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?
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 email@example.com