I do not think the school going kids of Bangladesh took control of the streets to topple the government as has been portrayed by some people. It was not about that, rather it was about a very legitimate demand for safer roads, roads which are extremely unsafe for drivers, pedestrians, and commuters alike.
The movement, spearheaded by school kids, was creative, and it exposed what many of us already knew and felt. Starting from civilian drivers to drivers working for the executive, judiciary, law enforcement agencies, and the military — many were found without the proper paperwork to drive a motorcar in Bangladesh.
The power of school children reached such heights that a police force — infamously accused of extra-judicial killings for years — started to behave in a humane manner, at least for the first few days of the protest.
However, there’s also scope to argue that the movement lingered on for too long. At the end of the day, children checking driving licences is appealing and inspiring for two to three days but after that, it becomes ineffective and unsustainable not just in the short term but long term as well. Let’s not forget that there were also sporadic instances where school kids, or those claiming to be so, had engaged in mob-like behaviour and had served as judge-jury-executioner as they dispensed with street justice, which, again, in the long run, sends a deeply problematic message.
A transport worker may be caught driving without a license, but he cannot be given a public beating (in other words, a gono pituni), and the vehicle he is driving cannot be burned down just because we need an outlet to vent our anger.
The idea that it’s not okay to take the law into your own hands is something that should not need a detailed explanation. If we turn a blind eye to this kind of behaviour, the day will not be too far off when radical fundamentalists will be in power in Bangladesh, and an overzealous civilian tilting to the “right” will stop a female CNG user and ask her: “Where’s your headscarf? Why aren’t you wearing one? Wear one or go home and don’t come out.”
Because of its apolitical and decentralised nature, a spontaneous, creative, appealing, and necessary movement fell prey to political opportunists. The Khosrus and Mannas of Bangladeshi politics took their shots at hijacking a legitimate movement for their own political gain. The car carrying the US ambassador to Bangladesh was attacked. Alarmingly, there were participants who purchased school uniforms and posed as school-going students. Individuals alleging to be students were seen and apprehended, carrying machetes.
This shows us, once again, the core problem of “apolitical,” at times naive, and decentralised movements. The attitude that says “I don’t understand politics, I just want safer roads” will not cut it, unfortunately. Sweepingly demonising transport workers who are generally unfed, malnourished, untrained, and uneducated as “murderers” and “rapists” will not cut it.
When the world is moving towards the abolition of the death penalty, Bangladesh should give serious consideration to progressively reducing the number of crimes that have the death penalty as a punishment. The claim that harsher punishments lead to deterrence is a hotly contested issue in academia and amongst scholars working in the area of criminology and criminal justice. Solutions must be found taking into consideration the views and realities of all stakeholders, and that includes transport workers.
The movement has also revealed the irresponsible tendencies of members of the educated civil society when it comes to using social media and succumbing to fake news. How appropriate is to compare brutalities by the police and the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) with “1971” when one of the most horrifying genocides in the history of human civilisation was perpetrated? Have we lost all degrees of common sense and decency that we compare excesses by the police and BCL with the systematic commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other international crimes?
Given that we were fully aware that school children were the core participants and guiding force of the movement and that political opportunists were at play, it was imperative that everyone watching and taking part in the movement through various social media platforms ought to have exercised restraint and caution when disseminating questionable and unverified news.
Not only did that not happen, we have seen allegedly “educated” civilians calling for interventions by the Bangladesh Army and Border Guards. Many innocently shared statuses of the US Embassy and called for assistance from the US — a country with a government that has adopted deeply disturbing and divisive policies in the recent past.
Need I point out that Facebook statuses by the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, DC about police brutality against African-Americans will not be taken well? This is precisely the kind of behaviour that played a role in states like Syria eventually turning into war zones. This is exactly how many of us unknowingly inspire foreign states to intervene out of their own interest.
Such acts undermine the most basic theories of sovereignty and, more importantly, underestimate the power of the people to determine their own fate. To those who are keen on exploring this and related issues further, the writings of Rey Chow, Anne Orford, and other authors who have adopted the “third world approach to international law’ may be of interest.
At the end of the day, the Awami League, historically, never had the support of ‘shushil’ elites. But by allowing the “wonder boys” of Chatro League to go on a rampage, the Awami League has lost the confidence of so many school kids who genuinely felt they were part of a cause much larger than the sum total of their individual selves.
Perhaps what’s even more ironic is that the government has, in fact, been taking and implementing steps addressing the core demand that drove this movement, ie safer roads. We can always debate how effective those steps will be because some of the solutions are likely to be part and parcel of neo-liberal policies, but claiming that the government has been unresponsive is factually incorrect.
However, the fact that the government has remained unresponsive to the brutalities of the BCL only adds further to the irony. When there is evidence that professional saboteurs blended in with protesting students, it is not unnatural that law enforcement agencies will make arrests. Unfortunately, if the arrestees do not include those who took part in joint operations with the police wearing helmets, even the arrests made on strong grounds will quickly start to lose legitimacy in the minds of the people.
