Bangladesh Government’s brutal crackdown on student protestors

24th Aug 2018
Bangladesh Government’s brutal crackdown on student protestors

Students protest for reforms in the quota system in public service, April

(Photo: Nahid Sultan/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Talha Ahmad

Earlier this month, Bangladesh was rocked by protesting schoolchildren who were outraged by the death of two of their peers by a speeding bus at a roadside in the country’s capital, Dhaka.

The protesters, who started with calls for safer roads and the resignation of the President of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Federation, Minister, Shahjahan Khan, soon imposed themselves in the role of managing many of Dhaka’s chaotic traffic. The students established order, forcing rickshaws to unclog the roads by riding in a single file. They checked drivers’ licenses and vehicles fitness certificates and in the process caught some high profile offenders including Government vehicles used by senior ministers, police officers and bureaucrats among others. It became quite a spectacle to see high profile politicians, senior police officers and even senior opposition leaders helplessly standing while students lectured them on the need to respect laws.

Chanting “we want justice”, students, mostly in their mid-teens, refused to leave the streets unless tangible steps were taken to address their concerns. Their demands, formulated into nine points; and included tougher laws to punish those who cause death and destruction on the road, provision for the death sentence, a robust system to ensure compliance with road safety regulations and a reformed system of regulation to ensure vehicles on the road meet minimum standards to improve safety on the roads.

Continuation of protest?

The latest series of protests brought the capital to a standstill and were fast spreading to other cities across the country comes only months after another major protest led by mostly university and college students, who demanded reforms to the country’s quota system. As many as up to 56 per cent of Government jobs, including the prestigious civil services posts, are reserved for people of a certain category, most notably are those who come from a family of freedom fighters. University students across the country walked out of classrooms and gathered in their respective universities demanding reform.

The protest was later called off temporarily following an assurance by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the Parliament that there will be no quota system going forward.

However, in early July, leaders of the movement seeking reforms of the quota system sought to hold a press conference. They were frustrated that more than three months had elapsed since the announcement by Hasina and no official gazette was published, which lead to suspicion that the quota system may never be reformed and that her pledge may simply have been a bluff to tame the protest. While the leaders were preparing cautiously to hold a press conference to outline their demands, renew their call for reform and publish the gazette, men belonging to the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the governing Awame League, had other plans.

In broad daylight, in the presence of police and at the heart of the Dhaka University, leaders of the quota reform movement were mercilessly beaten. Nurul Haque Nur, was beaten so badly that his life became endangered. But the BCL men refused to allow him to be taken for treatment. This sparked further protests and more violent suppression of the protest movement including sexual molestation of female leaders of the student movement. A number of the leaders of the reform movement were picked up from their residences, while some were later arrested, some became a victim of the infamous enforced disappearance a practice, widely blamed on the Government by local and international human rights activists and opposition political parties.

Government response: predictably brutal

The first five days schoolchildren-led protests were without major incident but by end of the first week in August, the Government and their supporters were accused of resorting to brute force; arresting and enforcing disappearance. Social and mainstream media circulated news of brutal attacks on some students and girls sexually molested and raped by government activists. As the news spread, fear struck some while others joined the protest.

On August 5, Hasina urged the students to return home, expressing concern that “vested quarters” may be using the students to pile pressure on the Government. Her comment, widely seen as an attack on the opposition and a license for police and her supporters to quell the protest, did little to tame the spirit of the students.

Matters took a strange twist as on the same day when the US Ambassador to Bangladesh’s convoy was attacked in Dhaka while returning from a dinner with a leading civil society figure. By this time, the international media began widely covering the protest, putting the Government in the spotlight.


Shahidul Alam arrest and aftermath

Bangladesh’s most prominent-photo journalist, the internationally acclaimed award-winning photographer, Shahidul Alam, spoke to Aljazeera regarding the student protest in which he sharply criticised the ruling party. This was followed by his arrest from his residence by plain-clothed police officers. His arrest was initially unconfirmed, he was eventually brought before the court which remanded him for questioning for 7 days sparking widespread international outrage. Alam told the court he was badly tortured and that his clothes were forcibly changed to hide evidence of bleeding. A judge sitting as part of a High Court bench hearing an urgent writ on Alam’s treatment commented that Alam was lucky that he was not a victim of enforced disappearance.

However, as calls for Alam’s release grew louder, the Government, including the son of the Information Technology advisor to the Prime Minister, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, accused Alam of inciting violence. Others opined that Alam, his supporters and the protesters, effectively conspired with the opposition to unseat the Government.


What next?

The schoolchildren-led protest is the second in many months, while neither protest had any visible involvement of any of the country’s political parties, both visibly shook the Government. The Government, for their part, took no time in blaming the opposition of stoking fear and instigating trouble. Hasina’s Government’s attitude towards thwarting these protests with brute force also suggests that the Government saw these protests as one that may be part of a wider plan to unseat them.

Bangladesh is likely to head to the poll before the end of the year. However, at the last poll in January 2014, 153 of the 300 seats in Parliament were unopposed, effectively electing the current Government to power even before a single vote was cast. The oppositions boycott of that election and the violent suppression of the opposition parties before and after that election drew wide international criticism.

The Government would be keen to stage a victory assured election with many key opposition leaders either imprisoned, missing, exiled or killed. These student protests, expose the fragility of the situation, drawing international attention, and demonstrate the widespread public anger towards the Government. No wonder even mid-teens protests calling for safer roads are too much for the Government to tolerate.

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