Last week’s decisive anti-quota protests, which had largely been peaceful until then, turned violent only after a number of rumours were spread on social media platform Facebook, it has emerged.
Demonstrators have long emphasized the need to reform the quota system, which reserves 56% of government jobs for certain groups.
In mid-February, protesters came together under the banner of “Bangladesh Sadharan Chhatra Odhikar Sangrakkhan Parishad” to organize peaceful demonstrations in favour of reforming the system.
The protesters asked the government to expand opportunities for candidates who do not have quota facilities. The protests continued sporadically in March and gained momentum in early April.
Private university students also took to the streets in Dhaka and blocked key intersections, bringing traffic to a grinding halt.
The demands raised by protesters in Dhaka struck a chord with other students and job seekers across Bangladesh. Students of public universities and colleges across the country boycotted classes and expressed solidarity with the quote reform movement.
During a massive gathering on April 8, demonstrators blocked the key Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka for five hours. In the evening, the police cracked down on the gathering in an attempt to clear the intersection.
Dhaka University Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury told the Dhaka Tribune that the protesters’ demands for reform were logical. He said he was surprised at how the protest was generally staged in an orderly manner but seemed to go out of control at night.
During the protests around the country, several hundred students were injured in police action and a number of them were also detained.
The Dhaka Tribune found that much of the chaos and violence during the protests were fuelled by rumours on the social media.
Law enforcement agencies alleged that the anti-quota protesters had intentionally spread the rumours. However, this claim could not be verified independently.
Around midnight on Sunday, April 8, a rumour spread that a rubber bullet fired by the police had hit one of the protesters in the scrotum.
Another rumour misinformed people of the death of Abu Bakar Siddique, a protester who had been injured when a rubber bullet hit him on the left eyebrow. One of the movement’s conveners also told a private TV channel that one of the protesters had been killed.
The fake information was picked up by a number of Facebook pages and prominent personalities posted without verifying that Siddique was shot dead by police during a clash.
Facebook pages like ‘Troll Du,’ ‘Quota Songskar Chai,’ ‘Zakir’s BCS Specials,’ ‘Basher Kella’ which is allegedly run by Shibir activists, started posting news about Siddique’s death in the early hours of April 9.
Siddique later started a Facebook live video and posted a status clarifying that he was okay.
Meanwhile, Dhaka Medical College Hospital’s Dr Alauddin told the Dhaka Tribune that on Sunday night no one was admitted with a scrotum injury.
Leaders of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the ruling party’s student front, reportedly spread a rumour that the protesters had vandalized the Faculty of Fine Arts and torched the artwork that were supposed to be used in the Mongol Shobhajatra. The Chhatra League issued a statement condemning the alleged vandalism.
Mir Arshadul Haque, the campus correspondent of an English daily, was inside the Fine Arts Faculty during the police crackdown.
He told the Dhaka Tribune: “The protesters took shelter there. The artists, who were preparing the items for celebrating the Bangla new year helped the protesters burn some old items to create fire and smoke to protect themselves from teargas as police lobbed teargas shells inside the premises of the Faculty of Fine Arts.”
Another report of violence surfaced around 2am on Monday when protesters surrounded the residence of the Dhaka University vice-chancellor. A few people, who have yet to be identified, attacked, vandalized, and looted the residence. Two cars of the vice-chancellor were also set afire while two other cars were vandalized.
Demonstrators later alleged that the attack on the residence was carried out by outsiders.
There was another rumour early Wednesday that Chhatra League’s Kabi Sufia Kamal Hall unit President Iffat Jahan Isha had tortured a demonstrator and cut her tendon. According to the rumour, no one was taking the demonstrator to the hospital even though she was bleeding.
Facebook pages like ‘Troll Du,’ ‘Quota Songskar Chai,’ ‘Zakir’s BCS Specials,’ and ‘Basher Kella’ posted fabricated reports of the incident, inciting the protesters further.
Later, in a Facebook video, injured student Morsheda clarified that she had herself injured her foot on broken glass when she kicked the window of Isha’s room to rescue a screaming girl who was presumably being tortured there.
At around 3am that night, another post by Basherkella claimed that a ruling party student front leader of Dhaka University’s hall unit was assaulting general students.
Another post by the page claimed that armed Chhatra League activists riding around 100 bikes were on their way to TSC to attack the protesters.
Isha was initially suspended by the Chhatra League and the university, but on Friday the student front withdrew her suspension.
A protester from Zia Hall dismissed rumours that Chhatra League activists had fired shots at students who tried to go towards the Sufia Kamal Hall.
There were also rumours about Chhatra League activists assaulting protesters at Mohsin Hall, but the Dhaka Tribune correspondent could not find evidence to substantiate the allegation.
Police: It’s cybercrime
The protesters intentionally spread rumours that agitated the general students and led to subversive activities on the streets and the Dhaka University campus, the law enforcement agencies claim.
Police claimed that after an initial analysis they found the rumours were dispersed widely in a planned way to carry out subversive activities to destabilize the law and order situation.
They say that spreading these rumours using Facebook was a cybercrime.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia claimed that they had collected the CCTV footage and experts from cybercrime unit were analysing those.
He hoped they would be able to find out the miscreants and bring them to book soon, he added.