The only way the authority of Jahangirnagar University, as well as the government, can resolve the crisis, clear the air is by ensuring judicious investigation into the allegation of transaction of money from university’s development fund to BCL leaders. Stalling the demand of judicial probe will only deepen the crisis, writes Nahid Riyasad
CORRUPTION is commonplace in Bangladesh. The government’s zero tolerance policy towards corruption is rather rhetorical. Tertiary education sector is no exception. In 2016, a report of Transparency International Bangladesh revealed allegations of unauthorised financial transactions in eight public universities and political patronage, nepotism, regionalism and religious identity as dominant drivers of corruption in the recruitment process at 13 public universities. In the past weeks, a large number of students of Jahangirnagar University have united under the platform, ‘Jahangirnagar against Corruption’; some teachers too have expressed solidarity with the movement against corruption on campus.
The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council approved Tk 1445 crore for ‘further development of the university’ in October last year, according to the Planning and Development Office of the university. The first phase of the construction would involve making five dormitories costing around Tk 450 crore. Prepared over the last three years, the plan was designed by Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and included the construction of 23 new buildings. However, it would require cutting down of 1150 trees.
Seed of this fresh set of protests were planted on June 30 when vice-chancellor professor Farzana Islam inaugurated the construction of three residential halls for the males and two for the female students. The designated site of the three male residential halls was set beside the Bishwakabi Rabindranath Tagore Hall. This construction would need chopping down trees which enraged the general students.
On July 14, general students of Rabindranath Tagore hall formed a human chain to stop the authority from implementing a development plan that was not shared with the larger academic community. Their demands were logical because one of the construction sites would devour the playing ground of Rabindranath Tagore Hall leaving a cluster of three male residential halls with zero open space. More importantly, cutting down trees will harm the ecological integrity, said many protesting students.
Protests actually erupted much later, on August 23, when nearly 200 trees fallen down for the construction project. Few hundred students along with likeminded teachers brought out a procession, under the banner ‘Shikkhak Shikkharthi Oikya Mancha (Students Teacher United Forum)’ condemning the decision of cutting down trees in the name of development.
Agitated students took down the tin-wall surrounding the proposed development site. During New Age Youth’s visit to JU, tins were seen scattered around the site. Hundreds of trees were still marked with red ink to be cut down later. Activists of Bangladesh Student Union, a left-leaning student organisation, immediately rushed to the spot and demanded the authority to stop cutting down trees. In the face of student protest, authority of the university was forced to stop the process.
Students and teachers were equally discontented that university administration has undemocratically taken up the project, what they called the master plan, without consulting with larger community. Addressing the rally on August 23, Jahangirnagar Sangskritik Jot (Cultural Alliance) president Ashikur Rahman said, ‘Earlier, the authority assured us that they would stop the construction of two new dormitories for male students in front of Bishwakabi Rabindranatah Tagore Hall but, now they had cut down trees without any discussion.’
Meanwhile, allegations came up against the authority of JU that they have paid Tk 2 crore to the Bangladesh Chhatra League’s Jahangirnagar unit to refrain the ruling party students’ wing from intervening in the construction project. According to JU sources, a few days before the holidays of Eid-ul-Azha, on August 8, vice-chancellor held a meeting with JU Chhatra league top leaders where the share of extortion money came to be discussed. The source also said that VC’s husband and son, who have alleged ties with one of the construction firms that won the tender, were also present in the meeting. The allegation of Tk 2 crore paid to Chhatra League was only for the first phase of the development as the original ‘deal’ was allegedly of Tk 6 crore, to be paid by three equal instalments when the future funds come.
New Age Youth, during the investigation, have learned from talking to students and teachers that this is a well-established practice in the ruling party student wing of JU that they would secure something from the authority prior to any Eid, to distribute ‘salami’ among its activists. In some Eids, it comes in the form of new appointment in the university for which BCL leaders take speed money, in other words positions are created to make way for illegal economic transaction. This past Eid it was allegedly a portion of money from development fund.
To understand the alleged distribution of the money, New Age Youth investigated the dynamics of Chhatra League JU unit which revealed much more. There are three factions of BCL’s JU unit. Of the factions, one is led by JU BCL president Jewel Rana, another by general secretary SM Abu Sufian Chanchal and the third is led by joint secretary Saddam Hossain and vice president Niamul Hassan Taj. The first two factions are followers of BCL central president Rezwanul Haque Chowdhury Shovon and the later one is loyal to BCL central general secretary Golam Rabbani.
According to sources, initially, the Tk 2 crore would be shared fifty-fifty among the first two factions but the equation changed on August 9 when the third faction sat with vice-chancellor and demanded half of the money because of their strong ties with BCL central general secretary. Later, the ‘settlement’ reportedly stood as such — JU BCL president Jewel Rana faction would receive Tk 50 lakhs and the other two factions would get Tk 25 lakhs each. Sources also claimed that Tk 1 crore was sent to the BCL central before the Eid.
Students continued their protest on three-point demands that include (1) relocating the site of proposed 10-storied halls; (2) ensuring judicial probe of allegation of corruption in the development project; (3) ensuring implementation of the newly adopted master plan through participation of the larger academic community. The allegation of corruption justifiably gathered national interest and become somewhat an embarrassment for BCL. Eventually university administration agreed to sit with the students in movement.
