Quota reform movement unleashes questions

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Quota reform movement. Prothom Alo File Photo

It may be some time before a gazette notification comes about, abolishing the entire quota system in public service appointments, following the prime minister’s statement made in response to the escalating quota reform movement.

The movement is clearly over. A review would be appropriate at the moment, while the events are still fresh.

The common factors regarding the protesters are that they were young, millennials.

The second common factor is that they are tech-savvy. They have been using mobile phones, the internet and social media from early childhood. They do not pay heed to conventional norms in, communications media.

They adeptly campaigned in the dead of the night. While the political parties spend billions of taka on campaigns, advertising, posters, banners, renting buses and trucks, these young people have displayed their skill in organising themselves in the shortest time and making themselves heard.

‘Youth quake’, according to the Oxford Dictionary, was one of the most discussed words of 2017. This quota reform movement in Bangladesh was exactly that.

In case of the European youth quake, the youth did not take to the streets, but focussed on polling centres instead. But the demands of the European youth and those of Bangladesh are similar. They both want social justice.

The quota reform movement is actually a demand to restore justice. Three consecutive public service reform commissions had recommended reforms in the quota provision but to no avail.

In addition to that, rapid increase in the number of educated unemployed persons, disproportionate differences in salaries of private sector and the government sector jobs along with the a development policy that exacerbated this difference-all have contributed to the millennials’ uncertainty about future.

It seems that the protestors have been successful.

Though the movement has been a movement of the young generation, it has been a test for many. The role of the government, the ruling party, Dhaka University authorities and the law enforcers has been exposed. They have been criticised. Even the media has been criticised.

Should the student organisations and other political parties have avoided their responsibility about the matter? The quota reform movement was a spontaneous one. Those who led the movement had been involved in the ruling party’s student wing but did not have the experience to run the organisation. Therefore they agreed to the proposal to postpone the movement for a month, at the behest of the bridges minister. They could not, however, convince the other protesters.

The situation deteriorated when the finance minister requested for more time and when the agriculture minister termed the protestors as razakars. This incited the protesters further.

The lack of a tangible opposition in parliament has made the government over-confident, and it tends to overlook non-political movements that crop up out of the blue.

One can only hope the ruling party will realise the mistake of adopting the same old strategy, using its student wing to suppress a student movement.

Another significant aspect of the movement was the unprecedented consensus and coordination of the government and ruling party with the DU authorities and Dhaka University Teachers’ Association (DUTA).

DU authorities and DUTA supported the government and the ruling party, terming the quota reform protest as ‘unjustified’ and ‘anti-government propaganda’.

The DUTA even issued a formal statement alleging that the protesters were conspiring against the government by creating unrest.

However,  the very next day they issued another statement in support of the protestors, the moment the prime minister Sheikh Hasina had that the quota in public service would be abolished altogether. They discouraged the police from entering and taking position on campus.

BCL leaders and activists however supported and helped the police in dispersing the protestors. But there were no other students groups seen on the campus. Why? Do they not want quota reforms?

We all know that the BNP affiliated students groups Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal fled the campus long before. But what happened to the other groups?

Another aspect of the protest is that, unlike the past movements, there was no demand for democratic rights this time.

As a result of BCL’s exclusive control over the university for last eight years, there is no place for dissent on campus. Teachers and researchers refrain from dissenting even on academic matters.

However, it is obvious that if other student groups were involved in this protest, the demand from the long-awaited Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) election could have been raised.

If DUCSU and students unions were effective, it would not have been possible to force any student to join any political rally at night.

At the same time, this new generation movement was also a major test for the mass media and unfortunately many could not pass the test.

Many protestors raised questions about the political identity and motive of the owners and editorial staff of TV channels and newspapers.

Nobody can deny the political bias in the headlines that called the protestors “anti-liberation’.

It is sad that some journalists were assaulted during the protest. But such unpleasant incidents are very natural in this profession.

Media houses should focus on reviewing their policies and practices. Otherwise, they are sure to lose relevance.

Those who have been criticising the role of media, have to consider the fact that if the democracy is not in place, the mass media cannot operate independently.

It has become a common practice for our government to talk about the large number of TV channels and newspapers whenever someone tries to raise the question of freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression in democracy means allowing the voice of dissent and and having tolerance for criticism. But that has long vanished from the scene.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This piece has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin and Farjana Liakat.

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