Saddam Hossain is the president of Chhatra League central committee. Earlier he had been assistant general secretary of Dhaka University Central Students' Union (DUCSU). In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, he speaks about Chhatra League's inner feuds and conflicts, the trend of student politics, the line between the administration and student politics, opposing views and co-existing with Chhatra Dal.
Chhatra League is 75 years old now and the elections are up ahead. You have taken over as the organisation's president at quite a crucial time. How do you plan to face this challenge?
Chhatra League can discern the challenges of the times. While the relevance of other long-established student organisations has diminished, Chhatra League's appeal and popularity has increased. Presently an unprecedented unity has been forged between the students and the people over Smart Bangladesh. We created Digital Bangladesh. We must generate employment by using access to technology. Education must be transformed in order to transform the economy. That is why Chhatra League wants to work on smart campuses and research-oriented universities. That is the biggest challenge ahead at the moment.
The assistant general secretary of DUCSU was elected by direct votes of the students. If you had been elected as president of Chhatra League rather than nominated, wouldn't that have upheld democratic practice?
The government is institutionalising democracy. It has pledged to create democratic values among the students and establish democracy on campus. As proof of this, while no one had been willing so long to hold DUCSU elections, the Awami League government went ahead and held the DUCSU election. In Chhatra League the leadership was elected through the organisation's council. Like before, this time too, on the basis of consensus among the councillors, the responsibility of selecting the leadership was placed upon Awami League president Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. We see this as a part of democratic practice.
But there was no voting at the council. It has been 75 years, why has a democratic process not been introduced to elect Chhatra League leadership?
Democratic process was followed in the election of the leadership. Around the world we see in many social democratic parties, sometimes subject committees take decisions, sometimes the councillors vote, and at times leadership is elected on the basis of consensus. It was in the light of Chhatra League councillors' views that the Awami League president used her political contacts, assessed various opinions and spoke to all concerned quarters, and then took her decision. This is an excellent method.
It is often said that student politics has no identity of its own, but simply toes the line of the party in power, acts as muscle men of the ruling party. What do you say?
If you look at the trends in student politics globally, you will see that the student organisations have links with the political parties. Chhatra League has bonds of ideology and sentiment with Awami League. While Awami League and Chhatra League are united in their struggles and movements, organisational independence and identity remain intact.
There are often negative reports in the media about Chhatra League, involving extortion, crime, drugs, taking money for inclusion in committees, assaulting teachers, sexual abuse, torturing students and such. What do you have to say about such a negative image of the organisation?
We live in a post-truth world. Here incidents are not important, capitalising on people's emotions to generate a political belief has taken precedence. Our organisational activities, our standing beside the students, our welfare character has no news value. It is this mindset of the media that is largely responsible for the negative image of Chhatra League. If newspersons do not feel that our positive activities are newsworthy, such political mishaps will continue. But we admit that there some negative incidents do take place within Chhatra League.
But we do not see any stern action against the leaders and activists involved in misdeeds.
Chhatra League is a huge organisation and so sabotage is inevitable. When those detached from the mainstream, particularly those in favour of war criminals and anti-independence forces, fail to directly carry out their activities, they somehow find their way into Chhatra League. It is these elements that are mostly involved in the misdeeds. The responsibility of such misdeeds lies with the individuals, not the organisation.
When misdeeds occur, you talk about trespassers. So what are the criteria to admit leaders and activists in the party?
The fact that trespassers have entered Chhatra League is certainly a serious issue. We must be alert about this.
You say the organisation won't take responsibility for this, but they are committing the misdeeds in the name of the organisation. If it does not take responsibility of the misdeeds of its leaders and activists, how can accountability be ensured within the organisation?
Chhatra League does not condone misdeeds activities, but sometime unwarranted incidents occur. This upsets the students because they love Chhatra League dearly. Our organisational structure needs to be more up-to-date and smart. If we can decentralise our organisation further and establish an accountable leadership, then the negative incidents will occur less. We can then take responsibility too.
There have been assaults on those with opposing views, particularly on Chhatra Dal. There have been other accusations against Chhatra League of repressing differing views. But the constitution upholds the right to meetings, assemblies and expression of views. Chhatra League has been in so many democracy movements in the past, why has it taken up this role now?
