Quota: middle class or aspirant upper class?

Updated at 09:43pm on July 17, 2018

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Chhatra League activists beat up a student seeking reforms in public service recruitment quota on the Dhaka University campus on Sunday. — Focus Bangla

AS OFTEN stated, the ruling class of Bangladesh is compose of four layers. At the top is the Armed Forces which has the highest level of stability and not affected by any regime changes. A good example is General MU Ahmed who led the 2006 coup and later also served as Sheikh Hasina’s chief of army.
Next comes the business class which was under pressure between 2006 and 2008 but recovered solidly and is in full bloom as always. It has since become smart and now keeps connections stretching to all groups and networks in case of regime changes.
The third layer is composed of civilian bureaucrats who keep the wheels moving and who often have a foot inside the political door. There are many such bureaucrats and as the senior advisers roles show, there is a blending if not a merger. That they are partly affected as regime changes means a new set of favourites.
Finally comes the politicians who play in the field and keep connection with the ordinary people. The most abused of all the four groups, they are the ones who have to work the hardest while enjoying the least bit of power. They are the true victims of regime changes. One should think of them not in terms with the status of average citizens but the other three sectors of the cluster to understand where they stand.
None of the above are members of the middle class. The ruling class is always the upper class and in failing to evaluate the class system operating in Bangladesh, we may be misreading the quota crisis and also the hard-line position the government is taking on the issue.

Middle class jobs or ruling class aspirants?
THE quota movement has largely been identified as a middle-class issue since its students are seeking employment entry restriction reform. The agitating students are not fighting to enter the army or get a business permit or become politicians but become bureaucrats, the best jobs in town. This is also the only space where entry regulations exist as the army recruitment has different rules and a few know much about it. So, the entire quota focus is on civilian employment of the government.

But is government service middle or upper class?
THEY may be less privileged than Armed Forces members but they become one of the four layers of the ruling class. And they are placed higher than the politicians and act as facilitators of the business people too. As several incidents have shown, the bureaucrats have clout reaching to the very top and each time there has been a clash with the politicians, it is the bureaucrats who have won.
No politician can function without bureaucrats, no tycoon can function without their intervention; so, they are not exactly the Tagorean kurta-pyjama-clad middle class we would like to imagine them to be. There have been discussions about the parental background of the quota activists which is lower middle and middle class but the bureaucrats are not that.
By entering the cadre service, they go through an immediate and dramatic transition and become part of the upper class. The background switch applies to all sections of the ruling class paid for by the crown. What matters is not where they come from. What matters is where they go and want to go.

Club membership qualification?
THE ruling class functions like a tight-knit club with very limited access to outsiders and restricted membership. By launching an anti-quota movement, the activists have actually gone against the club entry rules. So, how can they expect kindness and accommodation from the very people they have threatened to dilute through higher number of hiring without control of any kind?
And this has happened in the worst possible time which is in an electoral year. The ruling party has neutralised the Bangladesh Nationalist Party; so, it is feeling happy. But the anti-quota movement has public sympathy and it is not a party issue but could become one. To the ruling party, therefore, a threat is a threat whether from the BNP or the anti-quota activists.
The bureaucracy will also feel uneasy as the inability to deal with the administrative aspect of the situation makes them look less than efficient. This is fine but the last thing they want is attention and exposure. Far too many people are interested in the going-ons of the administrative and its entry code. That is not a nice thing to happen.
They too feel uneasy as so many want to join their ranks diluting the privilege brew. A quota system is a good way to control the entry and asking for its reform or end is threatening to all. So, hard line is a cautionary act for a government that has no interest in upsetting any of the boats, whether political or bureaucratic.
Some reforms will happen but the events have shown the government is not going to be pushed by agitations. Deciding who can join the ruling class is far too important to be public transaction issue. So after a touch of backfooting, the ruling party, class and system are back on its strong foot. Nobody can become a club member unless approved by the current membership. It is a clan and tribe thing, created by the ruling theology.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.