Abdullah Al Rafi, a student who has been observing the hunger strike, said, “Sir (Muhammad Zafar Iqbal) told us that he has been sent to us with a certain commitment. It’s not fair to harm our health for the sake of the VC. Therefore, he requested us to break the hunger strike. However, our movement will continue.”
Rafi further said, “He said that we should not harm ourselves and call off the hunger strike considering the fact that those who are undergoing treatment at hospitals are in critical condition. Trusting in his words, we decided to withdraw the hunger strike.”
The movement started on 13 January. On that night, several hundred students of Begum Sirajunnesa Chowdhury Hall started the movement demanding the resignation of hall provost Zafrin Ahmed on the allegation of misconduct with the students. Later on Saturday evening, members of Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing ruling Bangladesh Awami League, attacked the protesting female students.
In protest, the agitated students confined the VC in the ICT building of the university the next day. Then the police beat up the protesting students, opened fire on them and hurled sound grenades towards them. Although the university was declared closed indefinitely and the students were asked to leave the hall at around 8.30pm that day, the agitated students ignored it and continued their demonstration renewing their demand of the resignation of the VC.
The SUST has been in turmoil for the last 13 days. As many as 24 students sat on a hunger strike at around 3.00pm on 19 January as their demands were not met in the first six days of the movement. Later, one of them had to leave due to his father’s illness. On 22 January, five more students joined the hunger strike around 8.00pm. As of 6.00am today (Wednesday), 20 of the 28 students on hunger strike have been receiving treatment at different hospitals in Sylhet city.
They were brought to the campus later in the morning. The other students on hunger strike took position in front of VC’s residence. A total of 27 student broke the fasting today. One of them is still admitted to a hospital due to a surgery.
Meanwhile, education minister Dipu Moni, Awami League’s central organising secretary Shafiul Alam Chowdhury and several hundred teachers of SUST proposed the students to call off their strike and sit in a discussion with them, but the students refused it.
The students on hunger strike also rejected the collective request from hundreds of protesting students to withdraw the strike on Tuesday evening.
Muhammad Zafar Iqbal came to the university campus and talked with the students on hunger strike for almost two hours. He enquired about the physical condition of the students. At the time, the students also provided him with the details of the movement. Both Zafar Iqbal and Yasmeen Haque tried to convince the students.
Addressing the students on strike, Zafar Iqbal said, “You won’t believe how massive your movement has been. All the universities are shaken by this. You will get what you wanted. This is your campus. This campus will run in the way you want. But you have to break the fasting. Thirty four vice-chancellors have been passing sleepless nights. I won’t move from here if you do not break the fast. I will not leave until you take food.”
The protesting students and students on hunger strike informed Zafar Iqbal about several problems in the campus and the residential halls at that time. The protesting student complained that although they were beaten up by the police in a barbaric manner, cases have been filed against them.
In reply Zafar Iqbal said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright. I assure you that all the cases will be withdrawn.”
Zafar Iqbal stayed with the students till 6.00am. He told the students, “I was asked for a write-up for a memoir on the occasion of birth centenary of Bangabandhu. I was given Tk 10,000 as an honorarium for that writing. I have brought that money with me. I'm donating that in the fund of this movement. Keep it. Now let them arrest me.”
Then he handed over the money to the students. He also condemned the decision to suspend providing medical assistance to the protesting students. He said such a decision is extremely inhuman.
The former professor of SUST further said, “You (students) have given me word that you will break the fast together. Thirty four vice-chancellors (VC) have said they will resign if the VC here resigns. I really would like to see that happening. However, I believe that will not be the case. But what you have done is incomparable. Every youth in the country is beside you.”
Notably, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal retired from SUST on 3 October, 2018. He joined the university as a teacher in December, 1994. After retirement, he started living permanently in Dhaka. He came to Sylhet by road on Tuesday night.