Students organise a sit-in to block roads. Photo: Wikimedia
Students organise a sit-in to block roads. Photo: Wikimedia

Democracy being off-roaded?

Bangladesh government cracks down on peaceful protests.

Shabnam Nadiya is a Bangladeshi writer and translator. Her work can be found at:

On 29 July 2018, a bus ran over homebound schoolchildren waiting on the sidewalk in the Kurmitola area of northern Dhaka. Two students of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment School and College, Dia Khanam Mim (17) and Abdul Karim Rajib (18), died; several more were rushed to the hospital. Deaths like that of Mim and Rajib's are commonplace enough that Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan felt no qualms about making a cavalier response to the deaths. When asked about the dead children, Khan made light of it, saying, "[Yesterday] 33 people died in India's Maharashtra [state] in an accident. Do they talk about these issues like us?'  The video of his blasé response went viral on social media. None of this was any different from the usual cycle of such events in Bangladesh. But then, something remarkable happened. Uniformed schoolchildren took to the streets in grief, in rage, and they refused to go home.

The transport sector is a succinct snapshot of how corruption and nepotism endanger the everyday lives of people. The majority of buses that ply the streets aren't roadworthy, most drivers are underage and untrained, and speeding buses are the norm, even on busy streets. With their livelihoods determined by the number of passengers they ferry, drivers race each other, and traffic violations are often settled through bribes. Drivers and conductors have no fixed wages and often pay a rental to the bus owners. When accidents happen, it is the driver and conductor who are held responsible. The father of Mim, the girl who was killed, is a long-haul bus driver himself. He's been driving for 30 years and is a former executive member of the Dhaka District Bus and Minibus Workers' Union. In an interview with the Daily Star, he spoke of profit-driven, corrupt hiring practices giving unskilled drivers the "license to kill'.

Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan rose in politics through his involvement with workers' unions and is the current executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers' Federation. Although called unions, many of these workers' federations are backed by and function at the owners' behest, rarely playing a role in furthering workers' rights. (See our essay on the state of labour unions in Bangladesh.) Transport workers continue to work inhumane hours for low wages, endure unsafe working conditions, and lack job security. Media reports connect many politicians, and not only those connected to the ruling party, to ownership of transportation companies either directly or through family members ­­­ – ­which is why no government has been able to clean up this sector, leaving citizens at their mercy.

Disproportionate force

During their protests, schoolchildren brought Dhaka to a standstill chanting, "We want justice". They enforced traffic laws: in parts of the city, they directed traffic into orderly lanes, turned back 'VIP' cars driving on the wrong side, and ensured that vehicles and drivers carried valid documentation. Most of these interactions seemed to be occurring peacefully. Adults joined the protests in solidarity and assisted with food and water at sit-in sites. The government initially offered a few measures – official statements assured action against underage/unskilled drivers; the driver and conductor of the bus of the Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan company were arrested, the company was fined, its permit revoked; ministers promised that the protestors' demands would be met. Shajahan Khan's statement changed that.

The children, out on the streets again, refused to return. A nine-point charter, which included capital punishment for reckless drivers, an apology from the shipping minister and enforcement of traffic regulations, was attributed to the protestors. They referred to recent protests by university students demanding quota reforms and pointed out that the government had offered placatory statements but done nothing to redress those grievances.

The university students had been protesting a system where patronage is rampant and less than half of the civil service jobs filled on merit. The police had met the protests with tear gas, batons and water cannon. Activists from the Chhatra League (the student wing of the reigning political party) attacked the protestors on multiple occasions. One horrific image seared into public consciousness was that of Toriqul Islam, a quota-reform activist, being attacked by a hammer-wielding Chhatra League leader, Abdullah Al Mamun. Mamun, despite being clearly identified, was not arrested. Islam suffered multiple fractures. Days after the attack, Mamun was interviewed by Maasranga Television, where he stated he was walking free on campus with no repercussions from either police or university authorities and that he suffered no remorse about his brutal attack.

The involvement of the Chhatra League would also be evident in the protests demanding road safety. But that was not the only similarity. The government responded, as it had earlier, with excessive force. While ministers asked the students to 'go home', the government deployed the police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the country's elite anti-terrorism and anti-crime unit. The ruling party trotted out its usual rhetoric of "vested interests," "conspiracy" and "third parties," and the violence began. Over the next few days the police went after the protestors with teargas and rubber bullets, while remaining passive as men wielding sticks and machetes attacked the protestors as well as journalists. Despite clear video footage and photos of these attackers, none was officially charged or even identified in the weeks following the violence. An anonymous police officer's comment to the Daily Star confirmed what everyone already knew, "Does any officer has the guts to file a case against ruling party activists unless a political decision comes to that end?"

Student protests played a key role in tragic but decisive moments in the formation of Bangladesh: the 1952 Language Movement and the 1969 Gana Obhyuthan (Mass Uprising) were student led protests and many of the martyrs were student protestors. This rich tradition waned during different regimes in the post-liberation decades, and instead of a political sphere dominated by ideology-driven student activists, the major political parties nurtured student wings which grew into power-hungry, thug forces driven by the promise of money and influence.

