The playbook of student politics needs an overhaul

The writer says the "student politics" we see today in institutions as appendages of political parties is a distorted and destructive version of what it is meant to be.

Manzoor Ahmed

Manzoor Ahmed

The Daily Star


File Photo: Prabir Das

April 26, 2022

DHAKA – The tragedy of two innocent by-standers’ lives squandered, hundreds injured, shops damaged and burnt, and business worth crores of taka during the festival season lost from a night and a whole day of pitched battle between Dhaka College students and shop owners in the New Market area once again raise the question: Why has this kind of shameful spectacle been allowed to go on? Can nothing be done about it?

Media reports suggest that a dispute between two staff members of fast food stalls led to a brawl, but it escalated when one of them got some student leaders from Dhaka College to come in a group to his support. The students were chased away by shop owners and workers. However, the students came back reinforcing their number and equipping themselves with rods, sticks and machetes. Police intervened with tear gas—it is alleged after some delay—to bring the night battle to an end.

But then, the next morning, students came back to demonstrate, complaining about rude behaviour of the shop owners and their staff to students and customers. The shop owners, in response, rallied to protest chandabazi (extortion) and special favours demanded by “student leaders” as well as local political hacks. Again, throwing of brickbats and chase and counter-chase followed. Police eventually restored calm after several hours.

The two unfortunate by-standers—Nahid Mia, a deliveryman of a computer shop, and Morsalin, a small shopkeeper—were caught in the battle. Nahid had gotten married seven months ago. Morsalin, the only bread-earner in his family, had two young children. A social media video showed incredible cruelty—Nahid lying motionless on the street face down while a helmet-wearing “student” struck him with a machete.

The media reports suggested and the director general of an education department mentioned that “third parties” had instigated the trouble. Police also said they were proceeding with investigation following this line of argument. Who could be the third parties? Apparently, a local political mini-leader has taken over the extortion ring, and many deprived ones are aggrieved, including some of the “student leaders,” as speculated by the media.

An uneasy calm has returned, and the shops have reopened. Cases have been filed over the deaths, injuries, arson and use of explosives, naming over 1,200 unknown perpetrators, with only around two dozen mentioned by name. Perhaps a few will be actually identified and punished, and a few students may even be expelled from the college. This may again spark protests and demonstrations. The uneasy accommodation of extortion and control will continue, until another incident escalates into violence with one or another aggrieved party reacting too strongly. Two lives lost and the families’ tragedy cannot be redeemed.

Should it not be asked how these kinds of mayhem keep happening, and why these cannot be stopped? How is it that there is so often an adversarial interaction between the “town” and the “gown”? With any dispute between a customer and a small shop or food-stall owner, or a bus conductor and a passenger, students find it necessary to react aggressively as a group and take law into their own hands. What about an institutional code of conduct for students, what ethics and values they acquire in their education, and what do they learn from their teachers? Do students know that in a public institution like Dhaka College or any public university, the bulk of the cost of their education is borne by the taxpayers, the citizens, and that the students owe a debt to society? Should a student of a higher educational institution not be expected to live by a degree of civility in their interaction with others? It is, of course, unfair to blame only the students for the lack of these qualities, or for what happened around Dhaka College, and what may very well happen again.

There is no doubt that the “third party” instigation and the control and extortion rings are ingredients in the mess. But this is not a secret. Should this continue to be acceptable? Should the underlying causes—the nature of student politics today and the larger political culture that allows and encourages these to flourish—not be re-examined?

What has happened in the New Market area is not a rare and isolated situation; it is of a piece with similar misconduct of some students, mafia-like behaviour of some student leaders, and bizarre ways of exercising control and power by them. The loss of control of residential halls at universities by the respective administrations is an outcome. Not holding student union elections for over three decades in universities and colleges, which would have allowed students a normal outlet for cultural, social and even political activities in an orderly way, is another consequence.

The “student politics” we see today in institutions as appendages of political parties, overwhelmingly dominated by the party in power, is a distorted and destructive version of what it is meant to be. It is a tragic irony that student politics has lost its way, especially since the restoration of democracy in 1990. The movement against the military-backed autocratic rule was the last hurrah of real student politics. The Shahbagh movement of 2013 and the recent road safety campaign are only infrequent reminders of the glorious tradition.

In 2010, as the new national education policy was being formulated, five most distinguished and respected educationists of Bangladesh expressed their concern about the state of our education and the need for restoring the environment for academic pursuits in educational institutions. The first of their nine recommendations was: “In order to keep students and youth away from mal-politics and maintain the academic environment on campus, direct and indirect links between Awami League and Chhatra League should be severed. At the same time, heads of all institutions and the local administration should be directed to strictly control all criminal and irregular activities by students and non-students, and the administration should be assured of full support from the government for this purpose. These measures are indispensable to restore the glorious tradition of student politics.”

The signatories of the joint statement published in July 2010 were Prof Kabir Chowdhury, Prof Anisuzzaman, Prof Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, and Prof Jamal Nazrul Islam. Only Prof Serajul Islam Chowdhury is with us today; the others are no more.

It is never too late to heed this wise counsel. Even from a realpolitik calculus of electoral politics, looking ahead to the parliamentary election in two years, such a move would be of benefit to the nation, and thus to the ruling party.

Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University, chair of Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN), and vice-chair of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE). Views expressed in this article are his own.

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