It was a regular weekday like any other in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, a country with the third largest Muslim population in the world.
On 29 July 2018, a group of year 11 and 12 students were waiting for public buses in front of their school located in the bustling Dhaka Airport Road.
While two buses were arriving there at the same time, they started racing in order to reach first as the one arriving before the other will get most passengers. One of the drivers lost control and ran down the waiting crowd.
In this tragic moment, several students were severely injured. According to the government statement and news reports, 14 students were taken to a nearby hospital and among them, year 11 student Dia Khatun (16 years old) and year 12 student Rejaul Karim (17 years old) had already died on the spot.
In Bangladesh, road accidents are a regular phenomenon where on any given day a reader will find news of such accidents and casualties in any newspaper.
This was certainly a tragic event, and loss of such young souls resulted in mourning and sorrow among the people. However, at that time, nobody realized the ramification of this accident unfolding throughout the following days.
In a regular press conference on the same evening, journalists questioned the Minister of Shipping Mr Shahjanan Khan about the accident. He happens to be the President of the ‘Bangladesh Road Workers’ Federation’ as well which is the largest national and partisan union of transport workers in the country.
While expressing his opinion regarding this tragic event and death, he started smiling generously and told the journalists that this is not something of importance.
“33 people died yesterday in India in a road accident. Now, look at them! Do they talk much about that? …. as we make noise here?” he said.
Something phenomenal took place in Bangladesh that night. The smiling face of the minister sparked a wave of rage and anger among the people. The outburst in the social media was spontaneous and incredible.
In a country where people are now regularly arrested, detained and imprisoned for writing on Facebook or any other media anything against the governing party, such uncontrolled free opinion surprised everyone.
The infamous and draconian cyber law, Information and Communication Technology Act, known as Section 57, failed to stop people’s reaction and it started spreading fast.
On the day of the accident, students of that particular school blocked the Airport Road for few hours and stopped all public buses on that street for few hours.
However, on the next day, students of primary and secondary schools and colleges in the whole capital city came out to the streets protesting against the corrupted transportation system and demanding the resignation of the Minister.
They continued to do so on the following day during regular school hours and police used brutal forces including hot water cannons, tear gas and batons in order to disperse the protesters and remove them from the streets.
On the fourth day, 1 August, besides capital city Dhaka, the protests spread in most of the other cities of the country.
The protesters being school students wearing their school uniforms took control of the major streets. Instead of blocking the roads, thousands of students started traffic control and safety check on vehicles in all cities.
They checked drivers’ licences and instructed the vehicles to follow the traffic signals and rules. They separated one lane for the emergency vehicles, which is unprecedented in Bangladesh.
During the next few days, the government remained silent in responding to this completely apolitical and social movement run by the young school students all over the country.
The photos and videos of several incidents became viral on social media during this period.
The students stopped a minister’s car and accompanying security vehicles because the motorcade was moving on the wrong side of the street, which is a very common practice of the VIP motorcades in Dhaka in order to avoid the slow traffic of the regular and lawful lanes.
The students checked and stopped numerous government vehicles carrying members of the parliament, senior government officials, police and paramilitary forces officers, journalists, even the High Court judges drivers did not have any driving licences or were not following traffic rules.
This may seem to be unthinkable by many but the reality of Bangladesh is different. Getting a driving licence means going through such a tedious process of giving bribery that most transport workers simply choose to drive without any licence or training at all.
Corruption is so widespread that anybody can drive as long as they pay an instant bribe to traffic police amounting as small as $2 during any traffic checks.
Moreover, transportation companies such as bus and truck companies maintain an ongoing monthly payment system with traffic department and therefore they do not stop any vehicles of those specific companies for any traffic checking.
As a result, Bangladesh is one of the top-ranking countries in terms of road accidents and casualties.
According to a 2015 report published by the World Health Organisation, 21,000 people died in Bangladesh in the previous year due to road accidents.
