From a historical perspective, Nahid Riyasad writes about the recent attempt at banning student politics that has started after the murder of Abrar Fahad in Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. He observes that what we need to talk about is the use and abuse of student demography at the hands of mainstream ruling political parties not of a total ban on student politics
THE murder of Abrar Fahad, a second year student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, during an incident of ‘ragging’ by Bangladesh Chhatra League men on early hours of October 7, 2019 opened up scopes to ask the long standing question afresh — is student politics on campus doing politics of dead bodies? Such violent turn in student politics began on the wee hours of April 4, 1974 when reportedly Chhatra League men opened fire and killed seven students at University of Dhaka.
Even a cursory look at the last decades, a grim reality of campus violence would surface. It is in this context, in the High Court verdict on tragic killing of a tailor Biswajit Das in Old Dhaka in the hands of BCL leaders, the court observed:
Nowadays, we notice that the glorious history of student politics has seriously been stigmatised by some of the derailed youths who have got involved in criminal activities such as extortions, arms and drug trading, murder and violence…’
‘Some political leaders patronise these youths. Even, we see the youths beat their teachers as the latter do not let them follow unfair means in public examinations. Also, some of them who are involved in politics are seen forcing general students to take part in political activities with them.
‘It was the duty of national leaders to address these problems and authorities at educational institutions should adopt policy to stop such practice.’
The demand for a ban on student politics comes is embedded in this larger history of co-opting student bodies as muscle power of mainstream political parties. The history in which student politics was directly linked with the welfare of the general student and served the national interest, as suggested in the court observation.
The brutal murder of Abrar Fahad brought the question of student politics to bear. The protesting student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology demanded a ban on students’ politics. Conforming to their demands, authorities banned all students’ politics on BUET campus on October 11.
What became evident from the student conversation during this recent debate on student movement is that general public and student today conflate ruling party student politics with student politics. The categorical difference is lost in the history of violence. Professor Anu Muhammad (2016) aptly described these difference based on political practice:
‘…we find two major strands of student politics in Bangladesh: one that perpetuates ruling class politics and social relations, and the other that challenges and strives to change them. The first strand is evident in the RPSO, which represents the ruling party, carries its mode of accumulation, and behaves like mercenaries and lobbyists of the grabbers, looters and corrupt state machine. In fact, the RPSO phenomenon indicates the degeneration of youth power. The second strand voices for public interest—youth interest in particular, does not enjoy support from the administration (of either the state or educational institutions), and suffers hostility from the police and other people in positions of power. But this strand represents the regenerative power of the society. Although new alliances under this strand do not have any permanent organisational structure, they have a proven ability to attract significant participation from the student community and are a source of hope not only for educational institutions but also for the socio-political struggles for emancipation, democracy, equality and dignity. In the time of repression, fear, injustice—these youth rebellions give us strength to hope.’
In the last decade, politics of Bangladesh has experienced something unprecedented — ‘stability’. In the national elections of 2009, Bangladesh Awami League bagged a landslide victory. Amidst criticism of vote rigging and their approach of systematically abolishing any political opponent, they managed to remain in power in the subsequent two national elections. During this period, university campuses went through an intensive process of partisan politics. A unique alliance between the government, ruling party student organisation and ruling party teachers group have emerged that left no room for opposition. Student are forced out of hall for not joining BCL rally and teachers are sent on forced leave for raising academic leave. In this situation, any organising activities in the interest of general student faced violence opposition from BCL. Political opposition, apart from left-leaning student wings, are nearly absent in the campuses.
It is true that left-leaning student organisations are the only student bodies that have been relentlessly raising voices for demands of general students. From demanding union elections in campuses to protesting against any injustices on campuses — students from leftist organisations are the only common face. As most of such student organisations are ‘student wing’ of leftist political parties, it is hard for them to come out from the shadow of their mother organisations.
Auroni Semonti Khan, member of Shotontro Jote in the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union election on March 11, 2019, who is doing her master’s in genetic engineering and biotechnology, elaborated on this matter during an interview with New Age Youth, ‘Ideological guidance is crucial for young student politicians, but student organisations have to have certain autonomy to act on their will and accommodate the voices of the general students. If the guidance translates into patronisation in the name of affiliation with a ‘mother organisation’, students’ interest and voices may get lost. Whatever the ideology is, if there remains outside political interference, the organisation will never work for students’ right.’
Justifications of Auroni’s observation could be found if we closely analyse the student movements of least ten years which will also reveal a paradigm shift in student politics of Bangladesh. In this time frame, most of the student movements were organised by general students, not under the banner of any political party or party affiliated student organisation.
Popularly known by the derogatory term ‘farm chickens’ because of their apolitical nature; private university students have organised two major successful movements in the last decade. Both of the movements were against vat on education. The government first introduced a 10 per cent vat upon higher education in private universities in the draft of budget of 2015–16. Following strong protests from students, the vat was reduced to 7.5 per cent. The imposed vat was withdrawn by the finance division after a cabinet meeting on September 14, 2015. Similarly in 2010, the government had to withdraw vat which was imposed on private university students on face of cumulative student protests.
The quota reforms movement of 2018 was one such movement that was organised under the banner of General Students’ Right Protection Council in demands of reforming the existing quota in civil service sector. Even though, their protests resulted in a complete abolition of quota in civil service, which is back-firing for many communities, the movement showed students can organise without a formal party affiliation.
Then the road safety movement 2018 came where Bangladesh experienced something unprecedented. On the first week of August 2018, school students across Bangladesh took to the streets protesting at the death of two school students by a rashly driven bus on airport road, Dhaka. They demanded an overall change in the transport sector for safer roads. Their countrywide protests showed that the future generation is politically way concerned and competent than we thought they are.
