Bangladesh is no stranger to street movements. The very conception of the country is tied to a long history of anti-establishment protests and demonstrations that took oppressive regimes head on. Fair to say that in many ways, slogans and marches have shaped the very core of Bangladeshi politics.

A universal characteristic of these movements has been the front-row participation of young people, largely from the educated urban middle classes.

The pre-independence Bhasha Andolan (Language Movement) was primarily organised by university students who were the first to assert cultural autonomy of East Bengalis on a large scale. The  liberation struggle was fought on the social capital of university students who provided a collective voice to the Bengali national consciousness. The more recent Shahbagh Square movement, too, was also frontally driven by university students, many of whom used social media to mobilise. The even more recent quota reform protests were spearheaded by students.

And now the road safety protests – animated not just by college students but also uniformed school goers. Bangladesh’s youth got no chill, and that is precisely how it should be in a country that is thoroughly dominated by a powerful coterie of elites.

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Anger and apathy

The past week has unraveled in a frenzy as Dhaka erupted in a massive surge of anger after a speeding passenger bus racing another one mowed down two college students on 29 July. The vehicle happened to be registered in the name of one Jabale Nur, a private bus operator with close links to the brother-in-law of union shipping minister Shahjahan Khan.

Not long after the killing, hordes of young students, college and school-going alike, descended upon the main nerve centres of Dhaka to demand justice and ask for tougher road safety laws. The crowd, which eventually swelled to tens of thousands of irate students, seemed to bring the whole city to a standstill. Evidently, Dhaka’s youngsters had had enough.

But, the administration, as usual, showed oodles of unenviable patience. On being asked about the deaths and the bus owner’s links to his relative, Khan smirked away to casual dismissal. Even worse, he attempted to divert attention to another road tragedy in India’s Maharashtra the previous day, where 33 people lost their lives.

This, quite expectedly, touched a raw nerve. Khan’s nonchalance and apathy towards the deceased only sharpened the anger against an administration that, instead of listening and engaging with the protesting crowd, resorted to blaming the opposition for fomenting unrest and later, shutting down the demonstrations by force.

As the week progressed, the protests began to spill out of Dhaka. The “Baccha Andolan” (Children’s Movement) – as many called it – was taking a larger shape. For a moment, it seemed like Bangladesh’s second Shahbagh moment.

In an extraordinary show of civil dissent, the protesting students were seen managing traffic on the main roads of the city and even verifying licenses of commuters. It was as if the city’s young denizens, in a glorious show of frustration, had finally reclaimed authority from an incompetent and unresponsive civic administration.

“What these kids are attempting to do is not merely bring about changes in policy and implementation, but to also nurture a culture which respects the law. A culture which says that, yes, 99 times out of a 100 my seatbelt will not save my life in a city like Dhaka, but despite that, I will put my seatbelt on because that is what the law requires,” wrote SN Rasul in a Dhaka Tribune op-ed.

For a week, as the protests unfolded and the numbers grew, the government took no corrective or reactive action. But, on 5 August, the Awami League-led government led by Prime Minister and “Mother of Humanity”, Sheikh Hasina, decided to draw the curtains in a rather menacing way.

Rage of the machine

Come weekend, the protesting crowd suddenly found itself on the sharp end of the administration’s temper as the city police began to use disproportionate force to disperse the crowds, most of whom were demonstrating nonviolently.

As the day unfolded, students found themselves charged with batons, tear gas, and even rubber bullets. Internet services across different parts of the country were shut down, cutting Dhaka off from rest of Bangladesh.

But, the administration’s heavy-handedness certainly wasn’t the most ridiculous thing that happened over this violent weekend.

Images on social media showed brigades of young men armed with rods and machetes, many in motorbike helmets, lashing down on the demonstrators and journalists covering the protests. Even the US ambassador’s vehicle skirted an attempted attack by what the State Department described as “armed adult men.”

These vigilante attackers, as the local media’s accusations go, were all affiliated to the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling party. The protestors have alleged that the police was complicit in these attacks.

Later, twenty plain-clothed police officers from the Dhaka Police’s Detective Branch picked up Shahidul Alam, a civil society activist and photojournalist of international acclaim, for allegedly inciting violence through his remarks on news programmes.

He was later charged under the infamous Section 37 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, and placed under a seven-day judicial remand by a local court. As of Tuesday, the remand has been put on hold by the Dhaka High Court.

On Monday, Shahidul was seen walking out of a local court barefoot, jostled along by policemen and with visible difficulty. He alleged custodial torture during the proceedings.

The violence was so brazen and startling that even the United Nations was compelled to release a statement, expressing concern about the safety of young students and journalists. The European Union, too, has urged the government to initiate an independent probe into the police heavy-handedness and the vigilante attacks on demonstrators.

Elites in the Ivory Tower

As a bloody Sunday drew to a close, all that the Prime Minister could say from the safe confines of her office was that a “third party” might have hijacked the protests and that the students should now pack up and go home.

“I request all guardians and parents to keep their children at home. Whatever they have done is enough,” Sheikh Hasina said from her office.

In saying what she said, the Prime Minister only spoke like a true subcontinental elite – averse to popular confrontations and condescending of young people as a political force. It was not like the kids were out to play soccer on the road or shoot each other with paintball and laser tag. They were demanding core legal and civil reforms that concern the everyday existence of Dhaka’s commuters. In the face of such a genuine call, Sheikh Hasina’s was an egregious and infantilising response.

