YOUNG LIVES MATTER : Abrar, a victim of systemic inaction

Nahid Riyasad and Nasir Uz Zaman | Published: 00:00, Oct 20,2019 | Updated: 13:49, Oct 20,2019

Nahid Riyasad,  Nasir Uz Zaman, Abrar Fahad, BCL, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Bangladesh Chhatra League, BUET, Auntara Madhuri Tithi, Nurul Haq Nur, Mirza Taslima Sultana, Tanvir Murad Topu, A-Al Mamun, BCL campus, political dominance of BCL in residential halls

A banner on the gate of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology following the murder of Abrar Fahad. — Abdullah Apu

Violence and violations of university disciplinary codes are happening in plain sight, the perpetrators are known and often identified by the victims, no effective steps are taken to dismantle the reign of terror that ruling party student members created on campus. It is in this context of administrative inaction Abrar’s murder took place, write Nahid Riyasad and Nasir Uz Zaman

RAGGING is pervasive in our public university campuses. It is neither new, nor are they unreported. Earlier, in this page, New Age Youth have covered horrifying stories of ragging from different campuses (‘Ragging: the crooked comedy on campus’, New Age Youth, March 18, 2018). The brutal death of Abrar Fahad, a second year student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, the elite educational institution of the country have exposed the indifference of the university administration. Abrar was tortured to death early October 7 by Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders apparently because of his critical view of the government’s recent deal with India. Students and public at large looked at the CCTV footage that shows the accused killers and members of university administration ‘talking’ standing next to Abrar’s lifeless body and they read indifference of the system in the image. At the cost of Abrar’s life, BUET students have publicly asked, what they have been asking the authority for long, why and how such a practice — that is leaving students physically and mentally traumatised for the rest of their lives, as well as turning university residential halls into torture cells — is still existing?

In recent Bangladesh, ragging has a particular dimension; it is used to maintain political control. It is public knowledge now that BCL is undeniably the dominating political force in universities. The ruling party student wing, not surprisingly, are using ragging, among many other methods, as a tool to maintain their suffocating control over the ordinary students. These ordinary acts of ragging, however, leave unordinary, enduring effects on students who are victims of such violence.

—Samoy TV Screen Grab

Crushing dissenting opinion
INCREASING number of such instances of violence is leading to one single conclusion — Chhatra League is alarmingly becoming intolerant towards any opinion that does not match their narratives of ‘development’ and ‘spirit of 1971’. Meanwhile, the university administration has been shockingly tolerant towards the unruly and violent behaviour of BCL leaders. They enjoyed impunity. So much so, the murderers of Abrar did not left the crime scene, rather, they stayed at the hall and were casually talking to the hall provost beside the dead body of Abrar, as seen in CCTV footage.

BUET students said, incidents of torturing students have been frequent. Earlier on August 7, 2018, some BCL activists, led by Rasel (also an accused in Abrar’s murder case), beat up Daiyan Nafis, from batch-15 of the mechanical engineering department, for taking part in the road safety movement. Later, the recently removed BCL general secretary Golam Rabbani handed Daiyan over to the Chawk Bazar police station alleging that Daiyan was involved with Chhatra Shibir and used different phone numbers to contact them.

During Dhaka University Central Student Union elections, Mahbubur Rahman Sajid, independent candidate for cultural affairs secretary of Salimullah Muslim Hall Students' Union was assaulted by some BCL men for his reluctance to pull out of the election.  They met met Mahbubur at the Ekushey Book Fair premises and forcibly took him to room no 111 of SM hall, kept him confined and assaulted him until he agreed to withdraw his nominations.

A former student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology from Titumir Hall described in ‘UReporter’, a platform to share experiences of ragging, how he was tortured during his time at the university. The website was later blocked by Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. He was summoned by BCL activists of 12th batch and questioned for his alleged connection with ‘(Bangladesh Islami Chatra) Shibir.’ After initial questioning, he was slapped and a sack was placed on his head. Perpetrators then beat him with an iron rod; they took turn in beating him with the rod. In his statement, he said that the group suddenly lost interest in him after hours of torture, they suddenly let him go. His remaining days at BUET were traumatic and lifeless. The victim also said, he got lucky, Abrar’s fate could have been his.

Top, a German shepherd dog, owned by Jahangirnagar University unit organising secretary of Bangladesh Chhatra League, roams Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Hall, and bellow, a pen made on the hall premises for the dog. — New Age photo

Maintaining a culture of fear and loyalty
RAGGING has not always come in the form of physical assault and violence. Talking to students from different public universities, New Age Youth has collated a set of actions considered as ragging: 1) memorising names of seniors, sometimes names of BCL leaders of hall committee with their party position and home town, if memory fails, slapping-thrashing is punishment that one has to accept without raising any question; 2) if seniors are bored, they could ask to measure the entire length of a large room by using a matchstick; 3) strip clothes and stimulate different sexual positions, cover body parts with papers and posting those photos in social media; 4) showcasing of unquestionable inferiority to any senior is an absolute must; 5) forcing students to strip down, take a tour to the university campus and perform a nude dance.

