We condemn the attacks by police on several groups of peaceful protesters on the sidewalks outside the Jatiya Press Club at dawn on Monday. According to reports quoting victims and eyewitnesses, police charged the protesters with batons, teargas shells and water cannons while they were asleep and beat them "like animals", according to one victim, which left around 54 of them injured. Among them were former workers of Tazreen Fashions Limited—who had been staging a protest demanding proper compensation, rehabilitation and treatment for injuries sustained during a devastating fire at the factory in 2012—as well as the sacked workers of another factory called A One BD Ltd and independent Ebtedayee madrasa teachers, all demonstrating there with their own demands and for different lengths of time. Before being driven off the sidewalks, female workers were allegedly groped, and their clothes ripped off. Even elderly protesters and children weren't spared.
It hardly seemed to matter that all these people were representing their communities and peers as they voiced their grievances that needed to be heard and acted upon, not to be left unaddressed for 80 days, as was the case for the Tazreen workers. It hardly seemed to matter that they wouldn't have to occupy the sidewalks for so long if the state and those responsible for their fate had performed their duties in the first place. What happened instead looked a lot like retaliation for exposing their failures and inefficiencies so glaringly. It also amounted to protecting the interests of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Police, unfortunately, have been used for such extrajudicial purposes for so long. It seems about time that the republic redefined the role of the police force to better represent what it has been brought down to do, or clarified to the uninformed citizens whether the constitution forbids peaceful protests.
Monday's incidents are a reminder, once again, of the dangerous slide in democratic norms and traditions in Bangladesh. Citizens have a right to express their legitimate grievances and the state has a responsibility to address them. While certain issues may take time to be resolved, there is no alternative to persuasion and fruitful engagement. The government must answer for what happened on Monday and find a way to responsibly engage and meet the demands of the protesters. Police brutality on peaceful protesters must stop.