When Awami league bagged landslide victory in the 2008 national election, their primary focus was on the youth. They designed their election campaign focusing on the betterment of the youth of this country. Now, after a decade, on the verge of another national election, the party has managed to clarify their message — they do not care for the youth voice anymore and any opposing young voice shall be dealt with utmost force, writes Nahid Riyasad.
THE attack on the protesting students’ at the premises of University of Dhaka, allegedly by the ruling party Awami League’s student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League BCL. Media images have showed the extent of brutality perpetrated on the general students. Even a BCL goon was seen flaunting a reverse flying-kick on a cornered protester. Now, several questions arise here. First, when prime minister verbally abolished quota system in the parliament on April 11, BCL was the first to bring out a procession welcoming the decision. What is BCL’s stance on quota reform protest then? Second, why, after a couple of month of Sheikh Hasina’s announcement, there is no gazette issued from the concerned ministry? And third, which part of ‘reform’ government did not understand and why they are labeling the reform demand as a protest to ‘quota system’ for government services? More importantly, why such violent attempt to reppression student organisers involved in this movement.
On July 2, after the fresh set of demonstrations, the government has formed a seven-member committee under the ministry of public administration to review the existing quota system. However, during a press briefing, cabinet secretary Shafiul Alam told the reporters that quota reform is not a mundane tusk rather it is connected to a number of issues which need to be sorted out first thus the whole process will require more time. However, how much time, he didn’t specify.
Before digging down inside the details of the protest, a glimpse over the existing quota system in the civil service of Bangladesh might come in handy. The system as it was introduced in 1972 set out that 20 per cent of public jobs would go to general candidates based on merit, 30 per cent to freedom fighters, 10 per cent to women affected by the liberation war and 40 per cent would be decided on the districts the candidates were from.
Presently, the quota distribution follows as — 30 per cent for freedom fighter and their decedents, 10 per cent for women, 10 per cent district quota, 5 per cent for minority group quota and 1 per cent goes to the minority should the other quotas are vacant. The quota that was set aside for freedom fighters was made, in 1997, to apply to children of the freedom fighters, which has now been extended to grandchildren. Until the latest announcement, 44 per cent is meant for merit and the remaining 56 per cent is filled in based on a complex quota system, with many factors being at play.
Quota system is still in use in many places of the world, to ensure equality and to allow the government to make positive discrimination to maintain balance in the civil work force. However, in Bangladesh, the scenario is somewhat else. For example, the freedom fighters deserve something extra for the country for their valiant efforts and sacrifices, but, when the privilege is extended to their third generation, then it becomes problematic. This creates scope for development of an exclusive community which will be loyal to the government at any condition. These discrepancies have triggered movements in 2008 and 2013, however, all failed to make the government reform the existing quota system.
Freedom fighter’s quota calls for attention to another burning issue-forgery of false freedom fighter’s certification. The Indian government, in 1973, had sent a list of 69,509 freedom fighters who received training in that country. With a lot of chances through the decades, now, reportedly the number of freedom fighters is 2.12 lakh and another 1.02 lakh applications for freedom fighters’ certificates are pending. During parliament sessions, a number of ministers have been reported complaining to the prime minister that genuine freedom fighters are harassed to pay kickbacks. The inconsistencies in the statistics clearly prove that there are a lot of benefits associated with freedom fighters certificate and 30 per cent quota is merely one of them, that too for a population consisting of less than 1 per cent of Bangladesh. The prevailing situation indicates that the current government’s precaching about freedom fighters quota is form of showing gratitude for their sacrifice in 1971 is rather rhetorical.
In the April of 2018, demonstrations began anew, with spontaneous participation of students from across the country. On April 8, thousands of students gathered at Sahbagh, under the banner of Council to Protect Students’ Rights, demanding a reformed quota system with 90 percent merit based intake in civil service. In the evening, things turned violent when law enforcement hurled tear shells and used water cannon on the protesters. Amid the chaos, BCL activists also took part in terrorising protesters. According to media reports, more than 160 protesters sustained injuries on that evening.
On the following days, students across the country boycotted classes and took to the streets blocking many major highways and brought the Dhaka stand still. In the afternoon, a delegation team met the ruling party general secretary Obaidul Quader Chowdhury, where, the authority proposed to postpone the protest for a month. Students denied and carried on. Disregarding the way existing quota system is abused for partisan benifits, and create a loyal bureaucratic community, the state minister of agriculture and presidium member of the ruling party meanwhile, labeled the protesters as rajakarer baccha (offspring’s of war criminal) which fueled the protesters’ zeal.
