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     Volume 9 Issue 7 | February 12, 2010|

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Cover Story

The Tragedy of Student Politics

He was the only hope for the family constantly struggling against poverty. The son of a wage earner from a remote village in Tangail district, Abu Baqar Siddique managed to get into Dhaka University with the dream of building his career to support his parents and siblings. In the first two years of his four-year graduation course at the Department of Islamic History and Culture, his results were brilliant. Many expected that he would become a teacher of the department; Abu Baqar had only one dream -- to take responsibility of his poor family. But all these hopes and dreams were lost on February 1 midnight, when this hardworking student, who had no political affiliation, got caught in the ugliness of violent student politics and was fatally injured. Thirty-five students were seriously injured due to a brutal fight between two factions of Bangladesh Chhatra League to take control of Sir AF Rahman Hall. Two days later, Baqar died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

Ershad Kamol

Student cadres fight with each other carrying sharp weapons at Dhaka University.

In the usual sequence of such events, an inquiry committee was formed and various interpretations ensued, creating more confusion. Baqar's death is hardly an isolated incident of the ongoing dirty student politics. Sony, a brilliant student of Buet, died in a cross fire between the rival cadres of Bangladesh Jatiatabadi Chhatra Dal in 2005. Last Tuesday night, a Chhatra League follower was killed by the Jamaat-e-Islami student wing's Shibir men in a gruesome fight between the two student groups to dominate a dormitory in Rajshahi University.

In the last 38 years after the Independence of the country, 76 people including one teacher, died in Dhaka University due to violence inflicted by student wings of political parties. The number of those injured in these incidents is totally unknown. It is also impossible to evaluate the loss to the nation when students like Baqar who could not complete their studies or fulfill their dreams become casualties of battles between student cadres.

After every national election, the first thing the student wing of the winning party does is take control of all the educational institutions from the losing party cadres. It has been an accepted form of political thuggery for many years. Following the precedence of 'hall capture' Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) began to 'invade' all the campuses and dormitories, when the Awami League-lead grand alliance won the national election on December 29, 2008. Before then, apparently the student organisation had no existence from 2001 to December 2008 at any institution. In those days, Jatiatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) and Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir men used to dominate the campuses. When the winning student wing (in this case BCL) took over the campuses, sometimes it didn't even take any fighting for rivals to exit, they left voluntarily. Where this unwritten code of conduct was not followed voluntarily, BCL cadres kicked them out, just as they had been purged by JCD cadres after the 2001 elections.

The university and college authorities have kept characteristically silent knowing they had little power to control this illegal domination of the campuses. What was worse, some teachers in many institutes actually aided the cadres in the expectation of occupying greater positions with their 'help', since it is also a given that in Bangladesh, only teachers loyal to the ruling parties hold the posts of vice-chancellors, provosts, proctors of public universities and principals of the important colleges.

Backed by the former student leaders and even from some central leaders, BCL men began to control the tenders for construction within the campus and started taking tolls from small shops at the campuses to supermarkets near the campuses. They also became the authority in admission tests at the degree colleges, since college admission is also a lucrative business. Where they faced any resistance they just stopped the process. Mugging became a very ordinary 'game' for the upcoming cadres. It is alleged that some student leaders have also been involved in drugs and arms smuggling. Recent police records state that a significant number of Chhatra League followers of Dhaka City North and South committees have been arrested for mugging. A Prothom Alo report published in January 2010 featured drug abuse by the ruling Chhatra League cadres at Jahangirnagar University.

Following a clash between the two rival groups of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal recently at Dhaka University, every student organisation denied this cadre as being a member. He was photographed wielding a gun during the clashes on campus.

There have been similar allegations against JCD and Shibir men during the rule of the four-party alliance. Weekly 2000 published a cover story on drug abuse and smuggling of the Chhatra Dal cadres in 1999. Moreover, Government Sahrawardi College Chhtara Dal Unit President Shohag was killed following a clash in a drug smuggling skirmish. Chhatra Dal central committee member Belal was arrested in Magura while smuggling Phensidyl.

