On the second and third day of the protests last week, there was widespread bhangchur.
I like the sound of that Bangla word. It's not in my Bangla dictionary but the way it sounds echoes the meaning of the word. Bhangchur evokes the sound of sticks on steel, the shattering of glass. There are other words like that in Bangla. Hochot, for example, the word for stumble. In English, the word shatter evokes the sound of its meaning, too.
Dozens of cars were smashed up. Some buses set on fire. Some businesses had their windows smashed. At least one looted. It seems the violence was most widespread around Dhanmondi.
I heard officials say that in no civilized society do people take to the streets and smash and burn cars and businesses. They suggested that such violence proves the existence of organized destructive forces.
Is that really true?
If they mean the West, there are plenty of examples of vandalism there. Remember France just two summers ago? We are also familiar with urban rebellions in U.S. or British cities. And it also happens on the edges of mass demonstrations. There it's usually organized by anarchist groups who somehow believe that a new world will be ushered in by smashing a glass window belonging to Starbucks or McDonalds.
But I think that in most places where rampant violence breaks out, it's usually a sign of disorganized discontent. Sometimes just mobs letting loose. No, it's not much of a sign of civilized behaviour.
If we're talking of civilization, how civilized is it for soldiers to come after midnight and take people away? Without a warrant and charge? Is it civilized to go into private residences, separate students and beat them, tie them up and take them away?
I am pessimistic about progress in this country, whether from the establishment or the streets, as long as rage is our defining emotion and sticks, bricks, and bullets are our preferred instruments of change.
But shouldn't we go one step further and ask, why do cars become the target of enraged people?
I doubt that someone who owns a car destroys another car, unless there's a serious case of model envy. From what I've seen and read, the people who attacked cars are people who do not own cars, rarely ride in one, and have one chance in a million to own one.
I believe what's at stake is class resentment. And walking the streets of Dhaka, I can understand how it happens.
Everyone knows that the gap between rich and poor has grown spectacularly. The mobile symbol of wealth is the car. It is with cars that the wealthy and powerful lord it over the streets. Especially luxurious cars. The streets of Dhaka have long seen that status symbol the Pajero, but now we also have big fat Prados, Hummers, BMWs, and Lexuses.
I am a pedestrian in Dhaka, sharing the footpaths with others who do not own cars. And what do I encounter on the streets?
I will find footpaths taken over by cars parking in front of businesses. I can walk past a hawker, but it's much harder when it's a huge SUV. A hawker may provide me a product I need sometime. That plump car is simply a nuisance.
When I cross the entrance of a petrol pump, a car headed into the station will not slow down for me. Sometimes it will speed up. The other day I am walking along the side of a road that lacks a footpath. A car drives from up ahead, to park right in my way. It does not slow down to let me get out of the way. It believes I should jump. When there is a jam, sometimes they will not let even a foot of space to let you pass through. When there is water in the streets, they will not slow down but make sure to splash that water into you. There is absolutely no regard for pedestrians. And I walk wearing a shirt and pant. You can imagine what a person faces when they're wearing a lungi.
Imagine yourself facing this day after day, day after day. How will you feel inside? There are days when I have wanted to stand just to see if the car will eventually stop. But I know that would be suicidal. There are days when I have wanted to curse the car, but with its windows rolled up, they wouldn't even hear the shoorer baccha I might throw in their direction. The best I can do is glare. What goes on through the minds of the dispossessed in Dhaka, those who face this and worse, day after day?
I wish it were mandatory for all civil servants and ministers, everyone in power, to take one week a year, during the hottest season, when they would be required to walk the streets and take the buses, just like the majority of people in Dhaka. Perhaps they'd think of ways to make this city friendlier to the majority. Instead, all they do is find new ways to wall themselves off from the majority.