It betrays a pervasive cowardice that we were not able to protect our children
Even though the protests had started immediately after two students were killed by speeding buses on Airport Road, my first experience of these protesters was a few days afterward, in front of where I live, where they were controlling the traffic by ensuring that every vehicle maintained a straight queue.
While I had been hearing of this from friends and relatives and through social media, seeing it face to face was a surprising experience. For one, living in Bangladesh for some time results in a forced state of apathy, one in which, as a Bangladeshi, you are expected to occasionally complain and let things be as they are.
Secondly, these school students, most not even having crossed 18 years of age, had done something quite extraordinary: Of course, in certain parts of the city they had created human chains and blocked the streets, which are somewhat usual avenues of protest.
But, additionally and alternatively, they were attempting to fix the system while doing so. They were trying to show that the age-old weary method by which we Bangladeshis, especially the generation which has given birth to this most corrupt and chaotic of systems, was not the only way to go about living in this country of ours.
And, most importantly, I found my own behaviour changed as well. I took care to walk on the sidewalk where possible and, even when I hailed a rickshaw, the one or two times he tried to move on ahead in the traffic, I asked him to stay in the lane.
Consider my words and sentiments neither original nor profound; they are imitations and echoes of what most people in Bangladesh have said so far. That we want safer roads, that we want justice, that we are behind the students who have stood so bravely in protest.
But I would like to draw attention to those who remain sceptical of what has happened, especially so after the events of August 4, when BCL and the police joined together to attack the protesting students, as they have continued to do so in the ensuing days. We shouldn’t, first and foremost, take anything away from what has been achieved in the last week and a half.
Whether or not BCL and those responsible for protecting us, in their undying love for violence as a means of oppression, have managed to quash the protest altogether and nothing whatsoever has changed, does not change the beauty of what had preceded it. That we were offered a glimpse of what could happen, and what needs to change, is an invaluable asset to our memories.
There are also those who are fed up or have gone on to say that enough is enough, how much more can students pretend to be police officers, how much longer must we stay stuck in traffic while the students play their games. Go home already.
Some have even pointed out the futility in checking for licenses and wearing seatbelts in a country which is never really moving that fast to begin with, and thrives on a lack of accountability. What’s the point, they have asked, in holding up traffic? “Ar koto?” they have demanded. How much longer must this gridlock continue? Don’t you have classes? Don’t you need to go get an education?
The answer to that is simple. It does not matter if a seatbelt has never saved your life, it does not matter that your chauffeur has never caused an accident despite having an expired license, and it does not matter that you have to get to work on time.
What these kids are attempting to do is not merely bring about changes in policy and implementation, but to also nurture a culture which respects the law. A culture which says that, yes, 99 times out of a 100 my seatbelt will not save my life in a city like Dhaka, but despite that, I will put my seatbelt on because that is what the law requires.
It creates a culture which says that, even though it takes longer for me personally, maintaining lanes on any road, even if not legally required, is the right thing to do.
Not every question can be answered with apathy and another inquiry of “what’s the point?” Not every problem can be solved via the proper channels.
The only group of people worthy of sympathy is the working class, which currently has no cheap transport option. But otherwise, one might notice that these words come from the mouths either of those who are already in power, and do not have to suffer the ignominy of a bus ride on the streets of Dhaka.
These come from the mouths of those who pity the oppressed, but enjoy their own superior position.
These children are as innocent as they come. And if what happened on Saturday is anything to by, it is that the pockets of power which currently exist in Bangladeshi society are the disappointment on which Bangladesh was built. It is a matter of shame, and betrays a pervasive cowardice that we did not have the gall to stand up for what was right when children come under a swinging baton.
They will then look to the east and blame Myanmar for the way they have treated the Rohingya. They will participate in talk shows and roundtables and wax poetic about the problems of this country. They will ask you to go home and let the grown-ups handle it.
But, make no mistake, the world we live in now is a hell of their own making.
They are the creators and perpetrators of a system that has allowed countless to suffer and now, since they are rendered powerless on the streets, they want that power back.
Pay no heed. For a brief moment in Bangladesh’s contemporary history, the right thing was done. And it should continue to be done, whether it actually continues or not. That is what should have stayed.
It is, in fact, they who should shut up and go home.
SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.