In New Age Youth’s response section on March 18, 2018 issue, a number of present and former students of Jahangirnagar University shared their experience of ragging on the campus. One experience was such, ‘On the first class of my university life, 15-20 students from our immediate senior batch came to our class. They targeted the students who came from villages and who were not so called ‘smart’ in clothes, appearance and language. They, male and female seniors both, began to insult those guys without any reason. One of my female classmates protested this attitude at first. They charged her with very abusive language. I protested and immediately became a target.’

Abhijit Kar is a student of BUET’s chemical engineering department. In a status from his Facebook account on June 30, he shared how he went through torture in campus which left him with hearing difficulties. According to his status, on June 27, Abhijit along with some other fresher were summoned in room no 205 on Ahsanullah hall. One of the fresher were slapped for keeping a beard, another one was beaten because he did not give salam to one senior student. They interrogated Abhijit for his long hair and slapped him so hard that ruptured his ear drums. Abhijit wrote that he had complained to the hall authorities but no steps were taken. The unabated ragging essentially instilled a culture of fear on campuses across the country.

Recruiting political activists
IT HAS been public knowledge that residential halls are no longer managed by university administration; instead BCL holds complete control of student dormitories. General students are compelled to follow the directives of hall-unit BCL leaders, otherwise their access to student dorms are restrained and restricted. The recent incident in the Surja Sen Hall of University of Dhaka illustrates how general students’ academic lives are hampered in the hands of BCL organisers. On September 4 2019, Chhatra League hall committee’s joint general secretary locked down four rooms after students living in these rooms refused to give him ‘protocol’. To demonstrate BCL leaders’ dominance on campus, they coerce general students to accompany them to political meetings and events, a practice known on campus as giving protocol.

Recruiting political activists, in exchange of a seat in the hall, is an open secret. They have to share their allotted seat with BCL cadres; meanwhile BCL leaders live a luxurious life occupying multiples rooms in a hall. Earlier, on October 15 2018, New Age has reported how the organising secretary of BCL’s Jahangirnagar University unit raises a German shepherd dog in its Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibar Rahman Hall. The general secretary was living singly with his pet dog in a four student occupancy dorm room. He even erected a pen for the dog inside the hall premises. Similar situation prevails in other public universities.

In a Facebook post, a student of BUET 16th batch described how he got his by maintaining liaison with a number of Chhatra League leaders. To maintain his seat, he had to not only become member of BCL, but also sit as a proxy in BUET entrance examination. As their bargaining chip, the Chhatra League leaders collected information about his family and for their safety the victim did not have any other way but to obey the command. During the road safety movement in 2018, he finally managed to resign from his Chhatra League post and for that, he was forced out of the hall.

Violence and violations of university disciplinary codes are happening in plain sight, the perpetrators are known and often identified by the victims, no effective steps are taken to dismantle the reign of terror that ruling party student members created on campus. It is in this context of administrative inaction and indifference Abrar’s murder took place.

On October 16, students and teachers gathered in BUET auditorium where the students pledged to defeat terror on campus. During the event, students were seen standing and holding their fists against their heart taking the oath. However, all the teachers of BUET were casually sitting on their chair not taking the oath. This indicates the indifference of university authority that general students are referring to since the murder of Abrar.

It is in this context of administrative inaction and indifference, some would even say complicity, Abrar’s murder took place.

New Age Youth: The vice chancellor of BUET told today that he did everything he could after Abrar Fahad was murdered. As a student of the university, do you think the administration could have prevented this tragedy by taking actions in earlier cases of similar violence?

Auntara Madhuri Tithi
Student, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology

PERHAPS, the vice chancellor knows best what he did after the murder of Abrar Fahad. Only, he knows, what he had done, because we didn’t see any visible steps. Abrar was murdered, but he is not the first victim of BCL’s ragging and brutality. In the last three years, a number of ragging incidents were committed by the BCL cadres of BUET. Students filed complaint to the authorities to take actions against the cadres, no actions were taken. Authorities paid no heed to their complaints. Last year, students have complained to the authorities against Mehedi Hasan Rasel, one of the accused of Abrar murdered, when he, along with other BCL cadres of DU brutally assaulted a student of BUET in the campus claiming that the student is an activist of Shibir. Again, authorities took no actions against Rasel. We raised our security concern to the authority. Now, they say, they knew nothing about the situation! The list of BCL cadres’ brutal activities in the name of ragging is long and a public secret. Had the authorities taken effective actions against BCL cadres when earlier complaints were made, Abrar’s life could have been saved. Abrar’s murder could have been prevented.

