On Saturday, July 29, a speeding bus ran over a group of students waiting on the side of the road in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Two students died. Ten others were critically injured. And a protest was launched that, at least for a few days, dramatically changed the flow of traffic in a country where some 20,000 people die in road accidents each year – and where drivers of buses, cars and rickshaw cycles disregard lanes and rules in a crazy quilt of intermingling vehicles. What’s more, some drivers may not even have a license.
But the government pushed back, with reports of police attacks on the students. In the end, the impact of the fledgling revolution is unclear.
It all began on the day of the accident. Thousands of high school and college students started taking to the streets of the city of about 18 million. But they weren’t just protesting. Schoolchildren as young as seventh graders spread out across Dhaka, stationing themselves to direct traffic and make sure vehicles stayed in their lanes.
“We separated each side of the road into three lanes,” says Mahtab Rashid, a 18-year-old protester. “On the far left for the rickshaws, then for cars, and the far right for emergency lanes. Whenever a rickshaw tried to overtake another rickshaw we stopped them.”
In some areas the students managed to clear a lane just for ambulances, which is rare in the city.
At traffic stops, the protesters would ask drivers to show a license. If the driver did not have one, they would insist that the driver park and return with a license. In some neighborhoods, the traffic police was called to issue a ticket before the driver could leave with their vehicle.. To keep traffic moving, the students would write “OK” on a car, or use a sticky note, if the license was in order. After a while, protesters say, many drivers would put their papers on the dashboard to keep things moving.
There were reports of chaos as well. According to the Dhaka Tribune, “many vehicles were vandalized and some torched, bringing the capital to its knees as public transport went off the streets.”
The students, many of them teenagers, had demands for the government. They asked for the resignation of the shipping minister for his insensitive remarks on the deaths. (Asked to comment about the bus accident, he reportedly said, “”A road crash has claimed 33 lives in India’s Maharashtra; but do they talk about it the way we do?”)
The students also issued a nine-point demand to ensure road safety.
The mayor of Dhaka did in fact announce a new plan to reduce bus accidents. And the driver of the bus that hit the students was reportedly arrested.
But there was another sort of government response: accusations that the protests are an opposition ploy to “make the government inoperative.” The protests erupted at a tricky time for the government. General elections are scheduled for January 2019. The current ruling party has been in power since 2009 after a violent and tumultuous election in 2014.
In addition, the police and other groups reportedly assaulted dozens of students.
Munia Tanjim, a 17-year-old high schooler, was one of many students attacked this past Saturday, seven days after the protests began. She says that men carrying sticks and machetes ran toward a group of protesters. She fled to a store, where a shopkeeper offered a safe haven.
“I’d never before seen anything like this,” Tanjim says. “We’re high school students, we’re not partisan. The way they beat us was as though we’re not humans. How could they do this? We’re missing meals, we’re lying to our parents to sneak out of home to attend these protests and they’re beating us.”
According to local media reports some of the attackers were members of the government’s youth wing, known as Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL).
There was also one high-profile police action. On Sunday, August 5, renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who spoke with Al Jazeera on the issue, was arrested by a group of more than 30 plainclothesmen and taken into custody for seven days “because he used electronic media to instigate disorder in the country and spread fabricated information and rumours via social media,” local media reported. Reporters Without Borders said that Alam’s arrest and attacks on other journalists covering the protests marked a “dark day for press freedom.”
The Dhaka Metropolitan Police did not respond to requests for comment.
The public had a variety of reactions to the student takeover of the streets. Jannatul Akbar, who was driving her mother to the hospital for a follow-up after a surgery the previous day, faced delays caused by the protests. But she did not complain. “I was happy because they were making a point by showing how things should be and doing it very politely,” she told this correspondent. Once she explained that she was taking her mother to the hospital, the students cleared a lane for them to get there quicker.
But this week the spirit of the protests has begun to fade.
The government has asked asking local news not to report on the student campaign on the grounds that it would “incite panic.” Since Sunday, police have arrested four people for sharing “provocative” content on social media in posts that supported the student protests.
And student demands are largely unmet. On Monday, the government increased the maximum punishment for reckless drivers from three years to five; the students had demanded it be increased to death penalty. And the minister who made the remarks they found objectionable is still in office.
Some protesters are no longer optimistic about the prospect of change.
“Everything went back to the way it was, even bad traffic,” Rashid told this correspondent on Tuesday evening.
Samira Sadeque is a New York-based Bangladeshi journalist reporting on migration, gender and mental health. You can follow her @Samideque.