We want healthy competition among the student organisations. Chhatra League believes that it is the democratic norm to welcome the rival voice, no matter how harsh it may be. Then again, Chhatra Dal was formed to give legitimacy to military autocracy. We do not see Chhatra Dal as part of our established progressive student organisations. Chhatra Dal is also closely involved in demanding the release and rehabilitation of war criminals. That is why the student bodies tend to disregard Chhatra Dal as a political organisation.
Is that the view of the students or of Chhatra League?
We call upon Chhatra Dal to rectify itself. We have said that if an organisation expresses its democratic values through positive work, we will welcome it. We want to lead Chhatra League to victory through a democratic contest. In the recent incidents that took place on Dhaka University campus, we saw how they entered, armed with sticks. The university is now free of session jams and violence. A greater student unity has been formed against Chhatra dal's activities in order to maintain this state of affairs.
So will Chhatra League not co-exist with Chhatra Dal?
The organisation is not our prime consideration. Our prime question is, will we co-exist with terrorism? They want to use the university campus as an extension of national politics, so can be co-exist with them? These questions are important to us. That is why Chhatra Dal cannot gain foothold in the campuses.
Over the last few years, Chhatra League's inner feuds and conflicts have grabbed the headlines. This raises the question as to whether the central leadership has no control over the organisation.
There is autonomy in the committees of our organisational units. The activities of the student organisation are its own party matter. We will not accept if the university environment is disrupted due to anyone's activities. If there are any internal incidents, those will be settled organisationally. But if anyone wants to use these to threaten the safety of the campus, they do not have the right to be in Chhatra League. We have zero tolerance against inner feuds and conflict. In the future, anyone involved in creating such disorder will face organisational action.
We saw the stage collapsing at the anniversary event. You all apologised for this. When so many leaders come on stage all at one time, doesn't that question organisational discipline?
It was a sudden and unexpected incident. We have apologised for it. We feel that the stage collapsed due to faults in its structure. It is the custom for old and new leadership to come on stage at Chhatra League's anniversary events. No one has any separate chair. The fact remains, even after that unfortunate incident, we successfully carried out all the other programmes of the day.
The 'guestrooms' and 'gono rooms' (mass rooms) are referred to as student torture chambers. After so much criticism, why aren't these closed down?
Gono rooms are an administrative reality. There is a wide gap between the university's residential capacity and the number of students. Students coming from small towns cannot afford to rent premises outside of the campus. Chhatra League is not liable for the gono rooms, the student organisation did not create the gono room. We want a student to be allocated a seat to stay from the day he is admitted to the university. It is for the hall administration to decide who will stay in which room. This calls for a permanent solution to the accommodation crisis.
When it comes to allocating seats in the halls, Chhatra League is the shadow administration of the university. This is harming the overall education environment of the university.
The universities are running on archaic rules and regulations which need to be updated. Everyone is a student to the administration. This stance much be strengthened with no exception. No one can have extra clout simply because of political identity. The university administration will run the administration and student organisations will speak out for student rights. There needs to be a clear defining line between student politics and the administration.
Why is there such a crisis of female leadership in Chhatra League? Is the Chhatra League culture not conducive to female students entering the organisation?
Chhatra League has a huge appeal to female students. In the last DUCSU election, seven of the 25 in Chhatra League were female. A left-leaning organisation which talks about equality did not have more than two female candidates in their panel. We have female students in our organisational process, in our processions, many times more than in other student organisations. We have many female leaders who have the capability to ascend to the top leadership position. We need to be more sensitive about this issue so that women can be drawn into mainstream leadership.
Do you foresee elections to DUCSU and other student unions anytime soon?
We have said that DUCSU elections should be part of the academic calendar. But it is not just a matter of 'should' or 'should not', there are legal compulsions to hold the election. It is Dhaka University's responsibility to regularly hold DUCSU elections. I call for elections to be held not just for DUCSU, but for the student unions in all educational institutions of the country.
The age of students is stipulated at 18 to 23 years, but 30 to 32-year-olds are becoming student leaders. How appropriate is that?
Chhatra League is the only organisation that conducts politics with students. There are democratic compulsions within Chhatra League concerning age limits. In Chhatra League, we try to follow these rules as far as possible.
Many are of the opinion that the conventional form of student politics is no longer required. There can be student unions concerned with students' interests. What do you think?
This is part of a depoliticisation process. There is need to change the existing political system, but thinking about abolishing student politics is not conducive to democracy. We simply must overcome any faults and limitations that we may have.
Thank you too