New Age Youth: In the aftermath of Abrar’s killing, the university administration at Dhaka University has issued a circular that says student have to leave campus in 15 days after their final exam. Do you think it will effectively resolve the political dominance of BCL in residential halls?

Nurul Haq Nur
Vice President, Dhaka University Central Students’ Union

THE university authority, be it at University of Dhaka or other universities, they lack commitment to end political dominance of Bangladesh Chhatra League in residential halls. We have seen many a times that authorities make empty promises, they never walk the talk.

Immediate after Abrar’s murder, DU authorities issued a circular on October 10 that students must leave campus within 15 days after their final exam of master’s degree. It was just a circular with no real effect on the situation. A week later, many BCL cadres who are no longer students are still living in the residential halls. Actually, authorities are subservient to the ruling political party; they don’t have the general students’ interest at heart. So, one cannot expect that they will interfere with BCL cadres’ activities.

Fair distribution of seat is a demand of a long time and it remained unmet. The university administration practices partisan politics compromising the institutional autonomy granted by the state. For their material and political gain, they rely on BCL. They make way for BCL to maintain their control on campus by playing a deaf ear. In this situation, a piece of paper notifying graduated BCL cadres to leave campus will not end BCL’s domination on campus. It is rather a symbol university’s indifference.

New Age Youth: You have been quite vocal about ‘ragging’ on campus. In a Facebook status, immediate after the news of Abrar’s death became public, you have written and I quote, ‘Haven’t we endorsed torture cell and different forms of torture in the name of ‘having fun’? Your comment indicates a system that normalises violence. We would like you to further reflect on your status?

Mirza Taslima Sultana
Faculty, Jahangirnagar University

IN MOST public universities of Bangladesh, entrant students get harassed, humiliated and beaten both in dormitories and campus premises on regular basis. This is happening systematically in the universities. Violence that stemmed from factional feud between ruling party student members is also common and has been happening for quite some times. However, systematic torture that has been happening to the first year students, as well as to the students of dissenting view is something new, it’s been happening for the last nine or 10 years. During this time, ragging has taken a new dimension.

The member of BCL has made rules for the new students that they have to abide by. Such as during their induction period on campus, they cannot fold the full sleeves, and their sleeves should be buttoned all time in all weather, they cannot eat in the hall canteen, they should buy food from outside shops. The newcomers should always say ‘As-salamu alaykum’ whenever they see a senior student. If they fail to abide by these rules, they are harassed and punished.

The way ragging is used to maintain dominance varies in different campuses. In Jahangirnagar University, the immediate senior batch’s students from Chhatra League come to the ‘gonoroom’ after midnight and start the ‘fapor’ process. A recently released video that is circulating Facebook shows how music is played in high volume in late night and students are made to do sit up. All first year students living in gonoroom suffer from sleep deprivation. On some occasions, students are beaten severely. Some suffered psychologically. Neither the hall administration, nor the university authority has taken any steps to stop the horror of ragging, even though they are in the know. At JU, some punishments were given when severely injured students filed complaints. No preventive measures whatsoever.

To me, this systemic torture is a process of controlling general students, to prevent them to join any other party than BCL. Students are not even allowed to join cultural organisations. This may be the ruling party’s strategy to micro manage or disrupt the rising number of dissenting students in universities.

New Age Youth: A screenshot of CCTV of Sher-e-Bangla Hall’ s porch show that the provost and director of student welfare is standing beside Abrar’s dead body along with BCL members accused in Abrar’s murder case. The image has generated a lot of criticism in social media. As a photographer and visual anthropologist, how do you read the image and its social response?

Tanvir Murad Topu
Head of Photography Department, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute

Photographs and photography is embedded in our daily life. Today, with the advancement of imaging and surveillance technology we see hundreds of images of everyday life, special moments of friends and family in social media. We cherish these images, sometimes they bring back memories of cherished past, we become aware of our surroundings and sometimes we use everyday images particularly once that are printed or circulated in social media to make a point. Interestingly vernacular photography was introduced in the early 18th century once the camera became mobile, portable. People came to know about others apart from their own life.

