Never since the upheaval at Shahbag Square (February 2013) has Bangladesh witnessed so virulent an expression of student power, and for more than a week.
Dhaka has been thrown out of joint by school students in the main; the younger generation has been shrilling for stringent road safety rules and action against reckless bus drivers in the aftermath of a road accident that killed two teenagers.
It is pretty obvious that the spirited movement, ignited four months before the national elections, has had a critical impact on the authorities, if the response of the government since last Sunday is any indication.
Pre-eminently, Prime Minister Begum Hasina has advanced a robust appeal to the students to call off the disruptive movement, and “return home”. That appeal, thus far, has had no effect on the furious school students.
On closer reflection, a fatal road accident would scarcely have sparked the intense fury that it has. The students would appear to have bared their angst against governance per se.
Beyond the mishap, there is little doubt that the fury has been seemingly targeted against the establishment, beleaguered as it is over the lack of Teesta waters, the killing of rationalists, and now India’s National Citizens Register that envisages the eviction of post-March 1971 entrants of Bangladeshis into Assam. One emotive issue has piled on another in several segments of national life, and Dhaka’s killers on wheels have only brought matters to a head.
The raging agitation by teenagers has dealt a crippling blow to the country’s capital, compelling the authorities to examine the feasibility of introducing the death penalty for drivers who “deliberately cause road deaths”.
It has approved a new road safety law in the wake of violent chashes between the demonstrators and the police. That said, it begs the question whether it was really necessary for the law-enforcement authorities to go on overkill by firing teargas and using water-cannons against university students who were marching in procession.
No one denies that the latter have been holding the capital to ransom, to the extent that the convoy of the US Ambassador to Bangladesh was attacked last weekend.
On balance, both the students and the government have precipitated the crisis and it shall not be easy for Hasina’s Awami League dispensation to shore up the credibility of the government in the perception of the comity of nations.
Is there a political connotation to the movement? At this juncture, Begum Hasina’s claim is at best a matter of conjecture, at worst a sniper attack on her opponents ~ “Saboteurs are donning school uniforms and flaunting I-cards as a third force has appeared to catch fish in troubled waters.”
That generic allusion can be contextualised with Begum Khaleda’s prompt assertion that the BNP is wholly unconnected with the students’ movement. The plot thickens.