By Nava Thakuria
Bangladesh is a land of happenings. As the populous country is approaching the next general (national) elections by the end of this year, we can expect more public chaos, protest demonstrations, media outburst followed by government crackdowns and international outcries.The preparation for an unusual show of ballots has already begun in the south Asian country, as a tragic accident in the street of Dhaka led to public mobilizing and subsequent arrest of nearly hundred agitators, mostly higher school, college and university students. Some of them are now released on bail, but many remained inside the jail including a renowned photographer turned social thinker Dr Shahidul Alam, who was picked up by the police personnel in civil dress from his Dhanmondi residence on the night of August 5.
The incident that pained the nation took place on 29 July 2018 at the airport road, when an unruly speeding privately operated bus ran over a group of students waiting for their respective vehicles, killing at least two (Abdul Karim Rajib and Diya Khanam Mim) students and injuring many others.
Soon after the incident, a number of senior students boycotted their classes and assembled on the location as a mark of protest. They also demanded a concrete set of road safety guidelines for the country.
Slowly their protest attracted many other students and it finally expanded to many other city and towns of Bangladesh. The protest program finally emerged as a massive anti-government demonstration.
The students of higher school standard in their school uniforms started checking driver’s licenses and other documents relating to the vehicles plying on the road. They also asked the drivers to follow respective lanes leaving aside space for emergency users. The situation annoyed the owners and they decided not to ply their vehicles, thus putting pressure on the government to take away the agitating students.
The students’ agitation instantly drew the attention of local media, artist-intellectuals, and progressive thinkers in Dhaka. Appreciating their spirit, Bangladesh’s lone Nobel laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus
termed it as unprecedented and commented that their demonstration would never be forgotten by the nation. In a media piece, he also criticized the Hasina government for losing an opportunity to address the youth’s anger passionately.
“The agitating students demanded enforcement of traffic laws so that no one else would have to sacrifice their young lives under the wheels of uncontrolled buses and other vehicles,” said the former managing director of Grameen Bank adding that he supported their dream of a new Bangladesh and also wants to be a part of that initiative.
Feeling nervous, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina started taking strong actions against the demonstrators. She realised that the movement, may be started with the issue of road safety, may emerge as a big challenge to her. After all she wants to get elected once again like that of last nationwide polls in 2014 where most of the opposition candidates left the fray.
The crackdown of Dhaka was assisted by the student organ of ruling Awami League, where the Bangladesh police jumped over the demonstrators at various places. Many masked youths (read AL supporters) were seen attacking the agitators. They even did not spare the reporters and photo journalists on duty.
International media rights body Reporters Sans/Without Borders (RSF) promptly issued a statement calling the authorities ‘to ensure the safety of journalists after a dark day for press freedom on 5 August where at least 23 reporters were attacked by government supporters while covering student protests in Dhaka’.
Simultaneously, the authority started arresting the demonstrators. The victims included many social activists who raised voices against the Hasina government in the alternate media. One among them is Dr Alam who narrated his resentments in an international news channel. The sixty plus activist is still behind bars and waiting for next court hearing on 11 September.
By now, international condemnations poured over the Hasina government for its crackdown on non-violent agitators and demanded immediate release of all detainees. From Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch to South Asians for Human Rights to Committee to Protect Journalists everyone put strong words against the authority in Dhaka.
Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz, Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire, Betty Williams, Oscar Arias, Richard J Roberts, Jose Ramos-Horta, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Prof Muhammad Yunus, Tawakkol Karman came out with strong statement s asking Dr Alam’s unconditional release.
American philosopher Noam Chomsky, Canadian writer Naomi Klein, Indian author Arundhati Roy and intellectual Vijay Prasad also demanded his release and dropping of all charges against him. Another group of petitioners including Indian scholars Binayak Sen, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Ilina Sen along many distinguished personalities form Germany, France, Canada, Sweden, Singapore, and Nepal etc also asked the Bangladesh government to release all the detainees.
Legendary photographer Raghu Rai, who a Padmashri awardee from Indian government, wrote a personal letter to Ms Hasina requesting Dr Alam’s urgent release. Terming Bangladesh is a land of poets, writers, artists, musicians etc, he asked the Bangladesh Premier to honour the spirit of democracy.
Over 250 Indian photographers, artists, journalists and activists including Ram Rahman, Vivan Sundaram, Parthiv Shah, Pushpamala N, Devika Daulet Singh, Pablo Bartholomew, Prashant Panjiar, Dinesh Khanna, Sunil Gupta, Jitish Kalat, Krishen Khanna, Ravi Aggarwal, Gauri Gill etc also demanded his immediate release.
Another group of over 400 Indian artists and filmmakers commented in a media communiqué that Dr Alam did no crime by highlighting the utterly reasonable and peaceful protests by schoolchildren and young people in Dhaka against the lethal malpractices in the transport sector.
“Shahidul did what any citizen with a conscience would have done. And we stand resolutely by him,” said the statement signed by Arpana Caur, Sunil Kothari, Gayatri Sinha, Geeta Kapur, Jatin Das, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Aditi De, MK Raina, Anita Dube, Bharat Chowdhary and Nandakumar Raman.
Earlier an appeal, endorsed by Central Women’s University vice-chancellor Dr Perween Hasan, Illinois State University professor Dr Ali Riaz, Massachusetts University professor Dr Elora Halim Chowdhury, Dhaka University professors Dr Asif Nazrul, Dr Amena Mohsin, Dr Shahnaz Huda, Dr Chowdhury Abrar, Rice University professor Dr Elora Shehabuddin, BRAC University professor Dr Firdous Azim, Jahangirnagar University professor Dr Anu Muhammad etc urged the government to stop repression of students, academics, journalists and human rights activists.
Others who signed it included human rights defenders Dr Hameeda Hossain, Shaheen Anam, Rezaur Rahman Lenin, Nasiruddin Elan, Sheepa Hafiza, rights activists Dr Iftekhar Zaman, Tasaffy Hossain, Nur Khan, Dr Tasnim Azim, health rights activist Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, women’s rights activists Shireen P Huq, Muktasree Chakma, Maheen Sultan, lawyers Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Adilur Rahman Khan, Cynthia Farid, Masud Khan, Ziaur Rahman, Devashish Roy, social activist Lamiya Morshed, filmmakers Shahadat Hossain, Khandaker Sumon, Enamul Hoque, Tasmiah Afrin Mou, Dina Hossain and Nasrin Siraj Annie.
Celebrated Bangladesh author Taslima Nasreen, while expressing her opinion over the issue, pointed out that the protesting students may not ‘force a government to bar unlicensed drivers from getting behind the wheel, or motorcyclists to ride without helmets’, but what they have managed to do on the streets of Dhaka within just a couple of days was impressive.
The exiled writer of course made it clear that she still prefers Hasina’s Awami League over Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladeshdesh Nationalist Party (in association with Jamaat-e-Islami) to rule her country. She, however, admitted that the faith and respect many progressive individuals across the globe had for Hasina is slowly dwindling.
(The author is a northeast India (Guwahati) based political commentator)
Bangladesh: Protests, arrests and their aftermath
By Nava Thakuria