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DURING the British rule of India, a famous politician in the undivided Bengal province once said, ‘The politics of Bengal is in reality the economics of Bengal.’ Looking at Bangladesh’s history since 1947 when she was named East Pakistan, and especially since 1971 when she became an independent state after a bloody liberation war of nine months, that reality has not changed an iota: economy continues to drive politics. This perhaps explains today’s student unrest in Bangladesh.
In recent months, Bangladesh is seeing student protests in many parts of the country, especially in the Dhaka University — once touted as the Oxford of the East. As hinted in an earlier article, some 56 per cent of the government sector jobs are reserved for the family members of freedom fighters of the liberation war of 1971, minorities, handicaps, etc., thus, leaving only 44 per cent of the jobs to roughly 98 per cent of the applicants who are not covered under the quota system.
Suffice it to say that the so-called quota system has been viewed as highly flawed and unfair by the vast majority of the student community who sees a bleak future for them after graduation. They have been asking for a reform of the system. Initially, although prime minister Sheikh Hasina seemed to be sympathetic to their genuine demands at first, she has been criticised by many as being either too slow and/or equivocating or changing her mind, reflecting perhaps the pressure from the beneficiaries of the system i.e., the student wing of her party, i.e., the Student League (Chatra).
Many in Bangladesh see today’s Student League as nothing but a semi-fascist organisation that has disgraced its glorious past of being the conscience of the nation. Truly, it is hard to imagine the emergence of Bangladesh from the belly of Pakistan without the bold leadership and sacrifice of the members and leaders of the Student League. Soon after Pakistan won independence from the British Rule, it was founded by the country’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on January 4, 1948. Its uncompromising stand on a plethora of social, political, and economic issues, particularly the language movement of 1952 and regional autonomy rights issues (1966-71) eventually paved the path for the emergence of the new nation. Many of its students participated against the military rule of the then East Pakistan laying down their lives.
I remember how as a teenager, I was gravitated to the cause of Bangladesh and how after joining the BUET as a freshman in 1973, I was selected as the Student League’s general secretary for the Sher-e-Bangla Hall in 1974-75. I was even selected to be the student speaker in 1973 Student Welcoming ceremony (Nabeen Boron) to speak on behalf of the new students in the campus.
In those days, student politics was fairly civil, gentle, non-lethal and by any account, peaceful, in stark contrast to today’s politics. Students affiliated with the rival student organisations lived side by side in the same dormitory hall and room, and were respected despite ideological differences and there was no incident of any fight or unruly behavior (e.g., beatings of students or teachers) and abuse, particularly on BUET campus.
The ruling party Awami League and its student wing — Bangladesh Chatra (Student) League belonged to what can be described as a centrist party. Its radical offshoot, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal and student wing were far-left leaning. The socialists and communists were divided at multiple levels, let alone being divided on their allegiance to either Moscow or Beijing. The socialist-oriented National Awami Party had been divided into two rival camps since the early 1960s — one led by professor Muzaffar Ahmed leaning towards Moscow and the other led by Mowlana Bhashani towards Beijing. That division remained intact even after the liberation war of 1971. However, the NAP (M) was looked upon more as a B-team of the ruing Awami League, a trend which is to continue till now.
While I subscribed in those days to the ideology of the Bangladesh Student League, and revered Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib greatly whose hand I had the privilege of shaking once, many of my close friends and classmates belonged to the rival Chatra League (JSD) and Students Union. I would often have hours of friendly ideological debates and discussions with Abul Kasem (then the vice-president of Engineering University Central Students’ Union – EUCSU) and A F M Mahbubul Hoque (then one of the national leaders of the JSD-wing of the Chatra League). Former student leaders like Hasanul Hoq Inu (now the Information Minister), Sirajul Alam Khan (then the spiritual leader of the JSD) would often be seen around the campus riding in the back of a motor bike driven by Sharif Nurul Ambia (another JSD leader then who was also a BUET graduate), and so would be Sheikh Kamal (the slain brother of the current prime minister). [Some of the latter’s classmates from the Dhaka College days lived in our hall.]
During student processions inside the BUET campus, mostly held in the evenings, sometimes these outsiders or former student leaders would be seen participating in the back of the procession rally with their respective student groups. There were slogans, but there was no incident of fighting or attack on or by rival student organizations in those student processions.
