The rise and silencing of a mass student movement
July 29: A race, a comparison, and a smile
It all started with a mad race. Two buses from Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan were racing towards a stop near the Armed Forces Medical College in Kurmitola. It was peak hour. The students were in a rush to get home and both buses wanted to cash in on that. They were racing on the Mirpur to Airport flyover.
The first bus to get off reached the spot and stopped right in front of a dozen school-going students. Just as the students started getting on the bus, however, the second bus attempted to squeeze through the left side of the first bus, killing 18-year-old Abdul Karim and 17-year-old Dia Khanam Mim on the spot and injuring nine other students.
That same day, Shipping Minister and Transport leader Shajahan Khan played down the incident by comparing it to a road crash in India. "33 people were killed in Maharashtra recently. But do they talk about it like the way we do?" he said with a smile. Videos of Shajahan's statement spread rapidly across social media, creating an uproar and in many ways sowing the seeds of the protest.
In the meantime, several hundred students had rushed to the spot where the accident took place, and blocked the road. The roads were blocked for two hours, before police managed to bring the situation under control by 2:15pm.
In this time, few buses were vandalised and traffic on the Airport road was brought to a halt.
July 30: A call for resignation
The protest started again the next day. Students, wearing uniforms and carrying their school bags, from several educational institutions blocked Airport road and brought the traffic system to its knees.
On that very day, students also gathered at Science Laboratory, Mirpur 10 and Pragati Sarani, expressing solidarity with the protests. They demanded the resignation of Shajahan Khan. Posters demanding justice for their two deceased peers flooded the roads.
"We need 33 dead bodies for justice" read one placard referring to Shajahan's statement.
In reply to the students' demands, Shajahan said that he had solved many serious problems of the transport sector and that those should be taken into account. When asked if he would apologise, he said: "I am not supposed to apologise. Those who are responsible for the accident will apologise. However, as I am involved with workers' politics, I am expressing my deep shock."
Meanwhile, the drivers and the assistants of the Jabal-e-Noor buses involved in the accident were arrested and their registration numbers suspended by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA).
On this day, the protests went on for almost six hours and caused major traffic delays.
July 31: A face-off and injured students
The intensity of the protests increased many folds as thousands of students from various schools blocked almost every crucial intersection of the capital.
There were face-offs with law enforcers for the first time and at least 20 students were injured. Buses were torched as well. Under pressure, Shajahan Khan apologised for his earlier remarks. In addition, the Prime Minister's Office directed the police to take legal action against underage drivers, drivers without licences, and those responsible for the accident on July 29.
Students mostly stopped all kinds of big vehicles during their protests.
Meanwhile, at Shanir Akhra, a pick-up van ran over a 12th grader. The student had to receive treatment at a local hospital for his hip joint and left leg.
This incident further fuelled the anger.
August 1: Bigwigs without licenses
This was the day when the beauty of the protests began to slowly unfold taking the entire nation in its grip. Like the previous days, the major intersections were blocked. This time though, students, instead of performing mere sit-ins on the streets, were busy checking random vehicles for licences. The results were extraordinary. In several videos making the rounds on social media, protestors were seen stopping police officers on bikes who didn't have licences. The power of the protest was evident in the fact that the police officers were compelled to stop and listen to the students. In one such instance, a police officer tried in vain to get away from the students by stating that the police don't need licences. In another case, a traffic sergeant was forced to fine a police officer for not carrying a licence. Each of these videos went viral. There were of course many police officers who did carry licences. These instances were eye-openers and caught the attention of the entire nation.
The highlight of the day though was when Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed's BMW got stuck amidst the protests while attempting to drive on the wrong side at Bangla Motor. Caught in the act, Tofail, however, said that he had gone there to meet and greet the students. While the enthusiastic youngsters appreciated the concern shown by the minister, they asked him to drive on the right side of the road. The incident was filmed and it spread like wildfire on social media platforms. Encouraged, many more students got on to the streets in the following days and begin supporting the traffic sergeants by checking licences and other vehicle-related documents.
The day also witnessed the students announce some of their key demands including checking of unfit vehicles, not allowing buses to carry more passengers than the capacity, and placing speed-breakers in accident-prone areas. As the protest gained more popularity, the Education Ministry in a sudden move announced that all the educational institutions would remain closed for the sake of 'students' safety.'
