IT IS generally believed that student politics in Bangladesh has degenerated since independence, especially in recent years. It is often said that student politics is now controlled by money and power, whereas before independence it was patriotic and idealistic. I argue that the situation is much more complex than this simple dichotomy would allow. In this article, I investigate the dynamics of student politics since independence. Since student politics is a part of the national political process, I briefly look at the political timeline and its mapping, its crisis and repressive politics and fragility of democracy as its outcome. I also briefly touch on the social and economic development of the country and the formation and dynamics of the Bangladeshi middle class, which is the background of most student activists.
I insist that student politics, like politics in general, cannot be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, because collective activity is not (and cannot be) homogeneous. One group may differ from another ideologically or in their priorities, as well as in their working style corresponding to their political alliance. Therefore, student politics cannot be judged as an undivided entity. It can be pro-people or anti-people, it can be a tool of exploitation, or it can be part of people’s struggle for emancipation. It depends on what kind of political, class or social interest a certain group represents.
Political timeline: fragility of democracy
SINCE independence Bangladesh inherited its economy, administration, legal system and physical infrastructure from Pakistan, it was a struggle to develop a new development paradigm and social and political relations in the new country. After the long struggle for emancipation and the liberation war in 1971, it is not unusual that the new state would encounter high expectations for quick and all-embracing economic development and democratisation of the society.
During the four decades since independence, Bangladesh has experienced many different forms of government: civil and military, parliamentary and presidential, elected and selected. Emergency was declared three times (1974, 1987, and 2007), and Martial Law was declared twice (1975 and 1982). During this forty-year period two presidents were assassinated (1975, 1981). In 1991, a non-party caretaker government was introduced to run elections; this was abandoned after the 15th amendment of the constitution. The nation also witnessed three governments coming to power through voterless or heavily rigged elections (1988, 1996, 2014 and 2018).
In the process many commitments described in the Bangladeshi constitution turned into mere rhetoric. For example, while the constitution states that ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’, discriminatory laws remain in place and more have been added for the convenience of the ruling class. The country has moved far away from the constitution’s commitment to ensure all citizens’ basic human rights.’ The real economic, legal and political policies contradict, defeat and finally put those commitments in cold-storage.
Since 1973 the Bangladeshi constitution has gone through many amendments which have made it more undemocratic and communal. In the latest amendment, the existence of ethnic minorities has been denied by declaring all citizens to be Bangali. Scanning all of the amendments that have been passed, three important points of concern can be identified. These are: (1) no major constitutional amendment (e.g. one party system, indemnity law, legalisation of martial law and religion-based politics, permission for war criminals to enter politics, and the introduction of state religion) was made because of popular demand or a popular movement; (2) most of these changes were made by non-elected governments, who came into power by force and were legitimised later; and (3) no repressive or discriminatory amendment has been repealed by a later government.
The ruling groups have become obsessed with accumulating wealth and power, making the electoral process vulnerable and hostage to their demands. On the other hand, the country’s peripheral status gives immense authority to global agencies and local big corporate groups to shape the economy. All major economic policies that have been formulated and all major deals that have been signed with multinational corporations have been done without the knowledge or consent of the Bangladeshi people.
After the downfall of the autocratic military regime in 1990, ‘elected’ governments have been ruling the country. But the fact remains that elections can never be free from the power of physical force and money, the parliament has never been allowed to function as a body of people’s representatives, and this ‘elected’ body was never allowed to formulate, or even discuss crucial policies that would determine the fate of the country.
These groups that enjoy power in Bangladesh supersede the governmental institutions and law of the land. State power and neo-liberal policies give them a huge opportunity, creating conditions for godfathers or mafia lords to obstruct democratic exercises in every sphere of society, including educational institutions. While the nation state is reduced to an agency implementing policies that have been formulated elsewhere, the state exercises increasingly coercive power over its people in favour of vested interest. Fragile democracy has been replaced by demon-cracy.
Socio-economic development path and the middle class
IMMEDIATELY after independence, Bangladeshi society was dominated by the small and middle income groups: petty traders, low and middle-income professionals, small and medium farmers, and small entrepreneurs. There were large farmers and jotedars in rural areas but a wealthy, propertied class based on industry or trade was almost non-existent. That societal composition has radically changed during the last three decades. Now there are thousands of propertied multimillionaires because of the capital accumulation process.
