No matter who you ask, the student movement for safe roads we witnessed across our country recently is something completely unprecedented. Talking to a British journalist yesterday, I realised just how uncommon it was for such a large-scale movement to be initiated and led by high school and school-aged children, at any point in history, anywhere in the world—which is primarily what has captured the imagination of some sections of the international media that has been covering it.
But covering it has not been an easy task because of the targeting of journalists allegedly by activists opposing the movement. As this newspaper reported on Sunday, four journalists of The Daily Star were harassed and assaulted the day before simply for doing their job—covering what at the time was the biggest news story in the country. And they were not the only ones either as numerous other news outlets reported. One TV journalist, in fact, was beaten up so bad in front of other journalists including some from this newspaper, that he was literally struggling to move his neck afterwards.
Yet, what was most egregious about it was that the attack had happened right in front of law enforcers who refused to raise a finger to defend him or others—in other words, who refused to do their duty as per their mandate.
The next day sadly saw no improvement, as alleged ruling party men attacked journalists for a second day, injuring about a dozen photojournalists and reporters at different places in the capital.
And while I myself travelled from one place to another where altercations had, or were taking place, it became increasingly obvious that the police were not taking any action whatsoever against those goons carrying all kinds of deadly weapons in their hands, wearing biker helmets on their heads, no matter who they were targeting. In the meantime, statements denying that the attackers had any affiliation with the ruling party kept coming from government high-ups and others to the utter shock of everyone who had witnessed first-hand the violence that had raged across the city.
But even if for the sake of argument, we accept that these were not ruling party supporters, the question remains—“who were they?” And “why were the police not even attempting to stop them from physically harming students, journalists or others?” Moreover, “why is it that no investigation is currently underway to try to identify and bring them to justice?” It is because, as this entire episode has made clear, our legal system has broken down.
And this was what the protesting school children were trying to point out in the first place—the total lawlessness on the streets, or rather the failure of the government to enforce the laws.
As was demonstrated during the first phase of the student protest (before violence broke out), the traffic police themselves in a number of cases were some of the worst lawbreakers. Not only were members of the police and other government offices found driving (or travelling in cars with drivers) without licences or proper documents of their vehicles, but many in fact had the audacity to claim that “the police don't need driving licences” to drive around—how those with such understanding of the law were allowed to become law enforcers is anyone's guess (if one is to accept that they actually believed what they were saying).
But the fact is, that, when the law is so trivialised to the point where it can be changed simply at the whim of someone, it stops being the law and thus stops serving its purpose. And this is what is at the heart of the lawlessness that we see—whether it be the total disregard for the law on the roads that the students were protesting, or the violence perpetrated against protestors, journalists, etc.
However, instead of trying to understand and recognise this problem, the government's response was to hurriedly approve a draft law proposing a “maximum” punishment of five years' imprisonment for causing death to a person by reckless driving, whereas defamation on social media laughably carries a “minimum” punishment of seven years in prison. Again, just from looking at this, one can easily ask, “is the life of a citizen less important to the state than the reputation of a person?”
That aside, the reason why this failure by the government to acknowledge what is at the root of the problem is so concerning is, as many have previously pointed out, that globally it has been seen, “The more corrupt a society, the more numerous its laws.” Which is exactly what we are currently seeing. While on the one hand the government keeps churning out one law after another, on the other it keeps failing to implement and enforce any of them—all the while government officials themselves continue breaking them at record speed.
And the fact that school-going children had to take to the streets to point that out, really is, unprecedented, for anywhere in the world. And which, no matter how you look at it, is a matter of great shame—given the world that we live in, now, in the 21st Century.
Considering all these, this should be a time of great reflection for us as a nation. As the world turns, and as societies and nations surge ahead towards a better and brighter future, can we not even succeed in enforcing the social contract that binds us together as a nation? Before you answer that question to yourself, know that the children who took to the streets to ensure the safety of others, believed that we could.
Indeed, they even stood on the roads for hours through rain and shine, to actually try and ensure that we did.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal