28. University unrest in Bangladesh

Because of my past associations with universities in Ireland, I was naturally keen to visit Dhaka University, or DU as it is known locally. It is situated in Ramna in beautiful grounds and I’ve spent many peaceful hours here wandering around, drinking tea and talking to students. The pond in front of Curzon Hall is one of my favourite places in Dhaka. The university was established in 1921 and has 5,800 students. It is the setting of significant moments in the tumultuous history of the independence movement: it was here in 1952 that students and teachers lost their lives in the struggle that was part of the Language Movement. (See post 11.)

My experiences in the University were in complete contrast to the shocking stories of crime and violence involving university students, that appeared daily in the newspapers. And it’s not just in DU: violence at state university campuses is a frequent occurrence throughout Bangladesh. The principal students involved in these incidents belong to the student wings of the main political parties for the most part as follows:

  1. Bangladesh Chattra League (BCL), affiliated to the Awami League, currently in power. (See post 8, part 13.)
  2. Bangladesh Chattra Dhal (BCD), affiliated to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, currently in opposition. (See post 8, part 13.)
  3. Islami Chattra Shibir (ICS), affiliated to Jamaat-e-Islami, currently in opposition.

Many members of these groups are armed and violent and have intimidated and caused serious injury and death to fellow students, teachers and administrators. Though often discussed under the banner of ‘student politics’, this is much more about criminal activity and corruption. Those involved are political opportunists rather than political activists: they see it as their right to take control of certain money-making functions in the university, as a reward for their allegiance to one political party or another. Political parties have pledged, but failed, to disarm them. None of the political parties has condemned the violence carried out by their own members, instead blaming their opponents for the upheavals. There is a complete lack of law enforcement.

Banglapedia (though see post 24) provides some background to this problem which I won’t reiterate here, only to say that in 1993, the New York Times stated that DU was the most violent campus in the world. Today, it is said that as well as trying to take charge of university tenders, the perpetrators (particularly the BCL groups) are thriving on booming admissions business in the colleges. They prevent admission seekers from appearing at their interviews, and demand a political quota for their organisations from the university authorities. Quota means a huge amount of money, as the seats will be ‘sold’ to those students seeking admission who can corruptly buy their places, to the detriment of deserving candidates. During my time in Bangladesh academic activities in many institutions were disrupted, due to clashes between rival BCL factions seeking to establish dominance on campuses, in order to edge ahead in admissions trade. In some instances, they were fighting to control hall dormitories.

Some of these students maintain that they are merely combating the corruption of teachers loyal to the opposition, who have manipulated admission tests in favour of their own party supporters. In other cases, it is reported that the university teachers/administrators are involved in the corrupt practices in league with the BCL, either because they are forced to, or of their own volition. For example, a teacher may tell a student that there are no places left in a particular subject, and later enrol students nominated by BCL leaders.

There was a very sad story in the papers about the death of a young student – Abubakar Siddique of Dhaka University – who apparently was not involved in ‘student politics’, but got caught in the violent clashes that broke out on campus between rival factions of BCL. He was a third year student of Islamic history and culture and had aspirations of becoming a faculty member in DU. There was a picture in the paper of his home – a simple, tin-roofed, bamboo hut – in a village in Tangail, and an interview with his broken-hearted parents. They had been so proud of him and had such high hopes for his future. After hearing news of his death, hundreds of DU students took to the streets and became involved in clashes with the police. The violence disrupted the annual national book fair (see post 31), and vehicles and property were damaged.

In the University of Rajshahi there was a bloody clash reported recently between BCL and ICS, which left ICS secretary Sharifuzzaman Normani dead. Again, they had been fighting for supremacy over university halls. Trouble here goes back to 1993, when an ICS leader was killed by BCL students on campus. Later, the ICS retaliated and the campus was plunged into chaos: one student was killed, hundreds injured and four maimed by having their tendons cut – a hallmark of the ICS (seemingly each group has its particular trademark ‘methods’). It has recently been alleged that this group (the ICS) have been receiving support from the teachers’ community and the university administration. The Vice-Chancellor is allegedly implicated. The High Court has directed the government to initiate an enquiry immediately. It is difficult to understand the prevailing culture of impunity that enables student groups and staff to evade the rigours of the legal system. Sadly, there is no estimating the cost to the quality and fairness of the education system.

Politics also play a dominant role in the appointment of staff. A clause in the University Act of 1973 can be exploited to justify appointing staff loyal to the administration. Earlier this year, new vice chancellors (VCs) were appointed to four public universities. In a newspaper article in the Daily Star at that time, an appeal in the comments section of the online edition summed up this central issue:

‘…let our university system work independently. Our VCs are to be selected by virtue of their education, skills and capabilities, not political affiliations.’

The private universities are not immune from allegations of mismanagement and corruption either – though they are free from the kinds of student violence described above.

Sitting sipping tea in the Madhur Canteen (see YouTube clip below) in Dhaka University, it is hard to grasp the full import of these stories. Of course this same canteen is the site of the historical ‘garden house’, once home to Madhu, a previous owner of the canteen and a friend to the students at the forefront of the liberation movement. In fact, they used to gather here for meetings. On 26th March 1971, Madhu, his wife, son and daughter-in-law were murdered in this building by rampaging Pakistani soldiers. (Incidentally, since then the canteen has continued to experience violent incidents e.g. see this Daily Star article.)

I don’t get any sense of this awful ongoing violence and corruption during my visits to the university. If I hadn’t read the reports in the papers, I wouldn’t be aware of the problems. All of the students that I talked to were angry at those involved, but were much more interested in talking about university life, their studies and picking my brains about overseas scholarships. Many expressed disappointment at the lack of developments in teaching and learning at the university, a topic I was interested to hear more about. Their views broadly concurred with those expressed in reports I have read on the subject i.e. that the quality of teaching and learning is poor in general (e.g. see this article). The views expressed are disheartening, especially considering the enlightened blueprint for education bequeathed by Bengali Rabindranath Tagore, a man highly esteemed in Bangladesh. (See post 29.)

There is some hope on the horizon: In March of this year the World Bank approved funding for a project to support both innovation and accountability in the tertiary education sector.The Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project will work to increase institutional capacity. There are currently eighty-one universities in Bangladesh: thirty are public universities and fifty-one are private. There are also three international universities. Despite achievements in primary education enrolment (now at 90%), and a doubling of the numbers attending secondary schools since independence, the enrolment rate at universities is one of the lowest in the world at only 6%.

For my part, I very much enjoyed the many conversations and cups of tea I had with students in the lovely surrounds of the DU campus. I learnt a lot about student life in Bangladesh: I only wish I had more detailed and concrete knowledge about overseas scholarship schemes to offer in return. The many students I met on these visits deserve so much more than a system held back by needless corruption, violence and mismanagement.

Below are some photographs of the DU campus. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (25 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1. Dhaka University

Underneath is a YouTube video clip showing the historically significant and very atmospheric Madhur Canteen referred to above.

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