They are not voters, yet

Ayesha Kabir | Update:

Student protest demanding safe roads. Photo: Farjana LiakatMove over millennials, Generation Z is here! And perhaps this is being felt in Bangladesh more than anywhere else in the world at the moment. The recent road safety movement brought this generation of conscious pre-teens and teens, hardly reaching their twenties, to the forefront of the national scene. They are vibrant, bold, conscientious and unshackled by the political bias and social restraints that invariably arrive with age.

Technically speaking, Gen Z is the demographic generation that comes after the millennials, who were also known as Gen Y. Generation Z loosely ranges in age somewhere between 12 to 20, born anywhere from the mid 1990’s to the mid 2000’s.
The young millennial generation or the pre-millennials had been moulded by the inevitable influence of contemporary history and political evolutions. Take for example the Shahbagh youth who created the Ganajagaran Mancha, fired by the fervour of the liberation war and determined that the war criminals be hanged. The spirit of Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war had been reignited in them and drummed up public support for the hanging of the collaborators of the war crimes. As Awami League was in power at the time and the AL government had initiated the trial of those accused of crimes against humanity, there was a propensity to equate the Shahbag-ers with the ruling coterie (although the rabble-rousing leader of the group, Imran Sarkar, later had a falling out with the government and the ruling party).
More recently, there was the ‘quota movement’. This was a movement demanding reforms in the quota system which applied to public service, that is, government jobs. This protest movement was spurred on mostly by university students and new graduates on the verge of entering the job market. They felt meritocracy was being stifled by the surfeit of quotas – quotas for freedom fighters, for the offspring of freedom fighters and even for the grandchildren of freedom fighters (note the sudden surge of applications for freedom fighter certificates even by those hardly out of the cradle in ’71!), and of course quotas for minority groups and others in disadvantaged brackets of society. The protestors did not want to abolish the quota system, per se, but wanted it to be reformed so that meritorious students passing out from universities and other institutions had a chance to avail a place in the civil service. This movement was obviously a realistic one, given the burgeoning numbers of unemployed youth as well as a marked qualitative void in the bureaucracy. In fact, the demands were logical enough for the government to take these into consideration and amend the quota system to a certain extent (to the inevitable chagrin of certain groups who are now agitating for reinstatement of their quotas. You can’t please all of the people all of the time!)
The biggest impact this year was perhaps made by the protests for road safety. And the protestors were the youngest by far. They were members of Gen Z, school children hardly in their teens. Road accidents have been frequent in Bangladesh and there have been intermittent protests now and then, but inevitably to no avail. Then, not long ago, when a bus swerved into two young students on the roadside and killed them, that was the last straw. Schoolchildren took to the streets in anger, grief and protest. If the grownups couldn’t do anything about the mayhem on the roads and highways, then they would.
The youngsters’ demonstrations were different. They rallied, agitated and protested, but they didn’t go around damaging public property, setting fire to vehicles or resorting to any form of violence. They had carefully looked into the cause of the accidents – unskilled drivers, unlicenced drivers, jaywalking, unfit vehicles, violation of the traffic laws and so on. And their movement addressed those issues in a pragmatic manner. They stopped buses, trucks and other vehicles, checking licences and reporting to the police if licences were not valid or the drivers didn’t have licences or if the car papers were not in order. They stopped cars driving on the wrong side of the road. A powerful minister even had to turn around and drive back the wrong way when the children halted his vehicle. They prevented pedestrians from jaywalking and made sure they used the zebra crossing or the overhead footbridges. Was that taking the law into their own hands? Yes, perhaps, it was. And the police at times were by their side, cooperating. And citizens from all walks of life backed them. University students joined in but then things turned ugly.
Goons of the ruling party student and youth wings swooped down on the demonstrators, beating them up, wounding them. Arrests were made, but of the innocent protestors, not of the attackers. Demonstrations were dispersed. Eventually the children, after being given assurances that steps would be taken to ensure road safety, went back home and to their classrooms. The movement was over but it has left an indelible mark.
It took these very young ones to point out to the public, to the police, to the government and all their authorities that be, that the chaos on the streets could be managed, a little care could go a long way to cutting down on the fatal road accidents on the streets and highways. It reminded one of the days when the military was at the helm. People would say it takes khaki and boots to keep the traffic in line. But the children proved that it doesn’t take military might to restore order to the traffic-laden roads. It takes commitment, determination and perseverance to set things straight.
These young ones took to the streets with the boldness of the very young. They were not revolutionaries. They were not rebelling against order. They were demanding order, they were demanding discipline on the streets, they were demanding safe roads.
The marked characteristic of these young ones were that they were not political in the least and didn’t feel the need to prove their neutral stance. Even the ‘quota reformers’ carried portraits of Bangabandhu simply to assure the authorities that they were not anti-government. But the young ones didn’t bother to use any such buffer. After all, they were absolutely apolitical. Even so, elements in the ruling Awami League accused them of being a part of the political opposition’s anti-government movement. BNP and other political parties did indeed try to cash in on their success at shaking the government, something which the powerful politicians had failed to do. But these Gen Z kids were impervious to such political machinations. They were focussed on their cause and knew when and where to draw the line.
It’s over now and the streets may be back to the normal state of abnormality, but the young ones have left their mark. An adult was even heard to have remarked, “When the elections come around, we need these young children to come out again and make sure that the votes can be cast freely and that there is no rigging or forceful stamping of the ballot papers!” The statement may have been made in jest, but there is an underlying message there. These children may not be 18 as yet, they may not be voters yet, but their time is coming. They are expected to be discerning voters taking no nonsense from the politicians and the political parties. So political players beware, Gen Z is here!

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