#RichKids in an Unlivable City

In the Dhaka of the 80s, there was a consensus regarding who its richest denizen was. At the rare, lavish weddings, my cousins and I would spot him, with his guards and his clan, and cower at the sight of the wealthiest man in Bangladesh. What it signified, we weren’t totally sure. My cousins could easily name his businesses in real estate, banking and construction. His creamy white Mercedes was instantly recognizable around Dhanmondi streets. In our fantasies, his children’s supposed diet of chocolates and cakes were the source of much envy.

In the Dhaka of today, there are hundreds of such magnates, and their overlords. Their empires span from butchering to hospitality; from travel to manpower. They always have a lawmaker in-law too. Like tribal chiefs of medieval Arabia, they are bound to each other in incestuous communions. Their powers are channeled through surrounding circles and can, for example, enforce or acquire a virtual media blackout and nearly smuggle underage offenders out of the country. I can’t stop wondering if and how a UK visa might have been procured. Of course, such information probably doesn’t fall under the purview of the RTI Act.

Dhaka, in 2015, is growing at breakneck speeds, leaving behind old aristocracies, values and traditions (photo: Adnan R. Amin)
Dhaka, in 2015, is growing at breakneck speeds, leaving behind old aristocracies, values and traditions (photo: Adnan R. Amin)

In the Dhaka of the past, there was a vibrant ‘little-mag’ culture, where teenagers would spend their allowances on printing little booklets of original literature. No one cared about the little-mag guys, not the parents, not the sponsors. After much soldiering, the organizers gave up. The rest, as they say, is history: of a social media site draining dry the literary juices of urban Dhakaites.

Today’s Dhaka has ‘Rich Kids’ social media pages where teenagers post photos of über-expensive clothes, accessories, devices and automobiles. They use hashtags like #ClassyKidsOfDhaka and #RichieRichRich. And don’t be so appalled; almost every major metropolis has a “Rich Kids of X”group on Instagram or Tumblr. Iran, quite predictably, has banned the one that popped up in Tehran (dare we follow Iran?). It is only natural that an urban, unsupervised and connected generation will adopt these trends. They have been separated at birth from Dhaka, the unlivable city. Their air was filtered, rooms Disney-themed and chefs, imported. The schools that they went to were reserved for the elite, protected by exclusionary enrollment systems, deep background checks, unnaturally high fees and high walls. These constituted their world: a virtual bubble of young people floating in excessive wealth – connected constantly to affluent worlds, with no local idols or ideals placed before them. It is therefore no surprise that these youngsters are so taken by pimped rides and bling.

***

Just last year in the USA, an intoxicated 16-year old behind the wheels took four lives. During the trial, an expert witness claimed that the teen was a product of “Affluenza” and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences, because his parents had taught him ‘wealth buys privilege’.

On October 11, 2015 another 16-year old boy, racing an SUV under the influence while posting photos of his accomplishments, rammed two rickshaws, injuring four (update: rumors of one death areunconfirmed). Reports claim that he tried to recover the bottles of alcohol even when the victims were lying on the asphalt. Reinforcing the privilege of wealth, at least one victim has reportedlyreceived a payoff from the boy’s family. His attempt to fly off to UK has been thwarted and currently, his arrest is eagerly awaited in Dhaka.

Social media photos from the scene of the accident in Gulshan, Dhaka.
Social media photos from the scene of the accident in Gulshan, Dhaka.

The uproar surrounding the accident is significant and ultimately useful. In many previous instances – after the beating of Rajon, the Curzon Hall assault, the collective sexual-assaults on Baishakh or the tragic demise of little Jihad – social media activism has helped raise awareness and expedite legal actions. At the time of writing this piece, the accused teen’s attempt to leave the country has been thwarted by airport authorities, which I hold to be judicious moves; on either side. Five days on, there are also unconfirmed rumors of an arrest. Unlike the authorities, Dhaka’s social media remains on the vigil.

The narratives generated, as gauged through social media, appear to be from four major threads.

  1. An analysis of the teenager’s character and morality
  2. Criticism of nouveau riche culture that the teenager comes from
  3. Subtle, vindictive pleasure of seeing a cornered elite, rationalized by the constant vilification (e.g. through transmission of images of opulence and ostentation)
  4. Lamentation surrounding the devolution of parenting and the community

The social media mob is doing us a great disservice too. Most are hung up on the teenager’s demeanor, hashtag, alcohol consumption, apparent lack of remorse and the distant world of Dhaka’s uber-rich.

