The irony of peaceful protesters being beaten up by thugs claiming to uphold the spirit of our liberation war, at a spot which commemorates our language movement protesters who were brutalised by the powers that were, cannot be lost on anyone. Except for the proctor of the “premium” university of the country, who was “uninformed” about the attacks, by now everyone knows the extent of the brutality that BCL men meted out to protesters demanding quota reform.
That activists of the student party had the audacity to use rods, hammers and machetes on unarmed students in broad daylight, and in the presence of cameras, speaks for itself. But then it got more bizarre as the attackers then tried to justify their actions through claims of trying to prevent unrest in the campus and “upholding the spirit of the liberation war”, and were backed by some university officials in their narrative. But what was most blatant about what happened in the three days of protest, was the silence which followed.
Just hours after the protesters were beaten up in the most barbaric of ways, the government calmly announced the formation of a committee to review the quota system. It has been pointed out, with good grounds, that this decision could have been taken much earlier, when the prime minister had already expressed her decision on the matter. That would have been that. What was more striking however in the announcement was not in its delay but the complete absence of any mention of the attacks. Was the government trying to distance itself from the actions of the student body? Should that not have been more reason to investigate and punish those who were involved?
As protesters who were beaten up that day now lie in hospital beds or spend their time in jail, a few simple questions need to be asked. What extent of authority has been given to BCL? Are they part of the university authorities now, that they feel entitled to exercise their might to establish “peace” on campus? Or are they part of law enforcement, that they go in, beat up protesters, and deliver them to the police? And is there a special caveat of the law, that when they openly kick and stomp men and women, the police simply walk away, and even with their faces on camera, days go by without any indication of action being taken against them?
The Constitution reads: “Every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order or public health.” So—and this is relevant for every citizen of this country—what exactly does this constitutional right to protest and assemble mean if the police and BCL are allowed to do whatever they want to quell assemblies? University authorities too turned a blind eye, except the handful of teachers who protested the attacks on their students. The joke was on them though, because apparently they too do not understand what the right to protest means, since they were first barred, then manhandled, and even picked up by the police.
Whoever has been able to sit through the videos of the attack by BCL men on the students, the women trying to shield them and in turn being attacked as well, knows the extent of “harm” that was being caused to them. Subsequently, we saw that one of the protesters had bones of both his legs broken by hammers. Protesters have said that male protesters have been threatened with abduction and females with rape. But law enforcement, which was quick to nab protesters and show them arrested in various cases, were blind to the fact that groups of men were mercilessly ganging up on people with no means to defend themselves.
So, here too one could ask the question, what exactly the Constitution means when it says that is a fundamental right of every citizen: “To enjoy the protection of the law, and to be treated in accordance with law, and only in accordance with law... in particular no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law.”
But the most important question of all came from the woman, who just after witnessing the brutality on her fellow protesters, herself being shoved and pushed as she tried to protect another, wailed in frustration:
“How could they beat us in front of so many of you? Don't you have anything to say?”
Do they really—our leaders, our public intellectuals, our teachers, the bastions of law and order—not have anything to say? Is silence, maybe in hope that this too shall pass, the only response we will get from our leaders and protectors?
Moyukh Mahtab is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.