Student Politics and the Birth and Death of Bangladesh – Sajid Asbat Khandaker

Issue, National

Abrar Fahad was a second-year student of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the prime engineering university in Bangladesh. He was tortured inside his own residential hall and killed by leaders of the Chhatra League—the student-wing of the ruling party of Bangladesh, the Awami League—on October 7, 2019, for allegedly being critical on social media about a then recently signed water-sharing agreement between Bangladesh and India. Biswajit Das, a tailor, was murdered on December 9, 2012, by members of the Chhatra League, who chased and attacked him with machetes, iron rods, and hockey sticks because he was an alleged opposition supporter. During the Bangla New Year Celebrations of 2015, women present at the University of Dhaka were sexually assaulted by a group of Chhatra League members. Law enforcement officers were present at the scene and could not stop the miscreants. In August 2018, a peaceful protest, demanding road safety in Dhaka, was destabilized by violent attacks from Chhatra League members. Students from schools and colleges were attacked, with no attempts from law enforcement to stop the attackers. These are just four of the many regular instances of terror student political factions have bred throughout the country, especially inside public universities, such as the University of Dhaka.
A glance at history shows that the culture of student politics has formed the backbone of Bangladesh as a nation. The Chhatra League was formed on January 4, 1948, by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation. He, along with many other great student leaders (some of whom later became martyrs) formed the central resistance against the oppression of Pakistan (then known as West Pakistan) on the people of Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan). The involvement of student leaders was central to, if not entirely encompassing, the Bengali Language Movement of 1952, the 6-point movement of 1966 and the eventual Liberation War of 1971, leading to the formation of Bangladesh as an independent nation.
Within a few decades, student politics, the epitome of undying hope and dogged fearlessness in the face of unyielding subjugation, has turned into one of the biggest symbols of oppression and tyranny in Bangladesh. An institution that for so long selflessly fought for and protected the civil rights and freedoms of an ideal democracy has turned into one of the major tools to subjugate those very rights at the behest of the increasingly autocratic establishment. What has led to this?
It is first important to note that the context of student politics in Bangladesh has always been unique. An ideal version of democratic student politics would be to represent the interests of students in an academic sphere, and to advocate for policies and issues relevant to them. However, Bangladesh—a nation which had been perpetually oppressed since time immemorial, first as a British colony and then in the hands of the West Pakistani government and military—needed its students to be the forefront of political mobilization and discourse. The youth of the nation, in the face of oppression, tend to be more outspoken and dogged in their pursuit of idealistic freedom and civil liberties, as evident in the recent student protests of Hong Kong.
Bangladesh was no different. The presence of a common oppressor made it easy to galvanize and unify student blocs into a collectivized protest for democracy and freedom. This is evident in post independent Bangladesh as well, where student movements were largely active against the military regimes of 1975-1990, with the eventual toppling of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad in 1990 from power, as well as the protests against the military backed caretaker government of 2007-08.
This collectivization, however, has been largely difficult in the post-1990 nascent democracy of Bangladesh. Indeed, it would be wrong to view student politics in isolation to the mainstream politics of the nation—in a country with weak democratic institutions to begin with, the political culture of the nation has been largely characterized by violence and instability, with each major party trying to capture power through muscle and erode institutional integrity while in power.
In such a situation, perhaps the sheer historical strength of student leaders in bringing accountability in the nation were what the political parties both feared as a threat against themselves, but also saw as the biggest political trump card against future military threats to their power. Establishing a strong and loyal student faction would serve the political interests of the parties and would be the most effective group to use as henchmen against opposing factions.
The two major political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), started to increasingly empower their student wings, the Chhatra League and the Chhatra Dal respectively, with funding, political support, and militarization. While weapons and militarization of student ‘cadres’ previously existed in these factions, the emergence of democratic institutions did little to wane their strength, but rather only served as tools to exacerbate their influence and destabilize the opposing faction. There was no longer a common oppressor to unite them. Violence, bullying, and harassment against each other within university halls slowly became the norm.
Student leaders gradually started using their positions as tools for self-gain, engaging in corruption and extortion, both from university authorities and from students themselves. In late 2019, the Vice Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University, a public university in Dhaka, Professor Farzana Islam, accused the then central Chhatra League President Rezwanul Haque Chowdhury Shovon and General Secretary Golam Rabbani of demanding a 4-6% cut from a development project at the university with a budget of approximately 170 million USD.
The biggest victims in this entire process are innocent students of public universities who get caught up in the middle of this political game. Staying at residential halls is difficult without pandering to the whims and wishes of any resident student leader. Consequences for lack of deference to the leader or his/her party can range from physical and mental abuse, to, as in the case of Abrar, murder. Political turmoil has also caused regular stoppage of classes and changes to the semester schedule. It is very common for a student to need 6 years to complete a 4-year undergraduate degree because of such delays.
A cyclical problem for the nation has also been created. The smartest minds of the nation try to avoid joining public universities as much as possible and look for any opportunity to leave the country and pursue higher studies abroad, leading to a systematic brain drain. Even if they join public universities, none of the smartest minds end up taking part in student politics for fear of the ugly culture. Even if they end up joining student politics, they almost certainly have to sacrifice any moral principles and virtues to survive in the hierarchy. All of this has collectively resulted in meritocracy being removed from the political pipeline of the nation, and an overdependence on nefarious, corrupt and academically untalented leaders to take control of the political process in the future.
In all, the future of student politics in Bangladesh looks increasingly unsettling. With the consolidation of power by the Awami League at the top, and the Chhatra League holding its dominance across all universities in the country, almost all traces of opposition has been wiped out. This has given almost unrestricted power to the leaders of the Chhatra League to operate in ways they themselves deem fit within campuses.
While many idealistic suggestions have been discussed in national media recently after Abrar’s death—such as banning student politics outright—they aren’t very likely to materialize. The government, in fear of a populist revolt, is also likely to make some tokenistic changes and add controlling mechanisms. The President and General Secretary of the Chatra League were replaced in late 2019 when news of their corruption became national headlines. A few Chhatra League leaders were also arrested in connection to Abrar’s death. It is, however, extremely unlikely that the Awami League will sacrifice its easiest access to political henchmen by reducing the power of the Chhatra League. Unless that happens, the exploitation and oppression of their student wing will persist, and the education system of the nation will continue to remain in crumbles.

The write up is with the courtesy of Oxford Political Review