Bangladesh students shake nation with protests for road safety

Despite government promises in response to the protests, students remain to be convinced that they have seen the last of human rights violations.

Protests initiated by students of Ramiz Uddin Cantonment School and College have left Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, in turmoil. The protests were launched after two year 11 students Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Meem were killed by speeding buses on July 29.

Using innovative ways of protesting, the students have won widespread national sympathy. They stopped vehicles, checked drivers documents and licences, enforced traffic rules, especially the need for drivers to keep to one lane and, in what was a rare experience, demanded that drivers give way to ambulances and other emergency vehicles.

In an open conflict of interest, shipping minister Shajahan Khan, who is also president of the Heavy Vehicles Labourers’ Federation, denigrated the students and their demands for road safety. He also insulted the memory of the two students.

As the government lost control of the situation, it accused the students of vandalism and closed schools and colleges. It has mobilised police and members of a government-aligned student group to brutally crackdown on the protesters with rubber bullets, tear gas, batons, machetes and sticks.

Hundreds were injured, female protesters were sexually harassed, and journalists and bystanders were beaten up and arrested for taking photos or recording videos.

Renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested for making “provocative comments” and placed on seven-day remand, a sentence which was later suspended by the High Court.

University students joined the school students in protesting when news spread about the repression. As social media was flooded with photos and videos of the violence, university students also blocked roads to demand justice. They were also attacked by police.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has since given verbal assurance that all the protesters’ demands will be granted. Students, however, remember the broken promises made by the government in April when Dhaka University students demanded reforms to public service recruitment processes.

After the police and ruling party-sponsored violence, students remain to be convinced that they have seen the last of human rights violations, disregard for student safety, denial of freedom of expression and abuse of power.

[Sabrina Syed is a Bangladeshi PhD student studying in Newcastle.]