We have witnessed the most unprecedented things in the method that the government has employed to suppress the demand for safe roads, a demand not only of the students who have been out on the streets for the last seven days but a common call. And once again it has used its student arm and employed violence to do so. On Sunday the target was the students on the streets but yesterday it was several private universities that were laid siege upon by the police with the activists in support.
Regrettably, action of the BCL stands in stark contrast to the PM's concern for the safety and security of the young students. They were subjected to violence, not by the so-called third party, but by her own party cadres.
One of the predicable reactions that has become the hallmark of this government is to employ cadres to snub, chastise, browbeat, intimidate, and bully any party or group to submission to a point so that the group is forced to redact its position, or withdraw whatever they were demanding. This expedient has been used several times before, lately against the quota reformists; now the party's student wing has been inducted as an auxiliary of the police in quashing the demands of students, demands that echo in full people's desire to see a chaotic misgoverned sector, that is responsible for causing more deaths than any other single factor, including epidemics and natural disasters, cured fully.
The reaction of the students to the death of two of their schoolmates on July 28 was only natural. It was the outburst of people at the end of their tethers, their exasperation enhanced by the most insensitive, cynical and crass reaction of a minister who, despite clash of interest, being a minister, enjoys the best of both worlds—being the head of the transport workers' association as well
Nobody encourages vigilantism, but it would be a gross injustice to accuse the students of mob justice. They were doing a job that the policemen and the BRTA authorities should have been doing. It is true that nobody was spared their scrutiny, but were it not for them, would one have ever come to know that even vehicles of some senior officials run without relevant documents or that their drivers do not have license? Has anyone stopped to think that while during the five or six days that the students were on the streets most of the private buses and trucks were off the streets of Dhaka. That is because they are the main defaulters.
It is a very ominous sign when a state agency, tasked to maintain law and order seeks the help of the ruling party's student wing to snub students railing against the chaotic transport sector. The police measures to tackle what was a peaceful agitation has set a new precedent, given the open call to arms by the police to anti-movement activists to join them. Yes, the movements on the roads were hampered, particularly in the capital. But it is not the first time we have been subjected to such a situation. The Shahbag movement is too recent to fade from our memory, but even that was endured with equanimity by the general public because it was for a good cause (till it became hopelessly politicised). But we saw no police action to clear the busiest intersection in the capital.
The spectacle we witnessed in several parts of the capital in the last two days was nothing short of a battle of sorts, with police and its auxiliary cadre pitched against the students. The target was not only the agitating schoolboys and girls but also the innocent passers-by who were faulted and set upon for carrying their mobile in their hands, forced to keep their sets in their pockets or, if it were a woman, in their handbags. The media was made special target of. They were gone after selectively and beaten mercilessly. The aim was not only to suppress the agitation but also suppress news of the police action getting out.
We ask, can the measure employed by the government cure the cause that forced the students to brave the sun and rain to make their point? And certainly the anti-movement activists cannot be the response to a genuine demand, a demand that even the prime minister has acknowledged as genuine. The measure is temporary palliative at best, but is likely to prove counterproductive for the government in the long run. For one thing these activists have been poised as direct foe of a common public cause and identified as a coercive arm of the state. This has emerged repetitively, most recent in their action against the quota reformists. The ruling party will do well to call off such activists should it want to prevent the matter turning worse.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.