How to handle a student protest
There is a way of handling student protests.
It is by listening to them. It is by trying to understand what their grievances are all about. It is by sending a minister out to them to hear their complaints first-hand.
It is by having some of them come to the Prime Minister’s Office, to acquaint the head of government with the pain they feel, with the security they need on the roads of this huge urban slum we call a metropolis.
There is a method of troubleshooting when the young are angry and agitated.
It is not by labelling them as agents of the political opposition. It is not by spotting conspiracy when there is none. It is not by asking them to go back home and focus on their studies when others are not ready to do their job.
It is not merely by telling them that their schoolbags should not contain stones, when those older students who go after them with machetes and knives and guns are not told to drop those lethal weapons and go back to the classroom. There is a way of restoring discipline on the streets of this city.
It is by allowing the young to gather peacefully to register their protests before the media, before the country. It is by remembering the tenets of the nation’s constitution -- that every individual in this People’s Republic has a right to express his or her opinion without fear of repression or reprisal.
It is by ensuring that this right is not violated either by the state or the government or loyalists of the powers that be.
It is by keeping at bay the goons out to mar these expressions of free will, by warning them to stay away from stepping into the parameters of the protests. It is by taking into cognisance the sentiments of the larger mass of citizens who have, in their observation of events, drawn the legitimate conclusion that the young are speaking sense.
There are means by which crowds can be prevented from turning into mobs.
Those means do not include the right of the police to charge into a peaceful crowd and beat up people for no rhyme or reason.
Those means do not presuppose that an assembly of peaceful boys and girls will turn violent and therefore pre-emptive assaults on them are in order.
Those means do not call for the police to join adherents of the ruling party, indeed overlook the nasty intentions of the latter, and hunt down the peaceful crowd of boys and girls, treating them as criminals out to destabilize the state, and subject them to gratuitous brutality.
The means through which mob violence can be averted are out there for everyone to take note of.
They include the right of young protestors to voice their demands without interference and in the security provided by the police. They imply the sacred responsibility of law enforcers to hunt down those who would barge into this peaceful crowd with ill intentions and lead them away to face the consequences of their impertinence.
They speak of the right of the protestors to go back home at the end of the day in all the safety and security the law is bound to provide them with.
There are ways of dealing with dissent.
It is not by barging into people’s homes, smashing closed-circuit television cameras, and breaking down doors, to seize the voice of dissent as if he were a common criminal and drag him down to a waiting vehicle and drive off to an unknown detention centre.
It is not by blindfolding an individual and beating him black and blue in the grave insecurity of detention.
There are the methods through which arrests are made in a democratic state.
They call for warrants to be produced.
They require the individual who is to be placed under arrest to be taken into custody in the light of day.
They call for the one under arrest to be produced in a court of law, where the charges relating to his or her detention will be read out.
And, of course, there is the legal stipulation that the family of the detained individual will be apprised of his or her condition within hours of the arrest.
There are lessons in governance which the young can teach us, indeed which they have already taught us this past fortnight.
They have done what governments are supposed to do, but often do not.
They have checked the documents of vehicles.
They have turned ministers away when they have sought to drive on the wrong side of the road.
They have disciplined rickshaws, cars, and buses into streamlined movement on the roads.
They have checked the identities and other documents of policemen who regularly berate citizens on the streets without cause.
There are lessons which those in authority should have learned and acknowledged in light of the protests of the young, but have not.
The minister for shipping, aka leader of the transport owners’ federation, should have resigned or should have been asked to go. That has not happened.
The old adage holds true that no one resigns in this country, that rare are the instances of men and women in public office asked to go home.
The ones who emerged from offices and alleys and the many dark corners of this immense metropolis, with deadly weapons at the ready, with helmets on their heads, to drive fear into the young, have not been proceeded against by the law.
Those young men and women whose voices should have been heard are today the ones compelled into silence.
These incidents that have exercised the minds of citizens should have been discussed, deliberated upon, and debated in parliament.
That did not happen. Were we surprised?
There are ways of administering the state. There are all the means of ensuring governance.
And they are all spelled out in the constitution -- drafted and authenticated and adopted and brought into effect in December 1972.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.