“Without justice, there can be no peace. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it.” -Dr Martin Luther King Junior
The year 2018 has so far been momentous for children and teens across the world. Young people were challenged due to extenuating circumstances. They felt betrayed by governing adults and took matters into their own hands.
The first example that marks the valour of the younger generation occurred in the US in February 2018 after a mass shooting in a high school in Parkland, Florida. Brave student activists have continued their uphill battle for gun control with colossal support from different segments of society. Along with these activists, other Americans are also eagerly awaiting the midterm election of November 2018 so we can change the majority in the US Congress through our votes.
The second example occurred in July 2018 in Bangladesh. Two 17-year-old students who were waiting for the bus were killed when a speeding bus ran over them. Many others were injured in the incident. This resulted in mass peaceful protests by students all over the country to demand safety measures on the roads and emphasise practices which are widely overlooked or non-existent due to the widespread corruption of transport authorities and the police.
These students demonstrated model citizenry. Wearing their respective school uniforms and carrying their backpacks, they set out on the roads every morning, regardless of extreme heat or rainfall, and accomplished the unprecedented task of directing traffic on the roads. They checked the validity of driver’s licences and vehicle registration forms. However, they never forgot why they were there in the first place: two of their contemporaries were killed due to sheer negligence, and the students wanted justice. As a result, the ‘We want justice’ movement was born.
Through this movement, they identified and videotaped monumental anomalies that existed within the system. It became evident by the third day that the students had achieved more in road and transport safety than what any government had in Bangladesh’s 47-year history.
This point was the real game-changer in the protests. The students exposed irregularities and, in most cases, the absence of drivers licences and documentation. Some of the people who were caught on video without licences and proper documentation were a Supreme Court justice, police officers, the deputy inspector general of the police, and members of the army, ministers and parliament,. The student inspections exposed the corruption of bus drivers, transport company owners, ministers and law-enforcement personnel. It opened an irrepressible can of worms, which became an inconvenient embarrassment for a government that is gearing up for an election at the end of the year.
Students were very clear about their actions and motives from the outset. This was not a political movement. This was a movement to create the foundations of a society that prioritises civic and legal responsibilities on the streets. Their goal was to ensure a safe and convenient solution in this regard for all Bangladeshis, not just themselves. After all, there had been 7,397 deaths caused by road accidents in 2017 alone, according to the Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association (BPWA).
These children, a majority of whom aren’t even old enough to vote yet, took it upon themselves to implement positive changes for the benefit of society. They gave a nine-point list of demands to the government to implement immediately, which the government responded to slowly and unwillingly.
The altruism of these student activists was unanimously praised and hailed by everyone except the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) government. The remarkable citizen spirit demonstrated by these students ought to be a matter of great significance for a nation. In this case, it wasn’t.
The events which ensued are startling and defy logic. The minister for home affairs made an open threat to the effect that the government’s patience with the protests had reached its limits. He said that it would take “firm action” against them. Why did they want to take firm action against students who were demanding road safety, valid driver’s licences and vehicle fitness certificates?
In the worst possible turn of events, the BAL did just what it had threatened to do: take firm action against innocent students. It unleashed its student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), and the police to enforce take action. This “firm action” comprised severely beating, raping, murdering and orchestrating the disappearances of students. All these actions were presumably endorsed by the government.
But this is where the crux of the problem lies. The last parliamentary election in 2008 was known to be heavily rigged in favour of Sheikh Hasina and the BAL. It is a widely acknowledged fact in Bangladesh that the current government and prime minister were not the people’s choice, and that the BAL’s tenure in the country is purely illegitimate.
Over the years, the BAL has become increasingly more autocratic. In 2017 alone, 154 cases of extrajudicial killings, 86 cases of enforced disappearances and 783 cases of rape were reported. In addition, 32 people were arrested under Article 57 of the ICT Act, a law that is basically another measure to seize freedom of speech.
The police and the Detective Branch are reportedly entering people’s homes to check their laptops and mobile phones, and forcing them to delete files with evidence of state brutality. This has become a daily occurrence in the country.
So, when the students demand justice, we need to ask ourselves: who are they demanding justice from? Who has the legitimacy to provide them justice? The courts? The parliament? The law-enforcement agencies? None of the above. All these institutions fall under the blanket of the autocratic terror that innocent citizens faces. The social media posts and messages of millions of student activists who demanded help during the BCL attacks will forever be etched in our hearts and minds.
These student activists and the citizens of Bangladesh as a whole deserve justice. Unfortunately, their pleas have fallen on deaf years. If the pen really is mightier than the sword, here’s to hoping that our continuous efforts to spread the word about these injustices will bear fruit one day and the people of Bangladesh can indeed obtain justice.
The writer is a US-based teacher and political columnist.