Who are the helmet bahini?
They come wearing helmets, brandishing machetes and sticks; they vandalise, they kill, and then they are gone, even beyond the long arms of the law. This could be an apt one-liner description of the notorious "helmet bahini," who emerge to support politically-connected student activists fighting law enforcers, journalists, common protesters, and most recently the New Market shop owners and the unfortunate pedestrians who were entrapped in the bloodbath on April 19, in the New Market area.
One of the casualties of the recent bloody clashes between the students of Dhaka College and traders in the New Market area was 19-year-old Nahid Mia, a deliveryman for a computer shop in Elephant Road. His only fault: he happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. A picture published by this daily shows Nahid lying motionless on the ground, while a "helmet bahini" goon donning a black helmet hacked at him with a machete. The graphic photo show at least nine other helmet-wearing men witnessing the macabre torture on Nahid that led to his death.
Finally adopting a proactive strategy, law enforcement officials have identified some of the attackers of Nahid. The man who had been seen hacking at Nahid has been primarily identified as Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) activist, Zakir. According to a report published in this daily, a Dhaka College student named Kaiyum had initially hit Nahid. One of Zakir's accomplices in a yellow helmet has been identified as Sujon Islam, a resident of Room 101 of the North Hall of the college.
Many of the other attackers have also been primarily identified, mostly associated with BCL in various capacities. BCL General Secretary Lekhak Bhattacharjee denied the involvement of any activists from the student wing of the ruling party in Nahid's murder, however. "We are sure that no Chhatra League man was involved in the killing," this daily quoted Bhattacharjee as claiming. In the context of such confident denials, one feels unsure what to believe: concrete evidence revealing the killer's identity or a responsible individual's statement.
In this case, perhaps one might rest their hopes in the ability and neutrality of law enforcement officials to apprehend the criminals. The photos and videos that journalists have been able to capture during the clashes, along with the CCTV footage supply enough evidence to identify the culprits. However, this hope can only be measured and cautious, as in the past they resulted only in sheer disappointment.
The helmet bahini did not make its debut during the recent New Market clashes. Rather, their capacity to inflict violence featured prominently during the Road Safety Movement, swooping in on the protesting students (school students, who can be called children) and journalists, beating them up with brutal force, striking terror in the hearts of the witnesses. All the while, the police did little to stop them. Just like the police took two and half hours to intervene in the case of the New Market clashes.
It is interesting to note here that, although BCL denies even knowing the helmet bahini members who have been identified over the last few years, whenever the Awami League student front is in the field, it is the dreaded band of helmet-wearing miscreants that come to their aid, taking their side, beating up the opponents to disperse them. A similar situation also unfolded during the Quota Reform Movement, when innocent students were viciously attacked and beaten up by BCL activists at various campuses across the country, and it was the helmet bahini that unleashed their horror to aid the brutality of the BCL men.
While the BCL has from time to time disowned the helmet bahini activists—after all, who would want to take ownership of such a reckless, violent force?—the repeated interventions of the helmet bahini in BCL's fights and in their favour raise the obvious question: Is the helmet bahini supporting BCL as an auxiliary but unacknowledged force? This could be BCL's new strategy. And this is also a convenient arrangement for BCL, since it does not look nice if their activists are seen attacking people in daylight.
And if this is indeed the case, it bodes ominous portents for the future of student politics in Bangladesh. One has to admit that student politics as the Bangalees have known since the early 1950s has changed over the decades. The nature of student politics today no longer reflects or pays any form of respect to its glorious legacy. The role that the students had played in the Language Movement and the Liberation War, and even in the restoration of democracy in the early 90s, is now confined to only history records.
Student politics is no longer about patriotism, justice or equity. Now it revolves around greed for money, lust for power and vested interests of various groups, which are not necessarily always political. And whether the BCL acknowledges helmet bahini activists as their associates or not, the fact that student politics has metamorphosed into an eternal cycle of violence cannot be denied. And the inability of the law enforcement agencies to bring these culprits to justice is aggrandising their already inflated egos. Has justice been served in the cases of the Road Safety Movement or the Quota Reform Movement? No. But had justice been served, the helmet bahini might not have resorted to such violence in the New Market clashes.
It is also high time the ruling party revisited the changed nature and strategy of its student political wing. Violence, oppression, intimidation and violation of law in the name of student politics cannot be allowed to continue. Also, the rotten elements should be plucked out from the BCL and tossed into the hands of the law enforcers, in order to restore the former ethos and values of this student body and overall student politics. Activists of today's student politics are going to lead the political parties tomorrow; they will be the future leaders who will hold the reins of the nation. Therefore, we must be extra careful as to whom we are allowing to be part of student politics. We certainly do not want violent goons and henchmen to run the nation tomorrow. To prevent that, actions must be taken now.b
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb