Content Warning: This article contains graphic language of violence, rape, and sexual assault.
Sunday, July 29th, 2018 started off like any other day for commuting civilians in Dhaka. The city carried a highly unregulated and lawless transportation system. The traffic constituted unfit and underage drivers freely operating public vehicles, improper signaling and lane maintenance, constant vehicle collisions, hours of traffic congestion, and pedestrians walking through the streets with their lives hanging in the balance. The National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways, a private research group, has reported more than 4,200 pedestrians killed from road accidents last year, a 25 percent increase from 2016. Returning home from school, eleventh-grader Dia Khanam Mim and twelfth-grader Abdul Karim Rajib never expected to end up as road accident statistics that day. When two bus drivers, of Jabal-E-Noor Paribahan company, recklessly raced through Mirpur-Airport road to pick up passengers, one of them plowed through the waiting throngs of people, immediately claiming the lives of Mim and Rajib and brutally injuring nine more pedestrians. The drivers then escaped.
The next day, Bangladesh was filled with nationwide protests, led by thousands of school children demanding swift justice and road safety, signifying a long overdue transportation revolution in the country. Middle school and high school students took to the streets to issue a nine-point demand to the government and simultaneously attempted a clean-up of the streets. The Dhaka Tribune reported that the students’ demands include capital punishment for the bus driver, an apology and resignation of the Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan with ties to Jabal-E-Noor Paribahan for his insensitive comments on the victims, and construction of a foot overbridge or an alternative safety arrangement at the spot of the accident within seven days. The students also brought transportation in Dhaka to a standstill and demanded to check the licenses and paperwork of every driver behind a vehicle. Videos and live streams on Facebook documented the demonstrators finding drivers of government officials, ministers, news reporters, and police traveling without valid licenses. The peaceful protests took the form of transportation regulation as school children directed traffic, maintained strict vehicle lanes, separated emergency lanes for ambulances, picked up trash from the streets, and began repairing uneven roads. In the past five days, these school children demonstrated exactly what the traffic police and government regulations failed to deliver in the decades since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.
It is no small feat that Bangladeshi teenagers decided to march for days until their demands are met and responsibility for the murders accepted by the government. Under the current administration, there are unspoken rules that prevent the average civilian from demanding protection of their rights and limit freedom of speech. Most people understand the ramifications of protesting: a risk to their own lives and to the lives of their families. Where justice is a rarity, it is not uncommon to end up abducted, raped, and/or murdered for speaking out against human rights violations and statewide corruption under the incumbent government. Yet, students aged thirteen to their early twenties boycotted classes since the murders of Mim and Rajib last week and took to the streets to issue a nine-point demand to the government despite the nagging feeling of possible, retaliatory state-sponsored violence. Although Time reported that officials had promised to consider the teens’ road safety concerns, continued traffic collisions across the nation persisted and claimed five more lives on August 3rd.
The ruling party, Awami League, responded to the protests on August 4th. Their actions were a far cry from delivering justice as might be expected from a party touting to have upheld democracy since gaining power. Rather, the responses included threatening the media with a license revocation to prevent coverage, hiring goons to dress as students and vandalize the streets, using BCL (Bangladesh Chhatra League) to terrorize protesters, and arming the police with tear gas and guns. The Daily Star reported three of their male journalists beaten and arrested by the police and one female journalist molested by BCL members as they were attempting to take photographs of the violence on August 4th at Jhigatola.
BCL, historically made up of university students in the 1970s but recently consisting of hired goons without any institutional ties, has become well-known as an Awami League-sponsored terrorist group that regularly sabotages civil movements and opposition party marches. What began as a peaceful protest by school children took a dark turn as state-sponsored goons and BCL vandalized the streets and public buses dressed in school uniforms. In response, several tips from grade-school students circulated across social media, urging students to carry IDs at all times and remaining in large, identifiable groups as a precaution. Social media platforms have been used as the only direct avenue of free expression and news dissemination from the protesters to the rest of the world as local news refuses to cover the state unrest and demonstrators’ pleas since August 1st. Students on the ground have recorded live videos on Facebook of their peers being attacked by the police and armed BCL members. In Shahbag, the police made protesters retreat using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water tanks. Since August 4th, several students have been pictured mutilated and blinded, four school girls reported raped, and forty more girls abducted and held at offices of the Awami League with the help of the police and BCL. Although the police and government officials have denied accusations of attacks on students, an emergency ward physician Abdus Shabbir told Agence France-Presse on Saturday, “We have treated more than 115 injured students so far since the afternoon.” As of this moment, the cellular internet has been shut down, Facebook posts taken off, and hashtags disabled across social media in Bangladesh with persistent threats to the demonstrators’ families. The government has also launched an anti-protest social media campaign, urging everyone to report to the police on Facebook posts critical of the government and supporting of the students’ movement. Wherever students have managed to access the internet, they have desperately appealed to international news channels to raise awareness on the violence inflicted on hundreds of their peers.
Activist and photographer, Shahidul Alam, spoke to Al Jazeera on August 5th on the protests and mentioned, “Today the police specifically asked for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students…The government has miscalculated. It thought that fear and repression would be enough but you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.” The next morning, he was abducted from his home and his building’s CCTV camera was found missing.
A protesting student from Viqarunnissa Noon School and College issued the following statement, “Our intention was so pure; we just wanted to create safe roads in Bangladesh….don’t use innocent students for your political issues. We are the future of a nation. Help us and assure us that we’re safe on roads. If we go out, assure us that we can come back safely too.” The student chose to remain anonymous.
“All I wanted were safer roads, not a bloodbath,” said a third-year university student in tears. “It’s astonishing what price these children had to pay for wanting roads and buses that won’t kill them…all because they wanted people to abide by the traffic laws and the government to enforce them properly.”
Right after the student made the statement, BCL attacked East West University in Aftabnagar and North South University in Bashundhara Residential Area on August 6th as retaliation for supporting the student marches. Live Streams showed armed BCL members vandalizing the main quad and demolishing structures in EWU. The police were reported to have broken through the main gate at NSU and released tear shells, rubber bullets, and boiling water inside the university, causing severe injuries to students. A second-year NSU student claimed that the police had advised NSU authorities to let students exit the university in small groups to get home. However, as soon as the students started leaving campus grounds, they were greeted with rubber bullets. The student later added, “School teenagers only wanted the law to be followed and didn’t hurt anyone. They allowed vehicles with the proper paperwork to pass through and the civilians cooperated. The government is likely threatened by the widespread acceptance of this protest. It feels like civil war.” NSU and EWU were a few of the only open universities on August 6th, urging students to attend classes on Monday. Following the attacks, the universities shut down until further notice.
The Bangladeshi government continues to speak about its efforts at leading the country’s development but fails to ensure a basic civil requirement of road safety and, therefore, fails to preserve the sanctity of life. The events of the past week proved that the ruling party is not above harming children in order to preserve their regime. School students demanding pedestrian safety, reliable modes of transportation, and justice for the lives lost to rampant, hazardous driving are being silenced simply due to speaking up. These protests do not just demand road safety now; they demand a safe nation. Even if the government yields to the calls of the students, anyone identified as a protester will carry an impending sense of doom because this dictatorship is not known to forgive.
The Awami League and police have denied all accusations of attacks on students and blame a “third” and “unidentified” party for the assaults. They have not conceded to the cries of children so the children will continue to march in the days to come.