For most part, BUET campus was apolitical where burdened with massive class work and assignments, its students did not have the luxury of spending time in politics. [It was routine for most of us to go to sleep after midnight and yet to get up early, after only 4 to 6 hours of sleep, so as not to miss the morning class sessions. We would often make up our sleep deprivation by taking afternoon naps in the dorm. Our undergrad classes were usually held between 8 am and 2 p.m.] Only during the student election times, the campus would get slightly more vibrant with meetings and processions, and those too, held during the evenings, way after the class hours and after dinner. In my four-year stay in the dorm, I never saw or heard of a single incident of beatings of any student or teacher. Teachers were respected and they lived by their high morals, sincerity and honesty as model teachers and citizens.
This above account within BUET campus should not, however, be taken as reflective of the student politics in college and university campuses in entire Bangladesh.
Nine-months of guerilla war against the Pakistan Occupation Forces by freedom fighters in the then East Pakistan had radicalised many youths and the new country was an open forum for ideological debates and discussions. As already hinted, the ruling party’s student wing had split up into multiple groups, each claiming to know the path to achieving greater good for the citizens. Because of the freedom of press and assembly, every day seemed full of excitement, gossips, rumors, rallies and speeches by politicians — some of whom demanding violent overthrow of the Mujib government. The far-left wing insurgents, organised by JSD’s armed wing Gonobahini fought against the government in order to establish a Marxist government.
The government responded by forming an elite para-military force Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini on 8 February 1972, initially formed to curb the insurgency and maintain law and order in the country. They were later accused by opposition parties of being excessive in use of arms.
Despite such a messy situation, complicated further by Henry Kissinger’s desire to topple the Mujib government by using food as a weapon of war through diversion of food-carrying ships away from Bangladeshi ports, overall, the student politics was a healthy and vibrating one — full of excitement, energy and possibilities. If I am not mistaken, there was not a single incident of shootings inside college campuses except once when seven students were gunned down in Mohsin Hall of Dhaka University on April 4, 1974. Four years after the murders, a court sentenced Shafiul Alam Prodhan, then general secretary of a split-unit of the Chatra League, and others to life in prison. However, they all were released when Major General Ziaur Rahman came to power after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination. Since then, Mr Pradhan and his newly formed party — Jatiya Ganatrantik Party — have been allies of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that was founded by General Zia. [Mr. Pradhan died last year.]
The campus student politics came to a screeching halt after the assassination of the founding president on August 15, 1975, which was only to be resurrected much later, after we had left the campus, by the new ruler of the country, Major General Ziaur Rahman. Since then the character of student politics has morphed into something so disgraceful that offends everyone with any prior connection with student politics.
These days, the student leaders, affiliated mostly with the ruling parties are seen, and probably rightly so, as extortionists, murderers, and all the bad and evil things one can imagine. Their priorities are seemingly not education but making money and are, thus, involved in matters like vending, tenders, seat allocations and all the illicit schemes that were alien, unknown or detested to their counterparts just a generation ago. They threaten teachers and assault them. Sadly, with the politicisation of the government institutions including colleges and university administrations, the administrators are not coming to the aid of those teachers that are physically assaulted. By so doing these vice chancellors and administrators are setting a dangerous trend in which no one would feel safe.
It is obvious that student politics in Bangladesh has long been hijacked by a self-aggrandising few that is more interested in itself and not the good of other students, and surely, not the country and its people. By their nefarious acts, they are an anathema and unknown to me and my generation of students or those that came earlier. It’s simply shameful and disgusting.
Fast forward to the quota issue, in recent days, many protesting students of Dhaka University were beaten up by members of the Students’ League, affiliated with the ruling Awami League. They even assaulted university teachers and female students who had demanded a change of the problematic quota system. Instead of bringing charges against the attackers, published reports suggest that many of those students who demanded a change were booked by the police. According to government reports, they had destroyed university property.
While all miscreants need to be punished for committing crimes, justice demands that no innocent person should be punished for exercising his/her rights to protest a system that he/she finds unfair in a peaceful manner. After all, the quota system is in direct conflict with the ‘Equality of Opportunity’ provision of the Bangladesh Constitution, e.g., 19(1) and 19(2) that demands equality of opportunity in job for all Bangladeshis, and not just a vital few.
Unless the Hasina government tackles the quota issue seriously, which goes into the heart of the economic issue disadvantageously affecting millions of educated Bangladeshis who are deprived of the job opportunity simply because of not being part of the quota while the system unfairly benefits a selected 1 to 2 percent for 56 per cent of the job openings, many of whom are in all likelihood the children of fake freedom fighters (after all, it is difficult to imagine too many children of freedom fighters that are in their 20s, some 47 years after Bangladesh’s independence), it may lose the vital support it requires to remain in power beyond 2018. The government simply cannot afford to overlook a genuine issue that is the tied to the dal-bhat (bread and butter) economics of so many. It would be stupid to do so!
Dr Habib Siddiqui is a peace and rights activist.