Saturday, February 13, 2010

Enough is enough

ZAFAR SOBHAN

IF THE news of the past two weeks was not enough to persuade Bangladeshis that so-called student politics should be banned without further ado, I do not know what will.

First came the tragic story of Abubakr Siddique, a quiet third year Dhaka University student from an impoverished background, the first of his family to attend university.

Siddique died of head injuries last week after being caught in the midst of clashes between rival factions of the Chhatro League (student front of the ruling Awami League) and the police who had been called in to quell the violence at his hall of residence.

Now comes the sickening news from Rajshahi University, where Shibir (student front of Jamaat-e-Islami) activists went on a rampage this week that left one Chhatro League activist hacked to death, his body dumped down a man-hole, and scores more injured, included four who had had tendons in their hands and legs severed.

The reports coming from RU especially have turned the nation's stomach. We may have become a little jaded about campus violence over the years, but the brutality of the killing and maimings has shocked the nation.

Enough, surely, is enough.

When we live in a parliamentary democracy, there should be no need for political parties to rely on shock troops or for the issues of the day to be fought out on university campuses.

Of course, student cadres are like nuclear weapons. The other side has theirs, so you have to have yours. That is why simultaneous disarmament of all student front organisations is the only solution.

It is also true that student politics is only one piece of the greater problem of violence that is committed by political party cadres. As long as each political party keeps cadres of armed thugs as an integral part of maintaining its power and authority, the nation's political discourse will continue to be disfigured by violence.

But cleaning up the campuses is a good place to start. Turning our colleges and universities into politics-free zones is something which would be very popular with the public and would do more to benefit higher education in Bangladesh than any other measure.

There is no reason why we cannot make public colleges and universities safe for ordinary students and ban any political activity or organising on campus. Student politics is banned in private universities, without any ill-effects that I have noticed.

Let's get one thing straight. The political parties' student fronts are nothing more than criminal organisations. They illegally influence the admissions process, control the residence halls, and even corrupt the examination process.

It is a national disgrace that we have allowed so-called student politics to completely destroy the fabric of public education in this country.

Student politics, as it exists today, serves no useful purpose whatsoever. To the contrary, the corrosive impact it has had on our politics and our society, to say nothing of our higher education, is self-evident.

It is true that the Shibir are the most brutal of all the student front groups, with tendon severing a specialty of theirs, as they have amply demonstrated this past week.

But it would be quite incorrect to state that the other parties' student fronts are not also criminal organisations with an almost equally frightening record of violence.

Ultimately, it is the government which will benefit most from a ban on student politics. It will mean moving against its own student front organisations, which will not be easy.

But, in the first place, polls have shown that the rampant criminality of its student front organisations is the thing that the public faults the government for the most.

And the recent rout at RU has shown that when it comes to viciousness, the Chhatro League must still take a back seat to its rivals, specially the Shibir.

If the government were to ban student politics, clear out the musclemen and gangsters (almost all of whom are not even real students), and turn the campuses into a violence-free zone, it would, at a single stroke, solve the problem of its own unruly student factions, ensure that the opposition could not use the campuses to launch anti-government agitations, and take a strong first step towards fixing our broken universities.

Such a move would be enormously popular with the public, as well. It would be win-win-win-win. What's not to like? #

First published in Sunday Guardian, February 14, 2010

Zafar Sobhan is Editor, Editorial & Op-Ed, The Daily Star