Like many other peripheral countries, Bangladesh was brought under the Structural Adjustment Programs in the early 1980s, economic reform packages that were in line with the ‘Washington Consensus’. There were many elements in the package including the reordering of public expenditure priorities, competitive exchange rates, liberalising trade and foreign direct investment, privatisation and deregulation. These programmes aim to bring everything into the reach of private business, turning every activity into profit, and opening everything for corporate interests. This is collectively known as neo-liberal economic policy.
Economic reforms in this neo-liberal model resulted in many ups and downs for the Bangladeshi economy. Big public enterprises were dismantled; the land on which large mills had previously stood was converted into export processing zones, shopping malls and real estate. Export-oriented garment factories became the mainstay of manufacturing. Permanent industrial jobs were replaced by a temporary, part-time, outsourced, insecure work system. Remittances sent by migrant workers became the lifeline of the economy. Energy resources and power were systematically privatized. As electricity became a costly commodity, costs for the productive sector increased. Moreover, energy security has been threatened by bad policies and corruption. Land grabbing, the occupation of public spaces by private business, and deforestation have uprooted many.
In a related process, the size and proportion of illegal, underground, unreported and criminal economic activities have increased on an unprecedented scale in the last three decades. The size of this economy grows with bribery, commissions approving bad projects, leakage from development projects, crime, arms and drug trade, corruption, grabbing, human trafficking, sex trade, cheating and fraudulent activities.
Neo-liberal reforms were initiated in Bangladesh, as elsewhere, in the name of curbing corruption, improving efficiency and transparency, increasing decent employment and reducing poverty. But instead these reforms have increased the scope and legality of corruption, criminality, resource-grabbing, commissions from bad deals, and gangsterism. This process of capital accumulation is similar to Karl Marx’s description of primitive capital accumulation in Europe, wherein old and new elites appropriate common resources and turned them into private property. And which, Harvey argues, continues as ‘accumulation by dispossession’.
It is common knowledge that such corrupt agencies are politically connected. There is ample evidence that the opportunities to accumulate wealth by means of rent seeking and grabbing public lands and resources have not declined with changes in government — rather, they have increased. Student activists related to the ruling party enjoy the most favourable position among their peers to avail of these opportunities. It is not surprising to see successful student leaders emerge as multimillionaires in their later life. Table 1 provides a summary of the rise and fall of different sectors/areas, indicating the nature and direction of the economy.
The expansion of the Bangladeshi middle class is an important phenomenon in the last few decades. Increased affluence among a section of this middle class is mostly an outcome of the privatisation of social services, foreign aided projects and the expansion of service sector. In order to keep their status and find the ladder to the higher income group, middle-class Bangladeshis’ options are linked to the dominant mode of accumulation. Teachers and physicians benefit from the privatisation of education and health care. The youth mostly rely on the commercialised service sector or other corporate capital for employment. Therefore it is not surprising to find that the middle class, in general, has become friendlier to grabbers, corruption and rent seekers; and neo-liberal functioning of the state.
In the last few decades several new occupations emerged in Bangladesh, most of which are directly or indirectly related to the service sector. Although some new professionals earn a large income, the majority of the newly created jobs are informal, temporary and low paying. One study on occupations in Dhaka city listed many new occupations which are mostly service oriented and highly vulnerable in nature. A low, unstable income and insecure employment has become the inevitable destiny of large numbers of uprooted people from rural areas. The fast growth of the informal sector has given rise to the floating labourer who receives a lower wage than what is paid to industrial workers. High-income occupations are mostly found with international agencies, private banks, NGOs, consultancy firms, construction groups and big business houses. Most business groups rely heavily on the ruling party’s support, especially its student and youth organisations, to enable the business to function smoothly and gain easy access to the contract mechanism.
University: public and private
BEFORE entering an analysis of student politics since the 1960s, a quick glance at public and private universities in Bangladesh is needed. Public universities have always been the centre of student politics in Bangladesh. At the time of independence, there were six public universities in the country: four general universities (Dhaka University, Chittagong University, Rajshahi University and Jahangirnagar University) and two specialised universities (Bangladesh Agricultural University and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology). There were no private universities in the country until the early 1990s.
At the beginning of this decade, the number of public universities in Bangladesh reached to 34. Because of the policy of privatisation of higher education since early 1990s, more than 60 private universities are currently in operation, with more in the process of getting registration. Public university students now reach 2 lakhs, with female students making up 30 per cent of that number. Colleges under the National University (which is the umbrella organisation for government and semi-government colleges) now have a total of nearly 13 lakh students, of which a little less than 50 per cent are female. Therefore 67 per cent of graduate level students study in different colleges under the National University, 13 per cent study in public universities, 11 per cent study in Open University, and 9 per cent study in Madrassas under the Islamic University.
