Howsoever one tries to explain it, the death of Dia and Rajib, the two students of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College, on the Airport Road ten or so fateful days ago, can never be called an “accident”. Accidents are accidental. This, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s metaphor, was more of a “death foretold”—a tragic finale to a grisly chain of impunity and mis-governance that is blighting our roads and road transportation and indeed our collective future. For a country aspiring to Middle Income status, it is shocking how backward the state of road governance is and the types of impunity and mis-governance tolerated, no indeed, spawned by the system.
The road transport sector has seen phenomenal growth over the forty-five plus years of our existence but has done so without the benefit of any sound and credible legal and governance system. Roads and transports have multiplied. So have potholes, injuries, inconveniences and corruption. We have endured the road anarchy sometimes in anger but mostly in silence, but our concerns and agonies have mattered little to those who matter. As economists, we have celebrated our resilience, but on the roads, resilience has increasingly felt like an empty word covering up the true state of affairs which is helplessness.
For five extraordinary days, driven by the wanton deaths of their peers, young girls and boys from all types of educational institutions through their spontaneous “classes” of civic governance on the roads broke through the corrosive mood of helplessness and resignation. They created an exhilarating spectacle of holding authority and people alike to account. Demanding traffic discipline from vehicles and pedestrians, checking licenses, handing defaulters both mighty and commoner to standby police, creating emergency lanes, assisting the elderly—it was as if a veil had been lifted on what was possible. The series of placards the students spontaneously made up to sustain their “classes” of civic governance exhibited astonishing creativity and vision. The immediate focus was on road governance but the larger focus was on correcting the impunity and mis-governance that has made the road anarchy an inevitability.
Alas, it was not to last. The “authorities” were initially responsive to the upfront demand for road safety but became increasingly uneasy with the deeper demand of systemic reforms that would strike at the impunity and mis-governance underpinning road anarchy. The political leaders within and outside the government controlling the associations of owners and workers struck back first by imposing an unjust and unwarranted transport “strike” on the people and the economy. The excuse they cited—lack of security—was transparently unfounded. Their aim instead was more transparent—to thwart the demand for an end to impunity by inconveniencing the people and businesses without an end in sight. The government sadly found no cause to act against such economic anarchy. Nor did it find it necessary to undertake any initiatives or measures that would reassure and convince a sceptical student community and a sceptical public that their deeper anguish had been understood, heard and respected.
All civic movements pass through “moments” when the phase of moral innocence is either heard and steered towards a win-win outcome or begins to be seen as a power-play, and zero-sum political calculations trump all other considerations. At this crucial turning point, the wisdom required for a win-win outcome was found severely wanting. Instead, the arrogance and intolerance of power and the murky machinations of zero-sum politics established its brutal and shocking sway on the streets. After five fateful days of a liberating moral mission, the shocked students found themselves on the receiving end of street thugs and police action. Senior peers of the students, those from universities public and private, stung by the completely unjust turn of events, responded with solidarity but they too faced the wrath of police and, allegedly, affiliated bodies of the ruling party. The belligerent police action and threatening attitude of the authorities continue.
For its part, the government contended that its political opponents had infiltrated the student movement with malafide intentions. That is for the government to prove and prove convincingly. But some facts and timelines are overwhelmingly established by virtue of first-person accounts both from the media and from the public. Journalists covering the crackdown on the students on August 5 and 6 were brutally assaulted by helmet-wearing gangs, allegedly from ruling party affiliated bodies, acting visibly alongside the police. On those nights and days, Dhaka in 2018 faced the unthinkable reality where to be a student was to be in fear with many reportedly sustaining injuries. Dr Shahidul Alam, acclaimed photographer and civic activist, was arrested for providing photographic accounts of the assaults on students and journalists and for voicing his independent views on the prevailing situation. A number of university students, around 22 by most accounts, are in police custody and allegedly face bodily harm. The education minister has bluntly refused the request of the vice-chancellors to announce a general amnesty for students caught up in the protests, a massive missed opportunity to restore a measure of calm and confidence to an extremely unsettled situation. All of the above are indisputable facts and point towards an assault on the moral mission of ending impunity that a new generation of youth had dared to initiate.
For now, the situation has seemingly returned to normal. Individuals caught up in carrying forward the daily business of life cannot afford to dwell too long on the missed chances of a win-win outcome. The government and the ruling group has demonstrated its political prowess. But at what cost? The society is hurting internally, the depths of which only future will tell. As a father of three young daughters, I am deeply anguished to see a traumatised youth. The trauma is not from bodily harm per se but from a sense of bewilderment, a sense of loss of moral compass, of what values Bangladesh stands for. They had wanted to breathe new life into the dream of a just society free from the burdens of impunity. Instead, their moral mission fell victim to the cruel twists of zero-sum politics.
My heart yearns to comfort my young friends in their trauma as it yearns to comfort Shahidul in his unjust internment and the injured journalists and the interned students. Will the political leadership look beyond their zero-sum political calculations and realise the moral abyss the society has been pushed into? Will they end the unjust predicaments of Shahidul, injured journalists and interned students and re-engage on conciliation and address society’s internal hurt? I had wanted to be angry but for the moment, I am overtaken only by deep sadness. Bangladesh’s destiny cannot be one where impunity reigns supreme.
Hossain Zillur Rahman is an economist and political scientist.
Source: The Daily Star.