“There’s blanket media censorship, and cellular data is down. Everyone all over the world should write to their local and national news and urge them to cover this. Don’t let this ‘Night of Pencils’ of our generation go unnoticed.”
- u/saad_z06 [Reddit]
On the 29th of July, two Bangladeshi students were run over by a bus that was speeding allegedly to race with another bus driver. While road accidents are frequent in cities all across the world, the death of Abdul Karim Rajib and Diya Khanam Mim sparked protests by students in Dhaka, bringing the city with a population of 70 lakh to a halt. The protests began, and to a large extent have remained peaceful. In the past year alone, Bangladesh witnessed around 4000 pedestrian deaths and 9000 injuries due to road accidents. A WHO report on road safety in 2015 estimated that in 2013 there were between 17,349 and 25,283 road deaths in Bangladesh.
The protesters demand better regulation by the Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges. The ministry, notorious for its high levels of corruption and harassment turned a blind eye to the prevailing issues. According to a survey by Bangladeshi NGO BRAC in 2014, 61% of people who had sought licenses in the past reported harassment by the officials and demand for bribes at the expense of delays.
Outraged by the lack of road safety and law enforcement in the country, students took to the job themselves. Over the next few days, students as young as 13 blocked roads and stopped vehicles to check the validity of drivers’ licenses and papers. They handed out candy to drivers with valid licenses and took the others to the police.
“I saw them asking drivers for their licenses to make sure they were legally driving. Whenever an ambulance needed to move through the traffic around the protest, the students helped the ambulances cut through the traffic by making the other cars and rickshaws move aside, I have never seen ambulances in Bangladesh move that fast before.”, said a person by the name of Sulin to Teen Vogue.
According to an AFP report, 115 student protesters were injured on August 4th after the police fired them with rubber bullets and tear gas. The police denied all allegations of this but emergency ward doctor Abdus Shabbir told Agence France-Presse, “We have treated more than 115 injured students so far since the afternoon,” and that many of the injuries were consistent with those by rubber bullets.
A senior lecturer at a private university stated that the students had nothing to defend themselves with other than sticks that they found on campus. “As teachers and lecturers, we told the students to not get aggressive because they won’t be able to go out and fight with the police or the ruling party people.” he said, “But still, they did not listen to us. They got infuriated and went out of the gate. As they went out, we just heard the police throw tear gas at them.”
Many videos and pictures that documented the violence on the street have been taken down from Youtube and Facebooks, some within minutes of being uploaded. However, people continue to post media on websites like LiveLeak, hosting sites and even on Google Drive folders, with links being shared on threads on r/news, r/live and r/bangladesh on Reddit. The videos depict protesters on streets being chased by armed policemen, individuals crying for the injuries to and the loss of their loved ones. Furthermore, one even shows the body of a lady on the road with blood pooled around her head.
“East West University, North South University, and BRAC University students were attacked in their campuses. Police shot tear gas inside the University campuses and shot rubber bullets in Bashundhara of Dhaka City,” said Maria (full name withheld on request), a student protester at Dhaka to MTTN, “On 8th August students didn’t even come out for protest, they were in their campuses when the Police and Chhatra League attacked them. Many were injured severely.”
Picture from Nouth South University in Bashundhara, Dhaka
Social Media Activism
Amidst protests of allegedly biased and sub-optimal coverage of events occurring in Bangladesh, protesters have taken to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. As mentioned previously, many posts are being taken down from Facebook and Youtube. The hashtag #WeWantJustice was on the trending page on Twitter and now activists are seeking to use the hashtags #WeDemandJustice and #RebootBangladesh so that the issue remains on the top of Twitter’s trending page.
In a horrifying series of events, many protesters have had their locations leaked as their addresses have been posted on Facebook, posing a threat to their safety and many of them are attempting to flee the country for the same reason. Below is a screenshot of a comment by a protestor who took to Reddit.
While the focus of the protests is better road safety, analysts say that they also reflect a deeper political unrest. A South Asian expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center Michael Kugelman, believes that the protests were an expression of longstanding, pent-up anger about the government and its policies on the whole. In a statement to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, he said, “It’s hard to imagine that the mere issue of traffic safety — important though it may be — could spark such a widespread and sustained period of dissent,” Kugelman told DW. “The road safety issue is the straw that broke the camel’s back; these large protests were rooted in much deeper and complicated grievances.”
The government’s use of force against the student protesters, and by supporters of the Awami League, mere months ahead of the general elections could pose problems to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as around 23 million Bangladeshi youth will cast their vote for the first time. Earlier this year in April, there were mass protests where scores of university students took to the streets to demand an end to a decades-old system of discriminatory civil service recruitment.
“The youth won’t forget the repression unleashed by the incumbent government during the protests,” said Golam Mortoza, a Dhaka-based political analyst.
Amidst protests, many people have had their phones confiscated and destroyed by pro-government rioters. As mentioned earlier, peaceful protesters have been injured and many are harassed on the streets. In a Facebook exchange with Teen Vogue, a 17-year-old protestor Duti (full name withheld due to safety concerns) said, “A man walked towards me and said I look like I come from a decent family and that I should leave if I want to save my reputation.”
Shahidul Alam, Bangladeshi photojournalist, renowned activist and teacher has been arrested as of August 5th, 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera over Skype where he implied support for the student protesters. A friend of Alam said that when he (the latter) showed up in court he was unable to walk by himself and suspected that he had been beaten up by authorities
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called this day a “dark day for press freedom” in Bangladesh, saying that 23 journalists, including Alam, had been attacked while reporting on the protests that day. RSF ranks Bangladesh 146 out of 180 countries in its 2018 Press Freedom Index. Despite this, dozens of journalists and citizen journalists continue to report on the increasing violence on the streets of Dhaka.
With the rise in social media activism in the past decade and with the success in protests of the Arab Spring and the like, Bangladeshis continue their struggle of having their voices heard and let their grievances not be unbeknownst to the world. Complementing that is our responsibilities, as consumers of media, to be aware of the issue and help news be reported equally and fairly.
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– Anushka Chhikara for MTTN. Featured image by Anurag Sharma.