The bigger picture behind student grievances
With the “world watching” Bangladesh in appreciation for its brave choice to defend the rights of the Rohingya refugees and stand up for the more honourable human values, a most disgraceful display of inhumanity had to bring our nation back down to earth. On the one hand, there was the visit of the United Nations General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, who vowed that the UN will do more for the Rohingyas inspired by Bangladesh's efforts to protect their human rights, while on the other, peaceful Bangladeshi student protestors were being viciously attacked by the student wing of the ruling party as their human rights went completely ignored.
One could, and the students did, argue afterwards that the “government” (taken as “one” entity) did nothing in reality to defend the rights of the latter. In fact, elements of the government (law enforcers, for example) were even shown to be complicit in the attacks in numerous video clips and images that later came out and were circulated on social media. This contradiction, unfortunately, once again cast light on the dark realities that we live in.
The student protestors were seen devastated, physically and mentally, as “without government action” to stop the attacks, they were the first to swallow the bitter pill of reality—the reality that the most basic of human rights such as freedom of expression and physical safety and integrity were still but a far cry in the land that the world was celebrating for upholding the human rights of people from other lands.
The question that all of us are left with in the aftermath of these terrible images, however, is what could prompt such attacks? The student protestors posed no danger to any citizens, or to the government. And their demands were neither too severe nor too difficult for the government to meet. In fact, one could even make the case that their demands were relatively quite trivial in comparison to the many grievances that they could possibly have had, precisely because of such heavy-handed tactics used by the government and the ruling party activists in response to any form of dissent over the years.
What then was the reason? Was it simply a reflex action to stop free expression which paints a picture that is different from that of the ruling party's? Has the ruling party become habituated to clamping down on any such expression even when it seems harmless to its interest, at least from the outside? These are difficult questions to answer, mainly because it is difficult to make sense of what the gain from these attacks could be for just about anyone on the government's side of the fence.
First, because it reveals the real lack of appreciation for human rights that currently prevails within Bangladesh, and not only to its own citizens, but to all those watching, and no one should be better aware of that than the government itself. Second, because it shatters the respect that had built up among citizens towards the government for standing up for the rights of the Rohingyas, even when most of the world refused to do so, giving them a hint of hope that despite Bangladesh's poor human rights record, change was perhaps finally appearing on the horizon.
And that goodwill that the government was gaining should not be seen as trivial, particularly as this is an election year. So, were the attacks simply the result of a failure to “think logically”? Yes, is the answer, if we look at why the students were protesting in the first place.
If we look closely, the student movement against quota system in public service recruitment aligns perfectly, in terms of timing, with a reduction in job creation. And this can be seen quite clearly from all the data which makes it an unavoidable fact. Therefore, what the government should realise is that it is no “coincidence” that the students are making this particular demand now.
It should, in fact, go a step further on its own to address the lack of employment problem because, as we have seen through history, and in our own times, lack of employment opportunity is one of the biggest reasons for societal dissatisfaction, disharmony and upheaval even. And what happened recently in the world's only superpower today should have served as the perfect example towards creating a worldwide global awakening to that fact—as the American people voted in Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, despite him being despised in various influential quarters, mainly because they hoped he would create jobs for them.
Thus, the reason why the government should take the student protests seriously is not simply because they are dissenting—which our governments traditionally don't take too kindly to—but because it is quite significant and needs quick addressing. And that is something even the World Bank, among others, had highlighted, when presenting its data on Bangladesh in FY17.
So, while the attacks on student protestors at this time clearly put a blemish on the image of our nation to the rest of the world, unless the government addresses the root cause behind the protests, such terrible scenes may only be the calm before the storm. Which is why, instead of losing focus of the real issues, it would be wise for the government to address them sooner, rather than later.
In the meantime, it may also be a good idea for the government to reflect upon how it appears to the world, and to its own citizens, when it fails to uphold the human rights of its own people, as it did when it failed to protect the student protestors from being so viciously attacked.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal