The day started as usual on Friday for madrasa student Abdul Malek (not his real name).
The 13-year-old, along with his 200 dorm mates, was woken up by their teacher Mosaddek Hossain at the crack of dawn. They washed themselves up, ate their breakfast and got ready for class.
However, the day took a different turn when Mosaddek told them that there would be no classes. Instead, he said, they would all go to Baitul Mukarram National Mosque in Dhaka to join an anti-government protest.
Malek had not participated in a protest before. Mosaddek did not clarify what it was about, and Malek and the students did not have the courage to ask questions.
Around 11am, all the students of Gendaria Forkaniya Hafezia Madrasa started their march towards the Baitul Mukarram.
The protest was staged by Islami Andolon Bangladesh against the installation of a statue on the premises of the Supreme Court.
Also Read- Hefazat makes good on protest threat, demands SC sculpture removal
Asked if he knew exactly what they were protesting, Malek shook his head.
“Hujur [the teacher] told us the government had put up an idol. Idols are prohibited in Islam, so we are protesting the government's un-Islamic act,” the boy told the Dhaka Tribune.
Before he could say anything else, the adults intervened and pushed this reporter away – a clear warning to stay away from the children.
Children being involved in political protests is nothing new in Bangladesh.
Madrasa students, with little understanding of the cause, are frequently used in public demonstrations by Islamist groups.
In 2013, Hefazat-e-Islam brought hundreds of madrasa students when they staged a demonstration in Dhaka on May 5 demanding death sentence for “the atheist bloggers” who organised the Shahbagh movement.
According to a 2013 report by human rights organisation Odhikar, some of the children who took part in the Hefazat rally were found missing after the law enforcement cracked down on the protesters. Some are even feared dead.
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In their 'Dhaka Siege' programme on May 5, 2013, which they arranged with a written permission from Dhaka Metropolitan Police, Hefazat-e-Islam activists brought madrasa students, the majority of whom were underage. The peaceful protest took a serious turn when one person was shot dead and 50 were reported to be injured. Police opened fire in an attempt to disperse the protesters, and a series of clashes took place between the protesters and the law enforcement agencies at different places of the city Rajib Dhar
The practice is not uncommon for mainstream political parties either; child activists are regularly seen in programmes of both ruling parties and opposition parties, said the report.
But it is illegal, as the Children's Act 2013 prohibits involving anyone under 18 years of age in political activities.
“Using children in political movements is not only unethical, it is also illegal,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, lawyer and human rights activist. “Both Islamist groups and political parties often use children to picket and hurl bombs so the law enforcement officers cannot intervene.”
“Those who get children involved in political movements do so deliberately,” said Abdus Shahid Mahmud, director of Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum. “Even though it is illegal, they make children picket and throw bombs at people"
“There is a law against this practice in Bangladesh, but it is never properly implemented,” said Md Mamunur Rashid, civil society and children's rights policy manager at Save the Children Bangladesh.
Read More- ‘Hefazat’s demand irrational’
With Friday's demonstration, Islami Andolon Bangladesh joined the league of other hardliner Islamist groups like Hefazat-e-Islam, Islami Oikya Jote, Olama League and Bangladesh Khilifat Majlish demanding the removal of the statue from the Supreme Court premises.
The Lady Justice statue, a likeness of Greek goddess Themis who is a universal symbol of justice, was installed on the Supreme Court premises in December last year.
Islamist groups started their protest against the statue straight away, terming the sculpture an “idol” and therefore un-Islamic.
Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladesh chapter of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), also recently expressed their support for the protest in a forum discussion.
Addressing Friday's protest, Islami Andolon Bangladesh Presidium Member Mosaddek Billah Al Madani announced that the group would hold a grand rally at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka on April 21.