Last month on July 29, a speeding bus ran over a group of students, killing two students and injuring several other others in Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka. The incident sparked a widespread student-led protest.
A nine-day protest ensued in the aftermath of the accident that killed 18-year-old Abdul Karim Rajib and 17-year-old Diya Khanam Mim. The protest was initially sparked by remonstrating school students who were later joined by students from private universities as well as public institutions. The students took the streets by storm as they boycotted classes at schools and universities, private and public alike.
Bangladesh is no stranger to student demonstrations. On several occasions, students have shown their solidarity by forming human chains, whether it be during the “Language Movement”, or resistance towards the atrocities against the minority of the country that stemmed from the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
A student of Saint Francis Xavier’s Greenherald International School and College told us, “This protest against the government’s ignorance was necessary. Lives lost due to road accidents is extremely common in Bangladesh, and no one seemed to care enough. But limits were crossed when two college students got run over, just because two local buses were racing on the highway! Mind you; the students were standing on the footpath. Students had initially proposed nine changes to prevent accidents which our government didn’t agree with. Two of my seniors have been hospitalised.”
The students were agitated after minister Shahjahan Khan made a callous remark. Physical force was used to crush these protests. School students were beaten mercilessly by police officers and left to bleed; students were raped and barred. The whole country did not have access to the internet for two days, starting from the 29th of July. The national media was also barred from reporting the events.
Last week on Sunday, August 5, after the renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam’s interview with Al Jazeera, that international attention was garnered towards the situation in Bangladesh that was progressively regressing. Mr.Alam was reportedly taken by force from his home, by a group of around 35 men in plain clothes who claimed to be from the detective branch of the Dhaka police, he was convicted for “provocative comments” under Section 57 of Bangladesh Information communications and Technology act which is an act, vague and infamous for its misuse.
The events in Bangladesh, affect everyone in the subcontinent. If we choose not to retaliate, then we’re all acting as passive perpetrators of these crimes against humanity. Censorship, shrinking democratic spaces in universities, and right-wing nationalism is on the rise everywhere. If tear gas and rubber bullets are meeting cries for justice, it means that we’re facing an actual threat to freedom of speech and expression.
Bangladesh has a history of such intolerance, they’ve showcased it against truth-bearers like Taslima Nasrin and even Bangladeshi Bloggers, who were executed in 2013. Recently, Jibon Ahmed, a photographer in Bangladesh, was thrashed by his colleagues as he had captured a couple kissing in the rain, inside the premises of the University of Dhaka. He was fired because the picture was seen as an attempt to promote vulgarity.
The Bangladesh Chaatro League (BCL), Youth wing of the Awami League tried crushing the voices of the protesting students via force.
“Sheikh Mujibur Rahman taught students how to protest, and it is a shame that today, his daughter Sheikh Hasina’s government is suppressing those very voices he raised.” adds a student.
The Awami League has been a symbol of democracy and freedom, taking part in Bangladesh’s Liberation War. But, Sheikh Hasina handicapping the youth and the intellectuals of her country is an act of cowardice. We’ve faced similar situations in India when the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi had demanded “Azaadi” from a corrupt system but it was termed a ‘sedition row’ instead.
While politicisation of this student movement would mean disgracing a movement that organised itself without any formal political support yet one can’t help but wonder about the ramifications of Sheikh Hasina’s actions and how they would manifest themselves in the Bangladesh general elections which are due this year.
Student demands are still largely unmet. However, on Monday, the government increased the maximum punishment for reckless drivers from three years to five years, Students appeared positive as they told us over the internet, “I know we didn’t lose because now everyone wears a helmet, nobody breaks traffic rules easily. And the traffic police have got to work. They accumulated 1.5 crores by fining those who have an expired license.”
While newspapers say that city returned to normalcy on Wednesday, another student from Viqarunnisa Noon School & College expressed her concerns.
“The current situation of Bangladesh is becoming normal, I don’t know how to put it in words, but it feels like people forget what they felt in the last nine days, it hurts a lot,” she said.
The students in the universities of India stand in solidarity with the students of Bangladesh. Around myself and among my peers I have seen growing concerns about the condition in Bangladesh, and it has restored my faith in humanity. Never before in the subcontinent has there been such widespread awareness about road safety. This is not a lost cause. The youth of Bangladesh have won. Their voices have reached us. Their voices have been heard, not just all over the subcontinent but across the world.