On November 2, 2011, people protesting the killing of Narsingdi municipality mayor Lokman Hossain torch this intercity train, an instance of people taking the law in their own hands. Photo: File Photo
Instead of seeking help from the authorities, more and more people are venting their anger and displeasure by blocking roads, vandalising cars and burning train bogies.
Social issues experts say a lack of punishment for offenders and authorities' undermining peaceful protests lead to such mob violence.
Since September last year, at least 37 incidents have been reported in newspapers, where citizens, including students, took up sticks and brick chips to make their anger and frustration known to others.
Over the months, disturbances -- one in every five days -- left nearly a hundred vehicles damaged and more than a hundred people injured.
The outbursts centred on demands that ranged from something as petty as replacement of an out-of-order electricity transformer to the murder of a popular municipal mayor.
In the most recent example, students from two private universities -- Primeasia University and Southeast University -- were locked in street battles on Saturday over the alleged stalking of a female student. They fought with police who came to quell the violence.
What began as an exchange of harsh words turned into a rampage with 100 vehicles and 15 buildings being vandalised and 50 students and 10 policemen injured.
The law enforcers failed to arrest anyone from the spot.
On November 2, in a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood action movie, dozens of passengers jumped off a burning train in Narsingdi. Agitators torched the train during a riot that started as a protest against the murder of Narsingdi municipality mayor Lokman Hossain.
Two weeks earlier, hundreds of power loom workers, fed up with frequent load shedding, blocked the Dhaka-Gopaldi road and were up against police. With bamboo sticks and brick chips, they clashed, leaving over thirty injured and ten vehicles damaged.
On October 11, over 400 residents of Bajitpur upazila, Kishoreganj, put up a barricade on a highway, demanding electricity. The transformer in the area had been out of order for 32 days and complaints to the authorities saw little result.
Including the above four, dozens of riots and instances of street vandalism turned many roads and highways at times into virtual combat zones.
According to the experts, the majority of those people have restored to riots finding no other way to vent their frustration.
Peaceful protest is usually ignored in this country, said Prof Muzaffer Ahmad, an expert on social issues.
“Those who participate [in violence] realise that there is hardly any scope for them to get justice. So the vengeance comes out in another way,” he said.
An act like smashing the car windows of taxpayers is not a cause of social breakdown, he said, but “it's a symptom of social breakdown".
On November 29, bus owners in Habiganj ran riot on the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, damaging the windows of ten buses full of passengers.
They were angry at luxury bus services for wooing their passengers.
A witness said the agitators blocked the road with microbuses and smashed the windows of every bus that passed by.
The passengers, many of them women and children, shuffled towards the narrow spaces between the seats to avoid injuries.
With waves of protests sweeping across the globe over voting rights, labour disputes and discontent with economic trends, Bangladesh is hardly immune to them, the experts say.
They say social inequity and insecurity have created among the people “a sense of deprivation and frustration”, which is being translated into disorder.
The Daily Star recently talked to a man who had participated in numerous demonstrations and political agitation in the 1980s in the campaign against the autocratic regime of HM Ershad.
“We used to have a go at cars as they were easy to find,” he said, wishing not to be named on security grounds.
Now a journalist, he recounted how he and his fellow agitators used to spread out on the streets looking for cars to smash. "It's tremendously exhilarating."
Today, however, he insists that in a free country, the authorities have a duty not to be swayed by mob action.
"It can't be justified in a democracy where there are legitimate means of expression. Any government that has any fortitude at all has to show it's not influenced by violence."
Saifullah Tawhid, a private university student, participated in a road blockade in the capital, demanding punishment of a bus driver who ran over kindergarten student Hamim Sheikh in February last year.
He insists that taking to the streets was the “only way to send a message to the authorities”.
The other side of the story -- the view of police -- is very different.
SM Shahjahan, a former inspector general of police and a former caretaker government adviser, shared with The Daily Star what he saw of civil disorder during his time as police chief.
Recalling how his officers were attacked with paving slabs, bricks and lumps of concrete, Shahjahan cannot condone the violence.
But he does understand the people's sense of “voicelessness and anger” that sparks off disturbances.
No matter how legitimate the reasons might be, violence on the streets is never a solution, he said.
While a rioter can end up in jail to serve two to ten years for street violence, very few actually get due punishment.
The reason, police say, is a lack of witness and complainants.
“Witnesses shy away from giving testimony. So police often prepare final reports allowing persons concerned to go unpunished,” Shahjahan said.
Tarana Halim, a ruling Awami League lawmaker and lawyer, has a solution: sue leaders of the organisations under whose banner the demonstrations take place.
Tarana, also a social worker, said the issue was very much on the political radar.
She said a private member bill seeking legal provision to try the chiefs of organisations responsible for creating such anarchy is going to be placed in parliament.
The bill, if passed, could put an end to such irresponsible practice.
Prof Muzaffer Ahmad, however, feels that the change should come with a push towards an “equal and just society”.
Otherwise, he believes, social inequality will continue to grow, and so will social disorder.