Following the trend of the last 17 years, one after another, educational institutions became hotbeds of unrest due to feuding factions within the BCL for taking control of a greater share of illegal activities. So far, four students have been killed and over 300 injured, most of them general (non-political) students. Even teachers have been assaulted when the BCL cadres considered him or her as 'obstacles' to their free style trades.

Dismayed by the BCL men's activities, which no doubt tarnished her party's overall image, the Prime Minister gave up her position as the 'Organisational Chief' of the student wing last year, though there had been no such post when BCL began its journey in January 1948. The Prime Minister also announced stern action against the culprits and asked the students to concentrate on studying and stop any unlawful activities. Meanwhile, the Home Minister repeatedly 'proclaimed' drastic action against the culprits.

However, all these threats appeared to be merely lip service and were not at all taken seriously by the BCL men. Instead of attending their respective institutions, the BCL men have been found in the offices of government agencies trying to manipulate the tender schedule. They could also be found in the residents of the former student leaders and senior national leaders as well for lobbying.

These days, central leaders of the student parties, especially BCL and JCD, do not stay at the dormitories. They live in the posh areas of the city, riding in expensive cars and leading lavish lifestyles. They don't have time for organisational activities. They just order the junior members about and maintain contact with senior members over the phone. They recruit street urchins for putting up posters. Their only intention after being selected as central leaders by the supreme leaders of the two major parties is to make money and to get the ticket to participate in the national election.

These leaders are not accountable to the students, and are least bothered about issues related to student welfare which is what student bodies are supposed to do, such as education becoming more expensive, deterioration of the quality of education and the poor quality of food at the dormitories. Rather, the junior student leaders, actually those who still have studentship, force the canteen owners to give them free food.

"It's the reflection of criminalisation of politics," says Bangladesh Worker's Party President Rashed Khan Menon, MP. "We expected improvement of the situation, when the grand alliance led by Bangladesh Awami League came to power pledging change in its manifesto. However, so far there is no change, especially at the academic institutions. In fact, during the last 20 years after the fall of autocratic Ershad, the approach of all the democratically elected governments towards students has been the same. They use the student leaders like the way the military autocrats did.

Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid
Rashed Khan Menon
Tofael Ahmed

"The main reason behind such 'fighting like dogs' is to become leaders, since the democratic process of becoming a national leader through student movements has stopped students' union activities in the public universities and colleges for the last 17 years. As a result, the leadership of the student fronts of the major parties are imposed by the supreme leaders and these student leaders don't consider it their responsibility to be accountable to the students. As a result, student leaders never think of thousands of problems in the education sector, rather, they do what their leaders tell them to. More than that, they are interested in getting their share of illegal money by misusing power. The ongoing dirty trend of the two major student groups is simply the reflection of their playing second fiddle to the ruling parties," he adds.

However, Senior Joint Secretary of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, does not accept this allegation. According to him, they are just henchmen of some senior leaders of the two major ruling parties, who try to dominate the parties by showing their capacity of organisational activities.

"In fact, it is the cause of all internal factions and fighting for the major share," says Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, "Whenever one faction of Chhatra League wants to dominate the illegal money trades, for protection they want to be loyal to a powerful leader of the Awami League. The leader, on the other hand, tries to influence the ruling party by showing that he has a great number of followers at the grassroots.

"In fact, we should not blindly blame the students," continues Alamgir. "We have to interpret the problem from a socio-economic perspective. In any lumpen economy, it's a common feature that the society becomes devoid of ethics. The universities are not isolated from the society. What are the teachers and the professionals doing? They are also helping the political leaders hold powerful positions instead of concentrating on the improvement of education. If the VC, proctors and provosts are members or advisers of any political party, will the students who are followers of another party respect him, in a divided society?"

Internal sources of BCL and JCD confirm that there is no chain of command in the student organisations. Since the presidents and secretaries of all these parties are over 30 years old and completed their Masters many years back, their juniors, who are regular students, are deprived of getting the helm positions. These senior student leaders are still enrolled as students of different departments where there is no age bar and remain busy in other activities. Meanwhile, the junior student members, who stay at the dormitories dominate the residential halls. Some of these regular student leaders are loyal to the presidents and secretaries. However, those who have created links with powerful senior leaders of the mother parties through their predecessors (former student leaders), do not follow the command of the leadership of the student organisations.

