Student protests for road safety in Bangladesh took a violent turn this weekend as police fired tear gas and used batons in an attempt to disperse protests demanding safer roads and justice for two students that had been killed in a road accident.
The protests began on July 29, after a bus racing for passengers killed two college students, Diya Khanam Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib, and injured several others. Up to 15,000 students participated in the protests, taking an active stance in response to the dismissive one bus companies and other authorities had used in responding to their concerns.
“33 people died in India recently, but they (Indians) don’t complain about it as we do,” shipping minister Shajahan Khan said, referring to the road crash at the Secretariat last weekend in India.
Roads in Dhaka are “a web of gridlock and chaos.” Global News reports that “Unlicensed drivers, unregistered vehicles and speeding buses are commonplace, police corruption is rife and traffic enforcement often nonexistent.”
Furthermore, the buses in Dhaka, which are operated by competing private companies are often prone to accidents as they race to reach waiting passengers first.
As reported by the Dhaka Tribune, at least 4,284 people were killed and 9,112 others injured in 3,472 road accidents across Bangladesh in 2017, the main cause for accidents being reckless driving, employing unskilled drivers, and lack of law enforcement to stop unfit vehicles.
A 10th grade Bangladeshi student reported hearing one driver say, “Bro, don’t use the emergency lane. They aren’t the police that you can bribe them with money. They are the students. They are working even though it isn’t their duty.”
Students, frustrated with the status quo, refused to back down despite the violent response from pro-government student unions and authorities.
Students issued nine demands and have reportedly started enforcing traffic laws on their own. They set up blockades to check licenses and registration of vehicles, including those of top officials.
In response, authorities turned to violence and suspending internet services all of Saturday night in an attempt to placate the situation on social media after footage of violence began to circulate social media.
“It feels so unfair that they have slowed down our internet because now we can’t even speak up about what’s happening. We can’t share what is going on. We are being forced to keep our mouths shut,” a Bangladeshi student said. “But I think if we students stick together, we can do anything we put our minds into.”
For many students, the protests are not only a fight for the safety of their roads, but also a fight for the safety of their rights. For Bangladeshi students and citizens, the hazardous road conditions are symbolic of the corruption and lack of governance present in their country.
With powerful officials owning private bus companies or relying on its workers for political support, the transportation sector are often above the law, bribing police to get out of deadly accidents. Student protestors also accused the government of blocking free speech when Internet speeds were lowered in an attempt to prevent them from uploading photos and videos to social media.
“Three days ago, my friend told me all the students in Bangladesh are standing up for justice,” former Bangladeshi student Mehrin Ashraf said. “They are protesting with peace to make roads safer for everyone. I smiled inside but I didn’t want to post anything about it. Two days ago, my friend sent me pictures of how well the students of Bangladesh were handling the street.”
Ashraf said the before and after photos of the student protestors’ progress looked too good to be true.
“I felt proud inside but I didn’t post anything about it. One day ago, my friend sent me more pictures of how we are changing Bangladesh. I felt home again, but I didn’t post anything. 12 hours ago, my friend sent some pictures that broke my heart. The government is sending people to kill the students. Four guys killed, four girls raped, 50 students injured, and more than 50 girls are threatened with rape. This is happening right now. These are my superheroes. They don’t wear capes. They wear uniforms.”
Mehrin Ashraf contributed to the reporting for this article.