August 2: Steps to dismantle the protest begin
Aside from shutting down educational institutions, the government started taking several other steps to calm the agitating students. For one, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina personally met the families of Abdul Karim and Dia Khanam Mim, the students who passed away in the accident on July 29. After the meeting, the Prime Minister's Press Secretary Ihsanul Karim quoted Mim's father as saying: "We want students to go back home as measures will be taken to prevent such accidents in the future." In addition to that, three ministers blamed the BNP for being involved in this protest. "They [BNP] have no options left. So, they will now depend on the quota reform movement and student movement. They don't have the strength, courage, and ability to do something on their own," Obaidul Quader told reporters. That a third party was reportedly involved in the protests was an aspect that members of the ruling party would go on to mention repeatedly in the coming days.
But the youth power would not be dimmed, they poured out onto the roads in a show of defiance and determination and just as in the last few days, they kept checking for drivers' documents. They stopped the SUV of Water Resources Minister Anwar Hossain Manju's car as well as the SUV of a police DIG for not having a license. The protestors were joined by many guardians and cultural activists pledging solidarity to the cause.
The students also successfully managed to carve out an emergency lane on some of the roads in a bid to help ambulances and other passengers with emergencies pass by.
The protests spread out of Dhaka with students in Chittagong, Khulna, and Sylhet expressing solidarity with the protests for the first time.
However, the protests soon took an ugly turn. In Mirpur, as students were stopping vehicles to check licence and registration in the afternoon, some policemen came blowing whistles and asked them to clear the road in front of the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority office. A group of young men, many of whom had their faces covered or wore helmets, showed up at the scene too and attacked the students with wooden logs and sticks in front of SOS Hermann Gmeiner College.
Together with police, the men in helmets chased the students away from the road. The protesters retaliated with brickbats and at one point there was a scuffle between several protesters and police.
The students gathered again in Mirpur-14 area around 4:00pm and continued their demonstration. Law enforcers with batons charged at the crowd to disperse them later. The streets in Mirpur 13 and 14 were cleared around 6:45pm.
Some Facebook live posts, which went viral during the attack, showed police officials beating up students trapped on the staircase of a footbridge.
August 3: Intensified attacks, a bus strike and a warning
Transport owners and workers suspended bus services, in what seemed to be yet another move to counter the student movement. They announced an undeclared strike causing even more suffering to people. The police warned that they would not sit idle if anyone tried to torch a vehicle or cause violence. The attacks on the protestors intensified.
A group of 30-35 anti-movement men beat up some students of University of Liberal Arts in front of its campus-B on Dhanmondi-7/A around 6:00pm.
As a reporter of priyo.com, Pradip Das, was taking photographs of the incident with his mobile phone, the attackers swooped on the journalist and broke his phone. The portal's head of news, Rafiqul Ranju, came to his rescue, but the attackers chased him.
However, students continued assuming the role of traffic police as they did in the previous five days, controlling traffic. At some places, they were checking driving licences and fitness certificates. The movement was quickly gaining support outside of the capital.
August 4: Battlefield Jhigatola, rumours unfounded and internet slowdown
At least 150 people were injured in Jhigatola as 'BCL men' attacked students. Students had gathered there in huge numbers and in the afternoon. Rumours of four students getting killed inside Awami League's Dhanmondi office and four girls getting raped there spread like wildfire on Facebook. These rumours were later proved to be unfounded. Fake photos of dead bodies on the Dhanmondi Lake were also shared online. The government claimed that the Awami League's office in Dhanmondi had been vandalised and that rumours were being instigated by a third party. In order to disperse the crowd, a group of alleged BCL men attacked the crowd with sticks and iron rods, which were removed from the dividers of the railings on the roads. An attacker was also seen brandishing a pistol. It was the first time in the week that so many students had gotten injured in the protest. In the end, a few students were taken inside the Awami League's office in a bid to dispel the rumours.
The government also slowed down the speed of the internet and it wasn't possible for any one from the field to publish live videos.
Furthermore, many journalists came under attack while trying to take photos and recordings of the attacks. Some were also detained by the police. A Channel 24 journalist was attacked in the middle of a live broadcast.
