THE quota movement didn’t die as the government expected after prime minister Sheikh Hasina declared that the quota system was over. Whatever be her reasons, she decided it was better to do away with it than risk agitation problems. The possibility of Bangladesh Nationalist Party taking advantage of the situation also was there. Tariq Zia’s much hyped telephone call from London was a big encouragement not to take undue risks in an electoral year.
The decision by the prime minister was enough for the Awami League, both high command and the campus activists but not enough for the quota activists. The result has been the return of the movement to the protesting space. Its not massive in the second round but that it has not died away.
AL’s BNP obsession?
TO the ruling party, all protest movements are against its power status hence all are political party based which means Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The Awami League seems to see everyone split into two groups. Those who support AL and those who support its contender, BNP and its political cohabiter, Jamaaat islami. Its here that the problem in interpreting the movement lies for the government party. A simple economic movement is being pushed into the political partisan space.
The situation is not helped by various statements coming from the ruling group and an inevitable slow bureaucracy. Standing in the parliament, the prime minister had said that ‘the quota system is over’. The prime minister later reiterated that her word is final and others have repeated it. But the snail’s pace of the amlas in turning the statement into an administrative order has become an issue. In the current politicised atmosphere, inefficiency is being interpreted by the quota activists as political deception. The prime minister has again said, that such things take time.
Amidst this comes the comment by the Liberation War affairs minister that there will be quota albeit a reduced one for freedom fighters which contradicts the position of the prime minister. The Awami League leader Obaidul Quader who did the initial discussions with the quota activists has now said that the movement now is inappropriate. This has enhanced mistrust. These seem to be a lack of coherent stand on the issue.
The reason is probably that the Awami League knows very well, how to handle BNP but it doesn’t know that well how to handle protest which is not political or partisan. Its weakness appears to be its limited understanding of economic frustration of the middle class.
The counter quota movement actions
While the government’s approach is to treat it like it would deal with a political opponent through demonising, threats and now attacks by the Chatra League on the movement activists, the activists of the quota movement are not largely political. It is mostly made up of young people who want a decent job, largely under the present government, as it’s the most amla- friendly government ever. And the movement has a significant following coming from the mid level cadres of Chatra League itself.
As the events show the movement is not significantly weakening as job scarcity affects every student. Hence the movement is generally popular. Student leaders are economically secure but many junior cadres of Chatra league aren’t which makes this movement different and its roots deeper than usual.
Will it continue?
THE present crop of activists will drop away once they graduate but the next batch will join the movement as the job scenario is not about to change immediately. In other words, this could be a long term problem, perhaps till the economic policy is fixed. However, the government isn’t looking at it this way, because it mostly sees party politics behind every move.
The clash between Comilla University students and Chatra League cadres, the Chittagong University train block and the Dhaka sit-in shows the conflict potential of the movement. The pool from which quota activists may emerge is much bigger than the pool from where Awami League activists come making such clashes more probable than not in the future.
Current round has seen them exert pressure with demands about gazette notification backed by sit-ins, class boycotts and rallies. Breaking them up is easy but these are not political activists and beating up middle class family’s children carries a cost in an election year in particular. Which is why the government can’t go hard-line beyond a point? But it does seem, it doesn’t appreciate the nature of socio- economic movements fully. All methods to date to demonise the movement haven’t succeeded much which shows it’s not a passing malady.
Once a protest emerges from a particular class whose livelihood is affected by policies, it doesn’t generally disappear unless the root causes are fixed. The quota movement is too deeply entrenched in the management of Bangladesh economics to go away easily. How the ruling party will handle it depends on how much space it actually has for negotiating its own pro-growth but poor job producing economic policy.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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