Photography is interesting in the sense that it can record anything, things that we generally don’t notice. The screenshot from the CCTV footage showing accused killers linked with BCL along with the provost of Sher-E-Bnagla Hall, Director of Student Welfare and the resident doctor of BUET are standing next to Abrar’s lifeless body. In social media, people posted this screenshot to raise question about the ethical position of university administration. Readership of an image is guided by people’s experience and history. In this case, students and public at large saw a portrayal of the close tie between university administration and BCL leaders. The image of Abrar’s dead body surrounded by his accused killers, hall provost, Director of Student Welfare has not only showed what did happen but it raised the questions about the ethical failure of their teachers. A tutor is considered as the pillar of society and in our culture, a tutor is given respect. But, today we are seeing our tutors are getting involved in politics, seeking support from political parties for their own benefits. It is this unholy alliance and ethical failure is what students have seen being represented in this image.

Everywhere people are now under surveillance or getting monitored for protection of the state and its people. With the widespread of technology and active citizen journalism, we now know what is happening in every corner of our society. The important thing to consider is how are we using this advancement of science and technology and the purpose behind its use. The footage at BUET was recorded from a neutral perspective. The camera just recorded what it saw at that moment of the scene of the incident and it does not know who is right or wrong. It is up to us to judge our conscience and morality.

New Age Youth: In a protest gathering, after the tragic murder of Abrar Fahad, two students of Rokeya Hall shared how their Facebook profiles are always under surveillance of the hall unit BCL leaders. They could face warning for liking a page that the leaders don’t subscribe, or unliking their post. In Gopalganj University, the vice chancellor has reportedly taken away the laptop and other personal devices of a student, also journalist for writing something that they don’t approve. What do you think the situation say about the evolving ‘yes men’ culture and academic environment of our campuses?

A-Al Mamun
Faculty, Rajshahi University

THE experience of two students of Rokeya Hall at the University of Dhaka bear similarities with what BUET students have recently shared in the complaint’s reporting website that BTRC has blocked. In Rajshahi University, during the quota movement, we have witnessed how ‘student suspected of being shibir (referring to members of Islami Chhatra Shibir)’ are subjected to intense surveillance. In front of the administrative building, students’ mobile phones were publicly checked, if anything ‘suspicious’ noticed, students were made to do ear-holding sit-ups’, students were beaten following the rhythms of songs, Tarikuls leg was broken into pieces with a hammer, and that video was made viral. Fear penetrated so deep that government hospital refused to treat him. 

Not only BCL, the vice chancellor of RU at the time presented the 'বাম ঘেঁষা শিবির - বাঁশি তত্ত্ব' (left leaning Shibir theory) to suggest that the organisers of quota movement are members of Bangladesh Chhatra Shibir and those who supported the movement are Bashi — ‘left leaning Shibir.’The reach of this surveillance system is far reaching that we have seen how the former vice chancellor of Bangabandu Shiekh Mujibor Rahman Science and Technology University himself has illegally confiscated laptop and mobile phones of a student, threatened her, ran a misinformation campaign against, finally sent thugs of BCL to attack protesting students and all these was done to shamelessly remain in power. We can still visualise the scenes of students fleeing through marshland and bushes for life.  

Surveillance does not come alone. To silence people, there is coercion, physical violence with an all-encompassing surveillance system. Now, we have come to know how there are many tortures cells in university campuses to ‘size’ students. What was witnessed in the name of clean-up operation in Russia of Stalin era, Germany of Hitler era, China during Mao Zedong is now everywhere. The War on Terror project of United States has ensured its wider reach. The description of torture that we have read in Abu Gharib or Guantanamo Bay bears similarity with the description of torture in the hands of BCL.

After Abrar’s killing, professor Zafar Iqbal has written an opinion piece titled, the birth of a monster’. Many media have published the piece with great importance. However, he failed to analyse the political cultural environment and processes in which the ‘monsters’ are born. He has also failed to foresee the political consequence of this process that is to establish an absolute autocracy. But, one of the main accused of Abrar’s murder, Anik Sarkar managed to describe this process of birthing a monster in his confessional statement, ‘Everyone is blaming me for Abrar’s death. But, I only followed the order of our seniors. BUET Chhatra League operates in this manner.’ He adds, ‘Be it senior or junior, we used to beat them like this. Incidentally, Abrar died. We are rewarded, praised when we had managed to beat away any student for not subscribing to our ideology. System has made us brutal.’

Anik said it right — indeed, it is the responsibility of a student organisation to enforce a system of intense surveillance and torture! They become so habituated and casual about torture, so casual that they could take a break in between torturing Abrar, have dinner, watch some tv, take some rest, then return to beat him for another round.  On one side of this system of crushing dissent is the all-pervasive and illegal surveillance and on the other side is the impunity that the torturers enjoy. So, to suppress dissenting voice and instil a culture of fear, intense surveillance and coercion is now everywhere. The consequence of this political situation will be dark for universities, even darker for the nation. What’s been happening is a march towards a culture of blind loyalty — no questions shall be asked or face consequences. Like Abrar did.

Nahid Riyasad and Nasir Uz Zaman are members of the New Age Youth team.

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