenage gangs have taken over the country’s localities. Undertaking flamboyant gang names and drastically deviating from their normal lives, these once-innocent teenagers find it difficult to get reintegrated into the regular flow of society. And the very centres entrusted with the rehabilitation of these dissipated juveniles have an appalling success rate, which makes it even more difficult to bring the juveniles back to their normal lives and put an end to teenage gang culture.
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- The menace of teenage gangs
- Gangs of teens cause concern across Bangladesh
- Gang culture new cause of concern
- ‘Teenage Gang Culture’: From Romeo to a murderer
- Arresting teenage gangsterism
- Teen Gang Culture Worries Experts
- (PDF) The gangs of Bangladesh: Exploring organized crime, street gangs and ‘illicit child labourers’ in Dhaka
- Over 50 teen-gangs active in Dhaka
- Juvenile development centres or torture cells?
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.
This piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA under the project “Strengthening the voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.