An account of two eye witnesses to the movement
July 29 was just another mundane Sunday, and one of us crossed the intersection of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment School and College at around 10 am, on the way to work. But this day was unlike others, and no one could have known that, in a mere two hours, Rajib, Meem, and many of their school/college friends would be mowed down by a speeding bus—of the Jabale Nur Paribahan—trying to beat another raging bus to the stop, as is so common on Dhaka's busy Airport Road. Neither Rajib nor Meem survived, while the other school-children barely came out of the carnage alive.
We say no one could have known about the brutality to come. But what happened next was even more unthinkable. After all, it was just another 'accident'.
We are the world's reserve army of cheap lives, are we not? Our lives are disposable, dispensable. Students lose their limbs and die; sometimes they are thrown—wounded—to drown in the river. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know what it is to live in a city like ours, unless one calls this place home. Some of us are fortunate—our commutes are shorter, the streets in front our homes still survive, and we rarely find ourselves in need of public transportation. But for the vast majority of the millions we share our city with, this is a place of permanent precarity. One exists here forever in a state of emergency, in a state of competition of all against all. The arteries are clogged, the blood is toxic, and the bones are washing away. We do not need to fall back on problematic rankings and measures to know what we all know: this city is unliveable. Dhaka is where all the contradictions and pathologies that constitute Bangladesh congeal, pathologies that include the sheer disposability of human life and the breakdown of collective answerability—the basis of human sociality. Forget extrajudicial killings, industrial murder, and settler colonialism. Our lives are just as likely to be interrupted by a pulverized road or a speeding car, and no one will answer for it.
This time, however, was different. By 5 pm, the students of the school were out en masse. Dressed defiantly in their school uniforms and quickly joined by students from all over Dhaka, they occupied the city and claimed the entire urban space as the ground on which they would make their claim to life and justice. They shut down the city and then gave it new life. The student movement that erupted in Dhaka and then spread outwards—an 'occupy' movement if there ever was one—was, above all else, a resounding, collective disavowal of this very disposability, and an unshakeable insistence on the ethical primacy of life.
School kids were joined by young adults, Bangla medium students were joined by their English medium comrades. They took over every major intersection and claimed the right to do what the police have consistently failed to do—forcing all to drive in appropriate lanes, checking licenses, registration, and fitness papers. Car keys were confiscated and handed over to the traffic police, and unfit vehicles spray-painted for all to see. No one escaped the 'levelling crowd,' not police sergeants, nor ministers. These children articulated their politics through witty slogans and internet memes, reaching back into the past to re-energise a time-tested rhetoric. Simple slogans like “1952, 1969, 1971, 1990, 2018” were brilliant rejections of patron-client partisan politics, drawing instead on the memory of historic moments when citizens reclaimed the state; slogans like “Stop liking news on Facebook; join us on the street,” expressed the necessity of dissidence in real life as opposed to virtual activism. “Caution! Sorry for the inconvenience, the nation is under construction” slammed a sense of perspective onto critics of the movement, and those who yearned for 'normalcy.'
Many left-liberal intellectuals and activists felt nostalgic; for them, this movement brought back the memory of May 1968, of the unified student-worker movement that occupied Paris and then Europe at large; some labelled it as the 'Guerrilla Spring.' This urge is understandable; but even though this movement drew on the resources of the past, we must look past our natural romanticism and see what made this a unique moment of resistance. Our children did something extraordinary—they managed to initiate a measured, disciplined transversal movement that was at the same time a mass uprising. In claiming justice and a safe space for themselves and ALL their fellow citizens, they showed us how a defiantly non-partisan movement could be resolutely political, dissenting against a dysfunctional state apparatus and certain inept, irresponsible, and unethical functionaries. They showed how limited resources, training, and experience cannot stop sheer will, determination, integrity, and love for the nation and its people.
Yes, whenever a protest continues for longer than a week, there is every chance for external, malicious forces to infiltrate and try to take advantage of the situation—we have seen this time and again. It is also true that, in our confusion, panic, fear, and anger, we are prone to misreport and misrepresent, especially if the media remains silent. But who, except those who choose to remain silent and refuse to listen to reason, can justify the fact that now the blood of young students is smeared across the streets of Dhaka, bullets and tear gas shells have been shot at unarmed civilians, machetes hurled at students, cameras broken and phones confiscated whenever a citizen tried to document the carnage? How was it possible for the state to completely misread the innocent demand for safe space and then effectively deny the very basic right to live? If now Dhaka had turned into a troubled zone, it is not because the students failed; it is because we collectively failed our children, our future citizens.
Let us not forget that these children still believe in the nation-state. They believed that this government could deliver if they were willing. They believed that justice and the spirit of 1971 were more than mere slogans for the party in power. If you had been on the ground with us, you would have seen how these children, even if for a fleeting moment, slipped into a utopian world where everything was possible—and they were making it possible. They truly believed that they are the descendants of the freedom fighters, that it is their holy duty to care for the nation and fix it, along with those in power. They did not want to wear shrouds, but uniforms; but they also promised their loved ones that they would be martyrs for justice, if need be. How on earth could the state have allowed such a spirit to die?
No matter what happens, the students have already won their cause. All they tried to do is alter the language of the state, to transform the state from one that 'governs' and 'disciplines' into one that nurtures.
Did we not want them to be dreamers and doers? To be upright, just, able-bodied citizens who will build the nation of the future? Was not their protest a basic leap of faith? A plea for a politics of life and nurturance? How could we have denied them the love that they deserve, a space for the nurture they need to become conscious citizens? How could we nip them in the bud?
The names of the authors have been withheld on their request.