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Alleged Snapchat post from the accused, just minutes before the tragic accident (Source: Social Media)

Unfortunately, the teenager’s media persona comes across as unscrupulous and arrogant; and that can have consequences graver than that of his alleged crimes. This demeanor contextualizes, in the mob’s mind, the accident as an inevitable outcome of a pattern of reckless, criminal behavior.

A second reason why this event has jolted so many is because it has been framed as an offense by one of the elites’ own. Come to think of it, reports of underage truck-drivers fleeing the scene of an accident or getting lynched are not too uncommon in Bangladesh. The difference is that this particular incident has political implications. It betrays public resentment toward the invisible, incestuous aristocracy that rules Dhaka, and thus, Bangladesh. Therefore, the accused has been turned into the poster-boy for spoilt rich kids of Dhaka’s endogamous circle of opulence.

It is fair to assume that activists face a stronger opponent now than, say, in the case of Rajon (his murderer has been extradited last week). This opponent may well be capable of twisting arms, stalling cases and making records disappear. Let us not forget that content marketers have been driven out of Bangladesh for taking on much smaller rivals. Besides, this needs to be a fair game. A lot of the social media venom relates to the alleged offender’s vulgar display of wealth. But if preferential treatment of elites amounts to an injustice, then so should their media trials. Their wealth and lavish lifestyles do not preclude them from a fair, unbiased investigation.

***

The most important theme missing from public discourse surrounding this event is ‘institutional failure’. Despite possible charges of illegal motor-vehicle operation, DUI and voluntary manslaughter – law enforcement is showing signs of lethargy. DMP is yet to lodge a case. The Bangla Tribune is reporting on frantic attempts to protect the accused by the police, who are now contradicting earlier statements about the accident and the identity of the driver. Government agencies may not be lagging behind: road transport authority BRTA recently feigned ignorance of the ownership of the much-photographed and damaged SUV. The owner’s name has been erased from digital records! There seems to be no attempt to investigate this erasure. The preservation of public records must be a priority of information rights. It is unacceptable and petrifying to think that manipulation of records can be procured so swiftly.

Thoroughly seasoned media outlets have been dragging erstwhile lawmakers into the story, presumably in hopes that it will sell more. Not one media outlet has failed to mention that the teen is related to a certain ruling-party lawmaker. As though being someone’s nephew were a crime! Or if unruly behavior were a genetic trait! That is the state of the Media: it no longer believes that the absolute truth works. There are now versions of truth and it’s only rational to pick the most profitable one. This has set the Media diverting attention and resources to monetization and marketing. It now stands balanced precariously on the slippery slope that leads to mere content marketing.

Beginnings of the third institutional failure lie in the visual culture that has produced numerous photos of the accused, the accident and the extraction. Despite the overwhelming visual and anecdotal evidence, the authorities seem dumbfounded. Ossified. While I do not recommend that law enforcement agencies take unsophisticated and infantile Instagram photos as irrefutable proof of guilt, I do advocate that a digital forensic team is brought in. Earlier this year, a man was arrested for posting derogatory comments about the honorable Prime Minister. If we have the technology to dothat, then why not use it? Is that not what a truly Digital Bangladesh would do?

***

In the Dhaka of yesteryears, teenagers could hardly sit on the driving seat, let alone drive. Stay-at-home mothers were constantly there, ready with an assault plan that often involved wringing of the ears, caning the skin off backs and curtailing of general freedoms. Then there were the neighbors, those nosy people who never wanted youngsters to have any fun. Even if you did get past the neighbor, the neighborhood shopkeeper or the street-vendor would spot you. And to top it off, there were the sanctimonious, do-gooder boro bhais, ever prepared to rectify a misstep. They would pounce if, for example, a 16-year old was found drinking; or even smoking in the presence of seniors.

In the Dhaka of today, 16-year olds race SUVs for entertainment. They photograph themselves and their possessions to show off to peers. They scan others’ possessions to determine what to procure next. By amassing ‘things’, they arrive at equations like “my life > your life.” If they have measured everything in gold, it must be because that is what they have seen others do. We cannot refuse to concede that these young people are products of the society we have provided them.

Reblogged from Alalodulal.org.

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