Only fools would have ever bought into the notion that student politics would never stage a comeback at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, or BUET, the undisputed jewel in the crown of higher education in Bangladesh. Known for producing or at least honing the country's best and brightest, BUET has been able to almost fully dedicate itself to academic pursuits over the last five years, since it banned all forms of organised political activity by its students, and also anyone else within its boundaries in October 2019, within days of the darkest, most macabre incident in its otherwise proud history.

All of it came a cropper on the night of October 6, 2019, when a group of around twenty Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders and activists called Abrar Fahad, a bright and popular second year student of the Electronic and Electrical Engineering course, up to a second floor room of the Sher-e-Bangla Hall and proceeded to bludgeon him to death, before trying to paint him as a Jamaat-Shibir supporter based on some social media posts that lamented the rather weak display of negotiating skills by the government in its dealings with New Delhi. As the calls for justice began to stream in, in order to ensure that no BUET student could ever face the same fate as Abrar, the students demanded BUET institute a ban on student politics, and the authorities duly complied in that highly emotive moment.

Although it was hailed from the outset as the right decision by highly respected academics, and indeed BUET luminaries like the late Jamilur Reza Chowdhury and Dr Ainun Nishat, what couldn't be overlooked was the fact that it made something of an anomaly among the country's public institutes of higher education. In the four-and-a-half years since the ban, the BUET campus remained by-and-large peaceful, and it wasn't as if anybody was missing it really. But there was a view that despite all its flaws, and particularly in view of how it had lost direction in the post-1991, by banning student politics, BUET was actually abdicating its responsibility towards realising a more relevant and progressive form of it in the country.

Today as we await the return of organised student politics at BUET following a High Court order this week that put a stay on the notification of the ban by the university, the biggest concern must surely be that far from a more progressive or enlightened version, over the last five years student politics has actually deteriorated further. The sincerity and steadfastness with which the BUET student body has been trying to resist this eventuality cannot be brushed aside. What if there is a repetition of October 6, 2019? And is this really a resumption of 'student politics' in its true sense, or more akin to surrendering the campus, and eventually the institution, to Chhatra League? Only time will tell, but for now, the die is cast. For better or for worse, we will see the Chhatra League takeover the BUET campus, in the absence of almost any organised opposition.

The nature of politics is such that it permeates every aspect of our lives that has a public component to it. Knowingly or unknowingly, we engage in a series of political choices on a daily basis. And to be sure, a ban on politics is itself an inherently political act. But the immunity they have enjoyed over the last five years may have lulled them into some sense of being shielded from it all. In the days ahead, we will see them learn they are not. And that might be a harder lesson in practice than anything they learn in the classrooms of BUET. The hope must be that rather than being harmed, they emerge hardened from it, and contribute even more to a better future for the country.

What lies ahead

In the short term, we would see BCL take over the allocation of places in the BUET halls of residence, which would become totally politicised; the campus would become less safe for women, given BCL's sheer propensity for violence, often of a sexual nature, against women; and also more violent in general, despite the other parties' student fronts remaining subdued, or practically inactive. BCL factions will emerge within individual units, given the high-stakes involvement they would inevitably seek (and get) in 'tenderbaji' for campus development projects and contractual services like catering and transport. The fraternal battles between BCL factions, taking place on campuses up and down the country today, could often put the intensity of the AL-BNP rivalry to shame, simply because the stakes they are playing for are higher.

Two recent, and in fact ongoing examples of how a BCL takeover of a university would unfold, can be seen at Kushtia's Islamic University and Chittagong University. The free rein Chhatra League enjoyed in these institutes during the tenures of two recent AL-appointed VCs (both have since moved on), and the consequences they bred, can be instructive on what we should expect to see in BUET in the days ahead.

Further down the line, once they are more firmly entrenched, we would see Chhatra League engage in the 'admission business', and even dip their hands into the recruitment of teachers, by tailoring a process that systematically favours ex-Chhatra League cadres. At BUET, maybe no one quite so diabolical as the medical college teacher in Sirajganj who shot one of his students in class, but to be sure, not all that better either. Needless to say, this would imply almost total capitulation, and really the end of BUET as we know it. Some venerable academics can be expected to oppose all this, or at least try. But the fear of reputational damage and social isolation is high, and there have been some disturbing instances of university authorities failing to stand by their teachers against BCL. Once the onslaught begins, don't expect much from them by way of resistance - that is still likely to emanate from the students.

Although under no obligation to prove their popularity, BCL will be well aware that at least in the beginning, they are likely to be deeply unpopular, and even encounter resentment. The fact remains that even this comeback had to be manoeuvred practically through the backdoor. Prior to Saddam's appearance at BUET past midnight on March 27, there was no open dialogue on how this should happen. No attempt at taking the student body or other parties into confidence.

Having said that, the sheer advantage they enjoy over the general students in terms of their organisational capacity, that held them in such good stead in the week starting March 27, is once again likely to make the difference, and ensure their survival once albeit under the banner of student politics.

