Fighting Fascist Democracy: The Young Radicals of Bangladesh
Jamhoor interviewed the President of the Revolutionary Student-Youth Movement (RSYM), Atif Anik, about his thoughts on the recent transport strike, RSYM’s work, and the character of fascism in South Asia today.
Around 12:30pm on Sunday July 29th, two teenage students, Diya Khanam Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib, were killed by a speeding bus on an eight-lane arterial road in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Seven others were injured.
More than 4,200 pedestrians were killed in road accidents last year and 259 were killed in the Eid holiday this year alone. The bus system in Bangladesh is run entirely by competing private companies. The father of one of the students killed has himself been a bus driver for 30 years. He blames the death of his daughter on the corruption within the transit system and the hiring of drivers without licence. He told media that drivers are not paid a wage, and instead earn solely off commission based on the number of passengers picked up, leading them to race to stops. In the days that followed the deaths, high school and university students took matters into their own hands. They spilled onto the streets in the tens of thousands to direct traffic, check licences, and inspect buses — doing the work the government is failing to do for its people. Their demands were simple: safe transportation for all.
The student mobilization received widespread international media attention from Teen Vogue to Time Magazines. We wanted to dig deeper to understand the nuances of this “youth movement”, the contradictions within it, and the political implications for building a broader resistance movement in Bangladesh. To learn more, we reached out to Atif Anik, President of the RSYM, a group which directly participated in the protests.
We asked Atif for his first-hand account of the protests and what the situation in Dhaka is like now. He spoke to us about divisions within the youth-student movement, his thoughts on the student demands, and about the issues facing youth and students today that compelled them to protest in such large numbers. He placed recent events in the context of the broader left in Bangladesh and highlighted possibilities for new alliances.
It should be rendered clear at the very onset that the movement demanding road-safety was intrinsically spontaneous. The protests began when two students were murdered. College students joined the movement reacting to this atrocity. The movement started spreading and RSYM came out in support. We are not adequately strong organizationally, hence the support was initially formal, and our direct involvement was minimal. Since the beginning of August when the movement assumed a country-wide character, we participated in it directly.
Though our appraisal of the movement was generally positive, we were acutely aware of its limitations. Students demanded the death penalty in cases of casualties in road accidents. We located the irreconcilable contradiction between the use of the term “accident” and the call for the death penalty. Any murder or crime is certainly punishable, but we are against the death penalty. We believe the legal and moral framework that compels people towards such acts must be changed. The entire system must be transformed.
The law has ensured the death penalty for guilty drivers, just as the students wanted. But we need to delve deeper into the issue. We do not think that the drivers are directly responsible for the road accidents. The productive chaos overseen by the state is. A driver or a transportation worker has to work hard from dawn till midnight. Exploited mercilessly by the owners, they neither have a fixed wage nor job security. The daily leasing system of vehicles has triggered fierce existential competition between worker-vehicle units for greater share of customers, trips and incentives. This naturally results in accidents, especially in Dhaka. To punish the drivers exclusively is unjust. We oppose the death penalty on this ground.
The movement for road safety was a completely spontaneous mass movement of the students with no centralized authority. Students from schools and colleges started this movement locally. There was a groundswell of discontent due to systematic disorder and the death of innumerable students in road accidents. The collective rage was amplified by the grievously insensitive response of the Minister of Shipping, Shajahan Khan – who also represents big business interests in the transport sector – to the death of two protesting students. His resignation was demanded by indignant students. Gradually many organizations, including RSYM, joined in.
In the matured phase of the movement, students took the reins of the roads in their own hands. Such exercise of counter-hegemonic power was unprecedented; they reorganized the traffic-control system and rendered the state police ineffective for a week.
The students did not spare powerful individuals who drove around without license – military or government connections could not intimidate them. The students have certainly challenged the existing power structure.
The students also stopped being gullible to the quick assurances from the government this time around – those empty assurances had acted as a spanner thrown into many previous movements. They refused to suspend the movement till there were concrete, tangible remedial measures at work. This movement was basically advancing towards a resistance of the long-standing fascist rule of the government. The state’s indifference to stability in people’s lives was explicitly criticized.
The students raised slogans like “when my brother is fatally hurt, police threat is worth a fart”. This is expressive of an advanced stage of politics. From recent movements, the students have learnt that it is impossible to advance politically without challenging police power. This is a significant lesson.
The placards of the students have rejected the rhetoric of “speedy internet” or “digital Bangladesh” in favour of real changes in material topology – safe roads and a safe Bangladesh. This is courage incarnate. These young militants have rejected the elitist developmental logic of fascism-tempered “democracy” and joined the historic fight against authoritarianism. They have affirmed the right to rebel.
The movement was not limited to the Dhaka metropolis – it spread to big towns across the country. Social media played a role in this rapid expansion. But transportation workers did not support the movement. Awami League minister Shajahan Khan – the strongman who controls transportation owners’ and workers’ collectives alike – managed to pit the workers’ interest against the students’ agenda. RSYM has explicated this factor in its Maoist organ Andolon (Movement).