“Different problems require different solutions, as there is no such thing as a silver-bullet solution outside of fiction. And I understand that this also applies to our road and transport laws. But what this movement is asking for is for the government to simply divert more attention to the ceaseless loss of life taking place on our roads at an alarming frequency,” wrote one concerned Class X student, Samiha Rashid.

Why really drove the Mother of Humanity to discipline her young children so mercilessly? Enter reelpolitik.

Unlike in the Shahbagh movement of 2013, which was largely supported by the ruling Awami League, the ongoing protests are directly aimed at the current administration. While the road safety issue transcends any particular party, the sitting government inevitably fell in the crosshairs given its incumbency. The categorical anger at the League government surged even higher after the union minister’s outrageous response.

This is hardly good news for a ruling regime that is going to national polls before year end and otherwise appears to be the strongest political force in the country today. The Awami League would certainly not want the demonstrations to become rallying points for opposition forces, most prominently the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) whose iconic leader Khaleda Zia remains in jail on graft charges.

But, the protests did challenge the delicate status quo at some level and in turn, the tinderbox political climate of the day. The poll returns later this year should reflect this (or not).

While the government, in response to the landslide demands for reforms, has now raised the sentence for rash driving and taken other token measures, it is barely enough. Road safety is a ground-level agenda that requires targeted policies and capacity building at more than one levels – urban planning, traffic policing, criminal justice, and civil infrastructure.

More than just road safety?

While the August protests were primarily centred around making Bangladesh’s roads safer, the mammoth outburst of anger had a much deeper and more universal background.

Over the past one decade or so, Bangladesh’s dualistic political system – split in half between the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party – has become increasingly passive to popular grievances, instead locking itself in an endless zero-sum game of opposing interests.

Since the Awami League government came to power in 2008, the establishment has only gotten stronger and more authoritative. Both the Shahbagh Movement and the post-2015 war on terror helped Sheikh Hasina cement her position in Bangladesh’s politics. The final leg, in many ways, was Khaleda Zia’s conviction and imprisonment.

These have only allowed the League to meticulously foster a totalising system designed to hurl sweeping policy diktats at an unsuspecting public, sometimes at the cost of subverting democratic and constitutional principles. At the same time, the party has pushed a crude, primordial kind of politics into the mainstream, which is marked not by dialogue and reconciliation, but by hooliganism and violent turf wars.

The net outcome has been a murky mix of institutional apathy, heavy-handedness, arbitrary decision-making, and most importantly, unresolved public grievances.

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Take for example Sheikh Hasina’s much-touted ‘war on drugs.’ Run with significant autonomy by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) – both infamous for their totalitarian and subversive methods of achieving hard-set outcomes – the ongoing drive against narcotics consumption and smuggling has increasingly begun to look like Rodrigo Duterte’s notorious anti-drug policies in the Philippines.

As of June, at least 140 were confirmed dead, most of whom were allegedly murdered extrajudicially, and more than 12,000 arrested. Leaked audio recordings revealed that many among the dead were actually anti-drug activists.

A large number of the dead and arrested come from the weaker economic strata, which allows the elite-centric state to go full power in its ‘patriotic’ anti-narcotics campaign. This is while some of the biggest drug kingpins actually belong to the highest echelons – for example, Awami League MP Abdur Rahman Bodi who was exonerated of graft charges after a conviction.

Besides this, the ruling party has been routinely using its extended lumpens, mostly from its students’ wing, to shut down popular protests. Sunday’s armed attack on the students in Dhaka was a case-in-point, and so were the brazen assaults on protestors during the April quota reform protests, which in itself was a direct manifestation of rising popular anger against the ruling government’s elite-centric policies. This vigilante violence is hardly new, though, and has been frequently employed over the past one decade.

In many ways, the road safety protests encompassed these broader grievances that relate to social injustice, corruption, economic depravity, political disenfranchisement, and inability to voice grievances.

According to Shahab Enam Khan, Associate Professor in International Relations at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh,

The recent protests were actually the expression of multiple grievances under one umbrella. The blame game and denial in the name of politics may make it even worse for the polity and the political environment. What is needed is visible delivery of security and public aspirations.

Deep-seated grievances combined with institutional insensitivity is a solid recipe for civil unrest, and why not.

For its own sake, the Awami League should not forget Bangladesh’s history of civil dissent, besides the critical support that young people across the country had given to the Shahbagh spirit – also reflected in the League’s own politics – half a decade ago. By turning their back on the same students and subverting their demands, Sheikh Hasina has only sent out a problematic message to the young voters who constitute around 23% of the electorate.

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For now, the restive and visibly flustered Bangladeshi students have made it amply clear that they are out to preserve the country’s rich tradition of civil dissent, that the elites ruling over them and the dreary status quo that the latter strive to preserve will not go unchallenged. For the government, there is no easy way out of this but to take the opposition head-on and resolve pending issues.


Angshuman Choudhury is a New Delhi-based policy analyst, currently working with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

This story was updated with fresh inputs on 9 August 2018.

Featured Image: Asive Chowdhury, Wikimedia Commons

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