Students in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have long worried about their journey to school. Dangerous driving cost the lives of two students in the last week of July — they were run over by a bus — which triggered mass rallies of students across the centre of the capital. The students wanted the government to act — finally — to protect them. This was an opportunity for the government to do something following a simple plea by the students. But it did not.
Instead, ruffians went along the avenues, threatening and beating protesting students. Photographs of the violence were quick to reach social media. The award-winning Bangladeshi photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, documented the protests and also the violence with his camera. On social media, he published his pictures of what appeared to be the organisers of the violence meeting with ruffians, who were then set out to attack the students. This did not go down well with the establishment.
Alam had received a request from the media outlet, Al-Jazeera, to appear on the channel and talk about the protests. He went on air and pointed out that the protests, while about traffic safety, also indicated a far wider set of concerns — ‘the looting of banks, the gagging of the media, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, bribery, corruption’. What he narrated was of little surprise to the people of Bangladesh. Protests are a constant feature of life, both in the past and in the present, in the country — over electricity supply in Kansat; over open-pit coal mining in Phulbari; against a coal plant at the rim of the Sundarbans; against stock market scandals that defrauded millions of small investors; and against quotas in government jobs for the descendants of ‘freedom fighters’ in the 1971 war.
Alam, who had been following the protests and the crackdown, also reported on social media: “Today, the police specifically asked for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads.” This struck him as an important departure for the government which had now publicly gone after the students. “The government has miscalculated. It thought that fear and repression would be enough, but you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner,” he added.
On August 5, a group of men arrived at Alam’s home in Dhaka’s Dhanmondi area and took him into custody. It is said that the men taped over CCTV cameras in the area and forbade taking any photographs of his arrest. Rahnuma Ahmed, a journalist and Mr. Alam’s partner, said she rushed to the local police station but it turned out that Alam had been taken away by the Detective Branch. A police officer later said, “We are interrogating him for giving false information to different media and for provocative comments.” Mr. Alam’s lawyer has said that the police only registered the first information report after she called him and kept up the pressure on them. There was no appetite in the Bureau to follow common procedure.
Alam was arrested after being charged under Section 57(2) of the Information and Communication Technology Act for “spreading imaginary propaganda against the government.” The Act is often used as a broad-brush tool to muzzle journalists. As he was taken from the court, Mr. Alam said, “I was hit (in custody). They washed my blood-stained Punjabi [kurta] and then made me wear it again.” Mr. Alam, a recipient of the Shilpakala Padak, one of Bangladesh’s prestigious awards, was now on a seven-day remand. . On Tuesday, the High Court ordered that the remand be suspended and that Mr. Alam be transferred to the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for care. Whether the case against him will be pursued and whether this will send a message against such abductions in the future is to be seen.
The United Nations has said that it is “deeply concerned about the reports of violence” during the protests for road safety in Bangladesh and has appealed for calm. Dhaka’s streets remain tense. Some students have braved the crackdown, but the mood is sombre. It appears that the government is unwilling to negotiate with the students. Alam’s experience suggests that it is even unwilling to accept that there is a problem here — one that is bigger than road safety. Human rights groups and PEN International (a worldwide association of writers) have condemned his arrest.
This is an election year for Bangladesh. The crackdown on the students sends a very strong message — that the government will tolerate neither dissent nor democratic challenges.
It is fitting to recall that in the mass protests in Bangladesh in 1990, the longest running military junta led by General Ershad was affected after an army truck ran over a group of protesting students. When he came to power in 1982, there had been a conflagration over buses and students. It is no wonder then that the government is so sensitive to protests around the traffic.