Leftist student organizations do participate in movements such as this. But the opportunism and political exhibitionism of most of these organizations have generally alienated the common youth. Yet these organizations compulsively insert themselves in all movements! But no organization or consolidation led this movement; instead they all merged with the students disparately. At the beginning of the movement, two such organizations started a petty competition over gaining prominence in the Shahbag ground, which caused the congregating students to develop negative attitude towards the so-called “left”.
The movement was met with opposition by pro-government forces. Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League party, was accused of mob violence as they attacked protesting students with batons, tear gas, and machetes. Women and schoolgirls were also on the frontlines despite assaults, kidnapping and rape by the Chhatra League and the Bangladeshi police. The failure of the administration to protect students from attacks and take their demands seriously is in keeping with its accelerating trajectory towards a fascist state. Bangladesh has seen rising authoritarianism under Hasina’s rule with increase in encounters and disappearances, the passing of draconian legislations such as the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, and the failure to end the archaic quota system in government jobs, which many claim favors recruitment of those close to the ruling party.
We asked RSYM about attempts to repress the mobilization of students and how the nature of this repression speaks to the current political moment in Bangladesh.
We have to understand that Bangladesh is experiencing fascist rule now. A single party authority has been stamped on all avenues of the nation. Siphoning of resources, corruption and murders are rampant. Opposition activists and resistive ideas are trampled and stifled. The recent arrest of Shahidul Alam (since released) proves our point. This government is thriving only with foreign support and the might of the bureaucracy and military. Police and goon squads are unleashed on all popular movements. The attack on the movement for road safety merely continues this established practice. The news of torture and molestation of women in the ruling Awami League office created a furor of young student activism – which however receded afterwards.
The Chhatra League attacked certain universities, like East West University, while others, like BRAC University, were not alone. This is largely because East West University has a tradition of supporting democratic movements, where protest culture was consolidated during the VAT movement of 2015. The student community supported the movement for road safety, too. The government and its lackey groups are resentful of this. BRAC University remained inert.
RSYM has participated in the quota reform movement. But this movement, too, was largely non-partisan and spontaneous. The movement was simmering for a long time but assumed great momentum on April 8th. I was in the Dhaka University campus that night. I bore witness to the immense brutality of the police and ruling party student organization against the agitating students. RSYM stands in solidarity with this movement and also calls on the students to join our struggle for a greater transformation of the existing system.
We are not alone in fighting the present fascist regime. Many democratic forces are involved. The culture of kidnaping and murder of opposition activists must be protested and agitated against. But the whole thing is still confined within processions, meetings and posters. We have been unable to structure an effective and massive resistance movement. This despite the fact that the Maoist activists have borne the primary brunt of this murderous ethos. But we believe that a united struggle of all democratic forces can certainly eradicate this undemocratic state and fascist government.
Recently India has claimed that thousands of residents in the Northeast region are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh who entered during or after 1971. This has intensified conflict between Northeastern indigenous groups and Bengali-speaking Muslim residents of Northeastern India. Bangladesh itself has a large minority demographic, including refugees. We asked Atif for RSYM’s take on the struggles of the people of Bangladesh from a broader South Asian context and the current debates in the student movement on this issue.
The student-youth of Bangladesh have misconceptions about the issue of the oppression of minority nationalities. On the question of the Chattagram Hilly Tracts and indigenous communities in the plains, they tend to assume a hyper-nationalist stand. This is a major problem we face.
The Hindutva-mongering Modi or BJP-government in India has recently – in line with its chauvinistic ideology – officially identified a few hundred thousand Bengali-speaking people in Assam as “outsiders” and illegal. The latter are – quite obviously – mostly Muslims. BJP is trying to divide the masses and consolidate their regime. We have seen that the indigenous communities of Assam have opposed this government machination.
The present undemocratic Hasina government of Bangladesh bears clear resemblance to the past Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan. Both betray authoritarian fangs. The Hasina regime is also akin to the Modi government in India. Both have crushed oppositional and democratic politics resolutely, both loot public coffers in the name of “development”. They have robbed people of their freedom of expression.
The Indian state is the leading strongman in South Asian politics. India is instituting an expansionist tentacle on other South Asian nations through its military, economic, and cultural power – also drawing strength from its collaboration with imperialist powers. It has occupied huge stretches of North-Eastern India. Kashmir’s destitution as a massive battleground is at India’s behest. Through various cunning ploys, India is oppressing the people of Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. We see the Indian state as the primary enemy of the South Asian people. The struggle against this common enemy requires us to unite. We have to strengthen organizations like the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia and take the South Asian struggle forward
Atif Anik is the President of Revolutionary Student-Youth Movement (RSYM), a far Left student mass organization in Bangladesh. Its main aim is to disseminate the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism amongst students and youth. Alongside this, it works to organize mass movements of youth based on their specific demands.