During early August 2018, Dhaka witnessed a massive student protest demanding road safety rules and regulations. The level of protests and violence caught nearly everyone by surprise. The protests took an ugly turn when students and reporters were accosted by a group wearing helmets and carrying machetes. Many claimed that the attackers were members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League and Awami Juba League.
Was the student protest aimed only at ensuring road safety? Or is it an outburst of people’s frustrations against the government? What caused this frustration and its subsequent violent outburst?
The Larger Picture
The protest was triggered by the accidental death of two students when a private bus ran over a footpath on July 28. The protest began peacefully, with even teens joining in; the student protesters took charge and started regulating traffic and checking the licenses of drivers.
Protests, especially orchestrated by students, are not an unknown phenomenon in Bangladesh. In fact, a student protest led to the 1971 revolt and formation of Bangladesh. Over the years, student protests have been leveraged by both the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to fulfill their political agendas or to create a nuisance for the other party. Not only in Bangladesh but in the rest of the world, youth are often the first to raise their voices against atrocities. Name a famous protest — Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, the 8888 Uprising in 1988 in Myanmar, or the Arab spring in 2010 — and the youth have always been at the forefront.
But the August student protest was not just like any other student protest that Dhaka has witnessed over the years. The protesters were comprised of high school and college students, parents of school-age students, and also some teachers and principals. Youth are known to be fearless, but when school students join a protest alongside their parents and members of their school administration it speaks volumes about the protest. Parents and school administrators allowing their children and students to participate in a protest knowing the danger and its consequences says a lot about society. The protest might have been triggered by a tragic accident but the real cause is the frustration and lack of hope that society, in general, has regarding the government and its institutions. Therefore, the Dhaka protest is a perfect example of what a society can do when the state fails them.
Why Are People Frustrated?
The AL government led by Sheikh Hasina has been in power since 2009. Hasina and her government have provided several reasons for people to be suspicious of and distrust the government.
First, the lack of free and fair elections. In 2014, and AL and Hasina’s decision to retain power without any opposition to contest the election was a pivotal incident. Most major opposition parties boycotted the election. The uncontested election was a clear breach of democratic values and denigrated trust in the government. Suspicion was further strengthened by the arrest of opposition leader Khaleda Zia, her son, and top leaders of the BNP at the beginning of this year. An election is due this year, but many fear the 2014 election will be repeated.
Second, Hasina’s government is intolerant of criticism; anybody who raises their voice is crushed with force. The arrest and detention of famous photojournalist Shhahidul Alam, immediately after an Al Jazeera interview, is a perfect example. In his interview, Alam had accused the government of looting banks, gagging the media, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and corruption in education. Although this was covered by the media, there are many other incidents that are not reported.
In addition, the government’s tendency to use violence to put down protests is not exceptional in Bangladesh. Similar to August 2018, previous protesters have been attacked by masked groups. It was the same for the students and job seekers protesting against government job quotas in April 2018.
Furthermore, Hasina’s first response to any protest, violence, or even terrorism is to blame it on the opposition BNP. Hasina is not alone in this; it was the same when the BNP’s Zia was in power. In repeating this practice, successive governments fail to focus on the real culprits and are hence unable to address underlying issues.
Third, attacks on the media are also common in Bangladesh. The disappearances of journalists and bloggers, their family members being followed, and so on are common and seldom reported. There are also laws that gag any voice raised against the government, for example, the infamous Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act). The Act authorizes prosecution of any person who publishes in electronic form, material that is “fake and obscene; defamatory; ‘tends to deprave and corrupt’ its audience; causes, or may cause, ‘deterioration in law and order’; prejudices the image of the state or a person; or ‘causes or may cause hurt to religious belief.’” The vague and broad content of the law enables the government and the judiciary, which in Bangladesh is very much an extension of the government itself, to convict anybody. Therefore, the ICT Act has been used by the government to prosecute journalists and people who raise their voice against the government.
Fourth, lack of development is another reason for people’s frustration. Economically, Bangladesh has witnessed stable growth of 6 percent since 2008. However, this growth has not trickled down and is trapped among the elites. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor and the standard of living is vastly different between those at the top and those on the bottom. Job opportunities are negligible, which was evident in the previous protest against the government job reservation system.
There are several issues that the government should be focusing on rather than gagging its critics. It is also essential that the government stop using state intuitions like the police, judiciary, and others as puppets. These are factors that have led scholars and analysts to question whether Bangladesh is really a democracy anymore or is, in fact, an authoritarian government.
To conclude, presently, the government has initiated the Road Transport Act 2018 for final approval to the Parliament and the protest has died down. However, people are not hopeful for any change. Previously the government has failed to live up to its promises. Future protests will not be surprising.
The government should remember that although this protest might have died down, this was an example of the frustration and anger present in society. Hasina should not underestimate the power of the masses, as it was people power that once formed Bangladesh. What the government does next will assuredly impact whether Bangladesh has a “free and fair” election this year and that, in turn, will affect when and how people return to the streets.
Aparupa Bhattacherjee is currently a Ph.D. Scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore.