Bangladesh teen protests are proof that politics is not the preserve of adults

Student-led mass protests in Dhaka challenge the notion that political consciousness begins at adulthood.

Nusrat Chowdhury
17 August 2018


A student at a protest in Dhaka demanding road safety and justice for the killing of two students in a road accident. Image: Md Rafayat Haque Khan/Zuma Press/PA Images

In early August, the prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina found herself in the unusual position of having to publicly urge thousands of protesting children to return to school. A fatal but common traffic accident, in which two teenagers were killed by a speeding bus near Dhaka’s international airport on 29 July, spurred over a week of demonstrations. Hasina’s appeal, which was duly ignored, belongs to a tradition of political thought that usually reserves the serious business of politics for “fully developed” adults. Pedagogical institutions like the school and the home are considered the rightful places for children – not the streets of Dhaka.

The protesting students did not resort to retaliatory violence, as often happens in expressions of public frustrations in the subcontinent, but took the exceptional and ironic path of setting examples of good governance. They checked vehicles for valid drivers’ licenses, reported expired paperwork to on-duty police officers, and even managed traffic flow. They also demanded nine reforms from the government, which include severe punishment for reckless driving, the construction of footbridges over busy roads and proper paperwork for all vehicles. Lastly, they called for an apology from the minister of shipping, Shahjahan Khan, whose now infamous and seemingly callous smiles at a press conference following the accident drew widespread flak and calls for resignation.

The government initially tried to ride out the protest by formally accepting the legitimacy of students’ demands, but eventually changed strategies when this did not assuage the students. The end of the protest saw some brutal acts of violence being unleashed on the protestors by vigilante groups, allegedly pro-government student activists armed with rods and machetes and shielded by helmets. The police either stood by or joined in on the action. The government’s information minister Hasanul Huq Inu justified the violence by claiming that this last stage of the students’ protests had been “infiltrated” by the opposition party, and thereby, politicised – a well-worn official ploy to delegitimise just demands.

Students spilled onto the streets in Dhaka, shutting down major roads in protest

Students spilled onto the streets in Dhaka, shutting down major roads in protest. Image: Asivechowdhury (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This is not the first time that traffic negligence has led to public outrage in Bangladesh. A popular film star, Ilias Kanchan started a movement for safe roads in the early 1990s when his wife was killed in an accident. He won the Ekushey Padak, a prestigious national award for his activism. In 2011, the internationally lauded film director, Tareque Masud and the renowned cinematographer, Mishuk Munier, also died in a car accident. It prompted the rebuilding of some parts of a notorious highway and the installation of more traffic signs.

There is something qualitatively different about the August protests from those that have come before, however. It is perhaps safe to say that never before have children – understood both in legal and cultural terms – managed to bring a city to a screeching halt. As a consequence, they suffered aggression from an ostensibly democratic government that has clearly misjudged the potential of the wrath of its young. Bangladeshi children, one might say, are no longer simply objects of policy and state patronage, they can also be political subjects and hence political targets.

One source of the current stand-off is the minister of shipping, Shahjahan Khan, now of the infamous-smile reputation. Khan is also the executive president of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Federation. There is a direct conflict of interest here. The control of the transportation sector, a notoriously corrupt one, also ensures hefty kickbacks and cheap political muscles. The children are onto this as is almost any conscious citizen of Bangladesh. 

Out on the street, the school uniforms of the children revealed their age and set them apart. They were not crowds of anonymous people, a vital resource in both official and oppositional shows of strength in a country where street demonstrations are an integral part of political bargaining. But their uniforms also made students into easy targets of an eventual violent response.

Childhood is hard to idealise in a country where social and economic differences are stark. The legal working age is 14, and yet, millions of under-age children work in the sprawling informal economy as domestic workers, day laborers or helpers in passenger buses. But in public discourses and developmental policies, childhood is still projected as a state devoid of any political consciousness and children are taken out of the utilitarian calculus of electoral gain.

And yet, they have managed to rattle those in power. With the national elections approaching – they are currently scheduled for December 2018 – a nervous Bangladeshi state has gone all out to silence its critics, both on the street and online. In recent years, there have been crackdowns in response to spontaneous demands for equitable distribution of energy, higher factory wages, environmental justice, or reforms to the educational quota system.

Violence, threats, and fear-mongering by the state have necessarily made trust into a rare commodity. It is no surprise that the students did not heed the prime minister's call to go back to school. It might seem odd that a government that prides itself on authorising major transportation schemes including a multimillion-dollar metro rail project, should be worried about school children asking for concessions on travel fares and speed breakers. The students’ rallying cry, “We want justice”, partly explains why. The concern for road safety signaled insecurities in other sectors of public and private lives, from unsafe transportation to concern about corruption that goes to the heart of widespread inequality. 

At the same time, it is telling that a traffic violation has brought students to the streets. Infrastructure, globally, has become the cause and context for collective protests. From pre-paid water meters in Soweto to driver’s licenses in Dhaka, citizens are voicing their grievances by targeting state projects of development and governance, thus enacting a new form of technopolitics.

The use of naked force and clumsy public relations rather than serious engagement with rightful public demands only expose the anxiety of an administration unsure of its popularity and staying power. People in Bangladesh and elsewhere are watching intently. A new model for future political mobilisations may just be shaping up in the crowded streets of Dhaka.

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