Trajectory of Bangladesh politics and student activism
A CAREFUL reading of history indicates that the use of violence in student institutions, or of state-backed violence over general students, started during the military rule in Pakistan. Since then, without exception, we find that the ruling party’s student wing, armed and violent, terrorise the general student population to ensure their authority. Unfortunately, this trend has not stopped after independence but rather it has increased with every change of regime. I therefore term this as the ruling party student organisation–RPSO phenomenon.
Terror in student politics: Pakistan period
DURING the 1960s, a student organisation backed by the military regime of General Ayub Khan and Governor Monayem Khan, known as the National Student Federation, was used to suppress the increasing mass resistance in public universities. This organisation terrorised opposition activists and did not even spare university teachers. At one point of mass uprising destroyed them and subsequently the regime fell. Student activists who were working against military repression and national discrimination played a significant role in building national resistance to the Pakistani government. The major student organisations in opposition to the regime included the Chatra League, the Chatra Union (led by Rashed Khan Menon) and the Chatra Union (led by Matia Chowdhury). Later on many other organisations also rose in opposition to Pakistan’s autocratic rule.
End of Pakistan
IN 1971, the Pakistani military regime rejected the outcome of the 1970 general election, in which the Awami League was victorious. If the Awami League took power, it would have changed the political balance between Pakistan’s east and west wings. The generals and other members of the West Pakistani government could not accept this prospect of shift in power. In a pre-emptive attempt, they attacked millions of civilians in East Pakistan, starting a genocide on 25 March 1971. In response, the Bengalis resisted and the Bangladesh Liberation War began. The young population, particularly student activists, played a vital role in this war. After nine months of armed struggle and enormous sacrifice, Bangladesh was born. The new nation faced high expectations for a new, equal and just society — a dream that remains unfulfilled to this day.
Early years of Bangladesh
AFTER the victory in 1971 the people of Bangladesh experienced many forms of defeat. In 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League enjoyed unparalleled authority and popularity in Bangladesh. But the party did not use its popularity to develop an inclusive plan for state formation. Rather, groups connected to the Awami League used the party’s strength to grab money, power and resources. There was virtually no opposition except some leftist groups, both open and underground. The ruling party leaders were intolerant of any opposition and would not allow a fair electoral process either at the national level, trade unions, and professional organisations or at student unions. Elections were manipulated through rigging and armed attacks aimed at capturing voting centres and snatching ballot boxes. Bangladesh Chatra League, the ruling party student organisation at that time, used the same tactics in educational institutions.
This resulted in popular discontent, which the government countered with a policy of severe repression. The government organised Special Forces to operate against protestors. Party organs were used to spread fear and physical force was used against dissident voices and activism. Although the party already had a stronghold in workplaces and educational institutions in both rural and urban areas, they did not want to leave any space for criticism of the ruling party.
The response to the government’s authoritarianism was a gradual increase in the opposition’s support. At one point, a new party was created through a schism in the ruling party; the new party’s student organisation (Jasad Chatra League) soon became the strongest rival of the ruling party in educational institutions. Armed clashes between these two groups became common in universities and colleges as well as on the streets. The years of violence and anarchy, uncertainty and repression ended badly, first with the declaration of emergency and then with the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family members by a group of army personnel. Martial Law returned in less than four years after independence, resulting in a year-long ban on political activities including student activism.
AFTER many bloody clashes, the then-army chief General Ziaur Rahman took over the state power and became the president of the country. His regime allowed limited party activities beginning in July 1976. The Political Parties Regulation made it mandatory for student and other frontal organisations to be affiliated with a political party.
A new party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was created to give Zia a political platform, and the Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal–JCD was organised as the BNP’s student wing. The JCD quickly spread and replaced the Chatra League as the dominant student organisation, facing less resistance from the Chatra league, which had lost influence with the Awami League’s loss of power, and the JSD Chatra League, which had become scattered after the failed November 7 uprising.
Religion-based political parties were banned in the 1972 constitution, which was withdrawn after the military takeover in 1975. This allowed Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, which had been accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army to commit genocide and other war crimes, to return to the political scene by the late 1970s. Jamaat’s student organisation also reappeared with the revised name of Islami Chatra Shibir.
