Sexual harassment on campus and power politics

Jagannath University students demonstrating against violenceDipu Malakar

Just three or four decades ago, one could count the number of universities in the country on the fingers of two hands, and so if any mishap occurred in a university, agitation would break out all over the country. But now there are 55 public universities, according to the University Grants Commission (UGC), and 110 private universities. As a result, the sufferings and harassment faced by the students of the various universities, or the corruption and misdeeds of the teachers and administration, is hardly highlighted by the newspapers.

As the matter of business is involved in private universities, and in many instances that is the main concern, these establishments tend to be a bit more careful about building up and maintaining their reputation. Political appointments or political admissions are hardly visible. There may be a political connection in the matter of getting approval, but in commercial interests, these matters are more or less under control. They have to pay price perhaps in another way. The threat to free thought and expression is no secret.

However, the situation is absolutely different in the case of public universities. The news of corruption and party politics that crop up from time to time, are perhaps unparalleled in comparison with any other sector. It has been observed, for example, how a vice chancellor sweepingly appoints his family members, close relations, distant relations, close and distant acquaintances and grants them contracts at will. This would be impossible on such a scale in any other state institution.

It is not that everyone does this, but so many such instances have occurred and are still occurring, that it will not be long when the universities’ administration powers will become synonymous with corruption and nepotism. The source of such power is dependent on political obeisance and prioritising to the interests of the ruling party.

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The right for anyone to hold rallies and meetings and form organisations at the universities, other than the ruling party’s student front, has long been snatched away. At one point of time when the Dhaka University Central Students Union election was held, there was a faint ray of hope that things would change, but that did not happen because the of the administration’s bias and refusal to accept dissenting voices. In the other universities, no student union elections are held and no one has the chance to speak out other than the ruling Awami League’s affiliated student body Chhatra League. In simple words, Chhatra League holds absolute power in these universities.

In recent times quite a few public universities have hit the headlines because of issues pertaining to sexual harassment and abuse. In its report on repeated instances of sexual harassment, Prothom Alo (20 March) reported that there are committees in 45 public universities where complaints of sexual harassment can be lodged. These committees were formed in 2009 following the High Court’s ruling on a writ petition.

But the number of complaints submitted was 27 and that too in only 5 universities. Of these, over half, that is 14, were in Jahangirnagar University alone. Dhaka University received three complaints, Rajshahi University 6, Chittagong University and Jagannath University 2 each. However, those with whom Prothom Alo spoke in the universities and the University Grants Commission, unhesitatingly said that the students were unaware of this facility to lodge complaints and most of the incidents that occur, do not come to light.

Perhaps everyone still recalls Fulpori of Islamic University. The general students there too had taken up a movement against Chhatra League leaders’ ragging and sexual harassment of Fulpori and so the accused were finally expelled from the university. It is a matter of hope that protest has still not lost its power

Another partial picture of the situation appears in the 19 March Manabzamin report, ‘When there protector becomes the predator’. I call this partial because the report endeavours to present an overall picture of the situation by referring to certain incidents in Jahangirnagar University, Chittagong University, Rajshahi University and Islamic University.

But it has no mention of similar complaints and incidents of teachers being dismissed in Dhaka University and Mymensingh’s Kabi Nazrul University. It is obvious that the overall situation is so bad that the pages of a newspaper cannot adequately cover the complete picture. The situation is revealed in fragmented reports which escape the eye, or perhaps the eye has grown accustomed to such news.

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Both the reports state that this environment of injustice has emerged under the influence of power and political protection, and has more or less become the norm. It is a matter of concern that the allegations of sexual harassment are as much against the teachers as against students. Many of these teachers are relatively young.

Though there is no scientific study, it is gathered from various media reports that these relatively young teachers have joined the teaching profession during the 15 long years that Awami League has been in government and were appointed on the compulsory condition of their political identity and loyalty.

There is no need to repeat anew how the monopoly of power at the state level has impaired the fundamental rights of the citizens. Whether it is the various service sector organisations, the police, the administration, no one is bothered about accountability.

Promotions and awards are provided on the basis of how successful or skilled there are on suppressing the political opponents and dissenting views. It is no different in the case of the universities’ administrative posts. Here too there is an extreme imbalance in power. There is no effective accountability in the senate or syndicate. With no students union, the students too have no forum to express their views.

Under the identity of Chhatra League in the educational institutions, the students leaders are said to be involved in extortion, contract business, ‘seat trade’ and other such crimes. There are also as many allegations against them involving sexual harassment and abuse. While the name of Jahangirnagar University crops up the most concerning these crimes of Chhatra League, over the past few years the names of Bangamata Sheikh Fojilatunnesa Mujib Science and Technology University in Jamalpur and the Islamic University have also appeared with similar allegations.

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There are similar allegations at a college level too. But it is in very few cases that these allegations have been investigated or any punitive action taken. The handful of punishments that has taken place, has been mostly administrative action, temporary suspension or expulsion from the universities. But the predators escape the punishment accorded for criminal offence.

If this imbalance of power or this monopoly would have not just been in the case of Awami League but of any other party, undoubtedly the same situation would have prevailed. In face of the movement launched by students after the suicide of Jagannath University student Fairuz Sadaf Abantika, a student and an assistant proctor of the university were arrested. Investigations are underway and they are having to face justice. Students’ movements at Jahangirnagar University, Chittagong University and the university in Mymensingh, have also yielded results.

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Perhaps everyone still recalls Fulpori of Islamic University. The general students there too had taken up a movement against Chhatra League leaders’ ragging and sexual harassment of Fulpori and so the accused were finally expelled from the university. It is a matter of hope that protest has still not lost its power.

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

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist