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“What followed horrified us beyond our wildest imaginations”: an eyewitness account of the Bangladesh student protests

YouTube screencap of groups of student protestors directing traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh after the killing of two teenagers by speeding buses.

By Saleh Ahmad

Like other high school students, Abdul Karim Rajib, 18, and Dia Khanam Mim, 17 had many hopes and dreams for their lives. One had hoped to become an army officer, the other, a banker. On July 29, 2018, around noon, the two teenagers were killed in the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, by three buses speeding against each other for no reason other than to arrive first and cram as many passengers into their already overcrowded interiors, for maximum profit.

This was not an isolated accident. Every year, more than 12,000 people lose their lives to road accidents in Bangladesh, and those are just the ones reported. 12,000 deaths that were completely preventable had the laws been followed. To say that traffic law enforcement in Bangladesh is lax is an understatement.

Traffic congestion near New Market in Dhaka, minus auto rickshaws, which are prohibited from using that street. PHOTO: b k via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This time, however, we said enough is enough. Young Bangladeshis like me are sick and tired of fearing for our lives on the roads—fearing being run over by a bus or truck simply because the driver values making money more than human lives. We are tired of forming human chains on roads only to be ignored by our leaders. We are tired of empty promises from people who travel in VIP entourages, never having to face the precarious reality of moving around on Bangladesh’s roads.

So we took to the streets and protested.

It began with the students of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment School and College, Rajib and Mim’s high school, at the site of the accident on Airport Road, mere minutes after the incident occurred. On the second day, they spread across the city and by the third-day protests were taking place citywide, with participants from nearly every school in the city.

Students protest the death of two students in a road accident in Dhaka Airport Road. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Asive Chowdhury CC: BY-SA 4.0

Commandeering major intersections of the city, we protested the deaths of Rajib and Mim, demanding exemplary punishment and that the government get serious about implementing road safety measures, expressing our demands in a nine-point list.

We took over traffic control, making sure that vehicles stuck to their lanes, travelled on the right side of the road, and that a lane was kept clear for emergency vehicles. We made sure that—for perhaps the very first time in this nation’s history—traffic laws were strictly enforced, with everyone equal in the eyes of the law.

Screenshots from Facebook highlighting some of the effects of protestors’ efforts at traffic management.

We stopped the Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed’s entourage from driving on the wrong side of the road. We stopped the police deputy inspector general and found that his vehicle had no registration certificate, nor did his driver have a driving license. And when another police officer was unable to produce his own driving license, we made sure he was fined by one of his colleagues. These are just a fraction of the traffic violations we caught among the thousands of cars we stopped. And this was all done by students in our early to late teens, as our placards unapologetically announced.

These protests, in many ways, represent the grand unification of the students of our nation across the curriculum, gender, and social class. University students joined in, and parents and guardians supported us with food and water. For the first time in ages, one felt that burst of optimism often associated with youth.

A collage of photos taken from Facebook. Left: A student holds a placard that reads: “We don’t want 4G internet speeds, we want justice at 4G speeds”; Centre: A student holds a placard that reads: “Bumper crop of Lemons in Dinajpur”, above the BTV logo, a references to the fact that TV channel BTV has zero coverage of the protests; Right: A cartoon pokes fun at the students’ assuming control of traffic law enforcement.

Saturday came and we were as determined as ever to continue protesting. The government had by this point stated that they would agree to our demands, but as recently as April 2018, the same leaders had made promises to another group of protestors, then went on to distort the original demands and deem them unfeasible. We refused to leave the streets until they’d actually begun fulfilling our demands or presented a solid, detailed process for doing so. So we continued our protests. Until the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student arm of the Awami League ruling party arrived on the scene.

Officially, the BCL’s purpose is to encourage youth engagement in politics and social change. In reality, they are a group of young party loyalists who, in return of political favors, act as goons for hire when the government wishes to avoid the international backlash that comes in response to shows of force by official bodies such as the police. Effectively a government force, they are essentially above the law, and they don’t hesitate to exercise their impunity.