By the early 1980s the main student organisations in Bangladesh were: the Chatra League, affiliated with the Awami League; the Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal, affiliated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party; the Chatra Union, affiliated with the Communist Party of Bangladesh; the JSD Chatra League, affiliated with the Jatiyo Somajtantrik Dal; the Islami Chatra Shibir, affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh; the Chatra Moitry, affiliated with the Workers Party; and the Biplobi Chatro Moitri, affiliated with the Communist League.
Islami Chatra Shibir
HERE it is necessary to include a brief discussion of the activities of Jamaat’s student organisation. Jamaat-e-Islami was the largest party opposing the 1971 liberation war and many of its leaders have been accused of war crimes. After Jamaat’s return to politics during military rule in 1975, it became a mainstream party and turned the decade of agitation against military rule during 1980s to its advantage by liaising with both the Awami League and the BNP in the anti-Ershad movement on the one hand and the military regime on the other.
There are two major alliances in Bangladeshi politics: the 15-party alliance led by the Awami League, and the 7-party alliance led by the BNP. Jamaat participated in the anti-Ershad movement independently, but keeping close connections with both the alliances. The media described this as ‘simultaneous movement of 15-party alliance, 7 -party alliance and Jamaat.’ Tactically this was very convenient for Jamaat, and indicates a well-planned strategy to regain strength in mainstream politics. Although there were many incidences of arrests, torture, repression, and killing during the anti-Ershad movement, Jamaat was little affected. Rather, their connections allowed them to spread their organisational structure without obstruction from either the government or the opposition.
During the 1980s, Islami Chatra Shibir was the most active and aggressive of Jamaat’s wings. There were many clashes between the ICS and the other student organisations. On many occasions ICS used violent tactics such as capturing student halls with firearms. A number of students were killed by the ICS during this time, including Jamil Akhter Ratan in Rajshahi Medical College and Kabir in Jahangirnagar University. Kabir was a member of Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal, the student wing of the BNP. After Kabir was killed, the other student organisations and general students united against the ICS and ousted the organisation from the campus. Later Islami Chatra Shibir tried to enter JU with weapons, but failed due to widespread resistance by the students, especially female students.
Ershad Regime: Age of united student activism
President Zia was killed by a section of the military on May 30, 1981. After a year of staged drama, the army Chief General Hussein M Ershad again declared martial law on March 24, 1982. He remained the president of Bangladesh until December 6, 1990 when he was removed from power by a mass uprising. Bangladeshi student politics had its most glorious and united phase during the anti-Ershad democractic movement. .
In the beginning, the military rule received the blessings of some civil quarters. The daily newspaper Banglar Bani hailed the military coup as a ‘revolution’. The first protest against martial law was organised a few months after it was imposed by students belonging to small left-leaning organisations. They chanted slogans against military rule, put up posters and demonstrated when these activities were completely banned. These protests’ leading activists were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in jail in summary court.
That could not stop the increase in students’ active role in organising protests against military rule. Small initiatives and informal discussions culminated in a programme of ‘Shikkha Bhaban Gherao’ (blockade of the Ministry of Education Building’ on January 11, 1983. Within a month, on 14 February, a bigger demonstration shook the regime. Under the banner of the Chatra Sangram Parishad, a united platform of different student organisations, a huge number of students paraded through the main streets of Dhaka city demanding the end of martial law. More than 10 thousand students participated in this demonstration, most of whom were non-partisan, not being members of any student organisation.
The military regime responded with a brutal attack on the rally.
A number of students including Zafor and Joinal were killed by police fire, and many more were injured. Then the military entered the Dhaka University campus and randomly attacked students. Following this, the government declared all public universities closed sine die. In return, the student body declared the 10-point programmes on March 10, 1983.
In this way, the student movement effectively influenced national politics to create a movement against General Ershad. This resulted in the formation of two alliances: the Awami League-led 15-party alliance and the BNP-led 7-party alliance. Students organised another huge anti-Ershad procession on February 28, 1984, which was again attacked by the military regime and two student leaders, Selim and Delwar, were killed. In response, students observed a countrywide protest strike on March 1, 1984. On February 13, 1985, Basunia was killed in another student procession by an Ershad-backed armed group. The Ershad regime tried to pacify the country by having elections, introducing the Upazilla system and holding Upazilla elections amid widespread resistance in 1985.
Facing increasing resistance from students, Ershad founded a new student organisation named Natun Bangla Chatra Samaj–NBCS. His student wing (later renamed Jatiya Chatra Samaj) became a replica of NSF (National Student Federation), an armed gang that terrorised students and grabbed public universities during Pakistan period. Despite some violent activities, this organisation quickly lost influence due to the rising power of the united student opposition.
