Highway of Unrest

Bangladesh is beholding a series of nation-wide student agitations. The recent agitation over the issue of road safety has provoked an international response and simultaneously exposed the inner rot encountered by the country

NJ Thakuria

 

Detention, arrest and even extra-judicial killings of ordinary citizens are a day-to-day phenomenon in Bangladesh. However, the recent arrest of many students following the tragic death of two students in a road accident in Dhaka prompted visible international outcries that seemingly put the Bangla Government in an awkward position.

 

 

 

Students shout slogans as they protest to demand road safety in Dhaka, Bangladesh 

 

Voices and pressures being mounted over the Sheikh Hasina Government in Dhaka from various parts of the world to have a better road safety measure and also release of all detained students along with well-known Bangladeshi photographer Dr Shahidul Alam, who is still under the government custody after arrest for making critical comments against the government. Road accidents take place in Bangladesh very often like many other developing countries; here the populous nation loses more than 20 lives every day in various traffic-related incidents. World Health Organisation (WHO) report reveals that Bangladesh witnesses over 20,000 fatal road accidents every year across the country that brings notorious name as one of the world's worst accident prone nations. When almost every conscious citizen of the south Asian nation went on ignoring the chaos, a tragic accident in the capital city moulded massive public uprisings that compelled the incumbent Awami League-led Government in Dhaka to come out with a pragmatic roadmap. Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself had to console the fuming nation on road safety measures.

 

Road of Doom

The incident that pained the nation took place on July 29, 2018, at the airport road, when an unruly speeding privately operated bus ran over a group of students waiting for their respective vehicles, killing at least two (Abdul Karim Rajib and Diya Khanam Mim) students and injuring many others. Soon after the incident, some senior students boycotted their classes and assembled on the location as a mark of protest. They also demanded a concrete set of road safety guidelines for the country. Slowly, their protest attracted many other students, and it finally took many other cities and towns of Bangladesh into its fold. The protest finally emerged as a massive anti-government demonstration.

 

 

 Bangladeshi students gather for a protest against quotas for certain groups of people in government jobs in Dhaka on April 11

 

The students of higher school standard in their school uniforms started checking drivers’ licenses and other documents relating to the vehicles plying on the road. They also asked the drivers to follow the respective lanes leaving aside space for emergency users. The situation annoyed the owners, and they decided not to ply their vehicles, thus putting pressure on the Government to take away the agitating students. Dhaka supports over 18 million dwellers where, besides private cars, hired light motor vehicles, rickshaws etc., more than 6,000 Government and privately owned city buses ply every day transporting over 300,000 common passengers. A huge number of buses are owned by politicians, Government officials and powerful business tycoons, and hence they enjoy safeguards in most cases.

 

The agitators meanwhile put forward few demands to the Government that the concerned driver (who killed the students) must be arrested; all driver-riders should possess proper licenses, street-roads should be managed by traffic lights instead of police personnel. They also pointed out that the streets should have lanes and the vehicles should have to display necessary signals. The students’ agitation instantly drew the attention of local media, artist-intellectuals, and progressive thinkers in Dhaka. Appreciating spirit of protest, Bangladesh’s lone Nobel laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus termed it as unprecedented and commented that their demonstration would never be forgotten by the nation. In a media piece, he also criticised the Hasina Government for losing an opportunity to address the youths’ anger passionately. The former Managing Director of Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus also noted that the agitating students hit the street not only for mourning but also for raising voices against the failure of the concerned authority, which is responsible for the road safety.