In fact, the trend of direct involvement of the former student leaders began since the fall of the Ershad regime in 1990. The 'heroes' of the student movement that played the central role during the fall of the autocratic government, were subsequently deprived from the legacy of the student leadership and began illegal activities such as extortion from the businessmen, who were the beneficiaries of the Ershad regime. The leadership of the 'democratic parties' did not control them, rather they encouraged them, taking into consideration their potential in the political field. Neither the democratic parties, nor the university authorities felt the need to continue the democratic practice of the student organisations by arranging regular union elections or councils.

Since then, the former student leadership began to play vital roles such as keeping links between the party leadership and the regular student leaders, providing financial support when required, arranging arms and weapons from underground sources, giving 'guidelines' to the students on how to earn illegal money by extortion and giving blind support whenever needed.

Sociologists, meanwhile, blame Ershad for introducing this trend.

"Autocratic ruler Ershad killed the legacy of student politics and the successive democratic governments just buried it," comments sociologist Professor Rangalal Sen, who has done some exclusive research on student movements since the British colonial period. "However, the deterioration of student politics began in the Pakistani period."

A Chhatra League follower died and hundreds injured being chopped with sharp weapons by Shibir cadres during a nightlong fight last Tuesday at a dormitory in Rajshahi University. Photo: Focus Bangla.com

According to Professor Sen, every military ruler and autocratic government has tried to capture student politics by introducing a government-backed new student front and introducing a new education commission.

"When the Pakistani military ruler Ayub Khan found the students of the then East Pakistan after their successful movements in the 1950s and early 1960s, he backed the then Governor Munaim Khan in introducing a pro-government student front National Students' Front (NSF). We still remember activities of those infamous NSF cadres such as Khoka and Pachpattu, who used their muscle power to dominate student politics. They even assaulted a teacher. But they failed because of the ideology-based student movements that were accountable to the students and had enormous support from the general students," he comments.

After the Liberation War, when Bangladesh Awami League came to power with a sweeping majority, the situation changed drastically. Everybody had arms and the student leaders kept close connection with party high-ups. "The situation deteriorated at the educational institutions following an ideological debate between Mujib Chhatra League and Jashod Chhatra League. Bangladesh Chhatra Union kept close relations with Mujibbadi faction. A chaotic situation arose during the central students' union election in 1973 following a ballot box hijacking incident," comments Professor Sen.

The first massive killing took place at Mohsin Hall on April 4 midnight, 1974 when former General Secretary of BCL, Shafiqul Alam Pradhan and his cadres killed seven students in a brush fire. Prothom Alo on February 18, 2009 published a report on the murders at Dhaka University. A similar killing took place again 26 years later when Shibir cadres killed seven BCL men in Chittagong in 2000. Prodhan was arrested and given lifetime imprisonment, but subsequently was given Presidential mercy by Ziaur Rahman.

"Ziaur Rahman as the military dictator did massive damage by promulgating the Political Party Regulation Act 1976 by which every independent student organisation was forced to register as a front of a political party. From then the student organisations began to act just as the front of the major parties. When President Ziaur Rahman introduced Jatiatabadi Chhatra Dal through a leisure trip in Hizbul Bahar ship, he recruited some bright students who subsequently became the leading cadres. Even so, student movements had momentum and played a positive role since it was the brightest students who used to come to politics, union elections used to be organised regularly and the progressive student parties were active. I remember it was Bangladesh Chhatra Union, not the Awami League, that protested the killing of Bangbandhu and the taking over of power by Khandakar Moshtaq at Dhaka University. But, when Ershad introduced his student front Bangladesh Chhatra Samaj, he rehabilitated all the criminals in student politics. By buying out the student leaders, he introduced the trend of dirty student politics in the country," Professor Sen comments.