By the end of 1987, the anti-Ershad movement turned into a countrywide mass uprising. It became irresistible after killing of Nur Hossain who became iconic with writing in his chest soirachar nipat jak (down with dictatorship) and gonotontro mukti pak (let democracy be free). When the Ershad government had nearly collapsed after the resignation of most parliament members, a countrywide emergency was declared. In the beginning of 1988, parliamentary elections were held, but all the major parties boycotted it. This resulted in an unprecedented fraudulent election without voter participation, yet a parliament was formed with these so-called elected members. The regime’s life extended for another two years, during which protests continued. In 1989, there were 60 days of countrywide hartals and blockades against the government. During these strikes, five individuals were shot dead, including Jehad Hossain (37) were shot and 100 were injured. The killing of Dr Shamsul Alam Milon sparked new protests all over the country.
At this stage, a grand alliance of 22 student organisations was formed, including all student organisations except the Islami Chatra Shibir and named Sarbo Dolia Chattra Oikkya (All Party Student Unity-APSU). This student alliance played a decisive role in the final days of the Ershad regime. This new grand alliance provided a unified leadership for the anti-Ershad movement, which was instrumental in expanding the united movement, and reduced the mutual hatred among the major political parties’ leaders. It also brought the political leaders together to sign a Joint Declaration. This brought the anti-Ershad movement to a climax in the first week of December 1990. They also could come to consensus on the 10 points charter of demand. After the fall of Ershad they further finalised the charter. Most of the demands in this charter remain unfulfilled till today. The summary of the charter is as follows:
10 points charter
1. (a) universal, democratic, scientific education policy at all levels. Free and compulsory education up to level 10 at schools. Tiffin, school dress and stipend must be ensured. No privatisation and commercialisation of education. (b) All universities must be autonomous, violence-free and democratic. Chancellor must be an educationist. (c) Educational expenditure must be raised to 8 per cent of GDP and 25 per cent of the national budget.
2. (a) Withdrawal of tuition fee hike. (b) No discrimination in education. Students’ concession in transport. (c) Part time job for students. (d) Textbooks must be delivered by government in the beginning of academic year. (e) Free health care in all educational institutions. (f) Games, art, music and cultural activities must be introduced. (f) Appointment of qualified teachers and the increase of teachers’ salary
3. Trial of General Ershad and related ministers, MPs, businessmen, bureaucrats for killing, illegal rule and corruption. Confiscation of their illegal properties.
4. Fundamental rights including freedom of press, opinion, and judiciary. Democratisation of constitution. Repeal undemocratic repressive laws.
5. Full rationing. No privatisation of health sector.
6. Trial of war criminals. To uphold the spirit of liberation war. No use of religion in politics. State must be secular.
7. Scrapping of all unequal and anti-people deals with foreign countries and companies; cancellation of lease agreement on Haripur oil field. Punishment of Bank defaulters. (b) Ensure workers rights according to ILO. Implement 5 points of SKOP, 10 points of 27 peasants and agricultural workers unity, (c) equal rights of women and men. Meet demands of women organisations.
8. Patronisation of film, theatre and publication. Withdrawal of all restrictions and censorships. Cancel report of cultural commission. Meet demands of combined cultural alliance. (b) End prostitution and rehabilitate prostitutes.
9. Repeal vested (enemy) property act. Stop military repression on Chittagong Hill Tracts ethnic minorities and bring political solution. Recognise all ethnic minorities and ensure their fundamental rights including special rights to self-rule.
10. Foreign policy must be independent and non-alliance, not dependent on Imperialism. Oppose imperialistic war and aggression. Oppose Zionism, neo-colonialism, fascism, racism. (b) Solve Farakka, Talpatti, Corridor issues with India keeping national interest intact.
The dissolution of the anti-Ershad alliances and new formation
RPSO phases since 1991
THE phase of unity among student organisations ended with the fall of the Ershad regime in 1990. Since 1991 Bangladesh has been ruled by elected governments led by either the Awami League (and the alliance) or the BNP (and the alliance). The ruling party’s student organisation dominates educational institutions, using even violent means to capture each institution. For this reason, the university administration and especially the student hall administration are controlled by the ruling party student organisation.
