On 29th July 2018, two students – Diya Khanam Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib – were run over and killed by a speeding bus on Airport Road, Dhaka, Bangladesh resulting in a massive citywide outcry for better road safety measures. On 29th July, Bangladesh’s Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan dismissed the public’s agitation in an official comment where he asked them, “a road crash has claimed 33 lives in India’s Maharashtra, but do they talk about it like the way we do?” So on 29th July, the Students of Bangladesh took matters into their own hands.
In the early hours of 30th July, I receive a text from Hiba* a friend from Bangladesh, telling me “there is chaos everywhere, the students are protesting.” Many in her country were upset because of the deaths caused by reckless driving, especially by bus drivers. These drivers earn based on the number of passengers they take on, hence are often found speeding from place to place without much regard for traffic regulations, to pick up more passengers in a day’s shift. Astonishingly it was mostly high school and middle school students who assembled at the capital on the 29th to hold demonstrations against the poor road safety measures, increasing the number of unlicensed drivers on roads and corrupt transport authorities.
With next to no media coverage regarding this situation in Dhaka most of my information was gathered through correspondence with Hiba and from social media. The death of the aforementioned wasn’t the only trigger; the unrest among the students started about a week prior to the Airport Road incident when a bus driver and his helper brutally murdered a boy after he was injured in a road accident and threw his body in a lake, just to avoid being caught. According to The National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways (NCPSRR) a Bangladeshi NGO, nearly 4,284 people were killed and 9112 others were injured in the 3,472 road accidents across Bangladesh in 2017.
The classic protest/ demonstration paradigm which includes chanting slogans, rallies, candle marches, a formation of human chains, etc. were very much part of this movement, however, the intriguing aspect of these protests is how these students literally took over the streets. These students did the ‘job’ of the police and maintained road safety for a major part of the protest. They checked the vehicles and their drivers for registration and licenses. They managed traffic by monitoring the lanes, even to the extent of creating an emergency lane for ambulances. On the first day of the protests some students went on to break a few busses, however later in the day many students took initiative and cleaned up the glass on the roads to avoid injuries and nuisance to other pedestrians and vehicles. They even made sure the elderly and disabled were not inconvenienced due to the protests. As a part of their movement, the students even issued a ‘9-point demand’ for the government. It was as if they were showing by example that utopia they deserved was not an unattainable dream.
However, this simulation of idealism had to come to an end. On 4th and 5th, August government suspended internet and cellular services to curb the spread of ‘misinformation online’. All local TV networks were barred by the government from covering the protests and received letters of warning when they did. Shahidul Alam, the photojournalist, was detained on August 5th Sunday night after posting a Facebook video about the protest and giving an interview to the television news network Al-Jazeera, criticizing the violence of the government’s response.
Members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the ruling party entered the scene and video evidence proves that they attacked and injured the peaceful student protestors and photojournalists. Police also began to brutally attack the students and threw tear gas bombs in student-occupied spaces. The BCL raped several of the school students and ‘beat them bloody’ as per sources. Online sources claim some students were forced into giving statements on camera claiming that there were no protests going on in the country in order to misguide international media.
On the contrary Asaduzzaman Khan, Bangladesh’s minister for home affairs refuted all claims that pointed to the use of violence by the Police or Awami League members (ruling party). He accused the opposition parties of infiltrating the protests and “trying to create a violent situation.” These claims do not seem too farfetched as Police Intelligence reports claim to have found an increase in the sale of school uniforms and ID cards in various parts of the city for the purpose of impersonation – a very plausible scenario considering the looming election season. The players of the game called ‘politics’ saw their chance and swooped in to capitalise on these kids’ simple quest for safer roads.
Despite the setbacks, the students refused to back down. In fact, this provided incentive for the private and public University students to join the fight. The students continued their protest with male students forming a human chain around the female students in response to the rapes by BCL. Students took to the internet to alert international media and the world about their plight. Online campaigns and pleas to bring justice went viral. On 6th August a new traffic act proposing stricter punishment for accidental and intentional killing with a motor vehicle was passed by the cabinet. Eventually, Bus owners released a statement with the decision to put contract drivers on monthly payroll instead of them collecting fare per passenger. With this, the protests came to an end on 8th August 2018.
The protests may have been put on hold for now, however, the fight seems to be far from over. The Bangladeshi student I was in correspondence with, who now requested to be anonymous, said that her friend’s house was raided by the police on 8th August 9 pm (Bangladesh Standard Time) while she was home alone. The source claims they “took her personal information and told her not to leave the residential area, if she tried to escape she’ll be considered a criminal.” The Police have detained about 97 people “for violence and incitement in the social media” during the demonstrations, many of whom along with Mr Alam haven’t been released yet. Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) is investigating 1500 profiles on different social networking sites, “for their alleged involvement in spreading rumours and propaganda to instigate anarchy”. Moreover members of the pro-government youth league BCL also asked followers to forward the profiles of anyone allegedly spreading ‘rumours’. This led to many students in Dhaka panicking and deleting their online messages in support of the protests.
Though this report focuses mainly on the protests regarding road safety, I want to draw attention to the fact that these protests were rooted in broader issues like “the absence of accountability in governance and the absence of rule of law” as observed by Professor Ali Riaz of Illinois State University. In the face of recent student-run movements that stemmed from dissent against authority like Pinjra Tod in India, National School Walkout in the USA, etc, the remarkable efforts of these spirited Bangladeshi students has not only helped to keep this momentum going but also managed to show the world once again that ‘the future’ of our world’s nations are not ready to compromise. These extraordinary stories of democracy v/s the youth, are unexpectedly reminiscent of the ‘counter-culture of the 1960s’. It is necessary for young people all around the world to know and understand this incredible display of strength, solidarity and fury from their peers; a reminder of how it is not just okay but important to fight for our rights; a reminder that we do not have to sit back and accept something just because we are ‘too young’ or ‘that’s the way it has always been’, a reminder that ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ and we have a say in it too.
References: The Dhaka Tribune, Twitter #WeWantJustice #RoadSafetyBangladesh
Image Credits: https://scroll.in/article/889351/as-dhaka-student-movement-for-safe-roads-turns-violent-protestors-and-government-trade-charges
*Name changed to protect identity.