I have a fond memory of Shahidul Alam that dates back a decade. As my father stood at the CMM Court and read out his testimony against the military intelligence in 2008, Shahidul Alam took a great risk to be inside the courtroom and attempting to secretly take photos. I happen to disagree with Shahidul Alam’s one-sided and politically loaded commentary of the ongoing situation on Facebook Live or Al Jazeera, but what gives the state the right to pick him up in the middle of the night for questioning, to ‘remand’ him and beat him up?
There are legitimate and historical reasons why a section of the society in Bangladesh subscribes to the view that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina represents the last line of defence between radical fundamentalists and a relatively tolerant Bangladesh. Without going into the merits of this claim, it can be safely said that the prime minister cannot protect Bangladesh from spiralling out of control into further chaos with BCL at the forefront of the battlefield. BCL will be an ineffective tool in the struggle to prevent Bangladesh from falling into the hands of hardcore radical fundamentalists wielding state power.
The same BCL that was a leading organiser and participant of the movement for the independence and liberation of Bangladesh has transformed into a monster that apparently cannot be slain. Countless women and men, many of whom were once card-carrying members of this organisation, sacrificed their lives for the causes of freedom and democracy. We cannot turn a blind eye to a bunch of moronic and uninspiring thugs who have tainted the remains of a student organisation with a glorious past.
I have personally seen the courageous, creative, inspiring, and the uncompromising role played by members of the Chhatra League, Chhatra Union, Shomajtantrik Chhatra Front, and other student bodies back in 2007/08 when Bangladesh suffered at the hands of an illegitimate caretaker government sponsored and controlled by the Bangladesh Army. I have always been and still am in favour of “student politics.” This is because, in theory, it keeps the youth conscious of issues concerning the welfare of the state and the holders of political power wary of the fact that their excesses will not be tolerated by the vigilant youth.
There was a time when student organisations were not formally tied to mainstream political parties. The relationship was once mutually beneficial. It was based on respect and on an exchange of ideas and values that were creative and pro-people. This officially changed under the dictatorship of the late General Ziaur Rahman in the late 1970s when political parties were redefined as “an association or body of individuals which pursues or is engaged in, any activity with political purpose including propagation of any political opinion and includes any affiliated, associated or front organisation, such as student, labour, cultural, peasant, and youth organization, of such association or body.”
As a result, the relationship between mainstream parties and their student bodies gradually morphed into a patron-client relationship that increasingly began to care less and less of the interests of the common people. This is why, because of the way “student politics” now operates in Bangladeshi society, the theory that politically-oriented student organisations can be a force for good, is no longer translatable into reality.
By and large, for decades, there has been a dearth of any meaningful political activity engaging the youth that could have been achieved through regular student body elections and functioning bodies such as DUCSU. This is why there is also an inherent degree of unfairness in expecting one fine morning that the youth of Bangladesh will articulate demands in a pitch-perfect, politically correct language.
After all, we reap what we sow, right?
After deep introspection, I’ve come to the following conclusion. As a first step, the Awami League should give serious consideration to severing all formal and informal ties with BCL. This would serve as the precursor to all parties doing the same with regards to their own student fronts. Left out in the cold without the patronage and protection of the “parent” parties, student organisations will undergo a process of self-correction and flush out those who instinctively unleash handguns or swing machetes as a first knee-jerk reaction.
Let there be no misconceptions: The road ahead will not be easy. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this is the only way student politics in Bangladesh can survive. It needs to, for the greater good.
Bangladesh is hurting and hurting deeply. Will Bangladesh benefit from a new leadership, a new polity? Of course, without a doubt, she will. However, we need to be mindful of the fact that a new leadership, if imposed from the top, one that has power handed to them on a silver platter, a new leadership that gets the chance to wield political power without actually earning the trust of the people, a new leadership that is sponsored by a foreign power or the armed forces will not work.
They never have in the history of politics.
You may not subscribe to the politics of the Awami League. That’s fine and dandy. But the brand of politics promoted by the likes of Khaleda Zia, Tareque Rahman, Muhammad Yunus, HM Ershad, AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, Bobby Hajjaj, Mahmudur Rahman Manna, Jamaat et al is not the answer, at least not to me. A fair assessment of existing political parties in Bangladesh shows that all of them, including the ones that proclaim to belong to the left, are actually parties which possess and practice views and policies that pertain to the right.
What this essentially means is that Bangladesh does not have a single political party that possesses a revolutionary spirit, a party that keeps its ears close to the ground, possesses the common sense to feel or at least know how to feel the pulse of the people, and adopts policies that are progressive, creative, socialist, and bring a divided polity together, not one that drives them further apart.
In a political landscape saturated with right-wing parties, it’s high time that those who can resonate with what I am saying should work towards creating such a new left-wing political platform. A party that works from the bottom up and strives to ascend to power by gaining the trust of the people through sacrifice and hard work. This may take years, but the process will be worth it. A state machinery plagued with a disease cannot be cured with a quick fix.
In light of what has happened, a smiling Obaidul Quader posting photos of himself on Facebook with the caption “Challenging Times 06-08-018” depicts he is devoid of common sense. And, those who are creating memes with Mr Quader edited into the photograph of the surrender ceremony of ‘December 16’ aren’t trailing far behind either. Wipe those smiles off your faces, dear friends! Political parties in Bangladesh have become complacent and forgotten the power of the masses. It’s time we made them remember.