CHINESE premier Zhao Ziyang, in his memoir Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, based on a series of about 30 audio tapes recorded secretly by him while he had been under house arrest in 1999–2000, commented: ‘I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on students.’
Zhao said this referring to an argument that he made at a meeting at Deng Xiaoping’s house, less than three weeks before the Tiananmen Square protests, that the government should look for ways to ease tension with the protesters, a couple of conservative officials criticised him. Deng announced that he would order martial law. As Zhao, still the party’s general secretary, did not agree, he was sent on the sidelines of politics, fired after the protests and had later been put under house arrest.
Leaders of the government of Bangladesh, in a stark contrast with what a politician should do, used the law enforcement agencies in suppressing, on Monday and Tuesday, the school and college students who rose up to the occasion, in protest at the death of two of their fellows on the Airport Road on Sunday, to question the irregularities and corruption in the road transport sector.
One of the three buses that were in a race, purportedly to make more trips to earn more money that the transport owners generally believe in, ploughed through a crowd of students near Kurmitola General Hospital, killing two college students, a girl and a boy. The protests flared up the next day, brought the city life to a halt. The protests spilled over to some outlying areas, where students, out of their fellow feeling, stood up against the corruption in the road transport sector and beside their fellows fighting for a just cause in the capital city.
On a digressive note, in 1995 when I worked with the Independent, students, Secondary School Certificate examinees, launched a protest. I was assigned to write an article on this for the weekend supplement. As I was walking beside the students, marching in procession towards the education ministry building and chanting slogans, heavily guarded by the police personnel so that the students could not break into the road and create a chaos, a photographer of a daily newspaper kept instigating a police officer into beating the students so that he could have a photograph.
As the photographer was pointing out the ‘audacity’ of the students to speak against a government decision and asked the police officer to charge at the students with truncheons, the police officer, with a calm, said that the police had been ordered to keep the students disciplined but in no way to beat them, which would cost him his job. There were one or two instances where the police mildly beat one or two students that time. But that was it.
The happenings that took place on Monday and Tuesday compared with what happened then show a marked decline in police moral and behaviour. People high up in the government are responsible for this. They used the law enforcers to stop students, irrespective of being a girl or a boy, from standing for a right cause with truncheons. The law enforcers are there, at least in the case at hand, to deter students from standing in breach of the law. They went a bit too further and treated school and college students on the road like ordinary criminals, an instance which the police should be taught in their training on what not to do as police personnel.
While many believe that this is the reflection of the high-handedness of the government, many others, more of the apologists, believe that enthusiastic police personnel, on their own, attacked the students. If the first proposition is true, the government is to blame, for its failure in how to act with the students, that too of schools and colleges, and if the second proposition is true, the government is to blame, for its failure in training the law enforcement agencies on how to act with the students.
The government must, if the second proposition is true, take action against aberrant police personnel for standing in breach of their moral code and for letting the government down. In case of the first proposition being true, the government should remember that it must allow democratic space for dissent and the expression of grievances. This is more true when the reasons are justified.
The students who had already taken to the streets for three days by Tuesday pointed to a national failure in road transport sector administration. The students, on Tuesday and then onwards, blocked road stretches at places, spraining city life. They stopped public transports and other vehicles, including motorcycles, inquired whether the drivers have licences and other documents and checked whether the drivers were under-aged. They asked passengers to get down saying that as the drivers were under-aged and unlicensed, the travel could not be safe for the remaining distance up to destinations.
They also broomed the road to clean glass pieces from the windows and windshields of buses that ‘they’ smashed the day before. ‘They’ are purposely within quote marks as reports became rife that people other than students and not being part of the protests also smashed glasses of buses. The students are reported to have broken some vehicles and set one or two on fire on the first two days; the law enforcers, who were meant to deter them, rather attacked them. But they failed. Yet, reasoning and learning from that reasoning worked among the students, who have not grown up to be selfish enough to hide their selves behind masked interests.
There were not many buses on the road for the four days and the students tried to discipline the rickshaws. They even on Wednesday stopped the vehicle of a minister, by squatting in front of it, reported to be driving the wrong way. They wanted justice from the minister and reminded him of the principle of the equality before the law. They also let vehicles carrying girls, women and patients through their blockade at places. They stopped the law enforcers and media people when their drivers failed to show licences or fitness certificates. They stopped aberrant vehicles and wrote on the body ‘No licence’ as a warning for others.
They did, even for a single day, what the Road Transport Authority and the traffic wing of the police have failed to do for all these years. The Road Transport Authority is reported to have registered 3.42 million vehicles till this April but it is reported to have issued only 2.35 million driver’s licences, leaving a gap of about a million vehicles, mostly pubic transports, running unlicensed. How could the Road Transport Authority and the police let such a large number of vehicles run on the road unlicensed?
Media reports of this May show that 6.6 per cent of the registered vehicles have not had their licences renewed for the past 10 years and 3,740 of them are registered in the name of government agencies. Why did the Road Transport Authority fail to stop this in all these years?
The road transport sector seems to be mired in further problems of underage and reckless driving, which is instigated by the profiteering motive of transport owners. More trips beget more money for workers. But more trips beget more recklessness, over-speeding and further breach of the law. A situation like this is highly likely to result in fatal traffic accidents. More trips also mean longer work hour for drivers, which often forces them to doze off on to the wheels from exertion because of overwork.
All these problems have time and again raised their ugly head, yet they could hardly make relevant authorities lift a finger to right all these wrongs. Death from road accident is often mourned, compensated and condoled on. But it is the best to celebrate life while it is living. The students of schools and colleges, over a couple of days, have done, or at least have shown the way to do, what the government, through all its relevant agencies, failed to do. It is time that the government acted to attend to all such problems, with sincerity and in earnest, to save its face.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.