Thus, from 1991 to 1996, Bangladesh’s educational institutions were under the control of the Chatra Dal, and in some places Chatra Shibir was in control. From 1997 to 2001, they were replaced by the Chatra League. Chatra Dal and Shibir again came to a controlling position from 2001 until 2006. After a gap of two years due to the military-backed interim government, the Chatra League returned to power after the Awami League won the 2009 general election. The extent of the RPSO’s domination has increased over time. In the latest phase, the RPSO enjoys absolute power.
In recent years, newspaper reports have shown how RPSO workers are engaged as mercenaries in grabbing land and shops, snatching tender documents to ensure contracts, and beating protestors. Even the university administration has used them to suppress student unrest against fee hikes or anti-student decisions. In return, RPSO leaders and followers gained extra power to do whatever they wanted, including mugging, looting, sexual harassment, and forced rent collection from businesses, transport and ordinary citizens.
IN FACT, RPSO’s control of public universities has been so overwhelming that there remains little space for other student organisations to resist the misdeeds of the ruling party student organisation. At this stage, a new formation of student mobilisation has emerged. This formation can be traced to the late1990s.
In 1998 a new alliance was formed by (mostly) female students in Jahangirnagar University to protest sexual harassment and rape on campus. Because the accused rapists and sexual harassers were RPSO leaders, no single student organisation would dare to protest against them. The participation of the female students was so effective that their voice couldn’t be silenced, although the threats and terror of the RPSO. Although leftist student organisations were consistent participants in the movement, the main force came from non-party general students.
In an article published during the movement, I found the following features while trying to articulate the new formation: ‘(1) this is the first time that any anti-rape movement has been created and sustained for a long time. (2) Participation of general students, specially female students, is huge and unprecedented. (3) This movement grew by challenging repressive role of the ruling party student organisation when no student organisation was in a position to contest them. (4) This movement nevertheless gathered strength from the past anti-establishment movement. (5) This movement has raised question of revisiting present left organisations as well as political nature of ‘spontaneous’ and ‘social’ movement’.
In the following years, similar movements appeared on other campuses to address different issues: against sexual harassment in Dhaka University (1998-9), against RPSO violence and terrorising campus in JU (2000), and against police atrocities in one of DU’s female dormitories (2002). These movements have had a significant impact on the student body politic. Other movements against rising tuition fees also occurred in the following decades by alliances of general students and leftist organisations. There were also mobilisations against sexual harassment with some notable results including high court directives and University Grants Commission to introduce ‘policy against sexual harassment’ in every university and educational institution.
The movement to protect natural resources is another area in which youth activists have been very active. A different organisational form of this movement with definite demand and programmes also deserve attention. Although many leftist parties have been active in the larger alliance, this has not been a party-centric movement. Instead, it has created a space for non-party individuals and other social groups to join the alliance. This alliance , the ‘National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Port and Power,’ was established in 1998 to protest suspicious deals with multinational companies, the Magurchara blowout by US-based company Occidental, and the attempt by multinationals to export gas. The alliance has undertaken many countrywide programmes with massive participation and popular support, and in every phase both party and non-party youth activists played vital role. In Table 2, I have correlated the phases and types of student activism with the corresponding socio-politico-economic policies for each time period.
THERE are two major strands of student activism in Bangladesh; one that perpetuates ruling class politics and social relations, and the other that challenges and struggles 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. The RPSO indicates the degeneration of youth power. The second strand is not strictly organised, not patronised, and does not enjoy support from the administration (of either the state or educational institutions), and suffers hostility from the police and other powerful people. But this strand represents the regenerative power of the society.
As democratic institutions and practices are far from real in Bangladesh, RPSO represents what is essentially a zamindari system that overrules any institutional or legal process in Bangladeshi educational institutions. A space for the healthy growth of student political and cultural activism in these institutions is still a dream and a source of continual struggle. Nevertheless, under every regime there have been sparks of protest against the RPSO and the state’s anti-student policies. Under the banners such as ‘general students’ unity’, ‘nipironer biruddhe amra’, ‘nipironer biruddhe jahangirnagar’, ‘nipiron o boishomya birodhi chatrasomaj’, ‘beton-fee briddhi birodhi chatra oikyo’, ‘dhorshon protirodh moncho’, ‘sundarboner jonyo amra’, ‘jatiyo sompod rokkha torun somaj’, ‘quota songskar andolon’, ‘nirapod sorok andolon’ etc, new alliances have been seen in the last few years. Although these new alliances 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 for Bangladeshi society.
Anu Muhammad is a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.
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