<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing if not serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 117 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 08, 2003

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The Night-raiders

Shawkat Hussain

Once again storm-clouds have gathered over the campus. There have been clashes between two student organisations and an indefinite strike has been called. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the next few days before this piece is published. Who knows how long the strike will continue? Who knew over a year back that a newly appointed Vice-Chancellor would take up office at night when the entire campus was getting ready to sleep? Who knew that on the night of the 23rd of July 2002 policemen would break into Shamsunnahar Hall and terrorise the girls while the campus slept?

These memories of the night-raiders are still fresh with us; and already another dark shadow is darkening our lives. Female students of Dhaka University recently observed the 23rd July night. The students held a candle-light vigil, formed a human chain, made speeches, and walked around in processions demanding that the guilty be punished and the report of the inquiry commission be published. It is doubtful if any of these latter demands will be met, but there are lessons to be learned from last year's incidents.

My bedroom window overlooks the lush-green playing field of the Shamsunnahar Hall. On any normal day, it is a lovely view, peaceful and idyllic, with groups of students strolling, chatting, or sitting on the grass reading books. At night you cannot see anything; only the voice of someone calling roll to make sure the girls are in their rooms breaks the silence of the night. Every night I hear this roll-call. That night, if I had night-vision goggles, as the US soldiers in Iraq do, (and if I were awake) I would have been able to see the action of the police as they swooped on the girls, lathi-charged them, and hauled them up onto the police vans. Instead I slept through the night as one is expected to do, while the girls woke up to their worst nightmares. I had absolutely no idea of the frightful drama that was being enacted there.

Half-way through a class the next morning I was interrupted by a group of students who informed me that three students from my department had been arrested and were in hajat. I knew only one of them by name, the top girl of 4th year honours. Initially I was a little shocked: nothing in my life and career had prepared me to deal with a situation of this sort, but I had to do something as the Chairman of the Department. I remember that I called the Proctor immediately and I also remember that the Proctor, with impatience and anger and arrogance in his voice, told me that the girls had committed violence and cases had already been lodged against them. I rushed to the Ramna Police Station with a younger colleague. Another young female colleague was already there, comforting them by her presence. I will never forget the faces of the girls I saw there. They had spent half the night there cramped in a small room with over 20 other girls. The tears had dried but the fear and fatigue and the trauma they suffered were etched deeply on their faces. By noon, all the arrested students were given conditional release. And the rest is history!

I actually saw the beginnings of this historic movement when a group of young teachers, both male and female assembled in the teachers lounge and decided to show their support for the agitating students outside. And thus the movement began. For the next eight days, an unprecedented storm of protest raged throughout the campus. Students demanded that the VC and proctor should resign. There were loud processions by students and silent ones by teachers, there were sit-ins and speeches and fasts-unto-death. It was a do-or-die situation. It did not seem possible that university life could continue any longer with the incumbent in the chair those were heady moments! But thick-booted BDR personnel in riot-gear and the police swarmed all over the campus and harassed teachers and students by their very presence in the campus. Those were suffocating days as well. The campus was in a state of siege. All the newspapers roundly condemned what had happened in the campus.

But the VC, like an ostrich stuck with its head in the sand, refused to see or understand what was happening just outside the magnificent mansion where he lived. He prevaricated and he lied, he distorted facts and he suppressed information. He said that no male policemen entered the Hall, that the girls who were agitating in front of Rokeya Hall were garments workers. And in the end, he had to go, making perhaps the most ignominous exit in the history of VC-exits. If only the VC had taken responsibility for what had happened and promised to initiate an enquiry, history might have been written differently. One person close to the VC who surprised many by joining in the demonstrations against him, is reported to have said: I have to be on the side of history. And he was.

Or perhaps it was inevitable that the VC should have acted the way he did. A combination of academic mediocrity, ambition, arrogance, short-sightedness, greed, absence of morality and narrow partisanship vested in the highest office of an institution, can seldom lead to judicious action or bode well for the nation. It is unfortunate that the political process both within the university and outside is such that often only the scum manage to rise to the top. Ideally, the VC of any university should combine qualities of academic excellence, moral strength, leadership, vision, and inexhaustible energy. A tall order but a necessary order.
On a less exalted note, perhaps the greatest achievement of any Vice-Chancellor would be to be able to live inside his great house with only one sentry to protect him from trespassers, and not a whole regiment of police to guard him from other unnamed enemies. The health of the campus is inversely proportional to the number of policemen guarding the house of the VC. I saw quite a few today. The symbolic value of an unprotected VC would be incalculable.
The writer can be contacted at bangla_deshi@hotmail.com





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