 

 

“We’ll monitor social media, check rumours, and then find out their sources. The government also wants Facebook not to allow information that is against the state to be posted. Aside from spreading rumours, a lot of anti-state activities were conducted using these platforms. So, we have decided to take action to prevent such activities in the future.” — Mostafa Jabbar, Minister for Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology, Government of Bangladesh

 

 

“They demanded enforcement of traffic laws so that no one else would have to sacrifice their young lives under the wheels of uncontrolled buses and other vehicles,” said the article adding that he supported the new Bangladesh the youths are dreaming and wanted to be a part of that Bangladesh. The Hasina regime is feeling nervous now and has started taking strong actions against the demonstrators. Though the movement started with the issue of road safety, soon it embraced larger political concerns for 160 million Bangladeshi nationals waiting for a next general election by the end of this year. The Bangla police along with many masked pro-AL youths jumped over the demonstrators in various places. The authority also started arresting the demonstrators. Moreover, the government picked up many individuals who ‘provoked’ the students on alternate media space. Some national and international rights organisations condemned the government for the crackdown on the demonstrators and their sympathisers.

 

Shutting Down the Protestors

Within nine days of agitation, the Dhaka police detained (read arrested) over 95 individuals for instigating disturbance and violence in the social media. “The Bangladeshi authorities must end this crackdown and release all protestors who were peacefully exercising their human rights. The students were overwhelmingly peaceful. Their actions must not become a pretext for an attack on a civil society where dissent is punished, and people live in fear that they will be arrested next,” said a statement issued by Amnesty International. Similarly, Human Rights Watch criticised the Bangla authorities for arresting the agitating students and targeting activist-journalists who went on highlighting a particular problem. But the government remained silent on taking actions against those responsible for unlawfully attacking the young protesters.

 

In a similar protest at Dhanmondi locality of Dhaka on August 5, the police forces along with few AL supporters targeted the agitators with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds of students sustained injuries, and the pro-government thugs even did not spare the scribes who were covering the incident. Many reporters and photo-journalists faced the brutal attacks from the AL supporting youths covering their faces with full helmets. One of the prominent photographers, social and human rights activists of the country, Alam was also on the spot filming the demonstration, and he too faced the goons. International media rights body Reporters Sans/Without Borders (RSF) promptly issued a statement calling the authorities ‘to ensure the safety of journalists after a dark day for press freedom on August 5, 2018 where at least 23 reporters were attacked by government supporters while covering student protests in Dhaka’. Recently, the Bangla media fraternity under the banner of various journalist unions staged a protest demonstration in front of the national press club in Dhaka and demanded stringent punishments against the goons (read pro-AL activists), who attacked the scribes during the students’ protest. It may be noted that Bangladesh, which is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF 2018 world press freedom index, had witnessed over 25 cases of assaults on journalists in 2017. At least two journalists (Abdul Hakim Shimul from Dainik Samakal and Shahzahan Bachchu from Amader Bikrampur) were killed by miscreants last year. By the evening of the black day, activist and thinker Alam uploaded few videos in the alternate media expressing his support to the students’ protest. Moreover, he joined in a live-talk with Doha based Al Jazeera news channel and made critical comments against the government.

 

He commented that the AL leader (Hasina) continued clinging to power by brutal forces even though she lost the moral ground to continue as the Premier. The sixty-plus activists ended up asserting the Hasina regime turned authoritarian, and it would lose a free & fair election in the country.

 

Sympathy waves in favour of Alam also emerged from the international arena as his photographs are regularly published in various international media outlets. Condemnations from various influential international outfits like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, South Asians for Human Rights, and Committee to Protect Journalists etc. started pouring against the Government. A group of hundreds of writer, journalists, academicians, lawyers, rights activists, photographers, filmmakers, artists etc. from various parts of the world have urged the Hasina Government to investigate allegations of unlawful arrest and torture on Alam.

 

Four world-famous intellectuals namely Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy and Vijay Prashad also raised voices for Alam’s immediate release. They claimed that the government handed over a prestigious award (Shilpakala Padak) to Alam and hence it must respect his dignity by dropping all charges. Strong voices were heard from Bharat. Acclaimed photojournalist Raghu Rai sent a letter to Prime Minister Hasina and argued that Bangladesh is a country of poets, writers, artists, musicians etc. The Government should release Alam with all others unconditionally, honouring the spirit of democracy.