The Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) is being held tomorrow, after 28 long years. There has been so much revolving around this election during the past few years – hunger strikes, cases, assaults, involvement of the court and the behavior of the university administration. In the end, all that counted was the position of the ruling party’s student front.
All student organisations and independent candidates demanded that the polling centres be set up in the academic building and also that the time to cast votes be extended. These demands have been overlooked. The administration just wants to get the election done, no matter whether it is free and fair or not, as long as the student organisations participate. This is so similar to the 30 December ‘election’ and the role of the election commissioner.
The latest step of the university administration is the restriction on news media on the day of the election. It has been said that the journalists cannot go to any voting centre on the day of the election without permission. They can only go with the permission of the returning officer to the hall guest room. And then too, they can only go if they have submitted their IDs in advance. The restrictions also include that news cannot be broadcast live from the polling centres. There is supposed to be a free media in the country, with over 30 TV channels, but in this election which has almost 43,000 voters, centres in 18 halls, only four TV units and two journalists per each print media house are being given IDs to cover the polls. This decision of the authorities is an obvious effort to control the media.
In digital Bangladesh, it is shocking that the use of mobile phones and all electronic devices have been banned. Have the university authorities taken this decision to leave no room for evidence if any ‘irregularities’ take place during the election?
Despite all these obstacles, the Dhaka University students have been eagerly preparing for the election ever since it was announced. Various student organisations and independent candidates are contesting. They look for a chance to emerge from the politicisation process into which the country has submerged.
Many unprecedented things have already happened centering this election. For example, 35 candidates have won uncontested. It is alleged that many candidates were forced t withdraw their candidatures in the face of threats from the ruling party’s student front activists.
In this election, 60 per cent of the candidates are residents of the halls and the remaining 40 per cent attend classes from outside. A large section of the residential students have been given places in the halls on condition that they submit to the control of one party. There are the residents of the ‘gono rooms’ (‘mass rooms’).
These ‘gono rooms’ are inhuman, unlawful and humiliating and the university authorities are well aware of the pitiful state in which the students live there. A couple of years ago, the media compared these to Syrian refugee camps. And the authorities act as if they know nothing about all this. And they are going ahead with the election, not doing anything about this. They know very well what the results will be under these conditions. News reports state that there are 81 ‘gono rooms’ in 18 halls in which 2500 students reside. Other reports put this number at 3000.
These students are being forced to campaign for the government-backed student organisation, while the administration remains in deep slumber. If these students vote against those who have provided them ‘shelter’ in the halls, will the authorities provide them, or even want to provide them, protection from the backlash? The authorities may have forgotten, but we have not forgotten how a student Hafizur Rahman died of the cold in February 2016, having live in the open, in the SM Hall verandah and also take part in the ‘guest room’ programmes. No one wants to face the same fate as Hafizur Rahman.
With the ruling party’s student front reigning over Dhaka University and other educational institutions over the past 10 years, the ‘peaceful coexistence’ being displayed a few days before the election does not mean that things are normal. This ‘coexistence’ means nothing.
Non-residential students are expected to come to cast their votes, but what security has been provided for them so they do not face any pressure or force? The authorities may say, we can’t provide security for each and every individual. But the media, the journalists could do that job. But the authorities have even obstructed that with their restrictions on the press.
All said and done, the DUCSU elections remain important. DUCSU is more than just the union of Dhaka University students. The students certainly want that their election representatives address the everyday problems that they face. Whether it is the poor quality of cafeteria food of the shortage of books in the library, they want such problems to be addressed. DUSCU and the hall unions have the responsibility to keep the campus alive with cultural, literary, sports and other activities. BUT DUCSU’s history and heritage has bestowed an even greater responsibility on it than that. It must give leadership to establishing the right to education. These rights are not anything excluded from the country’s politics.
The fight for the right to education and democracy are closely interlinked. A wall cannot be erected between the two. Yet the university authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the humiliating ‘gono rooms’, just as they do to the absolute control wielded by the ruling party’s student wing.
At a juncture when confidence in the entire election system has been lost and politics have been sent into exile, the university authorities needed to play a strong role in the SUCSU election. They have not done so. They should have prepared to uphold the rights of the student organisations and independent candidates who are participating in these polls. They should have been prepared from beforehand to take a stern stand in the case of any deviation during the election.
* Ali Riaz is visiting professor of government and politics at Ilinois State University in the US. This piece appeared in print in Prothom Alo and had been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir