The political murder of Abrar Fahad must be a tipping point towards a movement for change in Bangladesh’s universities.
The shocking murder of Abrar Fahad, a promising student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the country’s premier technology university, has once again raised the question: what is the true purpose of the universities in Bangladesh?
Abrar was viciously beaten to death by fellow BUET students in his own dorm for his alleged involvement in political opposition to the ruling party. The perpetrators were student activists of the ruling party of Bangladesh. He was not the first victim of violent student politics and, sadly, may not be the last. The longstanding culture of treating universities and students as the vanguards of democracy in Bangladesh has arguably reached a tipping point. Without a radical transformation of the overall political paradigm of the country, the hope of salvaging and reinstating the institutions as beacons of free will, knowledge and courage is all but gone.
It is therefore, no surprise that the ‘tri-state’ of higher education in Dhaka (a tiny area boasting three of the most prestigious institutions of the country – University of Dhaka (DU), BUET and Dhaka Medical College) have seen at least 70 of its own students killed on campus since 1972 for political reasons, most of which were committed by fellow students. Only the very best students nationwide gain entry to these three extremely competitive institutions; the perpetrators, too, are therefore brilliant students. If we were to include the number of students killed on campus at all Bangladeshi universities, the figure will exceed hundreds. Accounts of life-altering injuries, severe torture and other means of political suppression will reach thousands.
If you are wondering why this keeps on happening, the answer lies within the failures of the universities as institutions and the dysfunctionalities of the Bangladeshi political structure, which has a long historical basis.
Universities in Bangladesh: founded in ideals, misdirected in politics
Reeling from the wounds of colonialism, the formation of the earliest Bangladeshi university (DU) had a strong political motive. The long resentment of the deprived Muslims of Bengal and the forced revocation of the Bengal Divide in 1911 pushed the British regime to establish a university on the eastern side as a gesture of appeasement. The University of Dhaka, therefore, became a symbol of resistance and the political-cultural victory of the Bengal Muslims. Students of these universities had to come forward early in the struggle to fill the shoes of the educated middle-class and professionals, something Bengal Muslims greatly lacked in comparison to their more educated and accomplished Hindu counterparts.
After the partition in 1947, erstwhile East Pakistan (and DU, as the intellectual hub of the country) gradually found itself caught within an ideological tussle between conservative Muslims, proponents of the Pakistan Movement, and socialist liberals, inspired by the wave of communism in the 1960s. This era also saw the emergence of government-backed violent student groups – for example the National Students’ Federation nurtured by General Ayub Khan – whose sole purpose was to quell any dissident voices or protests in the universities by muscle power. This, according to some experts, marked the beginning of political abuse and violence in the universities in Bangladesh.
As a reaction to the overwhelming political suppression, the culture of DU and other public universities gradually morphed into a movement empowering its students and faculties to stand up against the establishment. This was visible in the Language Movement of 1952 and the subsequent political uprisings against the Pakistani regimes. It eventually provided Bangladesh with the philosophical roadmap as well as the youthful exuberance towards national liberation, and many students and teachers lost their lives in the Liberation War of 1971.
The tapestry of Bangladeshi public universities, therefore, have more ‘revolutionary’ characteristics and political colours than that of knowledge or critical academia. This reality was cemented, at the cost of several student lives, during the 1990s students’ movement which facilitated the toppling of Military dictator Ershad. Thus, Bangladesh’s knowledge hubs turned into the lifeline of local democracy. It is at this point, one would argue, the public universities of Bangladesh finally lost their way.
With the advent of parliamentary democracy in 1991, every ruling regime drew into their calculations this ‘revolutionary’ character of the universities and ensured their control and dominance through loyal student groups, often by violent means. This resulted in intermittent clashes and casualties between different camps, for which the ruling party loyalists enjoyed impunity. In order to establish absolute control over the universities, the appointment of partisan vice-chancellors and loyal teachers (often under-qualified) became rampant, and these teachers too got involved in direct political altercations with their opponents.
In the current state of broken democracy where Bangladesh is rapidly sliding towards authoritarianism, it is no wonder that the student followers of the current regime are recklessly aggressive and go as far as running ‘torture cells’ in their own university dorms. Teachers too, if not facilitate, turn a blind eye to the endless barrage of criminality.
The regime’s crusade on dissent
With the loss of the universities’ purpose as free-thinking platforms of research and critical thought, the teachers and students also lost their track. In 2019 an astonishingly meager 5.4% was allocated for research in the $100 Million annual budget of DU. Over the last decade the situation has peaked to its worst state under the continuing regime of the Awami League.
Now challenging the dominant narrative or raising questions are resented in the public universities and are often challenged with disproportionately harsh measures. There are instances where university teachers lost their jobs and were assaulted for taking a public stance, even on social media, against government policies. Vice-chancellors and administrators across the country are openly seen to misappropriate university funds and abuse administrative powers. Severe violence and torture, expulsion from dorms and arbitrary arrests of dissident students have become an accepted norm in the last decade. Except for the tragic instance of murder (as with Abrar Fahad), these stories don’t even make news anymore.
In almost all the cases where the dissident voices are subdued by violence, the moral justification is sought from the ongoing witch-hunt of ‘Jamaat-shibir’ by the government. Jamaat-i-Islam Bangladesh (JIB) and Shibir are Islamic political opposition groups that have been targeted by the ruling regime as its political-ideological opponent. They have been demonised through persistent fear-mongering and hate campaigns (both online and offline), alongside staged public demonstrations and sham trials.
As a result, expressing an independent mind or raising a dissident voice in the real or virtual world has become difficult at the universities in Bangladesh, for fear of being labelled and violently targeted as supposed proponents of JIB or Shibir. Such was the case with Fahad, a student who was in fact politically unaffiliated.
Since the public universities produce most of the public officials in Bangladesh, this culture of overwhelming subservience which is now ingrained in the students’ psyche (the future public servants), may garner unquestioned obedience towards the establishment and its cronies. It is a situation that every authoritarian regime dreams of.
The universities in Bangladesh are bleeding profusely; the freedom of their souls are being sapped away. Without a radical paradigm shift in our political landscape, reinstating the universities as the centres for academic exertion and free speech, it is impossible to protect the future of a bold and brave Bangladesh.
Abrar Fahad was a poor victim of this structural dysfunctionality. And his blood is on all our hands.
Photo Credit: Abrar Fahad / Facebook
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