The NSU incident — A microcosm of Bangladesh?

Mridul Chowdhury

Published in the Daily Star on 13 May 2009.

THE North South University incident of May 10th of a non-violent protest being dealt with police batons and tear gas is symptomatic of a larger problem that has permeated our entire society — lack of adequate mechanism to voice grievances and unjust reaction by those in power when grievances do get raised. When a general citizen dies at a public hospital due to negligence, there is no one to complain to since certain quarters are much too powerful. When a female student in a university gets harassed by a local hooligan, she keeps silent since even the teachers do not want to ruffle feathers. When an ethnic minority leader dies during interrogation, no one raises questions since the answers are buried too deep.

However, on certain occasions, exceptions occur and some people raise their voices against what they believe is blatant injustice. Due to lack of existing mechanisms, they use means that have worked in most democratic countries. They protest using non-violent means, sometimes in peaceful manners such as human chains, at other times in not-so-peaceful ways such as blocking of roads and highways and creating public hazards to get attention.

The protest by students at NSU started as just that — a non-violent protest against a decision of increase in fees that they thought was unjust. While raising fees falls under the prerogative of university authorities, it is also the right of students to feel that the boundary of ‘justice’ has been crossed. This time they had their reasons — whether legitimate or not is for readers to decide.

For several years, the NSU students had been paying a fee labeled as ‘Campus Development Fee’ despite the fact that a large section of those who have been paying this will never even get to attend a single class in the new campus. On top of that, the authorities announced a rise in fees earlier this year to which the students staged a non-violent protest in February successfully, which ended with the VC renouncing the then-announced increase in fees for existing students (quoted from NSU web announcement on 10th February, 2009: “The Enhancement of tuition and other fees are not applicable for the existing students — NSU Authority 10/2/2009”).

This recent decision to raise fees just 3 months after their promise made the students feel betrayed and exploited. What raised the level of frustration was the fact that this new announcement was made rather ‘silently’ during the semester break and right before class registration, leaving little time for dialogue between students and authorities.

Seeing no other option, some NSU students gathered on May 10th for a peaceful protest to let it be known that they have felt betrayed by the authorities they have trusted. They were prepared for a mutually respectful dialogue, which unfortunately never happened. What happened was something that no student could ever imagine. The police descended upon the student group with batons and tear gas and quickly things went out of control, leading to unwanted destruction of properties. At the end of it all, some left physically injured, but everyone left with a deep emotional scar — how could the authorities, many of whom were like father figures to students, allow the police to step in to ‘teach the students a lesson’?

Now, who is to blame for this? Perhaps the authorities should have been more respectful about raising fees through a process of dialogue and negotiations. Perhaps the students misinterpreted what the NSU authorities promised on the 10th February 2009 announcement. Perhaps the students should have shown more restraint in letting their grievances be heard. Perhaps there were unruly elements in the protest group who took advantage of the situation. Perhaps there was not enough reason for the police to be called in.

There are a lot of ‘perhaps’, but what is definite and undeniable is that, just like most other areas of our society, our private universities do not have a well-functioning mechanism through which students can voice their concerns or influence their decisions about the place that they devote their formative years to.

A widely established platform for such dialogue is a student council or student government, the concept of which is generally abhorred by the authorities of private universities. Their standard lines of argument are that it will ‘politicise’ the university environment and that it will create internal divisions among the youth.

There are two problems inherent in that argument. Firstly, it dishonours the word ‘politics’ which is essentially the act of organising to defend rights and raise voices in a systematic manner — it has nothing to do with ‘party politics’, which is what has garnered infamy in recent decades. Secondly, it also heavily disrespects the youth since it pre-supposes that the youth are divisive and unruly and if given the right to organise to voice concerns and opinions about university regulations and facilities, they will use it for harmful and destructive purposes.

If there had been a student government in place at NSU today, this entire process could have been handled much more respectfully and peacefully. The students would have got a forum to ask why they are being charged this extra amount and what it will be used for, and the authorities could have found a respectful way of responding to those legitimate queries and adjusting decisions if needed.

In typical addas, students ask what the authorities have done with the tens of crores raised from them in the name of ‘Campus Development Fee’ over the last few years, and whether it should be the job of the NSU Trustees to raise funds for such expansion — pent-up frustrations take root since there is no accepted platform to raise these questions and get responses.

The university is not a marketplace where knowledge is bought and sold — it is a place where some students find their purpose in life, some find the ability to exercise their leadership skills, some find the scope to share and learn new ways of thinking. Even if we take a more pragmatic standpoint and look at students as consumers of knowledge and skill that universities ‘sell’, there is still the issue of consumer rights that exist in all other spheres of economic activity and the right to get organised to protect those rights.

NSU has led the path in making private universities a viable option for those who can afford it. It will be a shame if it is not able to lead when an opportunity has been handed to it in golden platter to show that it can develop a well-functioning mechanism for authorities, teachers and students to respectfully come together and decide on issues of mutual interests.

It will not only make NSU a leader in the area of private university education, but it can also be an important milestone in our nation’s progress towards a ‘truer’ democracy. If used correctly, this can be an opportunity for private universities to develop a more mature and mutually respectful relationship between students and authorities, and for students to gain invaluable experience in using civilised and peaceful means to voice concerns. If used incorrectly, this will be a dark sport in our nation’s history of private university education.

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