A student-led movement for road safety in Bangladesh turned violent on Saturday as it came under attack allegedly from members of the Bangladesh Chatra League, the students’ wing of the ruling Awami League, and the police. The violence, which included the use of teargas and batons on the students, continued through Sunday and left over 200 people – including journalists and passersby – injured. Eyewitnesses recalled a “violent street fight between uniform-clad students and people wearing helmets flanked by police”. Rumors of deaths and sexual harassment of protesting students led to a public outcry.

With the students accusing the Awami League of instigating the violence, its leaders were quick to blame their political rivals. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who leads the party, said on Sunday that “infiltrators” were trying to benefit from the student movement by spreading rumours and unleasing violence. “We are worried about the fate of the movement as BNP and Jamaat-Shibir activists have already infiltrated it to realise their agenda of ousting the government,” Party general secretary Obaidul Quader said. He was referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s main Opposition, and the Jamaat-e-Islami party and its student wing, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir.

Late on Sunday night, reports came in that the prominent photographer and social activisit Shahid ul Alam had been picked up from his home, perhaps in relation to an interview he had given to Al Jazeera about the protests.

Observers said the protests are an embarrassment for the Sheikh Hasina government, especially with national elections due at the end of the year.

The student-led movement started on July 29 after two high school students were struck and killed by a bus as it raced another to pick up passengers in Dhaka. Since then, students from various high schools, colleges and universities have come out on the streets, stopping vehicles, checking papers and essentially playing the part of a vigilante traffic police force – to show the authorities that “they have failed in their duties”.

Clashes between students in uniform and suspected activists of the Awami League's student wing were witnessed in several parts of Dhaka on Saturday. (Credit: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP)

Students versus men in helmets

Dhanmondi, an upscale residential area in Dhaka that also houses the Awami League office, was at the centre of Saturday’s violence. At around noon, the students stopped a few vehicles allegedly driven by Bangladesh Chatra League activists and asked to see their drivers’ licences and fitness certificates. The occupants of the cars refused and an argument ensued, a few of the student protestors said in their statements to the police. Minutes later, 25-30 people wearing helmets attacked the students with sticks and rods. The students alleged the group of men came out of the party office.

As news of the attack spread, hundreds of students controlling traffic and staging peaceful protests in nearby areas rushed to Dhanmondi. Soon after, Satmasjid Road in that neighbourhood turned into a battlefield between the students and the other group. Both parties attacked each other with stones, bricks and bamboo sticks. The helmet-wearing men also reportedly opened fired on the students. Videos of two men loading guns – whose identities have not yet been ascertained – circulated on social media.

The fight continued for about an hour as the police reportedly watched silently. They stepped in when some students chased the men in helmets to the Awami League office and threw stones at the building, shattering some windows. At this point, the police reportedly pushed back the students with the help of the other group.

One of the main gates of the Border Guard of Bangladesh headquarters is located in Dhanmondi, just 100 metres from the scene of the fighting. When some of the fleeing students took positions near the gate, border force personnel stepped in to bring the situation under control, also helping some students and pedestrians take shelter.

Meanwhile, rumours started doing the rounds of social media that Bangladesh Chatra League activists were holding five to six students hostage at the party office and that some female students had been raped. Popular actress Quazi Nawshaba Ahmed, who had earlier voiced support for the student movement, said in a Facebook Live video on Saturday that two male students had been murdered. As the posts went viral, Bangladesh Chatra League general secretary Golam Rabbani took five to six protesting students inside the party office to show them that no one was confined there. The students later briefed the media that “no one was found raped or dead inside the party office”.

The fighting died down by evening with the Bangladesh Chatra League men and the police taking control of the area, patrolling it and reportedly beating up anyone who tried taking photographs or videos. Later that night, the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police force, detained Ahmed for spreading rumours.

Sporadic clashes between student protestors and suspected Bangladesh Chatra League activists were reported from other parts of the city too, including Mirpur, Uttara and Firmgate. Almost in every place, the law enforcers either remained silent spectators or sided with the activists, reports in the media said.

Dismissing the Awami League’s contention that rival political workers had infiltrated the student movement to make trouble, eyewitnesses and observers said the weekend attacks resembled the violence perpetrated by Bangladesh Chatra League activists on protesting university students demanding reform of the quota system in public service in July.

The death of two high school students in a traffic accident in Dhaka on July 29 has led to a massive student movement for safer roads. (Credit: Reuters)

Student processions

Following Saturday’s events, thousands of students came out on the streets of Dhaka to march in protest the following day. The student mobilisation followed social media posts condemning Saturday’s violence and calling for processions demanding justice.

The largest procession, comprising students from Dhaka University, Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology and Dhaka Medical College, gathered in the Shahbagh area and marched towards Dhanmondi. At around 12.50 pm, they reached the Border Guard of Bangladesh gate where they started a sit-in protest. Within minutes, the police fired teargas to disperse the crowd, pushing them out.

When the students tried to re-group, 200-300 people, again suspected to be members of the Bangladesh Chatra League, attacked them with sticks and rods. A large number of these men wore helmets. They also beat up five photojournalists, including AM Ahad of the Associated Press, who had to be hospitalised.

The Ministry of Information issued a circular to television channels on Sunday to stop broadcasting news that it said could instill fear in the people and create chaos in society. The country’s telecom regulator instructed mobile service operators to slow down internet speeds, reportedly to hamper the livestreaming of events on the streets.

Some of the protesting students told this correspondent that they were attacked by security forces and Bangladesh Chatra League members without provocation.

But Dhaka Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Maruf Hossain Sardar said the students had tried to march towards the Awami League office in Dhanmondi. He said the party’s general secretary Obaidul Quader was in office at the time and the police had sought to stop the procession.

Quader, for his part, said, “Will we kiss them if they advance towards our office?” He reiterated his call to the students to go back home.

Minister of Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan said the government would take firm action against the students if they created problems for the public with their protest. “We have shown patience and so did the security forces, but even we have a limit,” he said. “We will take action if that limit is exceeded.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist in Dhaka.