Friday, January 25, 2008

Is it dissent to speak political rights in universities?


HOPEFULLY, by the time this article appears in print good sense will have prevailed and the teachers and students of Dhaka University will have been released from jail. I am writing this in anticipation that some lessons have been learnt and that such a pointless and regrettable episode will not repeat itself during the remaining tenure of the caretaker government (CTG).

Since most, if not all, members of the CTG have been students at Dhaka University they should know something about the climate of dissent, which characterises universities in general and Dhaka University in particular. Universities are a place where young and old think, argue and periodically disagree with the established order.

In the turbulent history of the subcontinent, political movements have been incubated in the universities, and the campus has been a source of resistance to established authority. From the Language Movement to the Liberation War Dhaka University has been at the vanguard of resistance to the suppression of democratic rights. Such movements have periodically invoked official repression (1952), regime inspired violence (1960s) and, eventually, the prelude to the genocide of 1971.

A politically conscious and articulate university campus is an integral feature of a strong civil society. Politics on the campus has, thus, been an essential instrument in the democratic struggle of South Asia, and particularly in Bengal. The university or college campus brings together a small but more politically conscious segment of the population in one place, which facilitates collective action.

This is advantageous for political activism, particularly where political parties command limited organisational reach, as tends to be the case in many Third World countries. I remember making this same, rather unoriginal observation, when I was invited in 1961 to give evidence before the Justice Hamoodur Rahman Commission on the university system in Pakistan. The good justice was particularly exercised by the salience of politics in Dhaka University, but surprisingly appeared to lack any understanding of the dynamics of politics in East Bengal.

The Commission's report inspired the government of East Pakistan to pass an order barring university teachers from participating in politics. This order was challenged in the East Pakistan High Court by Professor Abdur Razzaq, one of Dhaka University's must venerated teachers. His case was argued by Pakistan's most eminent jurist, A.K. Brohi, assisted by Dr. Kamal Hossain as his junior, before a Bench presided over by Justice Mahbub Murshed, which eventually upheld the right of university teachers to participate in politics. Teachers such as myself became a beneficiary of this judgement. Otherwise, we might have had to choose between our careers at Dhaka University and our right to exercise dissent.

It is unthinkable that teachers or students in Dhaka, or any other, university would not regularly express themselves on the political issue of the day. As a young teacher of Dhaka University, I was one of these who expressed himself through writings in the media or in various academic and public fora, on a variety of subjects of a political nature. My views were rarely to the taste of successive regimes in Pakistan.

My first paper on two economies, which has since earned me some notoriety, was presented when I was a 26 years old teacher at Dhaka University, at a seminar in Lahore in October 1961, convened by the Bureau of National Reconstruction. Pakistan was then experiencing its first exposure to Martial Law under Field Marshal Ayub Khan. My session was chaired by a judge of the West Pakistan High Court, who was appalled by my implied assault on the integrity of Pakistan, and by the concluding suggestion that if nothing was done to correct the deprivation of East Pakistan, two economies may end up as two nations. The justice enquired from a friend who had accompanied me to the meeting as to whether I was aware that Pakistan was under Martial Law and that my speech were potentially treasonable!

Those of us teachers at Dhaka University in the 1960's, who expressed themselves on public issues, were rarely conscious of the consequences of our writings and utterances. We were, thus, honoured by recognition in the intelligence files of the Home Department. But I was never invested with the privilege of being arrested, in spite of my rather well publicised writings and utterances against the policies of the government. Nor were any other university teachers arrested during the two tenures of Martial Law, and even during the notoriously oppressive regime of Governor Momen Khan in the 1960s.

Indeed, since the arrest of Professors Munier Chowdhury, Muzzafer Ahmed Chowdhury and others in the wake of the 1952 Language Movement, no university teacher, to the best of my knowledge, was arrested by the government of Pakistan; although NSF hoodlums, patronised by the Monem Khan regime and the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, severely assaulted Dr. Abu Mahmood, Chairman of the Department of Economics and Professor Shamsuzzoha was killed in a firing at Rajshahi University during the movement against the Ayub regime in 1969.

The most conspicuous attempt to arrest teachers and eventually murder them began with the genocide initiated by the Pakistani army in March 1971. After all my confrontations with successive regimes in Pakistan, from 1961 to 1971, the first time anyone came to arrest me was on the afternoon of March 27, 1971, when a squad of the Pakistan army, led by a Col. Saeeduddin, who had earlier arrested Bangabandhu from his home in Road No. 32 on the night of March 25, come to my Gulshan residence to take me away to the cantonment.

As evidence came in of the massacre at Dhaka University I had been advised by friends to leave my residence that morning, after the curfew had been lifted. Had the Pakistan army come for me 24 hours earlier they would have found me at home, along with every other teacher of Dhaka University. None of us, even at that late hour, thought we might be detained, let alone subjected to execution, which awaited Professors Guha Thakurta, G.C. Deb, Maniruzzaman and others, who were all staying at home in their campus flats, as the genocide unfolded around them. Some other teachers of Dhaka University, who stayed on at campus during 1971, were picked up by the Pakistan military or their local collaborators, and a number of these teachers never returned home alive.

I have provided this short bio-history to educate contemporary readers and policymakers to the fact that upto March 26, 1971, the ground rules of an autocratic and oppressive regime, twice operating under Martial Law, left university teachers immune from arrest. This awareness invested teachers with a false sense of security upto that fateful night in March 1971, which cost some of them their lives. 98% of teachers at Dhaka and other universities at that time and even today do not say anything, or say little to generate sleeplessness amongst our rulers.

