On Sunday, July 29, during a mad race between two commuter buses, one of the drivers slammed on the brakes near the ramp of the Airport Road flyover. To the horror of the nation, two more college students of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College were killed on the spot. The shipping minister made light of such death, the government tried to wash their hands off with vague promises. Students of schools and colleges took to streets since then demanding justice for the victims, demanding a structural change in the road transport sector. Embodying the spirit of historic student movements in Bangladesh, they spoke truth to power writes, Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree.
‘We have learnt from history, from language martyrs Salam, Barkat, Rafik, Jabbar. As students, it is our responsibility to speak up against injustices. Blame martyrs Salam, Barkat; blame history; if you think we are doing wrong by taking to street for justice.’ — says a protesting student at Science Laboratory intersection on the second day (Tuesday, July 31) of ongoing movement for road safety. Denouncing the ruling party propaganda of establishing a ‘Digital Bangladesh,’ they wore placards that say, ‘we don’t want digital Bangladesh, we want safe Bangladesh.’ Students of school and colleges spoke truth to power, gave voices to people that have been for nearly a decade are suppressed by an oppressive regime. Embodying the spirit of historic students’ movements, they claimed ownership of their nation.
The Language Movement of 1952 showed us the path, protests were made by university students and the lives lost — rather taken by the then Pakistan government in order to demoralise the spirit, all that paid off as it eventually led to our liberation war and the subsequent freedom. We have come a long way since then.
Sparks of youth spirit shined bright at times, and at long intervals. However, the need for young voice to roar — had to be felt, the resistance against the oppressive resistance of power — had to be built.
In 1983, students protested to reform the existing education policy known as ‘Majid Khan Education Policy’, they protested at the Bottola of Dhaka University, the army took lives of ten students — a successful continuation of the protesting spirit of Bangladeshi youth rooting back to the anti-colonial movement.
The anti-autocracy movement in 1987 is one such student protest which shook the then military regime of Hussain Mohammad Ershad. The result was of course a terrified government in fear of obstacles in having an undisturbed control over the people and of power. Thus came the government raining down bullets at the students. We still see the picture of Nur Hossain, shot dead, circulating as an inspiration for the students of his time and generations to come after. The 90’s mass uprising to take down military regime also saw an active participation of student organisations where the leftist students’ wings, as well as Chhatra League, Chhatra Dal came together under one banner in solidarity to fight the autocratic government. That was an indomitable yet rational spirit of student politics that is unimaginable in the current context of student politics.
We have seen students banning military entrance to public universities after some army men beat up students at Dhaka University campus in 2007. A rage broke among the students, why should army camps be built at educational institutes — the space for exercising free thoughts, and then they would exercise military power over the students! The government, in the face of a violent protest from the students and youth — later joined by ordinary people, was bound to make an apology and withdraw army deployment from the campus. It remains so till date, no army in university campuses!
We have seen the Shahbagh movement, a mass uprising which included a big number of students demanding fast trial of war criminals. We have seen the recent quota reform movement which is still on going, a movement for a proper distribution of quotas in the civil services.
All these movements, they had some sort of leadership, some pre-thought pre-organised agendas. Some of them brought the result they aimed at, some of them died along the way. But surely the one thing that persistently stayed up in the blood of Bangladeshi youth is the spirit of protesting at any given moment.
And then, we have the protest for safe roads in the country going on as we speak, ignited by the death of two school going children in Dhaka as a reckless bus ploughed through them trying to overtake another bus in the contest for getting more commuters. The deaths of the young ones caused people to stir from their apparent standstill on road safety. As road accidents have become a daily incident in the country and deaths are just numbers in the statistics sheet, ordinary people have seemed to grow non-reactive if not completely apathetic to the situation. Drivers, helpers and the transport owners hardly face any accountability for these accidents, culprits almost never caught and never given punishments, thus it goes on recklessly and the death toll rises every day. In these circumstances, an unforeseeable protest has been made by the school and college going children in Dhaka, later spread to other parts of the country.
