Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bakar's death and afterthoughts

We are indeed a very resilient nation. Even when the worst is around us, we can smile as if we are in good times. Otherwise, there can be no explanation about what is happening in the public educational institutions and our almost nonchalant attitude as a nation. The death of the Dhaka University student Abu Bakar Siddiqui whose parents were counting their days when their son would end his education and become a teacher in his alma mater should have moved us to the end of our tolerance. It was heartening to see that the Prime Minister has called for reining these criminal elements who masquerade in the name of students. After it was reported that the Home Minister had said that the death of Bakar was a “stray incident” that created a lot of disappointment, she clarified later that she had said no such thing and described her determination to bring the criminals to book.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly warned the students in her party’s students’ wing, the Chatra League, to shape up even before the death of Bakar. In her frustration, she had even resigned from her patronage of the Chatra League soon after assuming power as Prime Minister when the leaders of the Chatra League were involved in taking law into their own hands and claiming all the dormitories of the public educational institutions, particularly in the Dhaka University, for themselves and their criminal activities. The Prime Minister’s stern warnings have fallen on deaf ears for reasons that are not difficult to comprehend.

It is now evident that the student leaders belonging to the party in power are a power unto themselves. The fact that they have continued with their criminal activities in the face of Prime Minister’s warnings would suggest that they do not believe that the Prime Minister is serious.. The proof of that is evident in the news appearing daily in the print media about the activities of the Chatra League vandalizing and criminalizing one public educational institution after another. Very recently, the Chatra League has demanded that there should be a quota for them to admit students in public educational institutions so that they could earn a hefty sum of money by selling the quota of admissions to admission seekers! In fact, there is already a de-facto quota system; what these Chatra League leaders are demanding is a legal cover to this illegal activity. In fact, going by one newspaper report, Chatra League leaders have netted Taka 1 core from three educational institutions in Dhaka by getting students admitted for money in recent days.

In the backdrop of this new innovative and money-spinning activity of the leaders of the Chatra League, their old activities that are equally criminal have not abated even a little bit. These student leaders are merrily carrying their “business” with tenders called “tenderbazi” and forced donation called “chandabazi”. Despite the Prime Minister’s direction to the law enforcing agencies to take action against those who are indulging in admission business” , tenderbazi and chandabazi, no substantial action has been yet taken against these students. Instead, the authorities have introduced on-line system to tackle the menace. Although, the outcome of this initiative is not yet known, it would be very surprising if it succeeds at all, even in limited scale. The reason is obvious. The fact that the authorities have gone on-line to deal with the problem speaks for the fact that they are either not serious or for some mysterious reasons, afraid to get into the root cause of the problem. The root cause is student politics that is empowered and sustained by political parties. In the game the students’ parties play, there is one “convention” that has assumed the force of law. When the students’ party supports the political party that goes to power, they have the “right” to tenderbazi, chandabazi and now “admissions business” that the authorities accept by de-facto sanction. The students’ party whose political party loses the elections accepts the reality by lying low. The intra-fight in the Chatra Dal witnessed in Dhaka University a few weeks ago is not against this “convention”; the Chatra Dal is just keeping its structure intact so that when the BNP wins, they can take the mantle from the Chatra League and carry on what the Chatra League is doing now!

The incident involving the Chatra Dal is interesting for another reason. There were pictures the following day showing police standing as spectators while students were brandishing pistols! While one of the students whose picture was caught in the photo journalist’s frame was later arrested, one is waiting eagerly to see what the authorities do with him. Going by past experience, there is no reason to feel that anything much will be done with him. He will just slip through the porous fingers of the law. While it would be disappointing if nothing happens with the arrested student, there is a more pertinent question that no one has asked; not in the newspapers that carried the pictures of the fight in Dhaka University that day. Why was the police not questioned for doing nothing? What about Dhaka University authorities? They claim for themselves for being at the forefront of all democratic movements in the country. What kind of democracy do they preach when they do nothing when pistols are brandished in broad light that scares the daylight out of the majority of the students who wants to pursue their studies in peace which is why we have a university in the first place?

The time has come for all of us to do some serious soul searching. It is amazing that in a country where there is no dearth of individuals and groups making tall claims about patriotism, democracy, sacrifices for the country, etc to give the impression that they have helped us build the perfect nation should accept such criminal activities taking place in institutions upon which the future of the nation rests without doing anything . Where are these patriots, these movers and shakers hiding when right before their eyes and under their noses, almost on a daily basis, the leaders of student political parties with patronage of national political parties are carrying on their mayhem as if they are a law unto themselves? Let us not fool ourselves that Bakar died in a stray incident. His death was inevitable. In fact, many such deaths should have been occurring every day in our public educational institutions because of the freedom that the student political parties have been given to do what they want and it is a mystery or may be divine will that many more Bakar are not dying.

The curious question is why are the authorities beating about the bush with the problem instead of dealing with it where it could be tackled? Why is the Prime Minister’s anger and directive falling on deaf ears? The answers are not difficult at all to fathom. Let us not for a moment doubt the Prime Minister’s intentions. She wants this mayhem in the public education institutions to end. Unfortunately, the way to go about dealing with the situation is not by issuing angry directives to the law enforcing agencies. The political parties depend on the student leaders for a lot of mischief that goes on in the politics of the country. This nexus of mischief have grown over decades and is so thick now that anger or outburst of the Prime Minister cannot do much. The most dangerous mix that has come into the nexus is the amount of money involved. When a party in Bangladesh wins an election, it can give benefit to only a few of its party activists legally for in Bangladesh we do not have the spoils system. Although, in a small way the present party in power has created a spoils system of sorts by giving government jobs to individuals outside the regularly recruited bureaucracy, the number involved here is very small. A big section of party activists who expect kickback after the election are student leaders and former student leaders. Since the party that has won the election cannot legally give this large number regular government jobs, it has allowed them to fend for themselves by giving them posts in the students’ wing so that they can remain professional students into their late 30s or early 40s to indulge in chandabazi, tenderbazi and admission business that now fetches them mind boggling sums of money.

The amount of money involved in chandabazi, tenderbazi and admission business has in fact created more formidable obstacles in dealing with the problem of violence and criminal activities in the public educations institutions. In a recent TV Talk Show a University Professor differed on the issue whether we can blame students for the violence and mayhem. While the general students, in fact the overwhelming majority, cannot be blamed, it is nevertheless also true that the general students are also often encouraged towards such unacceptable activities. Despite all that can be said about our public universities, the fact remains they help educate too many students whose degrees have little or no job value in the market. At the same time, getting a degree from Dhaka University in many subjects that attract the majority of the students does not require 100% devotion to earn a degree as it does in a University abroad. Majority of our students just have too much spare time and pay just too little for their education to value their degree or the value of education. A lot of these students become easy targets of student leaders when they carry out another of their favourite activities, namely vandalizing cars/vehicles and property almost always at the flimsiest of grounds. The victims here are all innocent citizens and sometimes our guests from abroad. In fact, in the latest act of such vandalism by our students, the car of the national cricket coach was a casualty.

All the above, and particularly Bakar’s death should be taken as the last straw on the camel’s back. Let it act as the catalyst to what we should have done years ago; ban students’ politics and save the nation and most importantly, save the students for they are the victims of students’ politics. If we are resilient on this anymore, the casualty will be the nation next time. Let the Prime Minister do this one good for the country that she alone can.

Published in The Independent, February 10th, 2010

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