The cost of speaking truth to power

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, Sep 22,2019 | Updated: 00:39, Sep 22,2019

Nahid Riyasad, Maidul Islam, Chittagong University, education in Bangladesh, university conditions of Bangladesh, controversial section 57, section 57, road safety movement, quota reforms movement

Maidul Islam

Maidul Islam is a young faculty at the department of sociology of University of Chittagong. For supporting the students cause and his commitment to academic freedom, he has been subjected to various form of repression in the last year. He was sued under section 57 and was in prison for more than a month. Now, for the same reason, the decision on his application for study leave is left hanging by the university authority. Drawing from his own experience, he talks with Nahid Riyasad of New Age Youth about his passion for teaching and the dire state of public universities in Bangladesh.

New Age Youth: Why did you choose teaching?
Maidul Islam: Since my childhood I had a liking for education and reading books. I did not have any specific reading-table, rather, the entire nature was my study-centre. As I was raised in a joint family, I used to look for peace and study in our betel-nut garden or pond-bank; I was reading books on green grass sometimes and some other times I would be reading laying on a tree branch.

Let it be in a pineapple orchard or a tree branch, lights dripping through green leaves used to play on my pages. The surroundings were full of fragrance of wild flowers and during that period of my life, my relationship with study was cemented.

After I entered the university, the environment was completely different. And I also re-discovered the nature, in more detail, anew. I started becoming familiar with new discourses of knowledge, logic, history, culture and politics; with new and different opinions and started to understand the workings of state and different crisis of university. I used to think that only education can eradicate these problems. I thought of university as the epicentre where combatting these issues could start. To make that happen, the university should develop citizens with sensibility, responsibility and good sense of judgement.

To carry on this responsibility, the role of a teacher is a major factor and to address this, I started teaching.

New Age Youth: During your teaching career at the University at Chittagong, did you meet your expectations as a teacher?
Maidul Islam: I wanted to teach at the University of Chittagong because there a lot of opportunities to bring effective changes because of its autonomous characteristics. A free man could do wonders in such environment. This is no space for state bureaucracy however I gradually started to comprehend the situation.

My perception about the autonomous character of a university crashed and I found out that university is autonomous only on papers. A large portion of teachers are loyal to different political party leaders. Anomalies and irregularities are at rife.

However my real workplace, the classroom, is indeed a hopeful place. The young faces in classrooms are like flames in darkness. They know how to dream and they also know how to help someone to dream.

Government politics and ruling party affiliated organisations are the one to blame for unstable environments of universities. As a result, the function of a university — creating contextualised knowledge considering the society and the world — remains unfulfilled. If freedom is absent in the process of creating knowledge, the channel of knowledge is blocked in the society. So, freedom of thinking is of utmost importance for a university. It is frustrating that we have to demand freedom of thoughts because this is something supposed to be natural.

The kind of university environment I expect or want, there is no alternative to but going through a long resistance.

New Age Youth: University authorities issued you a show-cause letter last year. Would you like to elaborate on this?
Maidul Islam: Last year students have organised two major movements with logical demands — road safety and quota reforms. In these two movements, ruling party student wing launched barbaric attacks on protecting students. I even shudder today when I watch video footages of those days.

I could not silently tolerate the repression on my students, no sane person could. So I protested against the assaults at once, I wrote condemning the attacks on my students on social media. I stood beside my students and the aftermaths were the incidents of last years.

A group of 30-40 people came to my department office, as I was not there so they threatened my department chairman. No justice has been served against the incidents. However, the authorities, taking actions in fever of a memorandum of those people, issued a show-case letter to me and formed a probe committee. The allegations against me were defamatory and derogatory comments against the prime minister. This was a planned move by the authorities to demotivate the protesting students as well as harass me.

New Age Youth: Even at one point you were imprisoned and were jailed for a month. Who sued you and why?
Maidul Islam: When the group of people came looking for me, I was in class. I found them rushing out the chairman’s office when I returned. Their language and body gestures made the senior professors scared about security of me and my family.

I was forced to leave the campus on the next day amidst fear of insecurity because I was threatened several times last night over phone. They alleged that I made defamatory comments against the prime minister. What are the differences between a ‘comment’ and a ‘defamatory comment’?

Notably, the only signature in the memorandum is of an absconder who has three murder charges against him. However, my memorandums seeking security never got any response from the university authorities but they were swift in taking forceful steps against me. They even issued show-cause letter and formed probe committee against me.

When general students protested against such partiality of the administration, ruling party student wing launched attacks on them. Even they threatened to kill the protesting students. As couple of days later, they sued me under controversial section 57.

New Age Youth: Would you like to shed light on your days in jail?
Maidul Islam: Jail life was full of interesting and diverse experiences. I faced a lot of new experiences as soon as I was shifted in a ‘smaller jail’ from a much bigger invisible jail. Sheer will for freedom and pure emotions — these were two major characteristics among my fellow inmates. Friendship during then were not fake.

I was living on the first-floor of Sheikh Russel Building, in the juvenile ward where they keep adolescent boys from 14-18 years of age. I spent a lot of time communicating with them, they told me stories of them, their hopes and dreams, stories of their families and how they got involved with the crime world.

We often used to sit for music sessions. There are certain songs composed by inmates and those songs have survived the test of time through oral traditions. I do not know if they are familiar outside jails. During one such session a song made everyone cry. Inside that confined environment, everyone is everyone’s friend. When I got bail, many of them gave me tight hugs and cried. To be honest, I still fill guilty because I have left friends there many of whom are still there and some might never get their bail.

New Age Youth: You have accused the university authorities of delay approving your study-leave in different media outlets. What are the regulations of study-leave? And how it is breached in your case?
Maidul Islam: In the regular procedure, if someone applies for a study-leave with proper documents, department planning committee after examining the papers within seven working days would recommend the university administration to grant the leave. Point here is that the department cannot grant the leave nor do they have the authority, they can only recommend.

The university administration then will grant the leave after examining the paper again. The application has to come through the planning committee.

The planning committee chief who is also the department head wrote a letter to the registrar asking permission for holding a meeting. The registrar informed through another letter that holding meeting is not his concern or job. Seventeen days have passed since then but still no feedback.

Meanwhile, my semester started on September 1. These activities are against the university ordinance and its autonomous character.

New Age Youth: What are the ways to get over the current situations in the universities?
Maidul Islam: The current vulnerable conditions of the universities are reflection of the current crisis of the state management. When state practices absolute power and there prevails an overall lack of accountability and lawlessness in the society — crisis deepen. Conforming to the state frame, its organisations also act like it.

As vice-chancellor is appointed by the government, s/he no longer remains a VC of the university rather become a ‘government VC’. As a result, serving the government becomes the major goal of any VC. Instead of serving the interests of the university, they serve the interests of government and its allies.

To overcome this phenomenon, a democratic process should be installed to appoint a VC. Also, the process should be free of nepotism and would be based on merit, educational quality and research work. True spirit of the word ‘autonomous’ should be installed in the universities instead of remaining one on papers only.

As the universities are operating by taxpayers money, they should be made public oriented so that ordinary people and the society could make their lives better by using the produced knowledge.

The government should consider that the relationship between the state and the universities are never simple rather it is dialectic; because, dialectic relationships will bring newer ideas. Where conflict and dialectics are absent, nothing new would ever come up.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.

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