He further adds that none of the major student parties these days follow a democratic culture. "Once very dominating progressive left-leaning student parties are almost extinct following continued factions and groupings and the fall of the Soviet Union. Shibir tried to capture the heart of the students in the name of Islam, however, after the series of fundamentalists' attacks, general students are also afraid of their activities. In fact, the student parties are sick and in most cases devoid of any ideology, he says.

None of the student leaders of the major student parties except Bangladesh Chhatra Union accepts Professor Sen's observation. BCL, JCD and Shibir leaders claim their own parties are exceptions and are on the right track. Only the President of Bangladesh Chhatra Union admits, "The continuous factionalism in the student organisation and the fall of the Soviet Union have affected the generation of major movements, however, we are still active in progressive movements.”

Since the British colonial period, students have played a major role by generating movements on national issues, especially after introducing Dhaka University Central Student's Union (DUCSU) in 1926. Swadeshi movement and the non-cooperation movement made student politics institutionalised in the first quarter of the 20th century. After partition in 1947, the students supplemented the national politics and in many crucial moments played the leading role whenever the autocratic rulers tried to impose anything against the national interest. Bangladesh Chhatra League (introduced in 1948) and Bangladesh Chhtra Union (introduced in 1952) played the leading role in the language movement, the 1954 movement, the education movement in 1962, the six-point demand in 1966, the mass upsurge of early 1969 and creating the momentum for the Liberation War. Even after Independence, the students played the key role against military dictatorship.

So is it the legacy of past student leaders that motivates the students these days to be involved with student politics? In most cases the answer is 'no'. In many cases students are forced to be involved in order to survive. It is not the hall authorities but the ruling student leaders who allocate the seats in the dormitories. To be able to live in any room of eight students, a first year student needs to develop a link with a student wing and participate in the processions. Moreover, they are bound to attend the meetings with the student leaders every day from 10pm at the guest rooms. Examinations or classes are not acceptable excuses for avoiding these activities.

But what do the leaders preach at these meetings? Do they motivate the students with their ideology? When making money through terrorist activities is the ideology, what can be the nature of motivation? According to a student preferring anonymity, there is a specific way that new entrants are initiated.

"The leaders first look for those students who did not participate in the previous night's meeting. If they can trace one they will demand the reason for his absence. If there is no specific excuse, the leaders force him to either live in the common room with more than 20 students or to leave the hall. If they accept examination as an acceptable excuse, they hurl a few abuses and tell him that in the universities there is no need to study daily as done in the schools." The student further discloses the nature of motivation by the 'leaders'.

"Never make eye contact with your leaders. Always give salam whenever you meet. While moving with the leaders outside the dormitories always stand creating a circle centring the leader. If any student has any kind of encounter with students of other dormitories, he must beat him. If anybody returns to the dormitory after being assaulted, he will be kicked out. And those who want to come to leading rooms must dedicate their life to politics and keep 'machines' (small weapons) or any sharp weapon," the student adds.

The University Grants Commission records state that against the demand of one lakh 63 thousands seats, only 57,339 seats are available in 25 public universities.

Dhaka University Vice Chancellor Professor AAMS Arefin Siddique also admits to The Star that seat crisis is one of the major causes of the ongoing turmoil. "New students face problems coming to the universities. This problem cannot be solved immediately," he says.

However, Professor Siddique denies the allegation that teachers maintain relations with student leaders or that they are taking advantage of the Public University Act 1973, though many news reports have stated that a teacher even assigned Shibir cadres to kill his rival teacher of the same department at Rajshahi University in 2006. "If any teacher does so s/he is misusing the freedom of thought ensured in the act," he comments.

"I don't want to comment on the student and teacher politics of the present times," says Tofael Ahmed MP, who led the 1969 uprising as the DUCSU VP. "If anybody analyses the nature of student politics in the golden days of the 1950s and 1960s, s/he may find the difference."

All of the student organisations were ideologically based and were accountable to the general students, since they had to go to the general students to win the central union elections, says Ahmed. "As a result, they tried to attract the general students by motivating them, dealing with the problems of the students and through co-curricular activities. Through such activities they supplemented the national issues. As a result, these issues got popularity and became successful movements."

