Published in The Daily Star
June 18th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam
THE role of students, particularly of Dhaka University, in Bangladesh's political history is unique and inspiring. They led the Language Movement that laid the foundation for an independent Bangladesh. They led the 1969 popular uprising against Ayub Khan's military dictatorship that weakened Pakistan, paving the way for the emergence of Bangladesh. In 1971, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the political and military leaderships in the fight against the Pakistani military. Perhaps only here have students played such a role.
Nevertheless, in today's student politics, it is impossible to think they played those roles. Today, the activities of the Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) -- the ruling Awami League's student wing -- is a national problem and embarrassment as it indulges in criminal activities right under the government's nose.
Incredibly, the prime minister has failed to control it after repeated warnings. The home ministry ordered the police to deal with the BCL's criminal activities but they too have failed. Student politics is, literally, an out-of-control Frankenstein.
Awami League leaders have made unbelievable accusations to explain BCL activities. Some of them suggested that opposition elements, notably the Chatra Shibir, who "infiltrated" the BCL have committed these crimes.
The link between the Awami League and its student wing is deeper than meets the eye where, by tradition, BCL leaders eventually become Awami League leaders. In addition, family and many other traditions tie the BCL to the AL, making "infiltration" almost impossible. To be told now that "infiltrators," and that too from Shibir, have "infiltrated" the BCL and are using it to commit criminal activities is so absurd that only those who propagate it fool themselves into believing it.
The "infiltration" theory would have made sense if they had suggested that the supporters of senior AL leaders in the BCL, who were cornered in the party, are carrying them out to discredit the AL. Otherwise, the "infiltration" theory is childish. Nevertheless, it points to a dangerous truth; that the AL has lost control over the BCL, and unless something extraordinary is done there is no way to restrain it.
The BCL problem is, however, not Awami League-specific. It is simply that, with the present government, the Frankenstein has reached adulthood to challenge its creator. Other mainstream parties' student wings are quite capable of committing the same acts as the BCL, if their parties are in power. Therefore, it is now time to look at this as a national problem because it is destroying public educational institutions and, in that sense, the country's future.
A few facts stand out. First, in the past, national and international lures created and sustained student parties in our politics. In the 1950s and 1960s, students were motivated to fight for their language and culture and for political and economic rights, based on Bengali nationalism.
Second, they were motivated to fight for emancipation of the society's proletariat, or the downtrodden, through the strong appeal of communism. In other words, in those years, ideals and principles created the rationale for students to be drawn into national politics. Political parties involved with the same issues provided students with support and encouragement for their roles. In fact, student parties were, as today, wings of the mainstream political parties.
Bangladesh's emergence removed the nationalism lure that had brought students into politics. The Soviet Union's fall and China's changed stance in international politics removed the international lure. After independence, students felt compelled to remain involved in national politics to overthrow President Ershad's military dictatorship.
Since the return of democracy, all lures for political involvement have ceased. Students should have been allowed to sever their connection with national politics to pursue their studies. Instead, the political parties sustained and strengthened ties with their student wings.
Bereft of principles and ideals, student politics paradigm shifted for the worse -- a consequence of the mainstream parties' conflict politics -- since 1991. Student wing leaders became political agents for the parties in educational institutions.
In time, an evil nexus developed where student wing leaders reaped the benefits of their political connections when their party came to power. These included financial benefits from tenders related to development works; distribution of dormitory seats for money; involvement in campus crimes, including sexual harassment of female students, all without any fear of punishment.
The BCL's recent demands that they should be given a quota of seats in educational institutions to sell openly to those seeking admission manifested the utter depths to which student politics have fallen.
The nation, unable to do anything, watched with growing concern as public educational institutions went from bad to worse. The civil society that could have done something, where the politicians were silent, never spoke about this nexus.
These indifferences allowed student wings to freely and openly indulge in national politics and bring its conflicts to the educational institutions; its corruption and criminality, vitiating the educational environment of these institutions thoroughly and completely.
Teachers, who in the past had never felt the need to organise under the banner of political parties, have also become involved. Thus, BCL activities today are logical and should not surprise anybody. Nevertheless, they cannot be allowed to continue.
The problem, however, cannot be wished away because it did not go even after the prime minister's stern and repeated warnings. There is too much money, power and freedom, without fear of the law, at stake for student leaders to voluntarily give up their stranglehold on public educational institutions. These leaders eventually also land in key posts in their respective political parties.
The evil nexus will be broken only when mainstream parties sever all connections with their student parties. Once that is done, the rest is a simple law and order situation because without political protection student politicians are no better and no worse than common criminals running from the law.
It is high time to free our educational institutions from student politics. It benefits only a handful of "political" students at the cost of the majority of the students who, apart from the inconveniences of studying in the midst of criminality, lose up to four years of their lives to session jams.
The BCL's criminal activities should be a wakeup call for the AL to take a strategic decision to sever ties with it. It should also be a wakeup call for other mainstream parties to do likewise for their own sake and the nation's future.
M. Serajul Islam is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.