Students’ rage brings Dhaka to a standstill

A week ago, Diya Khanam and other college students were waiting for transport on a busy road in Dhaka. A bus loomed on the scene and ploughed into the crowd. Diya and a fellow student died instantly.

They ended up on a long list of road crash victims in a country, where reckless driving is blamed for about 3,000 road fatalities so far this year, but their deaths galvanised a broader protest — first in Dhaka and then in other parts of Bangladesh. Protests lurched from one day into another after July 29, the fatal day for the two students.

Initially, the students blockaded the road where the two died until the police stepped in and drove them away. Protesters then spread out across the city to shame errant drivers in public. They launched a vigilance campaign across Dhaka to stop vehicles and check licences.

As the instant protests morphed into a popular campaign for safe roads, more students poured into Dhaka’s streets, bringing the entire city to a standstill. Transport company owners pulled buses from services for “security reasons”. Commuters were left in the lurch. Many walked miles to work.

Mohammad Ikram, a Dhaka-based student, was seen intercepting cars for licence checks on the road past the Ramna Park. “We want discipline on the roads. Those who break traffic rules must be punished,” said Mr. Ikram. He and his fellow protesters made nine demands, including punishment to the drivers responsible for the deaths of the two students, footbridges for students to cross streets, speed breakers in all accident-prone areas and discounted fares for students.

The death of two students in a road accident in Dhaka has triggered a massive protest by students demanding safer roads. In response, the government is fast-tracking a new transport law

On August 1, student protesters reminded a Minister of traffic rules for driving on the wrong side of a road as he was heading home after a Cabinet committee meeting. Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed was seen in video footage getting down from his BMW car and trying to explain why he chose the wrong side of the road, but the students were unmoved. They shouted a slogan — “The law is equal to everyone”. Some of them squatted in front of the car as others closed in on the Minister, forcing him to drive back. A day later, a group of students intercepted a car used by Water Resources Minister Anwar Hossain Manju and discovered that his chauffeur was driving without a licence. The Minister later explained to the Dhaka Tribune that the driver was deployed by the government and was not his personal driver.

New transport law

As the protests spread, Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid called for calm and ordered all schools, colleges and other educational institutions shut on August 2 in an effort to subdue the protests. But the students defied the calls and returned to the streets amid monsoon rain and resumed their unique licence checks. Meanwhile, the government fast-tracked a transport law, scaling up punishment for delinquent drivers with no licences to a maximum of six months in jail or a 50,000 taka fine or both. The draft law is on its way to Parliament.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina donated 2 million taka each in financial assistance to the families of the two dead students. After a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Jahangir Fakir, father of Diya Khanam, urged the protesters to leave the streets and go home. “I believe we will get justice,” the man, himself a bus driver, told reporters. However, as the day wore on, there was no sign of letting up. Thousands were still on the road with the same demand — “We want safe roads”.

Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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