Ariyana Hossain, Year 12
As one of my last contributions to the Mary Word, I thought it would be fitting to write about an issue that has not only been significant to me in recent times, but is perhaps a lesser known news story that more people should know about—but don’t.
This is a story about how school students brought a country to a ‘virtual standstill’.
Whilst the rest of the world was going about its business, in early August, Bangladeshi students took to the streets of Dhaka in protest for safer roads after two teenagers were killed in a fatal road accident. Road ‘accident’ being the term government officials have used to describe the incident after the teens were killed by an out-of-control, speeding bus. To provide some context, the privatised transport industry in Bangladesh is regarded as immensely corrupt, and such incidents are not isolated, with some 4000 people killed in 2017 alone.
In a matter of two days, students blocked traffic lanes to singlehandedly check if every vehicle, even police cars, was properly licensed—promptly turning them over to the authorities if they were not. Seemingly, streets were operating more smoothly than they ever had before.
It wasn’t long though before protests descended into violence. As the days wore on, students began to be met with unparalleled levels of police brutality and violence from authorities as well as members of pro-government organizations. Rumours began to circulate that reprisals went as far as assault and rape, though authorities were quick in attempting to shut down these rumours…by slowing internet access.
Teens bloodied by rubber pellet wounds, carried through the halls of universities in stretchers, joining in human chains to protect fellow peers. These were just some of the images that circulated the internet as the international response grew meekly with the jailing of prominent photographer Shahidul Alam.
As I pondered these events I began to recall stories passed down from my grandfather about the days when he too took to the streets of what was formerly East Pakistan to protest for language rights. Though those were entirely different times, it was difficult not to regard this event as another iteration of a similar story. Activism is entrenched within the very fabric of Bengali society. Without it, the nation simply would not exist. Whether it was liberation from British India or Pakistan, it seemed bitterly ironic that students were now encountering such retaliation for demanding basic civil liberties like their predecessors.
More than anything, the protests demonstrated the sheer power of social media. When faced with obvious hostility and violence from the domestic government, supporters from both within and outside the country turned towards garnering international attention, championing the cause with the hashtag #WeWantJustice.
Most Bengalis treat politics with a sense of disillusionment, become more and more accustomed to a country shifting into autocracy and struggling to deal with issues of unbridled corruption under the guise of ‘democracy’. After the events of August 2018, if there is one thing people are hopeful for however, it is the future.
The movement may have only lasted a couple days in effect, perhaps due to a lack of authoritative leadership, but there is no doubt that the sheer courage of these students will leave a permanent mark on the future leadership of Bangladesh—perhaps now, if not inevitably in the future.