When students took the lead
As future leaders of Bangladesh, the efforts of the students have not gone unheard.
This past week, students in Bangladesh demonstrated for road safety and regulations after two students were killed by a reckless bus driver on of July 29, 2018, at Airport Road in Dhaka. Following the tragic accident, other students initiated a demonstration for justice. This was replicated by students from other schools and colleges and eventually turned into a movement for road safety and generated huge support from the society. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appreciated the students and conveyed her support to the demands of the students. The peaceful protest of the students and the support it generated demonstrates the democratic space enjoyed by the people of Bangladesh.
The protestors made a 9-point demand that include, inter alia, giving reckless drivers capital punishment, setting up speed breakers in every accident-prone road, making sure no bus takes excess passengers, and construction of a foot-over bridge to ensure the safety of students. The Government of Bangladesh has accepted all the demands of the students. Students have been out on the streets checking for driver's licenses, making separate lanes for emergency vehicles, medium-sized vehicles, and buses. They are essentially taking it upon themselves to showcase the possible outcomes of their 9 demands. As a sign of appreciation to the protestors as well as to ensure their safety and security the law enforcing agencies maintained absolute restraint under the directive of the government, even sometimes in the face of provocations.
The government also took immediate actions to ensure justice to the unfortunate victims of the accident. The law enforcing agencies arrested the accused driver within 24 hours. The government has also cancelled the route permit of the owner of the bus. The Government has allocated 05 new buses to the affected school to ensure safe transport of the students. In addition to the legal courses to ensure justice to the victims, the Honorable Prime Minister has also given compensation amounting to 20 lakh Taka to each of the victim families.
The demonstration, although peaceful in the beginning, turned violent due to infiltration of external elements including student front of BNP-Jamaat. Even the office of the Awami League came under attack by some miscreants while the leaders were holding a general meeting. The General Secretary was trapped inside the office with his party senior leaders. This caused clashes in that area and resulted in injury to over 20 people including students and freelance photographers. An Awami League activist lost his eye.
In the meantime, on August 3 and 4, rumors through social media escalated the tension. Concocted videos and pictures showing brutalities against the students, rumor of killings, rape, and confinement in Awami League Office started to pour in inviting international attention. Various fake stories about attacks were circulated with malevolent intentions.
Amidst all the rumors and escalating tensions, the students were invited to visit the office of Awami League. They visited the office with their teachers immediately after the clashes and found the rumors of rape and confinement of students in the office to be false and unfounded. The students met journalists and stated that nobody was detained at the office and also urged the protesting students outside the office to not believe stories and rumours. The Police arrested one actress involved in such activity who confessed that she deliberately spread the rumor.
Although the movement was an outpour of students' grievances in the democratic culture of Bangladesh, unfortunately, some vested quarters politicised and misled the student movement. Attempts were made to transform the peaceful student protests into an anti-government movement.
From leaked telephone conversation of BNP leader Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury and an activist of the BNP, it was revealed that there was infiltration of armed cadres of BNP-Jamaat into the movement who wanted to take advantage of the situation to fulfill their own agenda. Mr. Chowdhury instructed his party men to infiltrate into the student movement and use social media to instigate violence. The Intelligence agencies have gathered numerous such conversations. BNP-Jamaat used social media in an unprecedented way to spread hatred and violence.
Police and Intelligence have also found that there had been a noticeable increase in the sale of school uniforms and ID cards in various parts of the city for the purpose of impersonation. Some pictures and videos taken by the journalists shown in private TV channel footage reveal that some protesters in school uniform were carrying weapons in school bag.
BNP and Jamaat, having failed in the past to create any significant opposition to the government wanted to destabilise the country ahead of the general elections by adopting unethical, undemocratic, and violent means. A student leader of Northern University belonging to the student wing of BNP has already been apprehended by the police who was active on the street.
Meanwhile, on August 05, 2018, the official vehicle of the US Embassy in Dhaka carrying the US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat was attacked by a group of armed miscreants in the Mohammadpur area of Dhaka, while she was leaving the residence of Dr. Badiul Alam Majumder, Secretary of civil society advocacy group Shujan after a private dinner.
The Police immediately rushed to the area and provided necessary support ensuring that the Ambassador and the personnel remain unharmed, although the local police station or the responsible government authorities were not informed about the movement of the Ambassador, which is a usual practice in Bangladesh. It was later revealed that the Ambassador ended up amidst a family feud involving property and the attack was actually an act committed at the behest of the disputing family members of Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar. This is in no way connected to the movement on Road Safety. This was clarified through a press release by the US Embassy in Dhaka.
The US Embassy in a letter to the DMP Commissioner expressed appreciation for the role played by Bangladesh Police in ensuring her safety. Detective branch of Bangladesh Police is investigating the matter. However, as soon as the movement was polluted with external elements, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged the students to go back to their homes/schools. The government has already started working on implementing all the demands of the protesting students.
Allowing the students to continue their demonstrations for eight consecutive days has shown that the founding principle of democracy this country was built upon is upheld. As future leaders of Bangladesh, the efforts of the students have not gone unheard. Simultaneously, the government has also been successful in scuttling the evil design of the BNP-Jamaat to recover from their political bankruptcy riding on the students' movement with an aim to destabilise the democratic polity of Bangladesh.
(The author is Minister (Press) of Bangladesh High Commission to New Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)