Politics of Hooliganism
Intellectual pursuits have given way to violence, rioting, bullying and vandalism at most educational institutions in Bangladesh.
Student political bodies are going out of hand.
Student activists who were once considered the torchbearers of independence in Bangladesh, have now become a symbol of violence and hooliganism. Even more tragic is the fact that the historic Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student organization which played a decisive role in every movement of this country – from the Language Movement in 1952 to the Independence Movement in 1971 – has become a violent and corrupt student organization after 2009.
Although the phenomenon of campus violence is not new in Bangladesh but its nature has changed. In its early days, idols of resistance, socialism and national liberation were deeply rooted in student activism and they challenged authoritarian rule from the British Raj to the hegemonic rule of West Pakistan. This vanguard role made them subject to gruesome state violence.
Shaheed Minar is a monument built to pay homage to the brave students who came under fire of the Pakistani police forces during the language movement. The state violence perpetrated by the West Pakistani authorities never stopped and reached its height during the movement; in 1962 for education rights, the 1966 movement of self-rule, the upsurge against military rule in 1969 and the Liberation War in 1971.
Although campuses faced violence but this was seldom due to the students, except actions of the National Students Federation ( NSF) which was crafted by the Pakistani state authorities to violently counter the strong opposition from the students. In West Pakistan, the NSF was hijacked by the comrades of DSF (Democratic Students Federation), which was earlier banned by the authorities due to its affiliation with the Communist Party of Pakistan.
Ironically, at the same time when the West Pakistani NSF emerged as the most vocal student organization against the military rule of Ayub Khan, the East Pakistani NSF played the role of a militant organization for the regime which regularly attacked the opposition forces. Despite such tactics, the strong ideological understanding and critical thinking entrenched in the students organizations of that time, helped BCL (Bangladesh Chhatra League) and both factions of the East Pakistan Students Union ( EPSU) to resist violence and eliminated the NSF in 1969 after an upsurge.
After independence, a few more leftwing student organizations emerged like the Socialist Student Front and Biplobi Chatra Moitry (Revolutionary Student Unity), etc. However, since the liberation of Bangladesh went through many structural changes which affected the character of the political parties and of the student organizations. Until 1971 all the student organizations had an independent character and even the ones affiliated with political parties were not subservient to political leaders.
After 1971 they lost the character of a front and were turned into student wings of the political parties. Their redefined primary role then was to support the parent political party. As a result, they gradually lost the attributes of critical thinking and developing new ideas. On the other hand, this also alienated them from the students and this gradually decreased their strength. The weakening of student organizations and other democratic institutions, along with other factors, also paved the way for the military.
During military rule in Bangladesh, student organizations were pushed out of the educational institutions and were forced to shift their units from schools, colleges and universities to districts and wards. Although this shift was necessary for their survival and for continuation of their struggle against dictatorship but it drastically changed the structure of the student organizations. Instead of real students, non-student youth took up leadership and their struggle was limited to restoration of democracy. On the other hand, military-backed student organizations based on violence and hooliganism occupied the educational institutions.
Enjoying complete power, these pro-military organizations set a new gang-style culture of campus politics through violence and corruption. After the victory of democratic forces, when student organizations returned to the campuses they were disjointed with the rich student activism of the earlier times. Non-student leaderships and an intolerant culture set by the promilitary student groups was adopted by the student wings of BNP and Awami League. Political parties, through which every student organization enjoyed power at the center, used violence to eliminate other rival student groups from the educational institutions.
After denouncing the egalitarian principles of the 1972 constitution, the gradual rise of neo-liberalism in Bangladesh further deteriorated the educational institutions. Educational institutions which were once respected for their intellectual growth turned into money-making businesses. Management control was taken from the hands of the academics and teachers while privatization was on the rise. This has come to a point that now even value added tax (VAT) has been imposed on the tuition fee.
The Progressive Students Alliance, comprising left-wing student organizations, is bravely fighting this menace since 2010 but is facing hurdles of structural depoliticization of the students due to privatization and commodification of education; systematic elimination of courses that nurture critical thinking and socio-political understanding; lack of elected student bodies and campus democracy; state repression and violence; and hooliganism of the BCL and JCD student wings of the Awami League and BNP, respectively.
It was thought that there was some light at the end of the tunnel when Sheikh Hasina was forced to announce the end of the quota system in the wake of the protests by more than 50,000 students across Bangladesh. But BCL’s brutal attacks and gruesome violence against the protesters demanding gazette notification of the announcement was a reminder that the demon of the East Pakistani NSF is still alive.
The writer is a researcher, political activist and former central organiser of the National Students Federation (NSF) in Karachi.
Shaheed Minar, Dhaka