To quash the movement, the government needs to accept its demands
The history of this decade’s social movements in Bangladesh is a history of an examination of tolerance for Bangladesh and the endurance of the ruling regime.
The aftermath of the Shahbagh movement showed us that we can tolerate, and even congratulate, the death of people who are portrayed as anti-Islamic. The repression of the movement to save Sundarbans showed us that we can tolerate public assault of activist, even those who are elderly and socially respectable, if they are portrayed as “leftist.”
The assault on the quota reform movement showed us that the ruling party could withstand its operatives being identified as attackers as peaceful protesters, so long as they can be portrayed as misdirected or controlled by BNP-Jamaat.
But at this point of the history of our nation, we are presented with a new and a tougher question: Can we, as a nation, tolerate dead kids? So far, the answer seems to be negative. Hundreds of regular people have expressed solidarity with the protest movement of the students. Pivoting from that support, the students have so far demanded structural reforms to the public transportation system and an end to the insidious bus cartels among other things.
These are positive reforms that the majority of the country agrees with, but as we have seen with previous movements, the support of the majority can shift and they can also turn a blind eye to the fate of the protesters, if the opposing forces play their cards right.
So what would it take to make these crazy, stupid, brave kids “sparable”? It is a hard task. Bloody uniforms are tough sights to bear. So the state decides to close the schools, in an attempt to strip the protesters of their childhood and turn them into homo sacer.
But that doesn’t work. After repeated requests from many of their compatriots, they decide to pour to the streets with their uniforms on. Their identity becomes their protection. Their perceived childhood, the fact that they stand one year away from university, may be ticket to safety, whereas many who were only a couple of years older than them were comfortably maimed in front of the nation’s naked eye.
Would that trick work? Would painting these kids as partisans, or blasphemers, or enemies of the state grant the state the right to violate them? Probably not. If the state would stand against the uniformed school-goers, the nation would soon stand on the other side of the bargain.
While there are already attempts underway to smear these kids through partisan tropes and (social) media manipulation, they have largely been rejected by the majority.
What is to be done, then? One way is to water down the tough challenges raised by the protesters. If they demand the resignation of Minister Shahjahan Khan, water it down to a demand of apology. If they demand structural change in the governance of the roads, water it down to enforcement of existing licensing laws. If they demand an increase in the current punishments for vehicular manslaughter, throw them under a pile of legal documents and sell it as an all-curing snake oil, but that is merely a sliver of the changes that the kids want.
Would this work? So far, it hasn’t. The minister has apologized, the PM’s office has vowed enforcement of laws and Minister Obaidul Quader has promised swift legal changes, but the kids are not appeased. They continue their blockades and keep demanding justice. What this justice means is elusive, and may be a bundled articulation of the myriad demands of the past movements, the souls of which are still alive in the students today.
These kids have proven that they are the best of students, because they learn from history. They decided to stay nonpartisan. They decided to stay laser focused on their issue. They decided to minimize public disruption. They decided to criticize the rulers when necessary.
Most importantly, they have shown that traffic administration, much like any other state affairs of Bangladesh, can be orderly and efficient, only if the controllers of those wish to work in the public interests.
These kids have corrected a lot of the mistakes of the previous movements and they will teach the protesters and reformers of the future. They have so far withstood all the old ploys of diversion, misdirection and manipulation. To quash this movement, the government needs to accept its demands, at least to some extent, or come up with a new mode of disruption that can make dead kids, and bloody kids, a tolerable sight for the Bangladeshi masses.
The road ahead is difficult for all of the parties involved. But at the end of it, lies sunshine.
Anupam Debashis Roy is the Editor of Muktiforum.