It is five in the afternoon, on an ordinary weekday.
The workers of Essential Drugs Company Limited (EDCL), a state-owned pharmaceuticals company, are leaving their work stations to head home. Amidst the outpour of workers, an aged woman is seen leading a young man with a cane. Once they reach the nearest intersection, she seems uncertain as to how to cross the road with her visually impaired attendee during rush hour. They wait for nearly 15 minutes till traffic slows down. The young man follows the woman, presumably his mother, like a child.
This story could have been completely different. The young man, after all, had not been born with a visual impairment. Upto a few months ago, he was the one taking care of his elderly mother and providing for his family. But his sight was irreparably damaged when the police lobbed tear gas canisters during a demonstration in Shahbagh held by the students of seven colleges affiliated with the University of Dhaka on July 20 last year. The name of this 24-year-old youth, as most of us know already, is Siddikur Rahman, a student of Government Titumir College. At the time, he and the other students were demanding, among other things, that the authorities publish their exam schedule. As fate would have it, it was the first ever protest of his life—and perhaps his last.
Siddikur's 65-year-old mother Solema Akter had high hopes that her meritorious son would be a high-ranking government official after graduating in Political Science from Titumir College. Instead, Siddikur now works as a telephone operator at EDCL, with a salary of BDT 13,000. This is the job that the Health and Family Welfare Minister Mohammad Nasim had promised him, in the aftermath of the blinding when Siddikur was undergoing treatment for his eyes.
Every day, at his office, Siddikur receives numerous calls. Initially, he was worried he would not be able to perform his tasks of making calls or transferring calls to different departments. Over a few months, he practised these tasks and developed strategies in order to do his work to the best of his abilities. “I have memorised some important phone numbers to which I need to make frequent calls. If there is an emergency and I need assistance, my colleagues are always there to help. This is something really appreciable,” shares Siddikur.
Earlier, Siddikur lived in Mohakhali with his nephew but it became difficult to commute to work from there. “The bus drivers were not very willing to pick me up or drop me, as I need more time compared to a normal passenger. Also, not having learnt how to cope with blindness from childhood, I also finding commuting challenging,” says Siddikur. From November, in order to bring a little comfort to his life, he rented a shared room with a family at Modhho Begunbari, which is a 15-minute walk from his office. For this small room on the ground-floor with no windows or ventilation, Siddikur pays BDT 6,500, in addition to utility bills. Left with only half of his salary, it is often difficult to sustain the monthly expenses of mother and son.
Siddikur's mother currently takes him to the office everyday and looks after him. “I had never come to Dhaka before Siddikur got injured. I don't know anyone here. I don't know the roads properly. But, our fate has sent us here,” says Solema Akter.
“Siddikur's father died when he was three. I struggled a lot with my daughter and two sons. My daughter was married off at an early age. I alone couldn't continue the study expenditures of my elder son, who currently works as a construction labourer. Since everyone knew about Siddikur's merit, and his teachers would also admire him, I had a profound belief that one day, my Siddikur would do something very big,” says Akter. “But, what is lotted, cannot be blotted. We are trying to accept the harsh reality of our life,” she sighs, wiping a tear off her cheek.
Is Siddikur destined to be a telephone operator for the rest of his life? “On July 19, the day before we went to the demonstration, I got admitted to a coaching centre at Uttara to develop my English skills for the Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) examination. I had also bought numerous practice books to prepare for the exam. Who then knew that I would lose my eyesight on the following day?”
Siddikur used to run seasonal businesses during the two Eids. In January every year, he would take orders from different schools and colleges to produce ties and shoulder badges for school uniform. “The small profit I would make from these two businesses was enough to cover my living expenses for the whole year,” he explains.
A ray of hope is that Siddikur was able to attend his third-year final examination last month—for which he had gone to the demonstrations on that fateful day. In preparation, his nephew Selim would read out loud from his books and Siddikur would listen intently. “Sometimes, I would also record these sessions on my phone to practise later,” he says. A second-year student named Sadia Islam Mumu of the same college came forward to assist him as a scribe. “During the exams, I would note down some points but mostly dictate to her the analytical part. Though I'm hopeful, I am not very confident, since I don't even know what was written down on the script, as she is not from my department,” Siddikur laughs. “Yet, I'm very grateful to Sadia and my teachers, who were always by my side and helped me to deal with the entire crisis.”
Siddikur also informs that he was told by the Health Minister that if he can complete his graduation, he might get promoted later.
Though the government's good gesture is undoubtedly appreciable, many are wondering what has happened to those policemen who were responsible for Siddikur's misfortune. According to Md Asaduzzaman Mia, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner, “The probe report into the incident has highlighted the negligence and unprofessionalism of four policemen who were dealing with that unlawful assembly.” However, how a peaceful protest demanding educational rights can be constituted as “unlawful assembly” remains unclear.
It is unclear what punishment, if any, the negligent policemen have received. Md Asaduzzaman claims, “They have all been punished according to the Armed Forces Ordinance Act, 1942, but it cannot be revealed to the media nor is there any way of making it public, as it spreads anger among the forces.”
But how will others learn not to repeat such actions if they continue to think they can get away with it? “I can assure you that such negligence and carelessness is dealt with due attention within the armed forces, as it hampers our chain of command. No one is given any privileges after a wrongdoing,” he replies.
There is little hope at this point that Siddikur will see again—the doctors have informed him both of his retinas were disorganised and there is no treatment unless new technology emerges.
“The dreams I would always cherish have faded away with the passage of time. But I'm not depressed anymore. Days are passing; my mother is here for me, and now the only urge I feel is to survive,” he concludes.