It wasn’t a surprise. Rumors had been circulating that the BCL planned on inciting violence and that impostors would infiltrate the protests wearing school uniforms. The Home Minister had declared that state security forces would not “shoulder any responsibility if any act of sabotage takes place in the name of the student movement.”

We braced ourselves and put measures in place. We formed ourselves into concentric circles, with those in the outer circles vetting IDs before letting other protesters in. We knew there was a good chance of violence and that the police would stand by and do nothing—or even assist, as they’d done on August 2 when a group of unidentified assailants attacked students in Mirpur in the north-east of the capital Dhaka.

But what followed horrified us beyond our wildest imaginations. Jigatola and the surrounding areas in central Dhaka became the scene of a bloodbath.

The BCL’s intervention seemed designed not just to disperse the crowd but to inflict bodily harm: hundreds of students were heavily injured, as the images in this Daily Star article attest. As Al Jazeera reported, journalists from several news outlets were assaulted and even molested, with BCL making sure to destroy as much of the footage as they could.

Even more terrifying are the unconfirmed reports—largely from images on social media—of the alleged murder of at least four students and the rape of four female students by the BCL. There were also reports circulating about the BCL having taken students hostage, and one unconfirmed report that a victim's eyes had been gouged out. A fact-checking community in Facebook called Jaachai (fact-check) pointed out that although the reports of beatings and clashes etc. are true, many images circulating with claims of killings are fake. According to the UK Guardian, police detained a Bangladeshi actor “for spreading rumors after he allegedly said in a Facebook post that two protesters had been killed and another had had an eye gouged out.”

The government response to the reports of violence was swift. A press conference was called in a matter of hours denying that these horrific events had taken place or that anyone was being held hostage in BCL compounds. One BCL spokesperson who claimed he played no part in the violence had been photographed at the protests engaged in the very acts he denied carrying out. And the “student representative” who spoke at the press conference was revealed in photos to be a member of the BCL wearing a school uniform.

On television, there was a more or less complete blackout of coverage of the BCL’s actions. The government had begun cracking down at the beginning of August, citing the National Broadcast Policy-2014 and a litany of pre-existing laws, but on August 4 the media went dark. Cellular data speeds countrywide were slowed to a crawl, crippling protesters’ ability to communicate and organise. And the government has continued to deny having sponsored the violence, sending the following text message to many cell phones in the country:

“Reports of murder and rape of students in the capital’s Jigatola have no truth to them. This entire story is fictitious. Please do not be confused by this. Assist the police by providing information against people who are sharing this fake news – Ministry of Home Affairs”

On Sunday the protests continued. Many female students stayed away, fearing for their safety. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at a conference about fiber optic technology, reiterated that reports of state-sponsored violence, murder and rape were “fake news”.

By noon that day, most protests across the city had been suppressed by the police and BCL, using tear gas and Molotov cocktails. Journalists were warned to not press the police for information. In Uttara in northern Dhaka, protesters somehow managed to hold out against the BCL assault until 4 pm.

The government is using the combined powers of every single body it has to crack down on the unrest as quickly as possible. On Sunday, the Home Minister said that law enforcement had been “showing patience”, and that the protesters should not believe they could “keep crossing the limit and we will sit idle and watch. We will go for tough action if the limit is crossed.” And the Education Minister has threatened to hold schools responsible if their students are out protesting.

All we wanted were safer roads where we don’t have to worry about our lives every single day. We have not demanded magical new laws: all we want is strict enforcement of the laws parliament itself passed, and that already exist. But the government has responded with this brutal crackdown. Our boundless optimism has finally met the grim reality of our country.

On Monday 6 August, Human Rights Watch issued a statement denouncing the Bangladeshi government's actions and urging them to “prosecute those, including members of the ruling party's youth supporters, who are attacking children with sticks and machetes.”

Saleh Ahmad is a student living in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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