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Bangladesh students' protests a result of anger building over official apathy for road safety, weak governance

Since 29 July, students in Bangladesh have been out on the streets demanding that the government take action against those who violated traffic rules and indulge in negligent and rash driving, and make the roads safer for its citizens. Students have been checking licences of vehicles and drivers, and streaming live videos on Facebook. The peaceful protests, however, turned violent on Saturday. While students accused the police of using rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, the police denied it. Now reports have emerged that the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling party, was actually behind the attacks on students on Saturday. Greeshma Rai of Firstpost spoke to journalists, students and professors in Dhaka, to get a first-person account of what actually transpired on Saturday.

Students in Bangladesh have been protesting against lack of road safety for close to a week now. The ruling Awami League government has tried many methods to curb the protests which have brought the State to a standstill for eight days now. It is therefore, not very surprising that certain groups indulged in violence to disperse the crowd, which up until now had been peaceful.

These unprecedented protests were led by school and college-going students between the ages of 11 and 17 who have no political affiliation. Statements were made by the ruling government regarding involvement of ex-prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party but looking at the nature of the protests, nobody in Bangladesh questioned the motivations of these young students.

 Bangladesh students protests a result of anger building over official apathy for road safety, weak governance

Student protesters were reportedly attacked in Bangladesh's capital by the student wing of the ruling party on Saturday. Image courtesy: Md Abusufian Jewel

The protests are a result of anger building among students because of regular deaths due to road accidents caused by negligent and rash driving. The tragic death of two students of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College caused by negligent driving was the tipping point.

Coupled with this was the apathy of the government. Shahajahan Khan, Minister for Shipping, is also the executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Federation, which is dominated by private bus operators. When asked about the deaths, Khan smiled and responded with something along the lines of: 'Aren’t these accidents common?'

He has been regularly blamed for stalling traffic-related regulations and it was evident why he made a statement like this.

His statement furthered inflamed the outrage against the student deaths. Protests started with the students from Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College taking to the streets. They were joined by more students and protests spread across the country.

In Dhaka, wherever there are schools, the students have gathered outside with placards and slogans. It is not only students, even their parents, guardians and teachers who have been accompanying them to these protests. The students' demands? That the government makes roads safer for common citizens by stopping vehicles without the necessary permits and drivers without licences.

They also demanded that government officials failing to regulate or press for compliance of traffic-related rules be brought to book.

Student protesters turned violent in Bangladesh capital Dhaka on Saturday. Image courtesy: Md Abusufian Jewel

Protesters demanded that government officials failing to regulate traffic-related rules be brought to book. Image courtesy: Md Abusufian Jewel

Public transportation has always been a contentious issue in Bangladesh, especially bus services. The common people are at the mercy of private bus operators and no strict regulations are in place. If there is a protest by the people when a death is caused (due to negligent driving) or an untimely price hike, the Bus Operators Association promptly calls a strike, paralysing the only regular mode of public transport. The government has never interfered or tried to strengthen regulations pertaining to their operations. Even now, the association has suspended all operations. There are no buses plying to or from Dhaka.

When the protests broke out, the public consensus was that these children were spearheading a genuine cause. In addition, protests were peaceful other than stray incidents here and there.

From day one of the protests, students posted live videos on Facebook of them checking licences and permits. Everybody was stopped. Videos of four ministers travelling in vehicles which didn’t have necessary documents went viral. Even high-ranking police officials and Bangladeshi press seemed to have been flouting the rules, as the videos revealed. These students held up a mirror to the society, with something as simple as a Facebook Live.

All these videos brought forth the issue which is most talked about but hardly finds space in mainstream discussions: Weak governance in almost every sector, and who was taking advantage of this.

In transport, for instance, it emerged over the past few days that it's not just bus operators who are flouting norms, so is everybody else in positions of power like high-ranking officials. Heated discussions started about the shortcomings of other sectors such as banking, the loss-making State-owned industries, and the bad state of railways.

Student protesters turned violent in Bangladesh capital Dhaka on Saturday. Image courtesy: Md Abusufian Jewel

Public consensus was that these children were spearheading a genuine cause. Image courtesy: Md Abusufian Jewel

It is true that this situation can easily be politicised by the Opposition with the upcoming general elections in Bangladesh. The Opposition is already trying hard to do so. The student wing of the ruling party, the Bangladesh Chhatra League, which has a terrible reputation in Bangladesh, was allegedly behind the attacks on the protesting students.

Now, both the sides will blame the other and with this politicking, we will eventually lose focus of what these students set out to do. Also, anything that is against Awami League is labelled as Jamaat-e-Islami influenced. This has become an easy method to dismiss any form of discontent. Nevertheless, one would be forced to agree on the point that the government doesn’t have much to save face. Charges of corruption have been levelled against the government and the state of affairs are far from good.

The truth is Bangladesh is facing a huge crisis of leadership. The prime minister probably has good intentions but her government is filled with individuals whose records are far from clean. The dismissive attitude from ministers like Khan is becoming the new normal. Public discontent against ministers and government officials like Khan and his ilk cannot be silenced forever, as these protests have clearly shown.

As told to Greeshma Rai

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Updated Date: Aug 05, 2018 17:32:09 IST