In Dhaka, School Students Are Taking Law and Order Into Their Own Hands

Dhaka: “Mercy?? No mercy today, no mercy tomorrow, no mercy for the next one year. Where was mercy when the two lives were killed? Only mercy to people who will abide rules. Saqib, take this driver to the police.” A tenth grader raised his voice in the middle of a student-led road blockade in Shahbagh. The driver of the offending vehicle walked over to the police and paid the fine for not carrying a driver’s license. The gathered crowd started applauding  –  they created a drop of mercy.

Similar scenes have been playing out around central Dhaka for the past few days, as students have taken to the streets in protest. Their actions are a response to the killing of two innocent people on July 30. Mim, an 11th grader, and Karim, studying in the 12th, were waiting at a bus stop on Airport Road when two buses crashed into the crowd. Both students died on the spot, nine other children were injured.

In Bangladesh, 7,397 were killed in road accidents in 2017 alone, 1,249 of these were from bus accidents. When the press asked shipping minister Shajahan Khan for a comment on the recent deaths, he said, “a road crash has claimed 33 lives in India’s Maharashtra but do they talk about it like the way we do?”

The following day, July 31, enraged youth took charge of Dhaka’s streets.

Since then Dhaka has been covered with hotspots of non-violent, youth-led protest. The children turn up on the streets everyday, demonstrating their endurance as well as the impact of powerful organisation, heartfelt resistance and empathy.

Girls checking that a driver has a valid license. Credit: Tasneem Khalil/Facebook

The main aim of this student-led drive, comprising kids between the ages of 12 and18, all dressed in their school uniforms, is to block all of Dhaka’s main junctions. They are stopping cars, buses and trucks to politely check for drivers’ licenses. If a driver doesn’t have valid license is found, the student protesters take him or her to the police stationed nearby, and file a case. They have taken the issue of traffic safety into their own hands. The protesters have also sent demands to the government  – a nine-point list that asks for strict punishments for currently unregulated traffic crimes, better infrastructure in accident-prone areas and the removal of undocumented/illegal vehicles, among others.

The students’ sincerity and determination is hard to put into words. As one group stops a bus to check for a license, a few others are busy fixing potholes while another group cleans the road; meanwhile, a few others are discussing what needs to be done next. They are organising and collaborating to create change. They know that change is no longer led by one, but by many.

Girls with a sign demanding safer roads, August 1, 2018. Credit: Jenir Anjum Anjila/ Facebook.

Social change today is a team sport. These Dhaka teens know it, and they are playing by new rules: creating spaces where every voice is valuable, where compassion is the backbone of action, where camaraderie is essential. There are often hundreds, even thousands, of students filling the streets, bearing heat and rain with determination, raising slogans in the name of justice.

In one part of the city, students stopped a powerful minister’s car from driving on the wrong side of the road, and forced him to turn around. On Facebook, videos show students stopping policemen on motorcycles to ask for their licenses. If they can’t produce one, they pay a fine like everyone else. No one is exempt from this student policing, because everyone is equal under the law.

Let’s not forget that these are kids. In school uniforms. And they are making wonders happen on the street. They are demanding justice from the adults who have failed them. Over the last few days they have been belittled, soaked, injured and even beaten by authorities. That hasn’t stopped the movement from growing.

Student protests are becoming a force to reckon with across the world. Only a few months ago, Bangladeshi students took to the streets to demand reforms to the university quota system. Overseas, students in the US have organised to protest gun violence and US President Donal Trump’s border separation policy; native American teenagers even sparked a global environmental movement with their efforts. In India, students have protested multiple times in the recent past, from advocating for freedom of speech at Jawaharlal Nehru University to demanding gender equality on the streets of Delhi.

Now, parents, caregivers, teachers, religious leaders (and anyone who engages with kids) must ask themselves how they can help this world’s youth realise their potential. What sorts of support networks and social infrastructure must be put in place to enable today’s students?

Imagine if every young person was as inspired and empowered as the thousands of students on the streets of Dhaka. What would our world look like?

Saurav Roy works as a consultant at Ashoka – Innovators for the Public.