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Students fighting for safe roads in Bangladesh test Sheikh Hasina’s patience before polls

S. N. M. Abdi

Published: Updated:

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has successfully pushed the country’s opposition into a corner but defiant students – including schoolchildren – protesting over road deaths are proving a real handful.

The agitators – hailed as “heroes in school uniform” – took to the streets after two students were crushed to death on July 29 by a speeding bus on a busy Dhaka road.

From the predominantly Muslim nation’s capital, the protests spread to other cities like wildfire engulfing the whole country notorious for reckless driving which has already claimed 3,000 lives this year alone.

The scale of the demonstrations for 10 days and popular support for school and college students braving tear gas, rubber bullets and attacks by pro-government mobs to teach the transport mafia and politicians a lesson has badly shaken Hasina’s ruling Awami League party ahead of the general elections due in December.

Long stand-off

The long stand-off is denting the government’s standing and sullying Hasina’s image as an able and experienced administrator with two successive terms under her belt.

The US Embassy in Dhaka and Amnesty International are openly criticizing what they call the Hasina government’s “violent crackdown” on agitators. Intriguingly, out-going American ambassador, Marcia Bernicat’s car was attacked in a Dhaka neighborhood soon after she urged Bangladesh to rein in its police.

Bangladeshi police stand guard during a student protest in Dhaka on August 5, 2018. (AFP)
Bangladeshi police stand guard during a student protest in Dhaka on August 5, 2018. (AFP)

Appeals by Hasina to students to return to the classroom have not been heeded, underlining her ebbing authority. Internet services have been shut down to bring the situation under control but anarchy still prevails under the government’s nose.

Amid national and international condemnation of the use of force against young protestors, Hasina has accused the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islam Bangladesh and Hizb ut Tahrir of deploying its cadres alongside students for setting buses on fire and attacking law enforcers, but the festering unrest reveals that she is not fully in control.

Capital punishment

The government’s nervousness is evident from its willingness to even introduce capital punishment “if an investigation finds that the death in a road accident has been caused deliberately”.

The Transport Act 2018 raising rigorous imprisonment for reckless driving from three to five years has been approved by the cabinet in a tearing hurry. Such is the desperation to restore normalcy because many parts of the country are paralyzed as bus operators have suspended services due to students’ protests.

On an average, 4,000 die in road accidents in Bangladesh each year. In 2017, the toll was 4200 – 25 percent more than the previous year. The World Bank rates Bangladesh as one of the most accident prone countries of the world.

Hasina’s son, Joy Wajed, had recently branded US ambassador in Dhaka, Marcia Bernicat, a “BNP spokesperson” after she criticized the government’s handling of recent by-polls. She appears to have infuriated her hosts again by speaking up for student demonstrators.

The attack on Bernicat’s car, which however left the envoy unscathed, is being attributed to her tweet that while the US did not condone “senseless property destruction … nothing can justify the brutal attacks and violence against the thousands of young people who have been peacefully exercising their democratic rights in supporting a safer Bangladesh.”