The first whiff of suspicion

The students of BUET boycotted all sorts of academic activities after witnessing the ruling party's student front, Bangladesh Chhatra League, staging a return to political activity on the campus.

BUET students renounced student front politics on behalf of political parties on their campus since a group of BCL activists were implicated in torturing a bright and sensitive first year student, Abrar Fahad, till his death over the course of a macabre night on the BUET campus in 2019.

BCL has since tried sporadically to bring politics back, or political programmes specifically, on the campus but met with resistance from the student body on each occasion, and the latest incident would seem to fall in that line of succession.

In the small hours of Thursday (Mar. 28), but really after midnight on Wednesday, BCL president Saddam Hussain along with other central leaders and activists of BCL entered BUET campus where Imtiaz Rahim Rabbi, a BUET student and executive member of BCL central panel, was present and 'played a vital role' in facilitating their entry. Thereafter some leaders and activists of newly-formed BCL committees presented floral bouquets to the president.

The general students of BUET marked this entrance of BCL in a group as aimed at communicating their presence on the campus - to test the waters as it were, as part of a conspiracy to revive student politics on the BUET campus. They were right of course.

BUET students wasted no time in staging day-long demonstrations on the campus demanding safe campus and strict measures against any BUET students found to have conspired with the BCL leaders.

Hundreds of students joined the demonstration expressing solidarity with the movement from the morning and held a press briefing there, where they declared their opposition to 'using BUET campus for political motives', and immediately boycotted all academic activities including the scheduled classes and exams of March 30 and 31.

Their demands include suspending any BUET students involved from halls and departments for violating the university's regulations; specifically they demand action against 'involved' Imtiaz Rahim Rabbi.

They also asked for safety guarantees for those protesting, the BUET administration's stance on the incident, safety and security of all the protesting students with assurances in a written format and making sure that they face no harassment.

The students also demanded the resignation of the Directorate of Students' Welfare's leadership, saying it had failed to do its job.

No more a secret

The ruling Awami League's powerful student front, staged a large counter-rally on Sunday against the movement forged by BUET students to keep their campus ringfenced from student politics.

The BCL rally left no room for any more doubt that they believe it is time for the BUET authorities to lift the ban imposed on student politics on the Sunday (Mar. 31), as they used their platform at this rally to demand the reintroduction of student politics in BUET.

As per the announcement, before the start of the rally, the leaders and activists gathered at the Central Shaheed Minar with processions joining in from different halls of Dhaka University and various units of Chhatra League's Dhaka Metropolitan units. Leaders and activists kept coming towards Shaheed Minar shouting slogans aimed at painting the apolitical student body of BUET in a communal light.

Imtiaz Hossain Rahim Rabbi, a BUET student who has been acting to facilitate the return of BCL, and with them student politics, to the BUET campus and had his residential seat subsequently cancelled, could be seen at the front of the procession.

BCL president Saddam Hussain delivered an 'ultimatum' to the university administration to reintroduce student politics 'without delay'. Besides, he demanded the restoration of the Rabbi's residential seat.

"From this rally we are requesting BUET administration to restart student politics in the campus immediately. The rule you imposed (banning student politics)is a black law. There is nothing in the university ordinance that allows you to ban student politics. It is unconstitutional."

The student body of BUET has been protesting the latest attempt by the BCL leaders and activists to return to the BUET campus as a political entity, which started late last Wednesday (past midnight) with Rabbi inviting the BCL president to the campus and facilitating his entrance.

After that some BCL committee members garlanded their president, marking it out as a distinctly political activity.

Word got around of this seemingly harmless but highly meaningful incident that was meant to act as an icebreaker for BCL's return to the campus throughout Thursday, and the tension around the campus grew palpably.

On Friday, the general students, who over the last 5 years have vigilantly guarded their campus against the often ruinous student politics afflicting many other institutions in the country today, announced they would be boycotting all academic activities including term final exams that were held on Sunday with abysmally low attendance.

The general students have formally asked for a new date to be set for the exams.

After the protest, BCL leaders and activists formed a procession and marched toward BUET Shahid Minar around 2.20 pm and submitted floral bouquets.

Students reject BCL claims

Following the show of strength by BCL, the general students of BUET were forced to clarify how their opposition to student politics on campus does not mean they oppose the spirit of the Liberation War of 1971.

They organised a press conference in front of Dr. MA Rashid administrative building around 5.15pm on Sunday.

Representatives of the general student body said BUET students strongly believe in the spirit of the Liberation War and independence.

"Not wanting student politics on campus does not mean moving away from the ideology of the Liberation War. Rather we students do not want lust for power and greed to hold BUET hostage again," they said.

"We are against Hizb ut Tahrir. If any student is found to be affiliated with such groups, they too should be dismissed."

One of the canards floated by the BCL as part of their tactics to force their way back to BUET has been that the Jamaat e Islami student front Shibir, and the banned Hizbut Tahrir were secretly active among the students in favour of keeping student politics banned and keeping the campus safe.

The general students insisted they are determined to prevent the emergence of such 'evil forces' in BUET.

