A youth forced to censor their thoughts
The last time Awami League was not in power, I was still in primary school. I came into adulthood under the current prolonged reign of this party, and for a long time, I held a positive view of it. Given the opportunity to vote, I probably would have supported AL. During my mid- to late-teens, my perception of the BNP was tainted by memories of arson attacks on buses with passengers still aboard. Mostly it was things I had learned of from the media. The load-shedding problem loomed large, and the efficiency of book distribution in schools had room for improvement. The economy at large also wasn't at its best. Jobs were paying less. In particular, government job holders were so underpaid that the ideal way to go was to seek employment in the private sector.
Once the Awami League came to power, our educational curriculum increasingly emphasised lessons, stories, and history related to the Liberation War, with a particular focus on Awami League's contributions and tales about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This cultivated a sense of national pride in myself and my peers. We cherished the "free country" we enjoyed, thanks to the sacrifices of the martyrs and all those who had played a role for us in the war. Through all this, we subconsciously inherited the notion of nationalism.
However, as I grew older, the sense of freedom in our country began to wane. I distinctly remember the moment my perspective on the government underwent a drastic transformation – during the quota reform movement. I joined the protests one day upon hearing about their reasonable demands. Though the issue did not directly affect me, I was drawn to the passionate gathering of young people advocating for their rights in a peaceful manner.
On the day of the sit-ins, I participated eagerly. There were hours of chanting slogans and making demands. However, as the sun set, the police unexpectedly released tear gas on the protesters and charged at us. The once peaceful assembly of demonstrators scattered, and the entire Dhaka University campus area was engulfed in tear gas. It was a chaotic and distressing situation, to say the least. The protest took a violent turn, with students being beaten and many arrested. Our eyes, affected by the gas, didn't stop tearing up until the next day. In the media, the narrative shifted to blame the opposition party for inciting unrest – a narrative we knew to be false. There was no political party involved there. It was the general youth heading the movement.
This was a pivotal moment for me. How could a political party, in the midst of its second consecutive term in power, unleash such brutality on a group of educated youths who were peacefully advocating for their rights? The aftermath further baffled me, as some political leaders blamed the opposition party, and the organisers of the protests were suddenly being accused of having extremist ties. Throughout this ordeal, my friends and I remained perplexed because, to us, the demands appeared logical and justifiable.
That same year, the students' road safety movement unfolded – an inspiring display of the youth's power. Students were conducting the protests with remarkable discipline, stopping vehicles which didn't have the proper documents and allowing emergency vehicles to pass. However, this time, the ruling party's student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League, attacked students while the police stood by as mere spectators. The protest was further undermined by the spread of fake news. Once again, ruling party leaders shamelessly urged the public not to believe in what they termed propaganda, even though it was evident that these young students had no connection to the false information. Still, the propaganda did affect us. On the streets and at home, the rumours were painted so violently that the movement's mood turned gloomy and dark.
Once more, we questioned the authorities' actions. How could they resort to violence and aggression against peaceful student protesters? By this point, my dissatisfaction with the government's harsh response to reasonable and justified protests and demands had grown.
It is a well-known fact that politicians seek to retain power once they attain it. However, the government belongs to the people, and regardless of the party in power, those occupying government positions have the most significant influence on the functioning of our lives in the country.
It is a well-known fact that politicians seek to retain power once they attain it. However, the government belongs to the people, and regardless of the party in power, those occupying government positions have the most significant influence on the functioning of our lives in the country. If we, as the general public, feel neglected or even despised by the government, then this is a profound concern. We may not have allegiances to any political parties, but we do have the right to demand changes from our government. After all, the government is entrusted with the welfare of the nation, and the nation is its people.
The quota reform movement concluded on a sombre note. Yet, a few months later, after the protests subsided, the government eventually removed the quota system even though that was not the primary demand of the movement. Still, at the very least, the government acknowledged the existence of a problem and took what it considered were appropriate steps.
A similar pattern emerged in the 2018 road safety movement. The violent attacks on students quelled the protests, forcing protestors off the streets. Subsequently, a new set of regulations was introduced, leading to a noticeable improvement in road safety. The number of individuals driving without proper documentation plummeted, and motorcycle riders without helmets became a rare sight. These were positive changes that the government successfully implemented.
But questions remain: why resort to hostile behaviour toward the general public in the first place? What would the government have lost by implementing these changes while we were still on the streets?
But questions remain: why resort to hostile behaviour toward the general public in the first place? What would the government have lost by implementing these changes while we were still on the streets? Could it be an attempt to convey the message that protests and demands would be met with hostility, even when the government may ultimately support the cause?
In recent years, the prevalence of social media use has enabled dissent to find its place across the globe. But due to the Digital Security Act (now rebranded as the Cyber Security Act), we see the persecution of journalists, writers, teachers, politicians, students, activists and anyone who voices dissatisfaction with any major policy changes or points out the corruption of politicians and government officials. All this sends out one clear message: forget protests, you cannot even discuss within a community any faults you find with political parties, government organisations, or even people of influence who are connected to said state establishments.
A Jagannath University student, Khadijatul Kubra, is still in jail today after being arrested under the DSA for trying to "cloud the existing political situation," "involve the general public in anti-government activities," and "impact the reputation of Bangladesh in the international world." Even though she was granted bail by the high court in February, the chamber judge stayed the order due to a petition by the state. In sum, a regular university student is being persecuted by the state. This made me recall the time when my father, journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, was in jail for seven-and-a-half months, after his two-month disappearance. The court dates come and go. Bail petitions are denied. And the suffering never ends.
The command the government exercises over digital and social media has made our generation so afraid that I have seen my peers putting their phones away, switching them off, or not talking about certain topics even in private with the people close to them. The thought of being flagged by the state as being anti-government and being persecuted over months on end has created a practice of self-censorship in Bangladesh's youth. They now choose to not be conscious citizens.
I believe that we, the youth, would feel more appreciated and valued if the government engaged in open dialogues and took positive actions in response to protests. It would demonstrate that we live in a state that is governed with reason and respect towards its citizens.
Monorom Polok is a member of the editorial team of The Daily Star.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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