Rewarding thuggery, punishing talent

The writer writes about the state of student activism in Bangladesh.

Mahfuz Anam

Mahfuz Anam

The Daily Star


Illustration: Biplob Chakraborty

March 10, 2023

DHAKA – Many factors that impact us as a country are not in our control – the climate crisis, pandemics, geopolitics, globalisation, energy crisis, international terms of trade, the Ukraine war, etc. But some are, like enabling our students to be among the best learners, if not in the world, then at least in the region. So when we fail to do that, and knowingly continue to do the very opposite of it, we are forced to ask: are we not destroying the future of our students and, in the process, jeopardising that of our country?

I am fully aware of our history of student activism and am a personal witness to the tremendous importance and benefits that it brought to us. I believe that students must have a role to question what they see and protest whenever they see injustice, oppression, corruption, abuse of power, etc. They must have the right to demand change if a situation calls for it.

But we must also ask: what has become of the student activism that we were once so proud of? Do issues like justice, democracy, freedom, and rights of others hold any meaning for our present day students? How conscious are they of the complexity of modern life and its challenges? How aware are they of the existential threat that humanity faces today – namely climate change? Do they know that their beloved motherland is at the forefront of that crisis and is likely to be one of its worst victims? Do they think that attacking opponents to sort out differences is the only way to go? Do they attach any value to having dialogues with those with whom they disagree? Why is violence their first choice? What values, ideals, dreams are they receiving from their education? What is the role of educational institutions in genuinely guiding these young lives to prepare better for the future?

The above questions and many more forced themselves upon me as I read our own recent reports on the clashes between the students of Dhaka College, Dhaka City College, and Ideal College. All three colleges are among the better ones in the city, with creditable academic track records. Of them, Dhaka College is the oldest, most prestigious and successful – till recent times. City College excels in commerce subjects, with Ideal College holding its own at a satisfactory level. All three are located in the upper middle class areas around New Market, Green Road, and Dhanmondi. If these students are the products of our near-best colleges, one must worry about what’s happening in the rest.

What are we actually teaching them? And of what we teach, how much are they really learning? Are we preparing them to be suitable citizens of the 21st century? Do we really understand what being “citizens of the 21st century” implies? We know that it will be an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven society. Will we be able to take advantage of its enormous potential, or will our students go out in anger and break those machines as AI will inevitably start taking away our jobs?

The good students who are still coming out of these colleges and from others are doing so absolutely on their own, and not because of the institutions they study in.

When we passed our matric examination from St Gregory’s High School in 1965, all my friends who did outstandingly well went to Dhaka College, and those of us who belonged to the second tier went to Notre Dame College. As the protest against Gen Ayub Khan’s rule and resentment against West Pakistan’s domination gained momentum, and especially after Bangabandhu launched his six-point programme in 1966, our friends in Dhaka College started joining the protests and many of them enrolled in one or the other of the most prominent student organisations of the time – both groups of the left-oriented East Pakistan Student Union (EPSU) and the student wing of Awami League, the East Pakistan Students’ League. That was Dhaka College.

As a participant and a direct beneficiary of the student movements of the past, I cannot but raise the question: why are we throwing our college and university students into this abyss of moral and ethical degradation?

Student politics in our time was the most serious schooling in social awareness, political consciousness building, and familiarisation with bigger issues like people’s struggles for economic, political, and cultural rights and learning to link them with global issues like imperialist domination and the impact of colonialism. This led us to life-changing self-awareness that made us better human beings. Simply put, student politics made us enlightened citizens of the country and, in many ways, of the world. (We chanted endless slogans for the release of Nelson Mandela and the fall of the Apartheid regime, and in support of Palestine, Viet Nam, Angola and Mozambique).

It’s not that there weren’t fights between students of different colleges or between groups within each institution during our time. They, however, never defined the totality of student activities as they mostly do now.

Just about a year ago, on April 18, 2022, a deadly clash erupted between the Dhaka College students and the traders and shopkeepers of the New Market area. The clash lasted for two days until on the 19th, two persons – Nahid Mia and Mursalin – totally unconnected with the incidents, were killed. The reason was extortion.

Today, it is almost expected that students will indulge in violence, that they will be involved with money-making activities, with gangsterism and activities that are generally deemed as anti-social. Conversely, stories of students participating in social causes, in fighting for human rights, democracy, and justice in general are getting rarer.

With some variations, this is the picture of student activities in almost all colleges and universities throughout the country. The only brilliant exception were the school students demanding road safety measures in 2018. Instead of encouraging them to get more involved with social causes, they were brutally suppressed. Some are still facing police cases.

As a participant and a direct beneficiary of the student movements of the past, I cannot but raise the question: why are we throwing our college and university students into this abyss of moral and ethical degradation? Will the future of our student community be sacrificed at the altar of criminal activities and partisan politics? As long as a student is willing to add to the muscle power of one’s party, then whatever else he does as a student is acceptable – should that be our position?

And all this when we stand at the doorstep of the most profound changes that humanity ever faced – negatively the climate crisis and positively the AI revolution, especially in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology.

There cannot be a more tragic example of our future going astray. And we are solely responsible for it. There is no “conspiracy” here, only our inexplicable and thoroughly incomprehensible indifference to our future.

Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.

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