Thousands of students in uniforms took to the roads, protested for getting justice, and they did not stop at demanding justice only. They have demonstrated with vigour how safer roads can be maintained, death tolls can be drastically decreased — only if the traffic police had shown their willingness in doing so, and if road transport authorities were prompt at taking actions against any irregularities. The children have been checking the licence of the drivers and not letting them pass if they do not hold a valid one. They have made the vehicles move through their designated lanes, and for the first time in a long time, we have come to see an emergency lane to appear, which most people did not know exists. They have not discriminated against anyone, whether it is a regular CNG driver or a driver of a high official, they did not halt when powerful parliament members, event cabinet members made it to the roads without their licenses, they have treated them all the same. On one hand, they are protesting for a safer road, on the other hand, they are showing us how to regulate our roads for a better and accident-less commute for the public.
This protest has a significance in the history of student protest and youth uprisings for a handful of reasons. The children acted their conscience. The generation, generally thought to be all technology dependant who pass their time playing video games, spending an awful lot of time on social media and having the so called ‘good times’ or ‘chills’, the generation which is a victim of poor education system and had been called names for being of no use in any social reformation previously, have turned the tables. They have proved to be conscious, and active, than any of us, at least when it came to road safety. One accident shook them, and the loss worked as an inspiration behind marching forward to bringing down the evil loophole of our road and transport system.
No instigation from any political parties was needed for them to get down to business. But that does not make the issue any less political. They have hit the core of a failing system, of a failing government, and most of all, of a failing state. When a government or a state repeatedly fails to ensure public safety, to ensure a better life for its population, to maintain a proper law and order situation, to provide justice, to hold the corrupt quarters accountable and pay for their evil deeds, it can be safely said, that the state is failing as a whole. And we have witnessed it all in the past few years. In such a setting, any public protest is vandalised by unknown goons or power holders who shall not be named. But these school kids, they have shown bravery in defying the cruel claws of power. They have publicly defied the corrupt police who instead of working for the people are doing just the opposite till date.
If anyone questions the logicality behind their protest, the maturity of their reasoning — a good look at their placards would surely clear up their doubts. They have stated that they do not need 4G internet speed, they need a 4G speed in bringing justice, it does not have to be explained how purely it came from their own understanding of priorities. While our country is running towards turning digital, and economically evolving breaking all odds, it is highly fascinating how ridiculously we are failing to provide safety of lives at the roads or elsewhere. These concerns led the students to make a nine-point demand which included a revision of the law where capital punishment should be incorporated for drivers involved in such accidents, setting up speed breakers in accident prone roads, vehicles without fitness certificate and drivers without updated license should not be allowed on the roads. Living in Bangladesh, we all know how timely these demands are. Ordinary people, intellectuals and conscious citizens, even the parents of these kids who were supposed to be scared from an emotional space, have already stood beside them in solidarity.
And yet, how unfortunate is that we still witnessed brutal attacks on these kids who spoke for no political party or for any political gain out of this protest, but only for the safety of our lives! The prime minister has given orders to Chhatra League to make the protesting students convince to go back to their classrooms, and this convincing has been done by beating up the kids with sticks, machetes and shooting rubber bullets at them. The roads are blood stained again, not from an accident this time, but from a very conscious act from our student leaders who, from BCL activist , should have been standing right there, with the kids, in solidarity.
At a time when youth are the majority of our population, the leaders of the country should note that the demands coming from them are not against the country, but for it, and it will help us all.
The youth have indicated to another hope, of how we can include them in national services which will do wonders for building up a more experienced and skilled youth if they are assigned to do social services under a national supervision.
The future is bright, it is, only if our political party in power come to realise it and instead of demonising the youth power, if they use it for the betterment of the country. Our children have shown us, that they can do it!
Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree is a member of New Age Youth team.
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