Every baton strike and every prison sentence alienates a whole generation
Since time immemorial, we have tried to understand our path and our place in history using references to the scriptures of our belief systems. Our trajectories were largely governed by the idea that we must attempt to stay on the right side and have faith, and that if we follow through, a decent afterlife is guaranteed.
But the problem arose as centuries in the gaps between good and evil closed, and suddenly our faiths and those preaching it soon became an ally of the administrators rather than an ally of the oppressed.
Sure, we were living decent, pious lives, but simultaneously, someone was benefitting from the surrender of our political rights in the name of our beliefs. Fast forward to the 21st century, delusions of racial, nationalist, religious supremacy are more prevalent as ever -- and it’s not just the harm that they promote towards their minorities, it’s the tragedy that after years of human evolution, the easiest trick in the book is still alive to keep the division tactics of the oppressor operational.
Perhaps that’s exactly why it was so satisfying to witness the road safety movement and its evolution into a short-lived yet bold stand against the violence that emerged in its waning days. Even the week prior to the movement, one would find Bangladeshi social media egregiously split over trivial issues, and vindictive rhetoric would be prevalent.
Perhaps even the same two female photojournalists applauded for their bold efforts to retrieve an innocent protestor from the clutches of law enforcement officials would probably be made subject to scores of misogynist comments on an ordinary day on the streets of Dhaka. Yet, when faced with a threat to their public safety, no two polar opposite Bangladeshis thought twice before marching down the streets last week.
But before moving on, it seems important to address a particularly problematic narrative that found its way to the conversations during this time. Since the beginning of the protests, I worried there’d be an attempt to sidetrack the protests into a vindictive class war. Sure enough, messages going around social media warned of violent counter-protests from the transportation workers -- and when kids from poor households were seen among those attacking the universities, that was it.
There was outrage.
People spoke of betrayal and revenge. Somehow, we failed to question why those lungi-clad attackers didn’t bother to conceal their identities like their helmet-donning comrades. We failed to wonder why these hired goons under the guise of workers did what they did and why, to them, money trumps ethics. Yet, once again, we had overlooked the division tactics played by the ruling class to keep two equally oppressed socio-economic classes at each other’s throats rather than noticing the efforts made to prevent them from ever uniting against a common enemy.
Nonetheless, this misstep, along with the propagation of unverified claims (for which only the censorship of the media in the first place is to be blamed) do not, in any way, discredit or take anything away from the movement and what it stood for. Sure, different agencies aimed to capitalize on the anti-administration sentiments to build their own case. As a result, it’s no surprise that the regret and the resentment is strong amongst these agencies.
We’re done getting caught up in the games of the two mainstream parties, and done being fed a spoonful of sentiments by these entities to grab our votes. We now realize that despite each of their claims to be more pro-1971 or more pro-nationalism, at the end of the day, the system is still rigged against everyone.
What took us so long?
The 21st century individual had been, for far too long, prevented from entering the conversation thanks to the educational and vocational systems left by the previous generation. Coupled with the existential dread we all share, we morphed into apathetic zombies who require incentives to act on literally anything.
We require something to relate to, something that convinces us that we too are faced with very real threats just as much as the next Bangladeshi. Perhaps that’s the reason behind our failure to get behind the protests against Rampal or the atrocities in the hills, for example -- and perhaps that’s exactly what was different this time, and thus led us to the streets, shocking everyone.
But ask yourselves this: Before last week, how many of us bothered about how the country was run? How many of us shared, engaged in, or even authored intellectual analyses -- that too about our own political climate? When was the last time Bangladeshis got to taste the privilege of laughing at a state official without fear of repercussions?
We all remember that video that emerged within the first couple of days into the movement. The one where a stream of students ran down Airport Road, and were suddenly joined by another group from the other side of the road and thus consolidated into one beautiful, brimming sea of young bloods.
I would like to believe that, at that moment, running down a road that’s vital to Dhaka’s transportation, halting traffic and arresting the attention of onlookers, every teenager in that clip achieved absolution. At that moment, every single one of them broke free of the shackles that we all collectively had been bound by.
Understand that none of them, and none of us, can ever quite forget that feeling of liberation, and also that feeling of being rounded up like cattle that came afterwards in the weekend. Our very first experience with revolt has succeeded to the extent that it has forced the administration to reveal to us their most desperate nature.
Our utmost condolences to both our elders and those wishing to govern us next. With every strike of your baton and every prison sentence, you’ve alienated an entire generation -- an entire demographic that’s definitely never rooting for you or your equally unqualified opponents, ever again.
Sayrat Salekin is a freelance contributor.