Dhaka comes to standstill as students hold massive protests over poor road safety; Sheikh Hasina promises reforms in phases

About five minutes after classes ended at Dhaka's Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College on 29 July, a bus ploughed through a crowd, killing two students of the institute. The accident took place as the bus was racing with another for passengers, reported The Daily Star. This incident triggered massive protests by students, which have brought Bangladesh's capital to a standstill.

The two students killed were identified as 18-year-old Abdul Karim alias Rajib Uddin and 17-year-old Dia Khanam Mim.

A source told Firstpost that the two buses racing against each other were owned by Jabale Nur, a private bus operator with links to the brother-in-law of Shipping Minister Shahajahan Khan. However, Khan was quoted as saying by The Daily Star that none of his relatives had any links with the company. He tried to clarify that his brother-in-law was one of the 12 directors of the firm earlier but has not had any ties with the company for the past five years.

Adding to citizens' anger, a bus hit and killed a biker on Friday morning in Dhaka's Moghbazar area, after which a mob set the vehicle on fire. No casualties were reported in the protests.

Students have stopped thousands of vehicles, including those of top officials and judges, demanding to see whether the cars were registered and the drivers licensed. One minister had to abandon his vehicle in the street after protesters found that his paperwork was not in order, according to news reports.

 Dhaka comes to standstill as students hold massive protests over poor road safety; Sheikh Hasina promises reforms in phases

Bangladeshi students participate in a protest in Dhaka against poor road safety. AP

Dhaka cut off from rest of Bangladesh

The protests, in which about 115 people have been injured so far, have largely cut off the capital from the rest of Bangladesh, as the demonstrators pressed their demand for safer roads. Hours after the accident, students vandalised over 100 vehicles on a busy road in Dhaka. Some protesters also hurled brick chips at vehicles.

Witnesses said the police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators at Dhaka's Jigatola area and alleged that pro-government activists had attacked youngsters, including some of those rushing to nearby hospitals for treatment. Many alleged that people who attacked students who were demonstrating were members of the Bangladesh Chhatro League.

The police, however, denied that they had fired rubber bullets or tear gas at the protesters. "It's not true. Nothing happened at Jigatola," Dhaka Police spokesperson Masudur Rahman said.

Earlier on Saturday, thousands of students in school uniforms defied rain to block major intersections in the capital for the seventh consecutive day. Teens as young as 13 were seen on Dhaka's notoriously clogged roadways, checking whether cars and buses had valid licenses and were in a roadworthy condition. "We won't leave the roads until our demands are met. We want safe roads and safe drivers," said protester Al Miran.

Abdur Rahim, a leader of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers' Federation, said bus operators would stay off the streets until security improves. "We have invested a lot of money to do business. We can't let people burn our vehicles in the name of protests," he said. "We need our security, too."

A smile and an insensitive comment fuel anger

An insensitive comment by Shahjahan Khan, who has ties with powerful transport unions, only poured fuel into the fire earlier this week. Khan questioned why there was such an uproar over two children dying in Dhaka but no reaction to the 33 people killed in a bus crash in India the previous day. He was referring to the accident in Maharashtra's Raigad district, where a bus rolled down a deep gorge and killed nearly everyone on board.

What made matters worse was that he had "smiles that would not go away", according to an article in the Dhaka Tribune. Several social media users expressed anger over Khan's statement as well as his facial expressions. Following are two such comments:

There have been widespread demand over social media for the minister's resignation despite his subsequent apology.

Protesters seek safer roads

The protesters have been demanding safer roads in Bangladesh, where corruption is rife, making it easy for unlicensed drivers and unregistered vehicles to ply on the roads. At least 12,000 people die in the country every year in road accidents that are often blamed on faulty vehicles, reckless driving and lax traffic enforcement.

According to the National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways, a private research group, more than 4,200 pedestrians were killed in road accidents last year, a 25 percent increase from 2016.

"They should have taken our demands seriously, but they didn't," Imran Ahmed, a protesting student, said.

Saiyara Islam Roj, another protester, was quoted as saying by the BBC: "I am joining because I see how dangerous our roads are every day when I go out. All we want is corruption to be gone and driving licences to stop being handed out like candy."

Buses are key to transportation in Bangladesh, where trains are overcrowded and most people cannot afford cars.

The protests by the students in Dhaka have brought the city to a virtual standstill. AP

The protests by the students in Dhaka have brought the city to a virtual standstill. AP

Awami League blames Opposition

The protests are an embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ahead of the general elections due in December. Hasina's party has been accusing the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by former prime minister Khaleda Zia and its main ally Jamaat-e-Islami, of using the sentiments of young students to create chaos for political gains.

Zia's party has formally extended its support to the protesters. Hasina also said that their demands were justified and pledged to fulfill them in phases.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan on Wednesday promised that the government would launch a public transport safety campaign and urged the protesters to go home. "People are suffering, and we don't want this," he said.

On Thursday, Bangladesh shut down high schools across the country as the demonstrations continued to rage. Authorities had pleaded with students to call off the protests, but thousands of them continued to block major intersections in Dhaka as the police, armed with shields and batons, drove them back.

With inputs from agencies/Greeshma Rai

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2018 23:55:01 IST