However, the number would probably be much more than this, as the country does not have a proper and structural system of keeping records and statistics.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh government started to react to this school children movement after five days of silence and observation when it became clear to them that the students would not stop easily and they were getting popular support and sympathy from their countrymen.
On 4 August, members of the ruling Awami League party’s student-wing came out to the street with sticks, knives and firearms.
During the next 4 days, they indiscriminately beat the students causing injuries and removing them from the streets.
This was an open season of beating and bashing on the streets of Dhaka and other cities, police acted as an auxiliary force to them and often participated in student beatings.
Thousands of school students were shot, stabbed and beaten. Some of them even became blind by rubber bullet injuries in their eyes.
Government goons abducted many of them, tortured and left them on the side of the street. Police arrested dozens and took them for interrogation.
Journalists were also beaten and any cameras or mobile phones seen to be capturing any photos were snatched.
Unarmed schoolchildren eventually stopped coming out to the streets and the movement was subdued like any other political and non-political protests in Bangladesh over the last nine years.
There were no protests taking place on the streets after 8 August. However, police have been arresting the students and harassing them until now.
One of the major aspects of this remarkable student movement was the demonstration of people’s will while facing an autocratic regime’s cruel oppression.
During the last days of their protest, school children started to focus on only one slogan, ‘WE WANT JUSTICE’.
A well-known photojournalist mentioned this aspect in a live interview with Al Jazeera TV channel. In that interview, he said that the real reason spurring this apolitical movement is the non-elected government which does not have any mandate to rule, coupled with its massive corruption, political persecution and oppression of democratic rights of the people.
However, plain-clothed government forces in more than a dozen vehicles surrounded his house just after a few hours of broadcasting that interview.
They seized all CCTV cameras at his residence and took him to an unknown place. Upon increasing public and media reaction, he finally appeared in the court on the following day as arrested by the police and with clear signs of physical torture. He is currently in prison facing trial with a charge of previously mentioned Information and Communication Technology Act.
This unprecedented civil movement without any organisational structure or leadership as spontaneously organised by school children all over the country demonstrated the failure of the civil society and media of the country as well in performing their expected roles to support and protect people’s rights.
During those days, there was an outcry in social media reactions and comments questioning the inactivity on general people’s part. Everyone kept asking why the adults kept silent while the children were on the streets with a simple demand for accident-free natural death!
However, the adult population simply kept observing til the end and did nothing. The reason of this perhaps is due to their experience of facing government oppression over the years.
Over the last nine years, police and government partisan thugs jointly killed, abducted, arrested and tortured tens of thousands of people indiscriminately whenever they took to the streets with their political demands.
Protest by school children is not completely unusual in the world. In the recent past, we have witnessed another example of such movement in the USA against gun violence.
However, the US government did not use any brutal force to disperse the protesters. Unlike the USA, Bangladesh government used not only rubber bullets and batons without any justification but also instructed its civilian thugs to attack the school children and take control of the streets.
Surprisingly, the police accompanied those helmet-wearing thugs when they attacked the children.
However, in reviewing this unique student movement and looking at it with hindsight, one can certainly say that this non-political social movement shocked the government.
School children of Bangladesh have clearly demonstrated people power for their rights. There are valuable lessons to be learned from their ten-day long activism.
Their slogans were creative and methods were constructive. Through a completely non-violent protest, they simply made the flaws of the country openly visible.
They showed that with willingness and sincerity, rule of law can be enforced and an utterly chaotic and corrupted traffic system can be changed and controlled in a systematic manner.
With their slogans, they taught us that under an authoritarian rule one must protest to survive otherwise remaining silent would continue the oppression forever.
They also taught us that “things didn’t happen” doesn’t mean “it will never happen”, we all must put our hands together to make it happen.
Although adult masses did not join this movement this time, rather they kept observing and sympathising with the students, it certainly renewed their belief in their strength and their anger against the non-democratic government.
Undoubtedly, this unprecedented school children movement and government brutality on them will remain as a significant chapter in the history of Bangladesh.