The first display of people power this century in Bangladesh was at the Ganajagaran Mancha. While the International Crimes Tribunal was conducting the trial of the killers of 1971 and a few verdicts had been passed, a group of youths spontaneously gathered at Shahbagh, with slogans calling for the criminals to be hanged. In no time at all, Shahbagh was teeming with thousands of protestors and the movement spilled over around the entire country. People came forward in support, some bringing water, some food, some flowers, and even the older people joined in. I saw a non-political member of Dhaka Club taking around two hundred boxes of food to the Ganajagaran Mancha in his car. People in West Bengal, Assam and Delhi watched the movement in awe and respect. At their behest, I had to write and speak about the ‘Shahbagh movement’, as they called it.
I differed with the Ganajagaran Mancha on one point. From the outset of the people’s tribunal I had said, we want justice, but we cannot pass the sentence. Those with the responsibility to mete out justice will pass judgement based on their observations. If we are the ones to determine the punishment, will the judges merely pass their verdict in keeping with our demands?
Even so, I turned up at the Ganajagaran Mancha to express my solidarity with them. I explained my difference of opinion, while supporting their cause at the same time. I was amazed at this unorganised outburst of power, I was inspired, my head bowed in respect.
The recent movement against reserved quotas in government service was also an uprising of unorganised power. The protestors steadily grew in strength, initially starting out small and then growing huge in numbers. Even the prime minister acknowledged the justification of their demand.
I was hurt to read in a write-up by Muhammad Zafar Iqbal that at least one of the protestors had worn a T-shirt inscribed with the words ‘ami razakar’ (I am a collaborator). And anyone with good sense would condemn the manner in which the vice-chancellor’s house was vandalised during the movement. But that was a deviation from the movement, not its true face. It was also not correct of them to take up the movement again, after the prime minister’s assurances in parliament. Even so, this did not harm the basic premise of the movement. If a system of the state is unjustified, one can certainly stand up against it for the sake of truth and justice.
Over the past few days we have once against witnessed the uprising of unorganised force. This time the protestors are even younger in age. They are young adults, teenagers, adolescents, children. They joined hands to protest against a reckless driver who killed their fellow students on the street. They mourned, they protested and they raised demands. On the third day of their demands, they tried to bring order to traffic on the streets. They handed over illegal divers to the police, stopped cars without road permits. They were not students of one or two particular schools, but from a large number of schools and colleges in the city. They drew up their demands and handed these over to the authorities.
On the first day of the movement, I too was stuck in the road blockade for a few hours. Many people missed their flights. Many patients were stuck in ambulances on the way to hospital, many elderly people had to walk to their destination. Even so, I did not merely watch this movement in amazement, but also gave it my respect.
There was another common factor among these three uprisings. A number of young people, claiming to be forces in favour of the liberation war, had attacked the Ganajagaran Mancha and tried to destroy it. They failed to do so, but the movement faltered. The mancha may have lost its relevance now, but the way it had been attacked did nothing to enhance the image of the government. In fact, it riled the remaining protestors against the government.
The protestors of the quota reform movement were also brutally attacked by the same group, provoking people to ask whether the right to express difference of opinion had been destroyed in this democratic state and in the university which had given birth to democratic movement in this country.
Will the activists of the road safety movement meet with the same consequences? The home minister has admitted that the students’ demands were justified and so using force against them under any guise would not be acceptable.
Some maintain that it is not the students’ duty to ensure safety of the roads. They may be right, but then in just one day the students revealed the abject failure of those who are in charge of law and order. Even then will our eyes remain shut?
From the 1952 language movement down to the mass uprising of 1969, the rulers termed each and every movement as anti-state. In the sixties, members of the NSF harassed students of the opposition ilk. We all know the consequences.
It is expected that the political opposition will try to use student movements or mass movements to their own advantage. Unless there is empathy for the cause of the movement, and unless there is timely response, they will certainly take advantage of this.
I saw in the news that a mother had taken food for the agitating students. It reminded me of my mother. When the first Shaheed Minar was erected during the language movement, my mother went there with my father and gave the protestors a gold necklace which had belonged to my sister who had passed away. The feelings of these mothers are never buried in the dust. The rising force finds it own path ahead.
* Anisuzzaman is a national professor of Bangladesh. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir