Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What leads to campus violence, student or partisan politics?


BANNING culture is nothing new in Bangladesh. In 1964, Ayub regime banned “Tagore songs” from the public media to suppress and, eventually, cripple Bengali culture. But, not only did Ayub regime failed to do any damage to Bengali culture, but his attempt made “Tagore songs” as one of the symbols of Bengali Nationalism. The Pakistani regime simply didn’t understand the nucleus of the wrath of the Bengali populace. Failure to deal with the right issue such as discrimination against Bengalis, ultimately, forced the Pakistan regime to a disgraceful exit to the west once and for all.

Lately, the issue of “student politics” has re-surfaced in the media. Many are blaming “student politics” for campus violence and proposing a ban on “student politics.”

Indeed, entire premise of the on-going debate, if I may correctly translate it, that student politics breeds campus violence, campus violence shatters academic atmosphere, therefore, student politics must be banned, is based on fallacy.

On the contrary, the core problem in the public institutions is not the student politics but the partisan politics, greed for power and money that breed campus violence. We must recognize that student politics and partisan politics are completely two different aspects of politics. In an ideal situation, partisan politics serves the narrow ideological or political agenda of the political parties, while student politics embraces the greater interest of the students as well as campus community.

Proposing a ban simply skirts the real issue behind campus violence and is like sweeping dirt under the rug. With a simple blow of air, the real issue will re-emerge in different way.

Campus violence is a law and order issue. And, the wide prevalence of campus violence reflects the failure of our governments. In fact, all previous governments of Bangladesh did not only fail to ensure campus safety, but, in most cases, instigated campus violence, either directly, by patronizing student organizations, or indirectly, by appointing partisan vice-chancellors and unleashing police brutality.

In the early 1960s, Ayub Khan sowed the seed of campus violence by patronizing National Student Front (NSF) with two particular goals: to crush the movement of the nationalist and leftist student organizations; and, to use the NSF to promote his basic democracy agenda. In the post liberation era, the notorious seven-murder incidence, perpetrated by a faction of the ruling-party student wing, Bangladesh Student League (BCL), at the Mohsin Hall, Dhaka University, in 1974, marked the first major incidence of violence on campus. In the late 1970s, General Zia’s “Hizbul Bahar” experiment introduced the cadre based student politics and, for the first time, students were provided with arms to counter dissent voices at the academic institutions. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, many products of this experiment dominated campus violence which, in turn, led to loss of many lives. In the early mid 1980s, General Ershad tried to install his own brand of student politics through Notun Bangla Chhatra Samaj. Although failed to install his brand of politics in the academic institutions, Ershad's attempt also led to many violent clashes in campuses across the country. During the mid 1990s and 2005th, campus community experienced relatively fewer incidences of violence, mainly due to monopoly control of campuses by successive ruling-party student organizations. Since 1971, aside from ruling-party student organizations, student fronts of two opposition political parties, the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) of radical Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Bangladesh Student League (BCL) of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), dominated and perpetrated frequent campus violence to a large extent. After 1975, while JSD student front, failing to reap any benefit from the so called November revolution of 1975 and gain any governmental patronage, splintered into many factions and withered into an insignificant force in campuses, the ICS, continued to thrive and in many instances excelled in notoriety and its capacity to perpetrate violence against rival student groups. This dramatic rise of ICS can be ascribed to three important factors: the patronage of Ershad during early 1980s; support of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party; and, the failure of the Awami League government to take any action against the ICS’s violent activities during 1996-2001.

All the incidences illustrated above clearly show governments’ role in campus violence. Had government stayed away from campus politics and taken drastic measures to prevent campus violence, many worst form of campus violence could have been averted.

What motivates government to interfere with student politics and instigate campus violence? What incentives induce students to participate in partisan politics as well as to perpetrate campus violence?

Government’s motivation in dominating campus politics is rooted in its motivation of holding on to national power. Students are young, energetic, educated, and perhaps the most informed group in society. University campuses have always been the center of freedom of expression and the free flow of information. And students have always been the incorruptible voices of people in times of national crises and major threat to the very existence of any tyrannical government. Therefore, in an effort to suppress these dissent voices and put permanent hold on to power, government installs its cronies in the academic institutions.

In the process of enticing students into partisan politics, government provides them with a set of perverse incentives in exchange for students’ support. Students are provided with various benefits including opportunities of earnings from toll collections, holding onto seats in the residential halls, getting jobs, likelihood of future political appointments and, most importantly, getting away with committing crimes in campus. In return for these benefits, partisan student outfits counter any activities of the students’ organizations deemed threat to the existence of incumbent and the opposition political parties. Competition among various student groups for such benefits and attempt of rival student fronts to oust government beneficiaries lead to campus violence.

According to a report published in May 4, 2001, issue of the Daily Janakantha by Akhil Poddar, campus violence, over the three decades since country’s liberation in 1971, cost 118 lives with more than 10000 students, teachers, staffs and outsides injured. In addition to precious lives, campus violence also costs students lost academic years and the country more resources per student to make up for each year lost due to campus violence. Had there been no Ershad vocation, this author could have been graduated four years earlier from his alma mater, Dhaka University.

Such quid pro quo relationship between government and students must stop. As long as such status quo remains in place, government will keep meddling with student politics, students will get engaging in partisan politics, and campuses will get embroiled in violence.

Current trend in the student politics is the bi-product of the state of our national politics. As stated in the preceding paragraph, national politics and partisan politics on campuses maintain a symbiotic relationship. Proposing a wholesale ban on student politics while ignoring current state of the national politics is like a steering a ship into the wind, not knowing the direction. Failure of the past governments does not justify the use of undemocratic means to stop individuals’ rights to political discourse.

Alternatively, through constructive debate, the stakeholders can find solutions to campus violence. The solution shall include a positive set of incentives for both government and the opposition political parties so that they would be aversed to interfering with student politics and a set of incentives for students so that would be reluctant to invite ideologies that only serve interests of partisan politics.

If government upholds rules of law and guarantee students with quality of education, safe and quality campus environment, seats at the residential halls, merit based and non-discriminatory recruitment policies for jobs, only then will students shun destructive and partisan politics and campus violence will be the story of the yesteryear.

Laws that do not provide incentive based enforcement are meant to be broken. In the United States, a speeding ticket costs a violator his income in the form of court fees, fines and higher insurance premium for several years. And this monetary damage for traffic violation provides drivers with incentive not to speed. We, therefore, instead of proposing drastic measure to resolve a problem, must search for solutions that reward good deeds and penalize aberrant and destructive behaviours. #

ABM Nasir, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Lead Faculty of Economics, School of Business, North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC.
April 30, 2007