Campus: Activism or hooliganism

By Rumi Ahmed

Published in BDnews24 on 25 February 2010.

This piece considers recent trend in student politics.

These days, on 14th February, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Bangladesh with great fanfare. Students as well as their elders use much energy and ingenuity to express their love for the close ones. As a student in the 1980s, I had no clue what Valentine’s Day was. But for many of my generation, 14th February was still a special day. On this day in 1983, students lodged a large scale protest against the Ershad regime. Five students — Zafar, Dipali Saha, Jainal, Mozammel and Ayub — were killed. The following year, during a student procession marking the first anniversary of the event, military dictator Ershad’s forces ran a truck over it, instantly crushing Selim and Delwar to death.

Over the next six years, many more lives were lost. We invoked the names of Dipali, Delwar and others, a million times. Students were followed by trade unions, followed by professionals, bravely defying the general. Politicians joined hands, and the civil service stepped in. Eventually, the military had no option but to retreat to the cantonment.

Our students are dying once again. They are either killing each other or being killed by law enforcement agencies. The recent spate of killings is neither a new development nor one with a novel dimension, almost in repetition of what had happened in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s in the violent history of student politics in Bangladesh. The students who are dying now are unlike Dipali or Delwar. They are unfortunate, on many counts. It is not just that their lives are being terminated prematurely. Rather regrettably, they are not dying for any great cause, and are soon forgotten.

And they are most unfortunate because our society, nation, and state have shown, again and again, that their lives are not valued. It has become ‘easy’ to kill a student, by any which way imaginable — tear gas shell, bullet, machete, knife or hockey stick — without much danger of punishment to the killer. Anybody in Bangladesh can walk away having killed a student. Throughout the country’s history, students’ deaths have seldom been tried in court and their killers brought to justice.

A dead student provides for much political capital in Bangladesh. Each student murder offers substantial short term gains ranging from establishment of one party’s control in a residential hall to monopolising tender bids and related extortion.

Criminal activities in the name of student politics will continue unless teachers themselves wash their hands off it. This could initially happen through government imposition stipulating that the leadership on our campuses must come from academically qualified administrators, educators and researchers. It is about time we escape from the tradition of hard core political activists or political opportunists leading a university as a reward for their services to one political party or the other. There must be an unbiased proctorial body to deal with student violence ruthlessly. There has to be special politically blind units in law enforcement agencies exclusively assigned to deal with crime and corruption on campuses. And instigators of student violence must be tried.

But first and foremost, accountability must be restored vis-à-vis student politics. And the biggest symbolic target in our quest for accountability in student related violence is none other than the military dictator Ershad.

Nothing stirred anti-Ershad uprising as much as the death of Dr Milon. After Ershad’s fall, an inquiry by the military, as recently narrated to media by former major general Ainuddin, described in horrifying detail how Ershad and his wife were responsible for the student violence that led to Milon’s death. Any measure to introduce accountability in student politics must begin with holding Ershad to account. Or the entire process will turn into a joke.

Meanwhile, there is an expedient, myopic, and ultimately futile way to seek accountability. Unfortunately, that’s the path being followed in the aftermath of the recent Chhatra League-Chhatra Shibir violence. Just as our focus was turning to the unfortunate consequences of student politics (as we saw in the outpouring of emotion at Bakar’s death), attention seems to have deviated to a different issue. Whereas the initial focus was on rampant mindless violence in student politics and its unfortunate consequences, it suddenly moved back to Jamaat-Shibir with the death of Faruk.

Jamaat-Shibir is an important issue in its own right that we need to tackle squarely. But let that issue not blur our vision regarding the real problem at hand. Engaging and eventually undermining religion-based politics is important, but letting Chhatra League loose on Shibir and criticising the police if they try to take a stand, as has been done by some leading media institutions, is an extremely irresponsible act.

One has to remember that those leading Chhatra League violence, whether against Shibir or ordinary students, do not have any ideology other than their own petty interest. They were nowhere to be seen when Sheikh Hasina was arrested in 2007, or during many street agitations against the BNP rule.

Our nation must come to a consensus on how long we will let these mindless murders go unabated and murderers go unpunished. Every single murder must be investigated impartially without any consideration for partisan interest, and all the killers must be brought to justice. The prime minister’s steadfast resolve in trying the killers of her family members have finally led to fruition. Like her, there are many more mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters whose sons, brothers, daughters and sisters were killed in campus violence. They may not be as powerful as her, but it is her responsibility to ensure justice for these families the way the prime minister ensured justice for her own losses.

In times of national need, general students have always woken up and stood up. Leaders were created out of them. They have never waited for the decision of a committee, headed by the chairperson, for directions or endorsement of their actions. Student organisations are part of our organised crime problem. They are our mafia. They do not belong to any one party. Student politics is the reason for the loss of hundreds of academic hours in our universities and colleges. They ruin many promising lives — some die. Some others become thugs and murderers, allegedly, like Golam Faruq Ovi.

Let’s stop this nuisance.


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