The few who did speak out with varying degrees of provocativeness were never deemed to be a sufficient threat to the state to warrant their detention. The carrot rather then the stick was always seen by the Pakistan government as a more effective weapon to deal with teachers. This suggests that our Pakistani rulers had a greater sense of their own power to be unduly disturbed by the writings of academics. It may not have been very flattering to the sense of self-esteem of young firebrand teachers who spoke our mind, that we were never deemed worthy of arrest.

The ruling elite reckoned correctly that the real challenge to their power always originated from the political parties whose leaders and workers were periodically subjected to detention and other acts of oppression.

This tradition of dealing with university teachers as licensed critics, who could be denied the carrot but rarely exposed to the stick, was perpetuated in post-liberation Bangladesh under the militarised regimes of Ziaur Rhaman and H M Ershad, as well as the political regimes, so that few if any teachers were exposed to arrest throughout this period. This history of the treatment of teachers under various regimes does not imply that such regimes were paragons of liberalism, but reflects on their notions of threat perception.

It is argued that it was only when the regime really felt threatened, such as by a national uprising, where even teachers were seen as part of a wider political struggle as in 1971, that pro-active university teachers lost their sense of immunity from arrest. When a regime feels compelled to arrest teachers it, thus, reflects on their own sense of self-assurance and indicates the weakness rather than the strength of the regime.

Today, when teachers are being arrested, perhaps for the first time since 1952, is their rhetoric more incendiary than those of the teachers of the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s? Have our teachers graduated from talkers and scribblers into political organisers capable of instigating acts of violence by their students or anyone else?

With all due respect to their oratorical and literary skills, the evidence filed against the teachers currently in detention, suggests not. All that the teachers are accused of was speaking out against Emergency Rule. If it is a crime, which warranted arrest, to speak against Martial Law, or the incumbency of a particular regime, I would have spent quite a few years of my teaching career in the 1960s, in detention.

Certainly, in the 1960s students came to me for guidance on how they should argue their case politically against the undemocratic and militarised ruling junta's from West Pakistan. I offered such advise freely to the students. But neither did I suggest nor was I asked, how to organise violent dissent against the regime of the day for the simple reason that I lacked competence in this area, no matter how many books I had read by Chairman Mao and Che Guevara on the mechanics of armed struggle.

Again, I doubt if those teachers in detention today have offered or were requested by their students to offer, advise on making firebombs or the technology of stone throwing. In such circumstance, to criminalise university teachers for voicing dissent, whatever may be the prevailing laws, appears to be not only unwise but impolitic and could prove costly to the CTG in the days ahead.

There is much that is wrong with our universities today. Student politics has been largely held captive by leaders who function more as armed businessmen and janissaries for their favoured political party rather than as political activists serving a cause. The tradition of student leadership set by Abdur Razzaq, Sirajul Alam Khan, Rashed Khan Menon, Motia Chowdhury, Tofail Ahmed, Mujahidul Islam Selim and many others like them, which empowered the students of Dhaka University to play a vanguard role in democratic politics, may be much weaker today. But there are many students today who are also aware of the state affairs in the country, have strong views and emotions on various subjects and, when offered the opportunity or given a provocation, are likely to express themselves on such issues in a variety of ways, mostly but not always, peacefully.

In the same way, the partisanisation of the teaching community may have perpetuated their political divisions, compromised the professionalism of the recruitment and career advancement process of the teachers, and impacted adversely on the quality of public education. As part of this partisanisation of the campus, some university teachers may have identified themselves with one or another political party. But it would be wrong to believe that all teachers have politically affiliated themselves for career advancement.

Many have chosen political sides out of strongly felt political feelings, which reflect the ideological fault lines which today divide the Bangladesh polity. Most teachers, however, do not have clear political affiliations though many do have political views and will occasionally express them where the occasion demands. In such circumstances, it is best to recognise the campus as an arena where dissent will be registered by teachers and students. Some of this dissent may be motivated or instigated from outside the campus. But much dissent will be spontaneous, originating in genuine grievances, whether indigenous to campus affairs or inspired by outside events. This space for dissent within the campus should always be left open, lest such voices go underground and engage themselves in rather more sinister forms of resistance.

In spite of the best efforts of the CTG Bangladesh continues to face a variety of problems, such as rising prices, power shortages, even corruption, which will extend beyond the capacity and tenure of the CTG to resolve. The longer they stay in office the more political decisions will have to be taken by them. It will, therefore, be sensible for the CTG to recognise that in the days ahead, public dissatisfaction will be voiced on the persistence of such problems and the political implications of their actions. Some of this discontent will spill over into dissent on the campus. It will be a measure of the maturity of the CTG as to how it handles such dissent.

It is hoped that Emergency Powers will be lifted soon so that dissent may be openly expressed without invoking official wrath. However, even if Emergency Powers prevail, it should not be misused to suppress _expressions of dissent, in print or vocally, particularly if registered in-house or on-campus and is peacefully manifested.

Regimes, which engage in political actions cannot expect to be immune from criticism or to be held accountable for their acts of commission or omission. An effective system of governance needs to ensure that all governments, whether elected or unelected, permanent or interim, civilian or militarised, always remain exposed to such challenges otherwise a nation degenerates into mal-governance and eventually tyranny. #

First published in the Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Professor Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Centre for Policy Dialogue