This whole public transport model is rotten to the core, and after several deaths over the years, students finally took to the street to demand their right to road safety.
By Sarah Nafisa Shahid
On Aug. 5, as I walked in the Dhanmondi area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, I saw men in helmets wielding bamboo and hockey sticks. Some of them were hitting the metal dividers in the middle of the road to make weapons out of the grills. The riot police were nearby, watching these men and standing still. All the stores in the area had their shutters down, the windows and balconies of residential houses had their curtains closed. A man in the distance tried to bring out his phone to record the situation, but the men with weapons rushed towards him and chased him out of the area. I ran away, too.
Later that day, the newspapers reported the attacks on protesting students marching through the area I had been present in only a few hours earlier. That was the eighth day of students protesting the right to safe roads after two high school students were killed by a speeding bus on July 29. They were waiting at a bus stand in front of their school, Shaheed Ramizuddin College, at Dhaka’s major Airport Road. The speeding driver was competing with the next bus to reach the station first so that he could take on more passengers and earn a higher commission—these bus drivers do not have a fixed salary despite having an official minimum wage module dictated by the government.
Following the deaths of the two students, their peers blocked vehicles and began protesting the rampant injustice present in the road transport system in Bangladesh. The very same day, shipping minister Shajahan Khan was asked in a press conference about the incident at Airport Road and he laughingly dismissed the public outrage. That laugh cost the government heavy—fueling mass protest amongst school-going students across the capital.
The protest proposed a 9-point demand by the students, including resignation of Shajahan Khan, who is also the executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Worker’s Federation (BRTWF), a conflict of interest with his role in government. The bus that killed the two students belonged to the Jabale Noor company, which happens to be a business owned by Khan’s brother-in-law. Khan directly or indirectly, under the name of his friends, family, and musclemen, owns several other bus companies. He is not an anomaly. A significant amount of the bus routes are run by buses owned by various politicians and policymakers of the ruling party—all the while defying the state’s wage board for bus workers and creating a corrupt syndicate in the public transport sector.
This whole public transport model is rotten to the core, and after several deaths over the years, students finally took to the street to demand their right to road safety. Dhaka witnessed a week-long protest where teenagers stopped cars to check for driver’s license, insurance, and fitness papers, to ensure that traffic rules were followed properly. Support poured in from the general public while teenagers stopped police cars and ministers in BMWs to check for papers.
In the face of public uproar, the shipping minister apologized for his insensitive comments, yet he was reluctant to step down. No ruling party politician or policymaker went to the protest to speak to the students. Politicians eventually began showing solidarity, but the students refused to leave the street until any legislative action began. Bus workers retaliated by halting all bus routes, causing major inconveniences to public transport users.
On Aug. 4, when completing its first week, the protests took a violent turn. Unknown miscreants chanting the ruling party’s slogan attacked the protesting students at Jhigatola area in the capital, while riot cops assisted the attackers. Almost 150 people were injured that day, including journalists. The government ordered a shutdown of cellphone data service and journalists were attacked by assailants when trying to enter the area, resulting in a complete information blackout following the midday attacks. A journalist colleague of mine was detained and beaten for trying to record the incident on his mobile phone. There were no government statements regarding the attack.
The protesters, now joined by university students, marched out in numbers to every major intersection of the capital the next day. The protest that began for the right to road safety now became something more. It was also for the right to protest, and right to demand justice against police brutality. The protests were again met with attacks, injuring almost a dozen journalists, including an Associated Press photographer. Several private university campuses were attacked by cops, injuring at least 40 students. One student lost an eye, and another is suffering from brain hemorrhage. An infographic by The Daily Star shows a heat map of attacks and the weapons used, including machetes, electric wire, rubber bullets, and tear gas.
On the same day, internationally renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam was abducted by the police’s Detective Branch for his comments to Al Jazeera regarding the protests. He was arrested under the controversial Section 57 of Bangladesh’s ICT Act which allows the government to arrest anyone posting statements on social media which the government deems as false. Along with Alam, around 20 more people were arrested for their social media activities.
International organizations such as Amnesty, PEN, Human Rights Watch, European Union, US Embassy, and globally recognized artists, journalists, writers, and photographers, condemned the attacks and arrest, hinting at Bangladesh’s narrowing freedom of speech and freedom to protest.
The protests slowed on the ninth day after 22 students from private universities were arrested in relation to the protests.
The outcome so far has resulted in many injuries, and government compensation to the two student’s families who were killed by the racing bus. They also launched a “traffic week” campaign that promotes safe driving. However, the structural gridlocks which create risk prone traffic situations, remain unchanged. A new Road Transport Act was passed in the cabinet, one which does not include several suggestions from stakeholders, such as pressure group Nirapad Sarak Chai (We Demand Safe Roads). The issue with who controls the transport syndicate almost dwarfed out amidst the attacks on students. And the bus workers’ unfair working conditions and pay scale, which leads to bus drivers racing to earn more commission, has yet to receive attention and reform.
What did come out of the protests, though, is an exhibition of autocratic power abuse by the law enforcement agencies. The protesting students demanded systemic reform, and instead they were met with police brutality. With elections coming up, the liberty to dissent seems increasingly limited in Bangladesh, but this is a country that a has an intimate history of change arising from mass student uprising. I believe that every one of these grassroot movements have been worth it, and so is the current fight for safer transportation and the right to protest.
Featured Image: Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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