The movement for quota reform may have riveted the street, but it was always meant to end indoors. For the best possible outcome to be realized, the thrill of protests would inevitably have to give way to the tedium of paperwork. It may be noted that the protestors themselves could never put forward a proposed new quota regime, one that reflected the reforms they had in mind. Truth be told, the ones best-equipped for that task would be experienced civil servants and bureaucrats who have spent enough years within the public administration system to be well-versed in its complexities. It is simply the nature of the beast.
The quota reform movement deserves enormous credit, and not a little gratitude on behalf of the rest of society, for having forced one of its veritable “Golden Cows” - issues seemingly beyond question, even though on closer scrutiny we find any number of such questions may be raised. The issue of quotas in Bangladesh’s public sector recruitment clearly was one, and it may well have been the most impenetrable, given the sheer enormity and complexity in refixing the allotments on a fairer basis, preferably one that reflects some of the realities that have come to manifest over the best part of the last half-century.
Yet the climatic last week of the protests, in particular the incidents starting April 8 and leading up to the prime minister’s pledge on the floor of parliament to abolish quotas altogether (although one should avoid reading too much into that) on April 11, and continued through the aftermath brought some disturbing elements into view that cannot be washed away in the euphoria of the movement’s positive outcome.
To many observers, the most troubling of all these elements by some distance is the role being played by ruling party Awami League’s student front, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) at the country’s premier seat of higher learning, Dhaka University.
BCL’s malign role in society in general has frequently captured the media’s spotlight over the course of the last ten years that the AL has been in power. As the party has consolidated its grip over the levers of power in the state, BCL activists and cadres appear to have become more and more emboldened to exercise their influence in a number of fields ranging from tender manipulation to taking the law into their own hands in the name of protecting campuses.
BCL activists’ ceaseless infighting as well as attacks on general students disrupted the academic atmosphere in campuses around the country time and again in recent years. Yet this is for the first time possibly that BCL has been so assertive, and seen to be so, in matters related to Dhaka University. In this as well, the latest state of affairs is quite clearly a culmination of events, that really started under the last VC, and his designs to retain the post beyond his remit.
Eventually the courts had to weigh in with an order that made his exit all but inevitable, and in his place we had a very good man with an enviable academic record of research in his field, yet totally unsuited to the post of vice-chancellor, Prof Md Akhtaruzzaman, appointed VC on an acting basis, before getting confirmed permanently in the post some weeks later.
One of the two incidents during the quota movement’s climax that stood out as new lows, was the absolute mayhem wreaked on the VC’s residence on Fuller Road on the night of April 10. Shockingly it all happened out of sight, and well after midnight - even as the entire quota reform movement from around the country had descended on the capital and taken up positions in the vicinity. It is true that earlier in the evening a rumour had been circulated of one of the protesters being killed, causing much dismay in the ranks. On the strength of that, it was assumed that it must have been the protesters who perpetrated the mindless attack on the VC’s house, one of the finest residences and a heritage address in Dhaka.
Overnight, the movement was in danger of being denounced as criminal, or infiltrated by criminal elements at least. Yet as day broke, sense prevailed as one after another observers recognized the quota reform advocates as incapable of the kind of vandalism that had occurred. Now most observers changed their tune to warn of how “unholy” or “unsavoury” forces had become active to take advantage of the protests and work the situation to their gain.
But truth be told, there was only side that appeared ready and willing to take advantage of the carnage at Fuller Road, and that was the government, on whose behalf AL general secretary and Roads and Highways & Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader met a faction of the reformist movement, and tried to convince them to give up their struggle. He even secured such a pledge, whereby the movement would be postponed till May 7. Fortunately the young protesters thought with cool heads and recognised the game, and called Quader’s move. Before the day was over, they revoked the postponement and regrouped to press home their demands.
The vandalism at Fuller Road had been effectively disowned. But the question remained, if not protesters, who? It seems the law enforcers will not be making much progress in this one, as the state of the campus over the last many years clearly suggests only one group could have the sheer clout and chutzpah to carry out such a brazen and professionally executed attack - none other than the government’s very own, self-appointed attack dogs - BCL.
The second incident occurred the next day, in the dead of night at Begum Sufia Kamal Hall. It would seem everyone by now knows the story of Iffat Jahan Esha, president of Sufia Kamal hall unit of BCL. Witnesses said several numbers of BCL leaders and activists led by the hall unit was expelled from BCL that very night, through a letter issued at 3.30am.
The next day, the DU authorities also expelled her. The VC himself said he had consulted the provost and others and was satisfied to take the disciplinary action.
Within 48 hours, BCL reversed its decision and took Esha back, seemingly on the strength of evidence that she had not actually severed students’ veins as had been alleged on the night of her expulsion. Lo and behold, with nothing to suggest any initiative of their own, DU also restored Esha to her previous status. It smacked of one walking in-step with the other - and belied all expectations of who would lead.
The following week, in a particularly egregious incident, the Sufia Kamal Hall authority expelled 4 of its residents (all girls mind you in Sufia Kamal Hall) for spreading ‘rumours and lies’, thought to be concerning the actions of Esha on the night of her expulsion. The girls, at least 3 of them are now said to be back on the campus, but this brazen act has been denounced by all and sundry, including sections of teachers of DU not tied to the AL-supporting Blue Panel.
Often misrepresented as a one-time ‘Oxford of the East’ (Curzon merely intended to build one, or stated to anyway in the DU masterplan - there is nothing to suggest he actually succeeded), Dhaka University has surely seen better days. Yet even at its nadir, could anyone have imagined it would fall into the arms of an unholy nexus with the present Chhatra League?