In August 2019, students of Jahangirnagar University formed protests against corruption of the vice-chancellor and Bangladesh Chhatra League which ultimately resulted in sacking of top-two Chhatra Leaguer central committee leaders. Students of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University also took to the streets demanding an end to the autocratic ruling of their vice-chancellor. In the face of protests, the VC was forced out of the campus under police protection on September 30, 2019.
Back to the question of the changing dynamics of students’ politics in campuses. On the one hand, there is a violent strand of ruling party student organisations who serves the interest of the ruling party, students welfare or the national interest is not their concern. On the other hand, there is left leaning student organisations and their alliances who speak for general students. However ideologically sound and politically committed the left leaning student’s organisations may be, they have lost traction.
Then there are the spontaneously formed issues based student’s alliances — such as ‘general students’ unity’, ‘nipironer biruddhe amra’ (students against oppression), ‘nipironer biruddhe jahangirnagar’ (Jahangirnagar against oppression), ‘durnitir biruddhe jahangirnagar’ (Jahangirnagar against corruption) ‘nipiron o boishomya birodhi chatrasomaj’ (students against oppression and discrimination), ‘beton-fee briddhi birodhi chhatra oikyo’ (student alliance against fee hike), ‘dhorshon protirodh moncho’(rape resistance platform), ‘sundarboner jonyo amra’ (students for the Sundarbans), ‘jatiyo sompod rokkha torun somaj’ (youth for the protection of national resources), ‘quota sonskar andolon’ (quota reform movement), ‘nirapod sorok andolon’ (road safety movement), ‘no vat movement’ et cetera. Banning student politics would mean closing the door for any organising in the interest of student or our nation.
During Jatiyo Party rule in the 1980s, the then president Ershad once tried to put an end to this anti student politics. He called for voluntarily banning of student fronts of all political parties including Notun Bangla Chhatra Somaj, the student wing of Jatiya Party. The current president of Jatiya Party GM Quader, in an opinion piece in an English newspaper daily, wrote, ‘abolition of NBSC unilaterally did not do well for JP. Sudden reduction of muscle power and subsequent vacuum weakened its organisational structure. This is considered by many a major cause for fall of JP in the wake of opposition led movement.’
From Quader’s observation, it can be said that student organisation of political parties, apart from left-leaning organisations’ are tools to manipulate campus politics as well as hold control of the campuses. As long as these outfits are instrumental in national politics, incidents like 1974 DU seven-murder or Abrar murder will reoccur. What we need talk about is the use and abuse of student demography in the hands of mainstream ruling political parties.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
If the law enforcement agencies and university administration do what they are normally expected to do, criminal activities can be prevented. In reality, we see the opposite; we know the police and university authorities are the patron of this thuggery
Member, Ganasamhati Andolan
FIRST of all, I want to say that what does the constitution of Bangladesh say about student politics or labour organising? I am not saying we cannot critically examine the constitution or the constitution is beyond amendment, but any policy of the state must be considered in light of the legal perspective as outlined in the constitution.
So, if you look at the Article 38 of Bangladesh Constitution, you will find the answer. It is clearly stated there: Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of morality or public order.
Therefore, anyone cannot deprive students of their right to organise at will. Effectively, the demand to deprive students of their right to organise and political participation is unconstitutional.
NOW setting aside the legal perspective, let’s return to the reality. We all know banning student politics is an increasingly popular demand. However, falling into the trap of this popular demand could turn out to be a very dangerous move. Two things must be considered here:
The first, effectively, there is no student politics in educational institutes of Bangladesh. Almost every year, students are taking to streets on various issues spontaneously or under some organisational banner. To prevent students from taking to the streets, or repress students’ participation in movements, thugocracy (গুন্ডাতন্ত্র) is enforced. The torture cells they have created in different universities, it is because, if there is an effective student movement, if students can express their opinion freely, the government will not be able to do all that they want to do. It’s been long that they have quashed the legacy of student politics to replace it with a ‘feudal like rule’ at grass root level. These feudal leaders are characteristically rouged. Their main political responsibility or obligation is to control student-worker-business community in area of their dominance, to keep them always terrorised and under threat. And, to maintain this system to collect ‘toll’ and share a part of this extorted money to those who are in the upper chambers of political hierarchy. More or less, thugocracy is in operation following the feudal mode of operation. Feudalism arrived in the form of thugocracy in the way historical path often betrays.
The second, who is going to rescue the public from this situation? For the government, banning politics or thugocracy or organisational politics — these questions are futile, meaningless. Because, they know from history that a free campus would prevent them from implementing Rampal coal-fired power plant, massive corruption or any deal signed compromising the interest of Bangladesh. Therefore, the government will continue to patronise this thugocracy.
The third, we know that, if a student choses to support a political party, her/his decision to support or campaign for the party is their constitutional entitlement — no institution has the authority to prevent their political participation. However, educational institution can control sound or restrain any activity such as rally, campaign, sloganeering that hampers the academic environment and probably everyone would appreciate such measures. But, illegal control of residential halls, forcing students to participate in political rallies and in case of refusal, the student will be forced out, evicted from their officially allotted seats, physical assault and finally, killing of student — these are criminal offence. That means to prevent these activities one does not need to ban student politics. If the law enforcement agencies and university administration do what they are normally expected to do, criminal activities can be prevented. In reality, we see the opposite; we know the police and university authorities are the patron of this thuggery.
Student politics can end this reign of terror — thugocracy. But, a large faction of our intellectuals is conflating the idea of student politics, organisational politics and thuggery. In doing so, are they not creating obstacle to any attempt at reclaiming the legacy of student politics?
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