On July 29, after a speeding bus killed two high school students in Dhaka, students across the city began to protest peacefully against the lack of road safety measures. Some of the protestors were as young as six. Few were older than 18.
In the following days, these organic demonstrations grew into a peaceful civil disobedience movement, bringing the Bangladesh capital to a halt and spreading to other parts of the country. After the protests continued for a week, alleged cadres of the ruling Awami League, assaulted the unarmed protestors as well as journalists who were documenting the attacks. In a statement, Human Rights Watch cited witnesses saying that the cadres attacked the protesters with machetes and sticks. The police too used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets on the protestors, said reports. During the chaos that broke out, several suspected members of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition and their allies tried to use the anarchy to their advantage by attempting to appropriate the protests.
Mainstream and citizen journalists, the vast majority of whom were students, were arrested on sedition charges under the draconian Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, said media reports. Similar to Section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act – which was struck down by the Supreme Court of India in 2015 for being vague, untenable and unconstitutional – this statute has proven to be an effective tool of suppression since its enactment by the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government in 2006.
Most prominent among those arrested is Bangladeshi photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam, who was picked up from his home in Dhaka on Sunday night by members of the Detective Branch of the police and charged under the Information and Communication Technology Act. While he was a vocal critic of the crackdown and is renowned worldwide, those who have been, and are being similarly charged, but lack the stature to raise universal concern and condemnation, are in no less jeopardy.
The Bangladesh government had already placed several restrictions on the local media from reporting on the protests. The suspension of mobile internet services last week to prevent protestors from mobilising added to the stranglehold on communication. The information vacuum was filled with government propaganda. Any narrative that deviated from the official story was labelled false and criminal.
The crackdown on the protestors lasted for days and left hundreds injured. Once the protests were neutralised, with the students returning to their classes on August 9, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina disparaged the nascent movement for not being a movement at all, acknowledged that social media, specifically Facebook, was a problem, and visited injured Awami League cadres. She did not extend the same courtesy to the injured students.
Democracy or autocracy?
The ruling Awami League maintains that Bangladesh is a democracy, and that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat coalition and self-seeking members of civil society are to blame for the protests, which were aimed at destabilising the government and, by extension, the country. If this is true, the attack on unarmed students by political workers and the police is an alarming development that warrants independent investigation.
In a democracy, no person or organisation is above the law. In a functioning democracy, the perpetrators of any kind of violence are held to account for their actions, with reparations made to all victims. In an autocracy, however, the law does not apply to law enforcement agencies and government militias, whose violence with impunity furthers the cause of authoritarianism. A further difference between a democracy and an autocracy is that, in a democracy, any claims – even those made by the government – must be supported by evidence to keep the public’s trust. In an autocracy, however, government claims are projected as the only accepted truth, and claims contrary to that are deemed lies regardless of the overwhelming evidence.
It is the Awami League’s actions, not words, that speak of whether Bangladesh is a totalitarian state.
The Bangladesh government has dealt with the protesting students who wanted road safety in the same way as all other dissidents. It initially attempted to placate them by making token arrests and promising to pass a stricter traffic safety law that had remained in parliamentary purgatory for half a decade. Further vague promises about road safety were made, but these need to be seen in light of the government’s recent actions.
Just a few months ago, in April and May, demonstrations by university students that the government reform quotas in government jobs, saw the Awami League promise an outright abolishment only to renege on its word, and retaliate against the students with violence. Moreover, in the current protests, the existence of laws pertaining to road safety is a secondary issue. The larger problem is the complete absence of the rule of law and its implementation in the country.
Silence of the elite
Some people have defended the government action against the protestors. The truth is that the school students who took to the streets inconvenienced the Bangladeshi elite, whom even the government dares not inconvenience. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. The patronage and silence of the elite allows the government to rule with an iron fist, and the government’s patronage and silence allows the elite to increase their economic privileges.
This is perhaps why, when the protesting students could neither be pacified nor their protests appropriated, prominent members and supporters of the Awami League issued veiled threats, which were brought to fruition when students, their supporters, and journalists were brutalised. The government attempted to justify the violence using its well-worn strategy of labelling dissenters “anti-state” and “anti-Liberation” actors seeking to destabilise Bangladesh.
This is not the first time that Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government has responded to dissent by cracking down on citizens, nor is it the first party to do so. Since the turn of the century, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat coalition government of 2001-2006, and the civil society-backed military regime that followed, significantly curbed the fundamental rights of Bangladeshi citizens. If the civil-society backed military regime between 2006-2009 took the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat coalition’s precedent to new extremes, the Awami League has expanded the horizons of authoritarianism that the previous military regime had practiced in the country.
Since it came to power in 2009, indigenous populations, workers, ethnic and religious minorities, environmentally aware citizens, activists of all stripes, and the poor have been met with brute force at the hands of law enforcement agencies and ruling Awami League cadres. Any questioning or criticism – however mild – of the ruling party has been deemed to be anti-state activities, with severe consequences. Sheikh Hasina’s government has perfected this method of dealing with dissent to consolidate absolute, if insecure, power.
The handbook for this was written in 2013, when the Shahbag movement for secularism and justice for war crimes committed during the war for Bangladesh’s liberation, was co-opted by the government, and the radical Islamist counter-movement to establish an Islamic republic was violently repressed.
The Awami League maintains that it is the best of some truly bad options in Bangladesh. While this claim may have been true at one point, it is difficult to take it at face value now. There is mounting evidence that the government has become the very evil that it purports to be the only bulwark against – an evil that the ruling party’s actions are rehabilitating and legitimising.
Silence from India
Bangladesh is due for general elections later this year, or in January 2019. Ahead of the 2013 general elections, the country had seen unprecedented levels of violence in the name of politics, perpetrated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat coalition. At that time, India found the Awami League government more palatable, and extended support to it. This support has not waned five years later, despite the fact that this time, it is the Awami League government that has turned on its citizens. India, which has continued to support the ruling party of Bangladesh, has so far remained silent on the recent violence in the country.
It is, however, becoming clear that Bangladesh’s ruling and elite classes are becoming increasingly unpopular among its citizens. Having signed away its electoral future, the Awami League will either emerge from these latest citizens’ protests as a tyrannical despot, or make way for a regime change. Neither option gives Bangladeshis the hope for a better immediate future.
In his autobiography, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation and the Awami League’s greatest leader, wrote: “The leaders were thereby creating an atmosphere of terror so that nobody would dare criticise the government. The government was assuming that hired goons could stifle people’s demands. That such measures have never succeeded, and would not succeed in this case did not seem to have occurred to them.”
He was referring to the oppressive Pakistani government, before Bangladesh was born out of Pakistan. His party, which rules independent Bangladesh under the leadership of his daughter, should heed his warning.