The government's crackdown on the protests of the school students was directed not just against the protestors but also the media reporting on them. Several journalists sustained injuries and destruction of their equipment, especially those from the audio-visual media. On 5 August, Shahidul Alam, a renowned photographer and activist was 'picked up' following an interview with Al Jazeera, in which he criticised the government. Men in plainclothes showed up at his residence in the middle of the night, taped shut the CCTV cameras located at the entrance, and with neither explanation nor production of an arrest warrant, took him away. Eventually, Alam was charged under Section 57 of the infamous Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act for "spreading propaganda and false information against the government." The attorney general termed Shahidul Alam's crime as being "tantamount to sedition". Alam was assaulted in custody, denied adequate access to lawyers and family, and his legal team has not been kept informed of his court appearances. The message inherent in his arrest is clear: anyone who dissents is in danger.

The treatment of this high-profile activist underlines the routine failures of the criminal justice and judicial processes. Custodial torture is so routine in Bangladesh that law enforcement officials periodically propose amendments to the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act 2013, seeking immunity from prosecution for custodial violence. In January 2017, during the police welfare parade, Additional Superintendent Tanvir Salehin Emon called for revoking of the law to "protect peace, stability and security of the country"; in January 2018, during the inauguration of the Bangladesh Police Week, Police Inspector Farman Ali proposed amending the anti-torture act because "Even if someone dies in custody from psychological stress, the police are being blamed for it. It is difficult to get a confession from a criminal unless the person is pressured psychologically." In 2015, similar statements from the agencies prompted Amnesty International to issue a public statement urging the government to reject any such proposal outright. In April 2017, Radio Sweden broadcast a secret two-hour long recording of a high-ranking RAB official revealing a secret that most Bangladeshis already knew: RAB was committing extrajudicial abductions and killings.

The same week as Alam's arrest, 22 private university students were sent to jail for 'vandalism'. In addition, the government started taking action against citizens for 'spreading rumors' on social media. Mohammad Najmul Islam, a cybercrime division official told the Guardian that 1200 Facebook accounts spreading rumours to encourage violence had been identified. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal confirmed that action would be taken against those spreading rumors on social media, commenting, "None will be spared." Chhatra League, moving lockstep with the police, made its own announcement: at a Dhaka University ant-terrorism rally they organised, the organisation's General Secretary Golam Rabbani announced that they had identified 700 offending social media profiles and had requested the information ministry to take action against them.

According to the police journal DMP News, by 15 August, 97 people had been arrested for "acts of violence and instigation via social media." According to news reports, most of those arrested are students. Among those arrested under Section 57 is actor/model Nawshaba, who has been in police custody since 4 August, for her Facebook Live post where she communicated 'unsubstantiated rumours'; Faria Mahjabin, a café owner, was arrested this week for "spreading rumors and sharing provocative posts"; as was quota-reform activist Lutfun Nahar Luma. Yet two weeks after the attack police had not detained anyone for the 4 and 5 August attacks on protestors and journalists.

The draconian Section 57 will reportedly soon be replaced by Section 32 under the new Digital Security Act, 2018, which has been approved by the government. In the new Act, the actions covered under Section 57 have been broken down into four separate sections. Experts are concerned that Section 32 is even more repressive and further compromises press freedom. Section 32 states that entering a government, semi-government or autonomous institution unlawfully and secretly, and recording any information or data using any electronic device, will be considered 'spying' and punishable with a sentence of  utpo14 years imprisonment and/or 20-25 lakh BDT (USD 27,000) as fine. Multiple offenders may face life imprisonment and/or a fine of 1 crore BDT(USD 120,000). Section 32 can potentially be used to criminalize investigative journalism; journalists are protesting by using the hashtag which translates to 'I'm a Spy'.

The government has also announced steps towards 'content filtering'—in addition to deletion of posts and accounts. Information Minister Mustafa Jabbar has stated that, "the government can take various steps, including the suspension of internet services, to ensure the safety of the state."

A case of political failure

The road safety protests underscore the one endemic issue in Bangladesh: weak governance. Almost every sector is crippled from lack of accountability, corruption, and political interference. Each regime finds this status quo profitable and so, these systems and structures are not merely allowed to remain in place, they are nurtured.

Proposals to end the subcontracting system and use wage employees in the transport sector, to implement more stringent checks to ensure the fitness of both driver and vehicle have been raised in the past, only to be stymied by the powerful lobbies profiting from the sector. What action there has been, only penalizes the drivers and conductors. Though the draft bill for the Road Transport Act 2018 was approved by the Cabinet Division following the protests, it provides only for a maximum of five years imprisonment and a maximum of 500,000 takas ($5970) fine for road fatalities. The proposed maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment was brought down to five years after fierce resistance from the owners and workers in the industry. (Defamation on social media carries a minimum penalty of seven years under Section 57.)

While the laws and regulations governing the roads definitely need to be reformed, unless the state simultaneously deals with entrenched corruption in law enforcement and the transport systems, no law is going to have much of an effect. These protests were primarily about road safety, but they resonated to larger sentiments of frustration and anger regarding corruption, governmental apathy, the absence of accountability and the rule of law. The already limited space for freedom of expression has hit a new low with this spate of arrests. Average citizens with no political affiliation or agenda are being victimized by the government for merely sharing content on social media. As Shahidul Alam said his Al Jazeera interview, "I think the government has miscalculated. It certainly felt that fear was enough, repression would have been enough, but I think you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner."

~This article was updated on 24 August 2018.

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