By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan
A bad motor accident involving the death of two students, followed by violent protests by students, inept handling of the protests by the Government and an indiscreet statement by the shipping and transport minister making light of the accident- all added up to an explosive situation in Dhaka and other major cities in Bangladesh. And this was when the parties were gearing up for National elections towards the end of the year.
Inept Government Response
The Government was certainly taken aback by the spontaneity and the rapid spread of the protests in other major cities, but it did not crown itself with glory when it allowed its student wing- the BCL and other pro-government vigilantes to take on the students. Worse still, some journalists including photo journalists were assaulted by unknown thugs who evidently were supporting the government.
Dhaka is notorious for chaotic traffic and accidents are common. But this accident involving the death of two students by two buses racing against each other was too sensitive and serious to ignore and steps should have been taken to pacify the students on the one hand by accepting their demands immediately and urgent steps taken to sort out the traffic mes-, indeed action on a war footing should have been taken. Instead, the Shipping Minister with his quirky response made matters worse.
It all began when a mad race between two buses for passengers took place near the ramp of the airport flyover road near the Armed Forces Medical College in Kurmitole, Dhaka. One of the drivers slammed the brakes near the flyover to take on the students who were about to board. At that time, the second bus racing with the first one ploughed into the crowd of students, killing two of them immediately and injuring nine others. Passengers of the second bus which rammed into the first had to climb out through the windows to get out of the bus.
The two students killed — Karim and Mimi — belonged to the Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College. Immediately after the incident, students of the College went on a rampage, vandalizing over 100 vehicles on that busy street in the capital. The students kept the road blocked for over two overs.
What infuriated the students were the thoughtless remarks of the Shipping Minister Shah Jahan Khan who when asked about the incident gave a counter question – He said- “A road crash has claimed 33 lives in India’s Maharashtra- but do they talk about it like the way we do? As one tweeted in the face book- it was “weird, lack of humanity and lack of conscience”
For the next seven days the students continued to protest not only in Dhaka but also in other major cities like Savar, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Narayanganj, Moulvi Bazar, Natore and Mirpur where the protests spread like wild fire.
For some days, particularly on 4th and 5th of August as someone in the Press had commented, Bangladesh had remained a “ Student’s Republic” and not a People’s Republic. Students in their uniforms braving sun and rain managed the traffic movement in Dhaka. They were polite- but barred the drivers without licence, under-aged drivers, obstructed vehicles on the wrong lanes or those making illegal U turns. Some VIPs were also caught violating the traffic rules!
The public supported the students and surprisingly even parents and guardians joined the students in their protests!
Consider some of the statistics regarding vehicles in Bangladesh:
- Registered Vehicles — 3.5 million
- Unregistered Vehicles — 2 million
- Driving Licenses — 2.639 million
- Professional Driving Licenses — 1.215 million
One million vehicles are supposed to obtain annual fitness clearance but only 650,00 have taken the certificates. Locally made illegal three wheelers continue to ply on the roads despite High Court orders banning them. Many of the drivers are as young as 14 or 15.
One regular Observer had said that unregistered vehicles rule the Highways in the country and there is total disregard for road safety.
Response of the Government Not Adequate
The Government did the right thing by accepting the nine point demand of the Students and the educational institutions were also closed. But there it ended. There was no proper assurance or action on an emergency basis. Instead the Security forces used disproportionate force and what is worse used party and Student and Youth Vigilantes to counter the protests which only brought in more sympathy for the students and not surprisingly, it brought in international criticism.
The Government should have realised that the students were out-
- Because the State had failed to ensure safe roads for the people.
- Because no concrete assurance came from Government for eight days after the Incident.
- The State Machinery was not patient enough.
The UN Agencies and other western countries who were only waiting to issue statements against the government- made a strong plea against violence. The UN statement called on all parties “to keep everyone, including children and young people safe on the roads and safe from any kind of violence. In supporting the cause of the students, the statement said that “ Students and young people have a legitimate right to speak out on an issue of concern to them including road safety and to have their opinions heard without the threat of violence”. By commenting on an internal situation, the UN had certainly exceeded its brief. The US embassy is also believed to have issued a similar statement.
Politicization should be Expected
In the run up to the national elections, the ruling party is in a strong position in having won all the recent mayoral elections in the strongholds of the opposition except the one at Sylhet. The opposition party BNP is in disarray with its leader in jail and the party that is being managed by remote control from London has its limitations.
The Awami League should have handled the student’s protests with caution and patience. Instead it used strong arm methods that would affect the party’s chances in the long run. The protests should not have been allowed to spread and longer it goes there is the possibility of more people from all walks of life joining it. Other parties cannot be blamed when they see the Government being embarrassed.
Obaidul Quader, the General Secretary of ruling Awami League who is also the road, transport and bridges Minister said- “Vested interests have extended political support to the students’ movement into anti Government protest.” In election time the opposition parties are expected to join and make it a political movement and the Government should therefore have been more sensitive and acted with alacrity