More and more protesters started to pour into demonstrations in different strategic points from a number of educational institutes on April 11. Many major roads were blocked in different areas of the country. On the face of a cumulative protest, prime minister, on that evening, during a parliament session verbally abolished the quota system in civil service examination.
Throughout the protest days, the use of social media has played a vital role. On the eve of April 8, enduring police brutality, a single young man stood still, waving the national flag became an icon in the social media. This single image inspired thousands of students to pour in demanding a reform. More crucially, social media became an open platform for the protesters to communicate with fellow comrades. Students uploaded instant video and photos of ruling party muscling through students’ residential halls, which, angered the protesters and fueled their motivation.
During the quota reformation protest, Chhatra League has been seen acting as ‘law-enforcement’ only without uniform. On January 23, 2018, BCL activists ploughed through students protesting sexual assault in front of the VC office. Later, vice-chancellor Akhtaruzzaman and the then BCL president Saifur Rahman Sohag told the media that Chhatra League went there to ‘protect’ the VC.
During the demonstration days in April, BCL activists had harassed, assaulted and attacked general students in a number of incidents. On the wee hours of April 11, Sufia Kamal Hall unit BCL’s president Iffat Jahan Esha tortured and injured another student because she took part in the protest. Instantly, the incident went viral on different social media platforms. Esha was instantly sacked from her political post, however, party members went to her resident with flowers and sweets to pay their condolences, which was also exposed in social media.
Let’s go back to the questions posed at the beginning of this article. Bangladesh Chhatra League, after the prime minister’s declaration in the parliament, brought out a procession thanking her for the timely decision and entertaining the demand of the students. Then, why they had attacked protesters? Why had they banished students from residential halls? And, why, they launched fresh attacks on the protesters last week? All the questions lead to a simple answer-the ruling party does not want any alternative voice in the country thus using BCL as their muscle unit in the public universities. BCL activists were seen telling the media that the protesters defamed Sheikh Hasina thus they deserve the beating. Teachers against repression in protest gathering asked, ‘how does a ‘democratic’ government tolerate such atrocious comment from its activists? Who did they get the authority from to attack on the protesters? Needless to say, government’s indifference only points to them as the master of puppet.’
Another menacing issue from the BCL’s part can be observed — labeling the protesters as shibir (student wing of Bangladesh-Jamaat-e-Islami). In many occasions, BCL man found antagonising quota reform protesters as shibir thus justifying their stance of attacking them. Now, falsely and grossly labeling people with certain tag is already inappropriate, moreover, legitimising attacking people of certain political ideology is more ominous. This is also another indication of ruling party’s intolerance of any alternative voice.
The government’s procrastination after the parliament announcement had apparently angered the protesters which triggered a fresh set of protests. If the intentions were right, why did the implementation on such a burning issue was held up? Here, a play is hidden under the delay. On the face of the student’s protest, freedom fighters and their offspring had formed human chain and protest sessions in different parts of the country, demanding that the present quota system remains. However, we have seen social media posts where freedom fighter’s family members are critically viewing the existing quota system. As freedom fighters enjoy the lion share of the quota, the government is deliberately creating two opposing voices — one is of the freedom fighters thus pro-liberation and other is quota reformation, anti-liberation. Dividing a majority of the voters into two very problematic categories will only bring division among citizens thus strengthening the strong grasp of the authority.
Third but the most important question was why the government labeled a quota-reform movement as an anti-quota movement? Should that be a quota reform, the government had to mainly cut down on the quotas of the freedom fighters that they are allegedly abusing to create a loyal bureaucratic community. Moreover, the quota bureaucrats are already in the deep bowels of the government and within a complex network. This has to be made clear here that the protesting students never wanted complete abolishment, rather, they demanded a reform which should entertain the absolutely necessary quotas.
When Awami league bagged landslide victory in the 2008 national election, their primary focus was on the youth. They designed their election campaign focusing on the betterment of the youth of this country. Now, after a decade, on the verge of another national election, the party has managed to clarify their message — they do not care for the youth voice anymore and any opposing young voice shall be dealt with utmost force.
University is a place of open discussion, peaceful coexistence of different opoinion and voices. Now, dealing a peaceful movement in the oldest university of the country with brutal muscle power of student wing delivers one ominous message from the government — no other voice shall be tolerated, at any cost, period. ●
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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