State responses to demands for safe roads
Could these all have been avoided?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, lamented Hamlet. Though the context is different that's the pervasive thought of conscientious Bangladeshis irrespective of their economic status and social standing at the moment. They are at a loss as the situation in the country saw instances of violence. They ponder why the peaceful demonstrations of the youngsters to exert pressure on the authorities to realise their legitimate demand for safe roads triggered such harsh response from the state and their cohorts. Why on earth have the children been subjected to harm at such a scale? Why did the law enforcement authorities look the other way when in government's parlance “miscreants” swooped on the teenagers? Why are the authorities keener to take action against the victims and their supporters and not the perpetrators?
The students' 9-point charter of demands secured broad endorsement from many quarters. Their peers, parents, admirers and even those in the highest echelons of power of the state unreservedly expressed that every single of those demands was justified. What then did go wrong that triggered the subsequent impasse and violence?
A dispassionate introspection leads to issue of incredulity. Presumably the government felt its formal acceptance of the demands should have been enough for the protesters to return to classes. For the protesting youth however, the endorsement of the demands by the authorities was the primary condition but not the only one. They remained apprehensive if the approval was indeed sincere and not just another ploy “for the crisis to pass”. They further felt that even if it was genuine, what they needed was concrete evidence for their speedy enforcement. Unfortunately, it is in this regard the state faltered leading to precipitation of the crisis.
Can the students be really held responsible for being uneasy about the government motive? Didn't they have reason to believe that the authorities might renege on their promise? Does not the latter's dragging of feet on the quota reforms remain fresh in their mind?
The lack of concrete action to immediately follow up on their demands and allay their nervousness led the protestors to continue with their agitation programme and stay back on the streets until what they claimed “all demands were met”. Instead of assuaging them with a clear timeline and at least a few tangible steps, the government moved forward only by arresting the driver and helper, and rushing through the transport law; the latter not being a priority for the protesters.
In a situation of such volatility would it have been too tough a decision to ask the principal protagonist to step down from the presidency of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers' Federation, something that is untenable under the law of the land? Readers may recall that one of his colleagues resigned as editor before joining the Cabinet. Why then should his case be different from the other? Observers have noted not a single measure has been implemented even though six weeks have elapsed since the prime ministerial instruction on road safety in June. Are publicly visible measures such as impounding un-roadworthy and unregistered vehicles that much of a time-consuming and difficult task? Or does implementation of such apparently simple decisions entail ruffling of strong interests that the authorities are yet to work out?
Almost from the beginning there have been attempts to dismiss the teenagers' movement as BNP-Jamaat inspired. How can one blame the young protesters in doubting the administration's intent when they are branded wrongfully and stigmatised instead of being acknowledged as independent assiduous agents of change?
The events in Jigatola, Mirpur and Science Laboratory on August 7 and that of Bashundhara on August 8 as reported by the print, social and electronic media leave little doubt that law enforcement agencies not only looked the other way as criminal acts by the opponents of the movement, youth and labour wings of the ruling party, but also used disproportionate force on grounds of dispersing agitating students by resorting to batons, rubber bullets and water cannons and allegedly broke into shops and apartments in pursuit of fleeing protesters. It is time for the law enforcement agencies to distance themselves from the actions of the perpetrators and be seen as neutral enforcers of the law. Meaningful actions against the wrongdoers and errant police functionaries (who can be identified from the print and video footages) will surely boost public confidence on the forces. Are the agencies prepared to take this legally mandated task?
The new mantra of the authorities is “vested quarters have infiltrated through the ranks of the protesters”. Such perception at least to an extent may have provided the rationale for the use of force. The infiltration theory has been propounded without much of evidence. Even if the contention is valid should the rank and file protesters be held responsible for such “infiltration” and thus being subjected to reckless violence?
A little juggling of our collective memory would remind us the astute moves made by the Awami League, then in opposition, in exploiting the civic movements against Yasmeen's rape and murder by the police and police excesses committed at the time of the raid of Shamsunnahar Hall of Dhaka University when Khaleda Zia was in power. Have those smart political initiatives in anyway undermined the rationale and efficacy of the civic groups that launched the protests and movements? If not, why should it be different this time?
The government has expressed concern about the spread of unfounded news and warned the media houses and others to remain vigilant so that “fake news with ulterior motives” does not circulate. The much-maligned ICT Act has come in handy for the administration and was put into use including against renowned photographer and blogger Shahidul Alam. Experiences have taught that efforts to suppress facts become the breeding ground for rumours and fake news. Should not those in command of the information and mass communication in the administration acknowledge the fact that the best antidote of rumour is the free flow of information?
Bangladesh is passing through a testing time. Lack of empathy and understanding of the teenage protesters' psyche and overt reliance on coercion have transformed an innocuous civic protest into a bigger challenge than it was meant to be. One hopes that through sincere adherence to the pubic pledge by the political leadership and obedience to rule of law and professionalism by the law enforcement agencies this challenge will be met.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.
He acknowledges the insights gained from Kamal Ahmed's contribution to Prothom Alo on August 5, 2018.