The students also said that they are willing to resume their academic activities as long as their demands, mainly relating to preserving the ban on student politics and taking action against certain individuals to prevent the repetition of such attempts by BCL in future, are met.

Even before the ban was imposed in 2019, the Awami League's two successive governments at that point had successfully ensured a dominant position for their student front on campuses throughout the country.

Analysts say it was only a matter of time before BCL eyed the coveted BUET, revered as the most prestigious of all DU departments and institutes, again.

Their demand for resumption of student politics must be seen as actually a demand to let them resume their domination of the campus, since no other student front is in any position to challenge them.

As the AL regime has gone from strength, BCL has grown more and more powerful, even exercising influence over teacher recruitment in some universities around the country, tender selection and awarding of contracts for university infrastructure or services like catering, and of course controlling the distribution of hall seats.

One last try: Letter to the PM

As the dust seemed to settle over the issue following the High Court order, the agitating students wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister demanding to stop student politics at BUET, which is known as the cradle of genius.

On Tuesday (April 2) evening the students read out this letter at the press briefing in front of the Dr. MA Rashid administration building.

In the letter, the students said that the students of the University played an active role in the formation of public opinion among the poor people of this country during the language movement of the 1952s, the mass uprising of the 1970s, the liberation war of the 1971s, and the movement to overthrow the dictatorship in the 1980s. But in the past years we have witnessed the negative aspects of power in the name of student politics in the BUET campus. It is through student politics that the incidents like domination, violence, ragging, insulting teachers, extortion, student oppression, indulgence in murders have started and the extent of it was so terrible that we have our Sabikunnahar Soni Apu of Chemical Engineering 99, Arif Raihan Dwip bhai of Mechanical Engineering 09 and lastly lost our Abrar Fahad Bhai of EEE 17 as a cost.

They said, there are many more cases of torture of students in BUET. Under the cover of power, student politics, our right to roam freely on campus, healthy academic environment of campus, our freedom, fair use of hall mess money, drug free campus and right to enjoy a beautiful University life of new incoming BUET students were all lost. The atmosphere of BUET without student politics was extremely safe and educationally friendly. We are united to stop the radical forces as well.

The students said that the students of BUET have always wanted a safe and healthy campus where everyone's safety and proper learning environment will not be held hostage again by the chains of greed and lust for power. All the elements of healthy leadership and moral development have been present in the last few years even without the presence of student politics on campus and students have found their proper environment in practising healthy leadership. Currently, the student-friendly environment in BUET has significantly increased the motivation of students to focus on academic studies as well as research work. The beauty of an apolitical campus has been widely admired and appreciated by people across the country. All the success of the politics-free BUET campus for more than 4 years tells us, we can build and develop the leadership with the technical knowledge needed to build Smart Bangladesh without student politics in our BUET campus; we can work continuously to achieve the goal of Smart Bangladesh.

Clearing our stand against radicalism, they said, we are always keen to keep our campus safe from any form of terrorism, radicalism or banned groups, just like anywhere in the country. In view of the recent events, it is being said from many quarters that there are activities of banned fundamentalist or terrorist organisations in the campus and as a result they are arguing for the practice of student politics in the BUET campus. We want to tell you without hesitation that if we common students see any activity of these banned terrorist groups going on in the campus at any moment we will take a strict stand against it and inform the administration. Even if evidence of such activities is found in the campus in the future, then our position is firm against it.

Making an urgent appeal to the Prime Minister, the students said, "With your strong and quick intervention four years ago, we have learned to live in this campus anew." But in the cruel irony of fate, we are constantly being threatened, insulted and humiliated because of this small request. We, our younger brothers and sisters, do not want to witness those dark days again. Dear Prime Minister, we humbly request you to stand by us. You have always stood by the students; we know you will not leave us in this difficult time. Let the vision of the Father of our Nation around BUET be implemented. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman understood the nature of BUET was different. So he himself kept this University out of the ambit of politics. Today, when the leaders and activists of the political party built by him talk about bringing a specialised University like BUET under politics at any cost, we believe that the ideals and decisions of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman are insulted.

Demanding to stop student politics even if the law is reformed if necessary, the students said, Honourable Prime Minister, our urgent appeal to you, implement the policy that the greatest Bengali ever dreamed of and adopted regarding BUET. Keep BUET out of student politics, even if necessary by reforming the law because law is created for justice. We request you, please come to our campus: we want to show you the ideal campus that the student-politicised BUET has become for students over the years.

Incidentally, recently, many students, including the central president and office secretary of the BCL, started a movement to prevent politics, focusing on the entry of many students into the BUET campus, where student politics is banned. In view of this, the University administration took several decisions, including cancelling the seat of the student Imtiaz Rabbi, who was accused of helping the Chhatra League to enter the campus. In response to this and campus students Chhatra League organised a protest rally demanding the resumption of politics and openly entered the BUET campus with its leaders and activists and paid tributes at the Central Shaheed Minar. Finally, last Monday, the High Court announced the suspension of the notification banning student politics in BUET. Justice Md. Khasruzzaman's bench ordered that there is no obstacle to student politics in the country's top engineering college.

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