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A Day in the Streets of DhakaExperience of an Expatriate --Ziauddin Choudhury

It was meant to be an hours drive from Baridhara to Matijheel, at least so I was told given the legendary Dhaka traffic, although the distance is about ten kilometers. I was supposed to meet my book publisher in Matijheel at a given hour to pay a courtesy call as well to collect any royalty for my book that was due to me. I set off for my destination half an hour earlier giving myself a head start; but I had underestimated the traffic and trip time. Within minutes of leaving my brothers home I joined a mile long traffic on a road that is popularly known as Bishhow Road sandwiched on both sides by traffic of all description. After a stoppage of endless duration, my car moved only to be stopped after another twenty yards or so. This scene would be repeated every ten minutes. During the numerous stoppages in between I saw passengers in cars and other vehicles fanning themselves or kids while some impatient drivers climbed out or craned their necks to find what was going on. Soon word spread out that the jam extended up to Jatrabaria place nearly three miles up, and that the earliest hope of reaching that destination was at least two hours away. The road further up was reportedly blocked by some protesters. My appointment was for a given hour, and my publisher was waiting for me. When the traffic ahead posed a serious threat of missing my appointment, I asked the driver of my borrowed car if there was a way to break the logjam by taking a detour. The driver responded that he knew a back alley that he could take to another road although it was longer. So we took off cutting through the traffic enraging other drivers and entered into an alley. What I did not realize was that the detour would expose me to the ugly underbelly of the seemingly ultramodern architecture and the glamorous steel and glass architecture that adorned the rich neighborhood of Baridhara and adjoining Basubndhara. It was like a descent to an underworld that featured sewers as streets, half constructed buildings as habitats for humans, and traffic of all descriptionautomobile, Pedi cabs, pushcarts, and pedestriansfighting for space in passages barely twenty feet wide. Yet, those narrow passages that would make lanes in Venice look like avenues, life bustled with business and trade. Shops, restaurants, vendors of different merchandise carried their trades with little regard to the hindrances that the narrow roads with all their filth, water filled potholes, and open toilets posed to them. The streets and the business they carried were no different in activity from the upscale and highbrow business carried out only a few blocks away. It took me, rather my neophyte driver, another full hour to get out of the maze of lanes and bi-lanes of the Basundhara/Baridhara underbelly, the entire mini township I later understood to be standing on marshes that were known as Badda area. By that time I had already passed my appointment time. I sheepishly called my publisher to let him know the predicament I was in and that I was sorry that I would be late. He, being a sage chastened by time, and a long time of living in the area assured me that it was all normal, and that I should take things patiently in my stride. I would soon find out, however, that my patience was running thin. It took me another full hour to reach Matijheel, and my publishers office. Within minutes of settling down in his office and exchanging preliminary greeting, I heard an uproar from down below his floor. I thought initially the noise was from the stadium, which was not too far from there. My publisher doubted this, and then attracted my attention to the street below from his glass window. It was a spectacle that I had only seen from pictures in Newspapers while abroada running mob of several hundred chased by police. Soon I also heard sounds of cracking glass, loud shots of gun fire (that transpired to be tear gas fires), and raucous slogans of people. I had no idea who those people were and what they were protesting about, and why the police was chasing them. All I

knew that that what I was witnessing was a political protest of sorts, a riotous mob behavior, and their confrontation with law enforcing agencies. I could have left the scene like one among hundreds of people who probably regularly witness such scenes in Dhaka these days. And I would have but for the fact that like the odd chance of being hit by a lightning, the car that I had borrowed was vandalized by the angry mob along with several others that were unfortunately parked in the marching route of the protesters. A weeping driver informed me over the cell phone that he had to run for his life when the protesters were marching the street and pelting bricks and stones at the cars parked along their way as well as throwing some at the Police. My borrowed car became a collateral of the rage of the mob. The traffic jam that led to my unpleasant but educative detour I later learnt was caused by disgruntled garment factory workers who thought of occupying the road as a way to of demonstrating their protest. They thought little of the consequences of disrupting traffic and stopping thousands of peoples from earning their living by their conduct. They were only adhering to their own cause. Similarly the people who were destroying cars and other public properties in Matijheel were only interested in demonstrating their own political cause, damage to others property was simply a collateral. In both cases the mob either could care less for the consequences of their action and the damage to public life they caused, or it did not feel it had a responsibility for their actions. It makes one wonder how these protests are organized and whether the party or people who sponsor such protests at all have any social responsibility. Some suggest that the reason we have such conduct is because many of the protesters are actually mercenary recruits who would act at the bidding of their recruiters. This may explain some egregious behavior some of the time, but not all of the time. Others suggest a great corrosion of social norms where rowdyism and gangsterism have replaced civil opposition to difference in opinion or protests by words have seized the country. While it matters to investigate what causes such violent behavior among our people, it matters most how to stop and stem such trends for the greater good of the country and its future. Our major political parties have to agree on the modalities of protest, agree on preserving the sanctity life and property, and preventing the use of mercenary forces to intimidate their opponents. Democracy is freedom of speech and action; it is not intimidation of others by force when they do not agree with you. The sooner we learn this, the better it is for our country.

Ziauddin Choudhury is a former World Bank staff, and a resident of USA.