"Bangladesh Chhatra League was neither a student front of the Awami League nor was it an associate member, rather it was an independent organisation lead by the students for the welfare of the students. We were not allowed to deliver speeches with the national leaders, nor did the national leaders come to our programmes except in 1970, when Bangabandhu participated at the council of Chhatra League due to a national crisis," says Tofael Ahmed.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir
Professor AAMS Arefin Siddiqui
Professor Rangalal Sen

He further adds, "I handed over my leadership as the president of BCL in just nine months as we could not arrange the council in time due to Martial Law proclaimed by Yahya Khan. As an elected president of BCL and subsequently DUCSU VP, I stayed at the then Iqbal Hall. Following the end of my tenure as the DUCSU VP, I left the dormitory and rented a small home which I shared with Razzaq bhai (Awami League leader Abdur Razzaq MP). Even when the Guardian newspaper in England introduced me as the virtual governor during the 1969 uprising, I used to live an ordinary life like the general students, taking money from my father. It's true that the teachers used to give us suggestions and even donations, but we had no relationship of interest. And the VC of the university used to treat me as an ordinary student; I also had respect for him as a teacher."

Political leaders and social scientists believe that student politics can be revived to its original form by handing over absolute control to regular students by arranging councils and central students' elections regularly. A fully functional central students' union is also effective in running the universities smoothly. The university and college authorities could easily solve many problems in consultation with the elected student leaders. To achieve this, they believe that the political leaders must come to consensus of not misusing the students for political or personal interest; the teachers should play a neutral and nurturing role. When the process will start functioning, it will attract the brightest students.

The Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid tells The Star that the ministry has already given instructions to the public university authorities to organise union elections and to take disciplinary action neutrally. "But the situation is not totally under control of the ministry, unless the political leaders reach a consensus to not misuse the students. The police must take action against the culprits neutrally and only the regular students should be allowed to be involved in student movements," says Nurul Islam Nahid.

He also believes the meritorious students have to play a great role, replacing the wrongdoers. "The brilliant student leaders can easily win the hearts of the general students and bring back the goodwill of the student movements by raising issues to develop the standard of education, hall seat crisis and improvement of quality of food to force the government to ensure these facilities."

The Dhaka University VC also hopes to organise the central union elections; however, he is in a dilemma whether it is possible to organise it immediately. "Since there was no DUCSU election in the last 17 years, reviving it is a complicated matter. All of the student organisations have factions. I don't want to take any risk of closing the university just to organise elections.

But someone has to take the risk for the welfare of the whole system. "If it was possible to revive DUCSU in 1979, after a six-year gap in a political turmoil when the students had thousands of arms and were involved in killings of even the law enforcers, why isn't it possible to organise it now?" asks Professor Rangalal Sen. "If the university authorities have the good intention and the political leaders support the process, it is very possible to control the dirty practices in student politics."

BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is also very optimistic. Believing that the amendment of the constitutions of the political parties to be the beginning of change, he says, "Already the process has started in all major parties by making the student fronts as associate members. Due to the environment, the brilliant students do not join politics. We have to handle it carefully. India also faced similar problems and now they have almost managed it. It happened due to their economic growth. To handle the problem in Bangladesh, we also have to work hard to improve our economy to solve the unemployment problem so that only monetary benefits will not be the motivation for students to get involved in criminal activities. We have to really struggle for a positive change," he adds.

Police recovers arms and bomb making materials during a drive at a Shibir hideout in Mistirpara in Chittagong.

True leadership can only emerge if students get a chance to nurture their leadership qualities during their university life. A complete end to political activities is not the answer and will cause the nation to suffer in the future. A future generation lacking political consciousness will create intellectually stunted national leaders. Organising the students' union elections is the need of the hour and student organisations should be prepared for this by arranging councils. The process has already started in some institutions. The good news is that all of the student parties are participating in these union elections at different colleges. It is only if our political parties are sincere about making sure our educational institutions are exactly what they are supposed be, that is, centres of learning where young adults are inspired to be principled, honest citizens, the culture of violence and corruption under the shelter of student politics will end. Student politics should be limited to issues that affect students and enhance student life not endanger it.


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