Student politics and exerting power is not one and the same

BUET students demonstrate protesting entry of BCL leaders on the campusProthom Alo file photo

In the face of demand by the students of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) for a campus free of politics, Chhatra League responded with the declaration that they wanted to see “systematic politics on the campus at any cost.” We must admit, the court saved us from having to pay “at any cost.”

Think of Chhatra League’s costs, that is, the price levied by Chhatra League leaders at various levels. It should be made clear that the present Chhatra League is not the same as the Chhatra League of the independence struggle and the Chhatra League that took part in the all-party action council that fought for democracy. The role of Chhatra League has undergone a sea change over the past 15 years. The organisation has now become a symbol of exerting monopolised power and dominance.

If you are with Chhatra League, you get to stay in the halls, you get jobs, and all sorts of doors open to business and enterprise. And these opportunities can be used or abused. As a result, Chhatra League leaders have become so powerful that even the administrative heads cater to their demands. Their presence behind the scenes has become inevitable in all sorts of construction contracts, procurement and purchases.

It wasn’t too long ago that the telephone conversation regarding construction at Jahangirnagar University was leaked out (15 September 2019 Ittefaq report on Rabbani’s conversation about dividing up money.) Following that conversation, Awami League’s central leadership removed the central Chhatra League president and general secretary from their posts.

It is doubtful if there is a single public university in the country where Chhatra League does not dominate and carry out all sorts of nefarious activities. It is even worse because in certain cases the university administration is part of these misdemeanours, or they play the role of a silent spectator. The name of the vice chancellor had been found in the commission scam of Jahangirnagar University. Similarly, there were allegations of the involvement of a proctor of Chittagong University in the killing of a Chhatra League leader Diaz Irfan Chowdhury by a rival faction of the organisation.

On 3 February 2010, Abu Bakr Siddique, the son of a day labourer from Tangail, was killed in clashes between two factions of Chhatra League. He was a student of the Islamic history and culture department. The conflict was over hall seats. A couple of years later, Hafizur Mollah, the son of a auto-rickshaw driver Ishaq Mollah from Faridpur, died of pneumonia after being forced to spend a night under the open sky in the bitter winter, a victim of Chhatra League’s ‘guest room’ culture. Just about a month earlier he had got admitted into Dhaka University’s marketing department.

Sohrab Hassan’s column in 2016 in Prothom Alo, on Hafizur, Abu Bakr and others, spoke about some others who were killed in Chhatra League’s violence – Zubair of Jahangirnagar University, Sayeed of Bangladesh Agricultural University, Taposh Pal of Chittagong University and Suman Chandra Das of Shahjalal University. Where a single death for politics is simply not acceptable or tolerable, there is a continuous procession of deaths in Chhatra League’s power struggle

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If a list was drawn up of all those who have been killed or maimed in Chhatra League’s tirades in the various universities around the country, it is doubtful if there would be enough space to include all the names in a single article. But among all these, the cruelest incident that stirred the entire country was the killing of BUET student Abrar Farhad on 7 October 2019.

The new crimes that are emerging are a matter of dismay and shame. An example of this is a young woman being raped in the Jahangirnagar campus, while her husband was detained

Abrar was summoned on suspicion of being a part of Shibir, tortured the entire night and then, early in the morning, thrown down in the verandah at the entrance of Sher-e-Bangla Hall.

His crime was that he had criticised bilateral relations with India in his Facebook post. A trial was held regarding the killing of Abrar Farhad and 25 persons of the hall unit of Chhatra League were convicted. In face of the demand of students, enraged by Abrar’s killing, the university authorities prohibited student politics in BUET.

The killing of Abrar showed how helpless the authorities were in the face of Chhatra League power. They could not prevent Abrar being tortured. Another favourite tactic of silencing dissenting anti-government voices is to dub them as Shibir. The political opposition to Shibir’s activities then takes shape of suppression by exerting power. Yet exertion of power and violence can in no way be condoned. It may be noted that this time too when Chhatra League was demanding that their organisation be allowed to practice their right to politics on campus, they claimed that Shibir and the banned Hizbut Tahrir were active in BUET.

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It seems that the Awami League leaders also liked this assertion because several of the party leaders and ministers have warned that they would not allow BUET to become a den of militants and terrorists. The basis on which they want to establish this claim, must not be ignored. The government has carried out anti-militancy drives over the past five years and claims to have eliminated all fear in this regard, but not a single BUET student was arrested on such over these five years. The intelligence agencies haven’t been sitting idle. How come they never voiced any apprehension of militancy rearing up in BUET? So other than finding an excuse to allow Chhatra League enter BUET, there seems no other reason for this campaign.

Having been involved in student politics in my student life, I am not opposed to student politics. Ours was a time for the restoration of democracy and so such sort of tagging on to political parties was not so acute. The problem at present is not student politics. It is the terror created by the ruling party and its politics of domination and occupation.

That is why in the open letter to the prime minister written by the BUET students, it is said, “Over the past few years we have seen the negative side of power in the name of student politics on the BUET campus. It is student politics that unleashed domination, power, ragging, humiliating teachers, extortion, repression of students and violence. There has even been killing.”

If an end is brought to this tagging along behind political parties and a one-party dominance, naturally student organisations will no longer become hubs of unabated crime. The new crimes that are emerging are a matter of dismay and shame. An example of this is a young woman being raped on the Jahangirnagar campus, while her husband was detained. The recent incidents of sexual harassment and abuse at Chittagong University, Jagannath University, Mymensingh’s Kabi Nazrul University and the Islamic University are examples of such domination and criminal propensities. This must come to an end. That is why the demands of the BUET students cannot be called unrealistic or undemocratic. They are not calling for a halt to BUET students taking part in politics outside of the campus.

The incidents over the past few days have given rise to further questions, such as the role of the university administration. It is not at all comprehensible as to why the university authorities had no representative at the High Court hearing of the Chhatra League leader’s appeal. What reason is there to expect the public prosecutors would take a strong stance against the ruling party’s student organisation?

Also, why did the university not immediately decide on appealing in favour of the decision taken by its syndicate? The court’s decision is certainly final, but why wasn’t the opportunity to appeal taken up? How can a code of conduct to ensure order on campus and the safety of the students’ lives be contrary to democracy and constitution? The Supreme Court also banned meetings and gatherings on its premises.  Isn’t it normal for all institutions to have their own disciplinary rules and regulations?

The manner in which the Supreme Court has come forward regarding the right of students to practice politics, we hope they also play the same role against all efforts to snatch away the rights of anti-government elements to hold meetings and gatherings. Unfortunately this didn’t happen for so long. This is extremely important in order to restore democracy.                                  

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column 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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