Interview: Abdul Hasib Chowdhury

Student politics will bring outside interference into BUET

Now coming to the matter of the government’s plans to give diploma engineers BSc (Pass) certificates. A committee has already been formed for this matter. Is this realistic? Dr Abdul Hasib Chowdhury is professor at the department of electrical and electronic engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and former president of the Bangladesh Engineering University Teachers Association. In an interview with Prothom Alo’s Rafsan Galib, he talks about the present situation in BUET regarding student politics as well as the government’s steps  regarding diploma engineers.

Prothom Alo :

BUET has opened its doors to student politics again. How is the situation now?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: I would rather say that attempts are being made to reopen the doors to student politics. There are party and legal efforts to this end, but nothing has been settled so far. The students are continuing with their movement. As far as I know, the BUET authorities are tackling the matter through legal means. That is why there is no change in the situation as yet.

Prothom Alo :

What circumstances led to the ban on student politics and then the decision to allow it again? What is the justification behind either of the decisions?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: Student politics in BUET was halted in 2019 in the face of vehement protest by the students, when Abrar Fahad was killed in an assault by Chhatra League leaders and activists of BUET’s Sher-e-Bangla Hall. He was tortured and beaten to death because he had criticised the Feni river water sharing agreement. But the BUET students had been calling for a halt to student politics from long before, initially back in 2002 when BUET student Sabequn Nahar Sony was caught in an exchange of fire between two factions of Chhatra Dal fighting over a tender, and killed. In 2013, Chhatra League leader Arif Rahman Deep was stabbed and killed by a religious fanatic student. Politics was involved in all three of these killings.

In face of this collective experience of students on BUET campus over these two decades, the killing of students in other universities, the failure of student organisation movements to end all this and, above all, the incompetence, negligence, carelessness, lack of responsibility and submission to the political powers by the authorities of the universities, the BUET students see that the absence of student politics is the only way to ensure a safe campus.

So when the students say ‘we don’t want student politics in BUET’, you have to understand what they really want. They want a safe campus where each and every student can walk in dignity, where they won’t have to be subservient to anyone in the halls. They want a healthy and positive academic environment. How can you call this demand of the students unjustified?

I do not know under what consideration the court has suspended the BUET authorities’ order to ban student politics. It is not my responsibility to explain their reasoning.

Prothom Alo :

After the court order, there is no longer any obstacle to student politics in BUET. Will that harm the academic environment?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: Student politics today means interference in the university by outside politics. If student politics starts up in BUET, it will undoubtedly be easy for outside politics to interfere. While BUET students can have some sort of role in changing or controlling the internal conditions, outside conditions are beyond their control. Under such circumstances if student politics starts in BUET, then outside conditions will be applied within BUET. There is no reason to believe this will bode well for BUET’s academic environment.

Prothom Alo :

As part of their movement, the students against student politics have been boycotting exams from the outset. Even after the Eid holidays, most of the students of two batches boycotted their exams. What effect will that have to the academic schedule?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: Those who are to take their exams and pass out this year will be the ones most affected. Even so they have boycotted the exams. They were first or second year students when Abrar Fahad was killed. They have been around five and a half years on campus. They realise the harm they will face, but are still boycotting the exams. This indicates the intensity of the movement. The university academic schedule is often delayed for various reasons. This happened during the Covid pandemic. At such times the academic schedule can’t be maintained. There will be a similar hiccup due to the exam boycott.

If propaganda is continuously generated to the effect that militants are extremely active in BUET and that they are behind the movement of the general students, not also will this be a lie, but it will have a long and far reaching effect on harming BUET’s reputation and will be damaging for the country

Prothom Alo :

If student politics can continue in all universities around the country, what’s the problem with BUET?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: Good question. The thing is, does the student politics that exist in all the universities actually benefit the students in any way? Are the campuses safe? What is the state of education, of the halls? Student politics in universities must first ensure that this upholds the interests and rights of the students. Other than occasional protests and demonstrations, actual student politics hardly exists any more. There is no point in reminiscing over what student politics stood for in the past. Those who sincerely want to see active and vibrant student politics, who want to see student politics that strives for the welfare of the students, the country and the people, should not look back, but instead think anew.

Prothom Alo :

There are allegations that the growth of militancy and communal forces in BUET is behind the demand for prohibiting student politics on campus.

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: That is a cheap and baseless allegation. This is just a refusal to accept the actual premise behind the students’ demand to ban student politics. This is despicable propaganda against BUET students. If there is any specific information in this regard, let the government agencies take action. What need is there to drag the question of student politics into this? This is extremely harmful propaganda.

BUET is well reputed internationally. BUET graduates go on for higher studies and research at the world’s leading universities. A large section of BUET graduates are working in the US, Canada, Australia and all over the world. Many of them are with world renowned technological institutes and universities, contributing significantly to engineering and technical research. Many BUET graduates are working in Bangladesh’s foreign ministry and very year large numbers of BUET graduates are joining the ministry. Now if propaganda is continuously generated to the effect that militants are extremely active in BUET and that they are behind the movement of the general students, not also will this be a lie, but it will have a long and far reaching effect on harming BUET’s reputation and will be damaging for the country. It should be seen who benefits from such propaganda at home or outside the country.

Prothom Alo :

The present campus authorities allegedly are also in favour of bringing back student politics to BUET.

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: I feel that the BUET authorities have failed to convince the students that they are against the resumption of student politics. From the very start if they had unequivocally and strongly stated that they do not want student politics in campus and that they would do everything necessary to that end, if it was sternly stated that the BUET ordinance does not give scope for activities of such student organisations on campus and that students’ security was their first priority, and if they called for an emergency meeting of the academic council to take the views and suggestions of the teachers – alongside with other not so visible actions, then perhaps everyone would have confidence in them. But the BUET authorities have time and again proved to be listless and surrendering to the situation. The university authorities in the past have failed to provide the students with security. The situation was such that it was possible to actually beat Abrar to death in the hall. The investigation that was required into the incident was not done. The Bangladesh Engineering University Teachers Association had demanded a special academic council meeting to discuss the issue, but the vice chancellor of that time and the next chancellor too, paid no heed. All this has created a vacuum of trust and confidence. It is the responsibility of the BUET to fill that.

Prothom Alo :

If partisan student politics remains suspended, can’t there be healthy student politics through student union elections?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: First of all there must be a consensus among students that there is need for a student union. The conditions of such an election can be discussed, but this is necessary. My primary proposal would be that there would be nothing partisan in this election. There would be no posters, leaflets or processions. The BUET authorities would arrange an event to introduce the hall union and central union candidates and the candidates would present their statements within a specific time. These statements would be posted online and remain online.

Other than that, if at any time there was need to play a role in any national circumstances, the students would determine that though open meetings. This would build up a democratic spirit, tolerance and leadership qualities among the students. They would be true offspring of the people.

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Prothom Alo :

PA: Centering the demand for a halt to student politics on campus, we see the emergence of discussion on the special importance of BUET. Why is that so? Why is BUET different?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: To say that BUET has any special important and so student politics must be stopped here, would be arrogance. I have not heard anyone in BUET making any such statement. It is true that BUET has specialization, but that is nothing unprecedented. There are universities in all countries of the world that are better than other universities in those countries when it comes to excellence, quality and standard. BUET is such a university. It is international recognized. This did not happen overnight, but had to be earned. It had to be earned institutionally. It is true that the BUET students have an acute residential management problem. It often depends on individuals. But in the academic area, good management had been built up and that is regularly reviewed and improved. Even the vice chancellor can’t intervene there. This academic excellence of BUET had a deep and extensive influence on engineering studies in Bangladesh.

Prothom Alo :

Many complain that most students who study in BUET later leave the country. What would you say about that?    

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: Manpower export is Bangladesh’s largest export sector. Last year 1.3 million (13 lakh) workers went abroad and the year before, that was over 1.1 million (11 lakh). It is for the same reason that the BUET graduates are going overseas. The number may be comparatively high because it is easier for them to go abroad. The reason why such a vast volume of manpower is going abroad is because there has not been much industrialization here in that sense. There are many mills and factories, nut not industrialization. The huge workforce in the country is not used in productive work. The 2023-24 fiscal budget was over Tk 7.5 trillion (Tk 7,500,00 crore). Allocation for the industries ministry was little over Tk 30 billion (Tk 3000 crore). In 2022-23 fiscal this allocation was Tk 15.21billion (Tk 1,521 crore 15 lakh). That’s how things stand. Thousands of workers are going overseas, BUET graduates are leaving too. If actual industrialization happened here, things would change.

Prothom Alo :

Many BUET students take the BCS exam and join the civil service. There is a lot of criticism about leaving the profession to join government service. How do you view it?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury:  Those who remain in the country and practice as engineers, see that that those who join the administration through BCS are getting much better facilities and benefits than them. Who wants to lag behind?

Other than BUET, engineers also graduate from other public and private universities of the country. The standard of studies and training here is quite good. Many of them go abroad and carry out research and earn higher degrees. There is limited scope to apply with in the country. For example, the Japanese prepare the master plan for the country’s power sector. This country is 50 years old yet the master plan is being done by experts from outside. Is that acceptable? Our engineers and experts have the competence and capacity to do this. But they are not tasked with this. This is a matter of political decision. As a result, many go abroad. Many take the BCS exam and join the administration and materialistically do well. Being happy or unhappy about not being able to work as an engineer is another matter.

Then there is another matter. An engineer can become a good economist if he wants, but an economist can’t become an engineer. What a student learns in the math-based structured engineering education can be applied in social space too. In that sense, when a BUET student joints the administration, resources may be wasted, but no harm is done.

Prothom Alo :

Now coming to the matter of the government’s plans to give diploma engineers BSc (Pass) certificates. A committee has already been formed for this matter. Is this realistic?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: In Bangladesh, students are given BSc (Pass) certificates. There is specific course curriculum for this. It is an academic degree. It does not tally with the course curriculum of the diploma engineers. It makes no sense to provide this academic degree if they have two years work experience. This is unprecedented in Bangladesh and anywhere in the world. This will create chaos not just in the engineering education field of the country, but in general education here too. It will greatly hard the aims and objectives of institutional education.

Prothom Alo :

What sort of degree or certificate is this -- BSc (Pass) Engineer? How will the diploma engineers benefit? Won’t it also create professional conflict between them and you all?

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: There is no BSc (Pass) Engineer certificate or degree in the prevailing education system. It is nothing recognized. The many demands of the diploma engineers never included any demand for such a degree. If they are given this degree, they will demand same status as BSc engineers. This will give rise to fresh conflict between the diploma engineers and the degree engineers. This will increase chaos in the engineering profession. This is either a thoughtless decision or a carefully planned move to create chaos.

Prothom Alo :

Thank you.

Abdul Hasib Chowdhury: Thank you too.

* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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