The cost of a heavy-handed approach
As we mark the end of one month since a unique children-driven movement caused by a traffic accident stopped a city of 18 million, an 18th-century quote by the English poet Alexander Pope hits home. “Swift fly the years,” Pope had said, contemplating the fleeting nature of time. Barely a month has passed since that momentous event in Dhaka, but the breakneck speed at which things have escalated in this time—from the protests spreading to all major cities, calling for broad reforms for road safety, to a violent pushback by the counter-protesters to sloppy attempts by the government at damage control as well as the legal fallout—already makes it look like a distant memory.
As we take stock of this eventful month, it must be acknowledged that the weeklong movement was a failure. It has failed to bring about any meaningful change on the roads and highways. Reckless disregard for public safety continues to be the norm rather than the exception. The students are frustrated, if not outright angry, that what should be celebrated as a resurgence of student activism for common good is being frowned upon as “misadventures” by a few thrill-seekers.
But in the grand scheme of things, the whys and the hows are irrelevant. What's important is to ask who stands to gain—or lose—most from how things have panned out. On its part, the government can claim success for bringing an end to the movement before it spiralled out of control. A section of the ruling party is understood to be secretly happy that the heavy-handed approach adopted to stifle protests has paid off. But at what cost? Increasingly, this is where all the attention seems to be focused on.
For the government, it can be argued that the risks outweigh the benefits. Just look at the fallout of its handling of the protests by students, some as young as 14 or even younger, and subsequent developments, which has been variously translated as “the country's drift toward autocracy” (The New York Times) and “one of the most injudicious crisis management blunders” made by the government in recent years (The Daily Star). One thing is evident: the government's days of damage control are far from over. As a closer inspection will reveal, in trying to keep its image intact and its legitimacy unchallenged, it has actually triggered the very thing that it wanted to avoid: further damage to its reputation.
Violence, rumours, and arrests
Since August 4, when the first incident of violence in the student movement took place, international condemnation has been swift and unequivocal. Many have censured the government's failure to protect the children from threats and violence committed by individuals with suspected allegiance to the ruling party. Its reputation took a hammering when, in a clear sign of complicity, police were also seen aiding the counter-protesters.
In the ensuing days, a number of students were arrested for spreading “rumours” on social media purportedly leading to violence (while those participating in the actual acts of violence were conveniently forgotten). It's a classic case of McCarthyism—a political strategy in which you manufacture and spread fear of a “bad influence” through reckless accusations and demagogic attacks on the character of an adversary. In the 40s and 50s, US Senator Joseph McCarthy presided over a similar campaign, albeit on a much larger scale, to spread fear of Communist influences on the American soil by subjecting victims to arbitrary arrests or screenings over allegations of subversion, without proper regard for evidence.
Did the arrested students spread rumours? That's now for the court to decide. If they really did so, did they do it with malicious intent? That's debatable. But were they the only ones who merited judicial scrutiny? Certainly not.
Although the students have now been granted bail, uncertainty remains over their future. Interestingly, some commentators have noted the timing of their bail just before Eid-ul-Azha. It was too well-timed and coordinated to be coincidental, they said, suggesting a possible executive intervention in a judicial matter. Such perceptions didn't brighten the government's image any more than they restored faith in the neutrality of the judiciary.
The Shahidul conundrum
Human Rights Watch says that some 20 journalists were beaten up for trying to document attacks on the student protesters. None of them came back to haunt the government as much as the photographer Shahidul Alam, who was unlawfully detained (without an arrest warrant) hours after an interview with Al Jazeera in which he had described how the police “specifically asked for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students”. Later, he was implicated in a case under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act).
If the architect of the first phase of the Shahidul incident was the government, the second phase would certainly feel like an “architectural nightmare” for it, as it constituted yet another monumental PR disaster for the government. Just for instance, since his arrest, at least 10 Nobel Laureates, scores of global cultural and intellectual icons, directors, artists, journalists, academics, politicians, institutions (including the UN) and even common people from around the world have expressed their concerns and urged the government to release Shahidul. The global solidarity over the arrest of one man was startling, even for Awami League, bringing renewed attention to the country's poor human rights records. A bitter pill to swallow for the party was a statement by British MP Tulip Siddiq, the niece of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who on August 28 issued an unprecedented condemnation of the arrest, calling it “deeply distressing.”
In hindsight, the avalanche of protests over the Shahidul incident was more than what the government had bargained for. If it had hoped that by suppressing a critical voice like him, it would enjoy unhindered reception of international praise brought about by its performance on the Rohingya issue, it didn't clearly work. A jailed Shahidul now poses a bigger threat for its image than he could possibly do as a free man.
This PR crisis is not the only thing that's alarming for the government. On the geopolitical front, the fallout from its handling of the student movement has clearly put it on the defensive, raised more questions about its credibility than it answered, and gave the opposition an unexpected boost with the general election only months away. Additionally, the government will now have to deal with a disaffected citizenry who cannot fathom the moral detours necessary to justify the beating of children, or “criminalising” the formation of political consciousness of the youth. There is also a deep suspicion of regulations—any kind of regulation—which can be understood from the fact that after news emerged that Bangladesh Chhatra League is going to form a 40-lakh-strong “cyber brigade” (Bangabandhu Cyber Brigade) to tackle “rumours” online, it has been met with considerable alarm rather than relief. Some respondents to the bdnews24.com report, which broke the news first, have reacted strongly to the development.
Such reactions give one an unfiltered insight into what ordinary Bangladeshis are thinking and feeling. In a way, they represent the majority who suffer and bleed silently, but are just as well appalled by high-profile figures whose own falsehoods, excesses and even attempts at spreading rumours are seldom questioned. The student movement was in part a challenge to this political expediency—the business-as-usual approach to public grievances and tolerance of high-profile offenders. It may have failed to bring about any immediate change, but it would be foolish to ignore its lessons or its effects.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org