August 5: Protest recedes, law enforcers begin to take control
The attack on the students in the previous day resulted in fewer school students coming out onto the streets. However, the arrival of university students rejuvenated the protests. Like in the previous day, the Jhigatola-Dhanmondi neighbourhood turned into a battle zone with the police firing teargas shells at a procession which included thousands of students. The procession had begun at Shahbagh and it was making its way towards Jhigatola when the police and BCL activists stopped them. At least 30 students and a dozen photojournalists were injured. It was difficult for those on the field to take videos or click photos since they were threatened and assaulted, allegedly by BCL activists. However, the few videos which managed to hit the social media showed how mercilessly the students and journalists were beaten.
As the number of students started receding, law enforcers began to take a lot more steps. Detectives began detaining people who were reportedly instigating the protests. Renowned photographer Shahidul Alam was picked up at night.
A number of other influential figures were cautioned.
Meanwhile, the protests led to a huge number of people turning up at the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) for renewal of licenses and fitness certificates. A visit to the BRTA showed how people waited in long queues. On the other hand, it was also the first day of the Traffic Week, when police filed a total of 6,476 cases against traffic offenders.
August 6: Private university students attacked, draft law approved
The attacks in the last two days resulted in mostly empty streets in the capital. But there were plans for demonstrations at a few private universities.
However, police personnel were ready on the spots in the morning along with a group of outsiders all equipped with iron rods and sticks. The attack started soon after. Students and teachers had to take shelter inside the EWU campus at Aftabnagar. The students and the attacking youths outside exchanged brick chips until about 4:00pm. Tear gas canisters were hurled at the students.
Soon after the news of EWU attacks spread, few students from Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology (AUST) headed for Aftabnagar. But police charged baton at them at the Hatirjheel area. Eventually a police team took position in front of the AUST campus in Tejgaon.
The incident at EWU, was further followed by attacks in Bashundhara R/A, with private universities—NSU and IUB—being specifically targeted. An armoured personnel carrier and about a hundred policemen—wielding sticks, shotguns and tear gas guns—entered the usually quiet residential area. Tear gas canisters engulfed everything in thick smoke. Tyres burned in the middle of the streets. In between the chaos, a micro bus came out of North South University with three or four students inside—all bleeding from pellet injuries—and sped towards Apollo Hospitals. Moments later, students carrying sticks and brick chips and chanting slogans trying to protest the attack were met with more teargas canisters. The entire incident left around 40 people injured, most of whom were students. Many were treated at Apollo Hospitals.
Even at Dhaka University, police took measures to foil a demonstration of students who were protesting in solidarity of the road safety movement. They charged batons, fired tear gas shells and used water cannon at Shahbagh injuring at least five students.
Whilst BRAC University was not attacked, a teacher at the university said "Police were in position in and around the BRAC university campus, and outsiders had encircled the main building. It was under siege till around 3:00pm."
Four more people were arrested from the capital for "trying to create unrest by spreading rumours on social media" instigating the student protest. Ruling-party Awami League filed cases against 1,200 unknown people over an attack at their party office.
Shahidul, was produced in court 21hrs after he was picked up and placed on a 7-day remand. He said, he was beaten in custody and was made to wear his blood-stained Punjabi which was washed before he was brought to court.
As attacks went on all over the city, the cabinet approved a draft law that proposed a maximum punishment of five years' imprisonment for causing death by reckless driving.
Road safety campaigners strongly criticised the draft law and termed the sentence insufficient to end anarchy on roads, while, truck drivers and transport workers staged demonstration protesting the draft Road Transport Act.
August 7: PM visits party activists, cases filed against protestors
While there were a few demonstrations outside Dhaka, the capital was more or less empty. A number of students from different universities were detained by the police the previous day. Many of them were released today. The police also lodged 29 cases against students, but none against the attackers. In addition to that, the Prime Minister visited the injured Awami League activists undergoing treatment at the National Institute of Ophthalmology.
Shahidul Alam's arrest received criticism from all over the world, including the EU, and international rights bodies. At the same time, the High Court asked jail authorities to send him to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) for treatment.
In addition, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu accused the US embassy for poking its nose into the politics of Bangladesh, after it issued a statement in favour of the protesters.