Bangladesh’s students have written the course of history, from 1952 to the present, in their own blood.
School and college students have been out on the streets for the past few days in Dhaka to protest against a bus ramming into two of their compatriots on 29 July. Their simple demands were restricted to improving road safety measures in Bangladesh – get licensed drivers, not underage boys who are running riot behind the wheel, working for transport companies that are hand-in-glove with corrupt politicians.
Dhaka is littered with memories of students rising up against oppression and dictatorship.
It happened on 21 February 1952, when Dhaka University students immortalised their protest against West Pakistan’s one-language diktat by preferring to die rather than submit. This was ‘Ekushey’, and it sowed the seeds for independence in 1971, when Dhaka University students were massacred by the Pakistan army because they led the resistance against Pakistan.
Five years ago, in February 2013, thousands of students led a civil society awakening at Shahbag Square, demanding that the war criminals of 1971 be given death penalty. That agitation underlined the enormous support and affection for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government. It also reminded the country that Bangladesh’s students were both unwilling and unable to forget the lessons of history.
It is a measure of Hasina’s impatience that this time she sent the police to deal with the protesting students with a heavy hand. Along with the police, came the party’s youth wing, the Chhatra League, a willing accomplice to the mayhem. Hasina forgot that Bangladesh’s students have protest written in their gene pool — by the weekend, the agitation had spread from Dhaka to Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi.
The Chhatra League’s demolition squads were carrying machetes and sticks and attacked the protesting students with vengeance. Several were injured and sent to hospital. It is also true that the protests have lately been infiltrated by the Jamaat-e-Islami and perhaps even the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
It’s a pity that Hasina, ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, has forgotten the lessons of history. The biggest irony is that the Jamaat, which led the fight against Bangladeshi independence, and therefore against Mujibur, is now supporting the students in their fight against corruption.
Is Hasina so out of touch with her own people that she cannot see that the BNP and its ideological ally, the Jamaat, is taking full advantage of the people’s growing anger against Hasina and the Awami League?
It has been clear for the last year or so that if free and fair elections were to be held in Bangladesh today, Hasina would lose badly. The corruption in the party’s ranks, the dismissal of sane advice from older Awami League folk, the coterie around Hasina that prevents her from seeing the reality, are some of the reasons.
Unfortunately, all of this is accompanied by a securitisation of the state. In the name of fighting extreme, right-wing fundamentalist Islamists, Hasina is raising battalion after battalion of police and paramilitary. Those who speak up against her, for example the media, are now being seen as the enemy. Cases against critical journalists are increasingly common in Bangladesh.
With elections slated to be held in December, Hasina knows she cannot afford to take any chances. She must win. Equally, India is keenly aware that after Hasina, the deluge beckons. New Delhi cannot be happy with the fact that photographers like Shahidul Alam are picked up by the detective branch without a warrant in the dead of night, or that he has been beaten black and blue in custody. But it knows it must hold its nose and bite its tongue.
The alternative, a BNP government hand-in-glove with the Jamaat, is too awful to behold. Nor should Hasina take Delhi’s support for granted.
Certainly, the soft-spoken Prime Minister, whose political baptism was forged by the assassination of her entire family, save her sister, in 1975, knows her country like few others. She understands the passion of Bangladesh’s students, which is why she is considering the students’ demand for death penalty for reckless driving.
But surely, it is time Hasina removed the blindfold from her eyes. She must start by asking herself why she has become so unpopular, why her cabinet of ‘muktijoddhas’, or freedom fighters, are so out of touch with the new Bangladesh.
The answers are not far to find.
Perhaps, Hasina is emboldened by the fact that her authoritarian behaviour is matched by strong personalities in her neighbourhood, whether it be Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Chinese president Xi Jinping.
But imagine if she were to go for a drive in Dhaka tonight and talk to the student protesters who believe they cannot give up their fight for their beloved country. Correctly, she has told them to go back to their classes.
At the end of the day, the battle for a democratic Bangladesh must be fought in Parliament, not on the streets. That is a learning for all sides.