Anatomy of a betrayal

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A series of disturbing incidents occurring at regular, enacted by a goon squad  often in the guise of a student front, has served to derail possibly the most important social/education reform movement for at least two generations

It is arguably the most important movement for reform to have emerged in Bangladesh for at least two generations. Assembled under the banner of the Bangladesh Sadharan Chhatra Odhikar Sangrakkhan Parishad, they were the first to draw attention to an archaic, retrogressive, yet untouchable feature of our lives as citizens of Bangladesh like a disease that escapes  our attention till it’s too late, hidden in plain view from the outset: the system of quotas, that is applied to the recruitment process in public bodies, government offices, or agencies of state.

For anyone not steeped in the ways and means of bureaucratic culture, the quota system is a complete and utter skullbuster. It does your head in even if you try and approach it in a positive frame of mind. Often, one of the reasons reform initiatives fail to catch on, is precisely because one hardly knows where to start. The enormity of the task can be overwhelming, particularly in less-than-democratic states.

And so the quota reform movement deserves enormous credit, and not a little gratitude, on behalf of the rest of us, for having forced one of society’s 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 allotment 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.

That the quota system for public services/government jobs would be abolished – – as was the announcement made by the prime minister on April 11,  in parliament amid the countrywide protests against the existing quota system – – came as a surprise. Though it was still a welcome move by the PM that day, the numerous cabinet meetings held since then  didn’t have any discussion on publishing a gazette notification abolishing the quota system.

However, we are hopeful that the PM would stick to her decision or proclamation which has turned out to be a historic step in upholding meritocracy and underscoring the need for affirmative action (special allowances/privileges) for the minority communities like ethnic groups and physically challenged or disadvantaged segments of the society. And don’t forget the valiant freedom fighters and their descendants, up to a point.

According to the ex-secretary Dr Akbar Ali Khan, the civil service quota system was introduced in 1972 through an interim policy issued by an administrative order. This is quite unlikely that it hasn’t been revised over the years. It was supposed to be revised every 5 years.

Khan said, “There are now 258 types of quota in government jobs, and this system is called quota-on-quota which is very difficult.” However, when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman introduced this system, the reality of a war-ravaged country suffering from extreme poverty was totally different. At that time taking into account the people’s sufferings and economic deprivation, he had to introduce a quota system allocating 40% of the jobs to the districts other than Dhaka; 30% to the freedom fighters who lost nine months of their educational life fighting for the country; 10% to the war-affected women; and the rest 20% to the candidates to be appointed on merit.

In 1973 the then government formed the first Administrative & Services Reorganization Committee headed by Professor Muzzafar Ahmed Chowdhury who recommended abolishing the quota system in order to build a reliable and effective civil service. Since then several public service commissions and public service reform committees have been formed, and all the committees including one during the present government’s regime made similar recommendations objecting to the quota system which appears to be an impediment to making a pro-people and result-oriented civil service in Bangladesh.

The present quota reform movement has been supported by the students, guardians, jobseekers, academics, university teachers, professionals and civil society members as well. We wonder why our lawmakers didn’t ever think of revisiting/revising the system and also think of the future of the jobless youth who eventually took to the streets expressing their pent-up emotion, frustration and indignation by protesting against the existing quota system choking up their prospects.

In the wake of the students’ movement afresh, the government formed a 7-member committee to “review or reform or cancel” the quota system for the civil service on 2 July 2018 and asked it to submit the report within 15 working days.

The committee led by the cabinet secretary M Shafiul Alam held its first meeting on 8 July 2018 at the secretariat and told that they would review such quota provisions in other countries and collect reports from the committees and the commission formed during previous governments before going for the second meeting. Other members of the committee are secretaries of Public Administration ministry, Finance ministry, Liberation War Affairs ministry, Law ministry (legislative division), Public Service Commission (PSC) and the acting secretary to the Prime Minister’s office. And the committee would co-opt any expert if needed.

Few days later though, in the midst of further beatings and other thug-like activity by BCL , the main perpetrators of the suffering inflicted on the reform movement’s young leaders since June 30, the PM seemed to backtrack again. This week she said she is unable to understand the logic behind the movement against the quota system in civil service.

“What’s the reason behind such a sudden movement against the quota system? We don’t understand,” she said.

The PM was speaking at the inaugural function of electronic distribution of honorary allowances among freedom fighters to their bank accounts (government to person) in Cox’s Bazar through a video conference from her official residence Ganobhaban.

She said those who appear in Public Service Commission (PSC) recruitment examinations have to go through a serious scrutiny before getting any job. “Aren’t those who appear in the exams brilliant? All are brilliant here. The PSC exams are very much tough, without being brilliant nobody can appear in these exams!”

The prime minister said one cannot pass the PSC exams if he or she is not brilliant. “Those who’re very much talented can go through the PSC exam process, and they get the government jobs.”

Regarding the violent movement, the Prime Minister said she could understand the movement, but she is unable to understand the logic behind ransacking the house of the Dhaka University Vice Chancellor at midnight when the activists entered his bedroom and looted valuables, including gold ornaments and cash.

“We cannot believe the agitators being the students of DU who looted the VC’s house... we cannot believe that any student can do that. I feel ashamed of thinking this, and if the involved persons are students then it’s more shameful for us,” she said.

Sheikh Hasina said the anti-quota movement is indirectly against the facility for freedom fighters and their family members to get government jobs.

She said the AL government has ensured the quota for the freedom fighters and their family members so that they could take part in running the republic.

 “When an anarchic situation started in the name of anti-quota movement, I had declared to remove the quota system, but we’ve to be careful of the anti-liberation element and war criminals so that they cannot return to power and cannot get position in any government job,” the Prime Minister said.

She mentioned that there was a writ in the High Court about freedom fighters quota and as per its verdict the unfilled posts should be lying vacant. “But, the government moved the Appellate Division seeking a review. The Appellate Division said the vacant posts can be filled with persons from the merit list.”

“I feel pity, when I see educated, knowledgeable persons, even university teachers and retired public servants in the talk-show talk against the quota system, they never say these students committed a very bad job attacking the DU VC’s house. What could be worse than this for a DU student? They never talk about this; even they don’t know anything about the directives of the Appellate Division,” she bemoaned.

The Prime Minister said the government cannot fully scrap the quota system due to the HC verdict. But, the government formed a committee regarding the matter to further examine it. “We cannot disobey the HC verdict.”

She said those who are talking about the quota system do not have any idea of the HC verdict or the Appellate Division directives. “They cleanly forget those things.”

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 seats of higher learning, including 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.

  • Issue 2
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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