It is time to win the hearts and minds of citizens
After two of their peers were killed by reckless bus drivers, the teenage students of Ramizuddin College took to the streets in protest on July 29. Their protests soon ignited and spread throughout the country.
Such protests by youngsters, most under the age of 18, without leaders and predetermined plans, were unprecedented. This “children’s rebellion” is a rare event not only in Bangladesh but also in the world. What are its inherent messages?
As time went on, the initial nine-point demand of the students turned into a call for fundamental changes in the transport sector and more. In fact, their movement ended up challenging the existing predatory, repressive, and unjust structure of the state.
Their slogan “We want justice” was used for the first time in any movement in Bangladesh. On a festoon, they wrote: “The state is being repaired, forgive the temporary inconvenience!”
These youth, as they sought justice in the streets for two of their fallen comrades, showed how to keep the streets functional. They directed moving vehicles into lanes, keeping emergency lanes open only for ambulances.
How had we forgotten these simple rules of road management? Because of the efforts of these young people, law enforcers and even lawmakers were exposed as lawbreakers -- they did not have licenses.
They required all vehicles without licenses, including those of powerbrokers, to get off the road, and vehicles plying on the wrong side were forced to turn around. They reminded us that the law was for everyone.
Because of their unique, simple but firm approach, people are now queuing up, in large numbers, to get their licenses -- a phenomenon that state could not achieve through jailing, fines, or force.
The youth poured into the streets by thousands. Such a huge crowd, but without indiscipline or unruliness. A common tendency in any movement is to break laws, but not in this case.
Instead, it was amazing to see the students teaching respect for laws, as if they had taken, on their slight shoulders, the responsibility to vanish lawlessness and indiscipline from our nation. A nation cannot hope for a better example from its youth.
The youth movement was so strongly grounded on morality and public interests that no one, not even the ruling party, dared oppose it. Instead, they accepted the justness of their demands, praised their discipline, and asked them to return to classes.
When they could not convince the students, the authorities then concocted a story of “conspiracy,” disrespecting the pure intentions at the heart of this spontaneous movement, and revealing the bankruptcy of their position. However, closing one’s eyes does not make the storm go away.
The fact that the youth did not trust the authorities is bad news for the government. The authority of the government originates from the trust and support of the people; the absence of trust creates distance between the people and the government, invariably making the government suspicious, fearful, and weak.
A weak government makes mistakes and can become dangerous. It is always fearful, views citizens with suspicion, and finds conspiracy everywhere. To stay in power, it becomes intolerant and repressive, and engages in politicization. However, history teaches us that a repressive system will not last forever.
Our youth demanded justice because it is clear that we have developed a culture of injustice in our country. This injustice and breakdown of systems and institutions are due to politics of pillage, causing a predatory state system that undermines the interests of its citizens.
From the financial sector to our stone/coal mines, all are now under the control of the looters and plunderers, enabled through political patronage and “partisization.” A predatory system works for the coterie interests and against the public interest, and gradually becomes autocratic.
Our present predatory system was not developed in one day or by one government, however. This state of affairs is due to mis-governance over many years. The recent “rebellion” was an expression of long bottled-up frustrations.
By itself, the enactment of a law will not solve the problems of the transport sector. The sector is saddled with more than one syndicate, and is under the control of a mafia which collects crores of taka of toll daily.
BRTA and police corruption also riddle the system. More importantly, the sector is the power base of some powerful people. Thus, without transforming the present predatory structure, it is impossible to bring order and discipline to the transport sector.
The intolerance of the state invariably gets translated into repression, as is demonstrated by the continuing arrests of the youngsters. The arrest of famed photographer Shahidul Alam, his remand, and claim of torture while in custody are also the reflection of a repressive state.
It is unbelievable that the state appealed against the High Court’s directive to transfer him to the hospital. Such repression undoubtedly alienates ordinary citizens.
I experienced firsthand the unjustness of our system during the recent attack on my home. On August 4, 2018, we hosted a farewell dinner for the departing US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, the date of which was set 20 days earlier. In addition to my wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two daughters, the other guests at the dinner were family friends Dr Kamal and Dr Hameeda Hossain and M Hafizuddin Khan.
As Ambassador Bernicat was departing after dinner, a group of hooligans attacked her convoy, including the two police vehicles providing her security. They then attacked my home, shattering the windows and trying to batter down the gate.
We called the police who came after about half an hour, but left without speaking to us or providing any security for my family.
Although the dinner was a family affair, with the date and guest list confirmed with the embassy long before the children’s movement for safer roads began, a vested interest group has concocted a conspiracy theory about the evening’s events.
This absurd conspiracy theory is an attempt to discredit me as an independent civil society activist and, at the same time, protect the attackers. This is the action of a bankrupt and crumbling state structure, which protects coterie interests over those of citizens.
Our students took to the streets to cry out against and repair this system -- this, I feel, is the underlying message of the “children’s rebellion.” I hope that the authorities will no longer waste their time on ill-conceived conspiracy theories, and instead undertake some deep reforms to repair the state, which will help achieve good governance and win them the hearts and minds of its citizens.
Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary, SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.