Student activism saved Bangladesh once and it will save it again

7 Aug 2018


In the past week, children as young as 12 have taken to the streets of Bangladesh in a mass protest advocating for road safety. This comes after the death of students Diya Khanam Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib who were both killed in a crash caused by two buses in a race to pick up passengers. There have now been various reports of activists being raped and murdered by persons opposing the protest. The government has failed to support student activists, but history has shown that the success of student activism is around the corner.


With their ID lanyards and backpacks full of books, the students stick out against their opposition. Uniform was once viewed as identifier for what school they attended but is now both symbolic of their bravery and makes them a target in this resistance.


The protest is not only in response to the death of two young people, but as a result of years of negligence by authorities towards road safety in Bangladesh which has led to many deaths. The extent of the issue can be seen daily on the streets of Bangladesh, with stories emerging of children as young as eight being seen driving vehicles without supervision or training.


The activism and bravery shown by the youth of Bangladesh in protest is not unfounded; in fact, Bangladesh has a rich history of youth and student led activism that needs to be acknowledged. The murder and rape of student activists at the hands of a wing in the government party and police in 2018 is also found in events in history. It must be remembered.


In February 1952, students at the University of Dhaka organised a mass protest for the right to retain the Bangla language for education, media and all other purpose in Bangladesh. The premise of this protest was set in 1948, after Urdu was prescribed as the language of East Bengal (later named East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.) This threatened the core of Bangla culture, and removed cultural autonomy entirely from the mass Bangladeshi population settled in East Bengal. Arguably, it was the actions of student activists which prevented this forced cultural assimilation. The students defied the odds and risked imprisonment as the government had Unlawful Assembly (known as Section 144) applied, which prohibited groups from holding public meetings and protest. This was a deliberate attempt to curb mass unrest in response to the Bangla language being prohibited.


The parallels across both protests cannot be ignored. In 1952 the police killed and severely injured many student activists. Mass police brutality was the key reason behind the civil unrest which followed the 1952 protests. The level of violence endured by activists at the hands of officials shaped much of Bangladesh’s history and there are no doubts that the current events will too. As we have seen in 2018, the mass protests have already taken a violent turn with the involvement of police who are using tear-gas and other heinous methods to disengage the protests. There have even been attacks on private universities across Bangladesh, much like the attacks carried out six decades ago at the University of Dhaka.




History has shown us the effectiveness of mass protest in Bangladesh. After all, the Language Movement political protest dismantled the former Pakistan President Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s ‘Urdu and Urdu only’ hard line policy. In his 1948 speech, Jinnah had condemned the use of other languages, arguing that: "Anyone who tries to mislead [you] is merely the enemy of Pakistan. Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function". Jinnah even spoke of political opposition making use of Dhaka students as ‘tools’ in an attempt to undermine his administration. It would be  several years after the end of his term, that Pakistan would grant autonomy to Bangladesh and recognise the Bangla language in its own right. This was namely due to the work of activists pushing for change. 


Like in 1952, students have taken to the streets in protest, but there is a striking difference; the students in 2018 are utilising social media to seek support and widen their protest. A scroll through the #WeWantJustice tag reveals stories that otherwise would have been unheard or dismissed. There are stories just like them from history which we may never hear. Another interesting turn is that the stories had first broken across ‘stan’ Twitter, as there were reports of mass censorship of the incidents in Bangladesh. Stan Twitter is usually the place for super fans of TV shows and celebrities to discuss. However, it has opened itself up to become a political tool, which has helped young Bangladeshi fans communicate their struggles.


As the age of censorship continues in Bangladesh, student activists will continue to defy the odds. The last time it was to preserve the integrity of Bangladeshi culture, this time it’s to save Bangladeshi lives.  

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