History Repeats Itself: Patterns in Dhaka’s Government-Student Conflict

Illustration Courtesy: Aakash Reddy

Horrifying tales of government violence against protesting students in Dhaka found their way onto our Instagram stories and social media feed earlier in August this year. However, this isn’t the first-of-its-kind. In fact, even in April 2018, similar stories of brutal police repression in Dhaka emerged during the student demonstrations to abolish a ‘discriminatory’ freedom fighter quota. As the Dhaka government tries to clean up its current mess with some hasty policy fixes, it’s worth looking back into the past to look for patterns and similarities in previous breakouts of violence (coincidence, I think not).

Public universities (especially Dhaka University) in Bangladesh have been the driving force for student activism in the country, even before it became independent. As a South Asian University study points out, violence erupts only “after university authorities and the government intervene in the resistance movements”. Students seem to be ready to raise their voice for political issues and demand change through (what is meant to be) peaceful protest.

Before Bangladesh’s Independence

After India’s partition in 1947, Bangladesh, as we know it today, was part of Pakistan (known as East Pakistan). Dhaka University students protested when Mohammad Ali Jinnah (the first Governor General of Pakistan) tried to impose Urdu as a national language, even though the language spoken majorly was Bangla. Students gathered at the university to break a government-imposed curfew as a sign of protest. The government shot at students and “conservative figures estimate that 10 or 12 died”. This turned out to be indicative of what would be a continued pattern of violence between the government and Bangladeshi students (although this was pre-independence, as you will soon read, the post-independence story isn’t much different). Eventually, the Pakistan Constituent Assembly was forced to include Bengali as a state language because attempts to crush dissent failed.

The DU students have been an active part of Sheik Mujibur Rahman’s independence movement. He is credited as the founding father of Bangladesh (and is a Dhaka University alumnus, of course). They made an 11-point charter to go along with his demands in 1971. When General Yahya Khan (the last president of East Pakistan, who tried to delay its independence) suspended the National Assembly (bye bye democracy), the Bangladeshi flag was proudly raised for the first time in, you guessed it, the DU campus. Even when Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight (a military operation to curb the Bangladeshi freedom struggle), one of their main objectives was to subdue Dhaka University first and this resulted in the merciless shooting of DU students and teachers, which is another instance of the police resorting to violence.

Illustration Courtesy: Aakash Reddy

2007 Army Camp Protest

Let’s fast forward a bit to independent Bangladesh in August 2007. Dhaka University classrooms were empty, and students were protesting once more. They were on the streets, demanding to have an army camp removed from the gymnasium on their campus. The movement was sparked because of an argument between army personnel and students while watching the soccer match. The students were blocking the view of the army officers and it soon turned ugly when army personnel allegedly abused the students, eventually getting into a fight and injuring the students and their friends.

It became a countrywide student demonstration and demand to withdraw all army camps from all university campuses. Dhaka was under a state of emergency, imposed by a military-backed interim government, which found this a real threat to their authority. The police tried to disperse the peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons. This turned into a full-blown fight with the students retaliating, leaving more than 150 students and 4 policemen injured. 60 students had to be treated at the hospital. Eventually, the government issued an apology and withdrew the army troops from the gymnasium. If they’d worked on a compromise earlier, they could’ve avoided the 150 injured students.

2018 Quota Protests

Earlier this year in April, Dhaka University students were protesting on their campus to reduce reservation quotas for freedom fighters and their kin. The movement started in Dhaka university but soon spread to other universities across the country. They argued that the quotas left empty seats in the reserved category and made the general seats unnecessarily competitive. The argument’s validity is a debate for another day. Whatever the case, the pattern of civilian-government conflict cannot be ignored. The movement started off with peaceful protests and slowly grew, with support pouring in from universities across Dhaka. On April 9th, 2018, the students disrupted traffic at the Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka. As with previous protests, the immediate reaction of the police was to use teargas shells, batons, and water cannons to disperse the protestors. This escalated quickly as the students retaliated with more violence. It took 100 injured students for people to finally notice and the news spread through social media and newspapers quickly.

Recent Road Safety Protests

Coming back to the first week of August, Dhaka’s streets were paralysed by widespread student demonstrations demanding basic road safety. The instigating event was when a speeding bus lost control and rammed into a bus stop, killing two students and injuring many others. The bus is a part of the poorly regulated private sector which has resulted in an everyday F1 race of-sorts on Dhaka’s roads as the buses compete for passengers. The incident spurred a spontaneous movement for road safety and government action, with school and university students blocking roads and creating checkpoints.

The government was patient for a while, but when the movement became larger and more disruptive, they blamed the Opposition for infiltrating the movement and started using violence. As they had done repeatedly before, the government cracked down on the demonstrators with teargas shells and rubber bullets. Rumours of injury, rape, and brutality spread like wildfire and the violence grew on all sides. Social media feeds have been filled with gruesome photos and videos of the attack on students that were participating in road safety demonstrations in Dhaka. As the government has started arresting the people who were sharing the news on social media, the posts continue to ask people to share the story of the attack and the violence because the government is clamping down on the media.

There seems to be an apparent pattern emerging. The politically active students raise their voice against inefficient policy and demand better governance, time and again. A democratic space for disagreement, peaceful assembly and debate with the government is missing. The government hastily responds with violence, which is reciprocated by the students making the situation worse. This seems to be a systematic response to any sort of “threat” to their authority. If a space for discussion and freedom of expression is created, the students can raise their voice and be heard and the government can respond without creating bloodshed and brutality. If the fundamental issues aren’t fixed, nothing can break this cycle. As Steven Denn says, “You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.”