On September 7, Md Nurul Islam Saymum, a student of environmental science department, general secretary of Jahangirnagar Theatre and also one of the organisers of the protests was physically assaulted by the organising secretary of BCL’s JU unit. Saymum submitted a written complaint to the proctor in this regard and the students refused to sit in a dialogue until proper actions were taken against the attacker. On September 8, the authority filed a case against Abhishek Mandal in this connection.
On September 9, around 50 teachers observed work abstention protesting at alleged corruption of the authorities and poorly-planned development work on the campus. Addressing the rally, economics professor Anu Mohammad said, ‘The university awaits a big disaster as corruption becomes rampant in mega projects.’
On September 10, a group of teacher backed by the VC under the banner of Bangabandhu Shikkhok Parishad brought out a procession from the university’s Social Science Faculty premises. Addressing the rally, professor Ajit Kumar Majumder, also president of JU Teachers’ Association claimed that, ‘The allegation brought against the JU VC and her family members are nothing but false and fabricated, to halt the implementation of mega development plan of the university’.
Meanwhile, the movement gained civil society support. Transparency International Bangladesh in a press statement expressed solidarity with the student movement, and urged university authorities to probe into the ‘irregularities’ centring its development work.
On September 11, a total of 70 eminent citizens including Dhaka University professor emeritus Serajul Islam Chowdhury and human rights activists, Sultana Kamal, Hamida Hossain, Khushi Kabir gave a statement in support of students and teachers movement against corruption at JU. In the statement, they expressed their concern over undemocratic finalisation of the mega project and demanded proper investigation into the misappropriation of Tk 2 crore from the project fund.
Meanwhile, faculties in important administrative positions continued to deny any allegations of corruption. New Age Youth contacted ASM Firoz Ul Hasan, the acting proctor of Jahangirnagar University to understand his perception on the allegations. ‘We have not received any funds yet so the allegations of financial irregularities are out of the question. The current protests is politically motivated and is aimed to defame a particular person or the authority,’ he said.
When asked about a judicial investigation on the allegations he said, ‘Judicial investigation will come into equation only when there is unauthorised transaction of money. As no money is received yet, judicial investigation is not in consideration. However, if the state thinks, it can launch an investigation through University Grant Commission or education ministry,’ Hasan added.
He concluded by saying that if someone can present concrete evidence of the financial irregularities of the authority, the university would consider further measures.
Vice chancellor professor Farzana Islam, echoing her colleague, claimed that the authority have received amount to pay the consultants of the project, not the operational money. When asked about the allegations against her husband and son that they have stakes in one of the construction companies that won tender for the project, she denied. ‘No family members of mine are involved in any development project, so the question of conflict of interest is out of the equation’.
On September 12, students in movement and the university authority sat for a three hour long meeting to discuss students demand. Nazir Amin Joy, Bangladesh Students Union’s JU unit president, who was also present in the meeting told New Age Youth, ‘University authority agreed to the first and the third point of our three-point demand. Construction of new halls will be shifted to another location and the entire development master-plan would be reanalysed by experts and student review and consents will be ensured in future.’ He also mentioned that the vice chancellor asked for three working days to decide on the second point that demanded a judicial investigation of the corruption allegations.
All this while, the allegation of corruption in development projects of JU involving BCL and university administration became heated topic of debate in print, electronic and social media. In a high level party meeting on September 7, the president of Awami League and prime minister have expressed serious disappointments at the student leadership and recommended possible dissolution of the central committee of BCL. Various sources close to AL said the president and general secretary of BCL central committee may be replaced. On September 14, in the central executive committee meeting of AL, two leaders in question were removed from their position for their controversial activities.
On September 10, JU VC met with the premier and talked for over half an hour on the situation on campus and told the media afterwards that the president and general secretary of BCL demanded ‘4 to 6 per cent’ in cuts from a Tk 1,445-crore project at the university. New Age Youth tried to contact the leaders in question, but they were unreachable. However, in a bid to remain in his current position, general secretary of BCL central committee submitted a letter to the prime minister, excerpts from the letter has been published in a number of Bengali dailies in the country. In the letter, they denied allegation of demanding money, but maintained that the family members of the VC and his family members involvement in illegal distribution of extortion money. Moreover, the letter accused the VC of giving the JU BCL unit Tk 1 crore 60 lakhs.
The blame game witnessed here is in nothing unconventional, this has been the case in every instances of corruption allegation when made public. The only way the university authority, as well as the government, can resolve the crisis, clear the air is by ensuring judicious investigation into the allegation of transaction of money from university’s development fund to BCL leaders.
In institutional or legal terms, the allegation of corruption in Jahangirnagar University is yet to be proven, but what the students movement in JU has made evident is that the university administration operates in close connection with the political party in power — a tie that is considered antithetical to the institutional autonomy guaranteed through the 1973 University Ordinance. The tie that was exposed once again when students of University of Dhaka brought allegation against the vice chancellor and the dean of the Business Faculty over the preferential treatment given to the Chhatra League leaders, for illegally enrolling 34 BCL leaders to the banking and insurance department ahead of the Dhaka University Central Students' Union election on March and eight of the leaders were elected to DUCSU and hall unions. It will not be mistaken to suggest that they operate in a syndicated manner to serve the interest of the political party in power risking academic freedom and sacrificing democratic environment on campus.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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