The ongoing movement by the Jagannath University students demanding the return of their 11 dormitories has its roots in 1985, during Ershad's autocratic regime.
In Old Dhaka, where the university is located, something went very wrong that year. Between February 6 and 10, people in different parts of old town launched a series of systematic attacks on the 12 halls of the then Jagannath College and drove out the students. No one died, but scores from both sides were injured.
The charges the locals brought against the students, particularly the pro-Ershad student body Chhatra Samaj, were serious.
"The Chhatra Samaj men would harass local girls, buy food on credit and never pay, extort money from businessmen and do drug business, day after day," said an elderly person at Malitola.
"So the locals decided they must evict the students."
The row began in Mughaltuli (now Malitola), where one of the dormitories, Bazlur Rahman Hall, had been. Powerful locals ousted the students of this hall first and those of the other halls within the next four days.
With the halls vacated, opportunists could not be happier. In a few years, all the dormitories were grabbed and then sold or resold to make hundreds of crores of taka out of other people's properties.
Currently, the list of occupants includes police, a lawmaker, an ex-ward commissioner, the DCC (South), local AL leaders and other influential people.
In all, 10 of the dormitories have 150.65 kathas of land and according to locals, a single katha costs between Tk 1 and 3 crore, depending on the location. The area of the other hall could not be known.
The hall issue has surfaced after all these years as the students began a movement against the occupation. The university unit Chhatra League, a pro-Awami League student body, is leading the movement.
Jagannath University has over 25,000 students and is the only public university that has no dormitories.
Founded as Dhaka Brahma School in 1858 and renamed as Jagannath School in 1872, the 156-year-old institution was taken over by the government in 1968. It opened honours and master's courses in 1975 and was approved as a full-fledged public university in 2005.
In the wake of acute accommodation problems faced by female students, the authorities have recently undertaken a project to build a 20-storey hall for them in Bangla Bazar. Its construction may begin in a few months.
And while the students suffered from accommodation problems, most of the halls continued to change hands. Over the years, their "owners" have fully or partially changed the original structures and turned them into multi-storey apartments, shopping malls, warehouses, schools and madrasas.
The university authorities say they took over these vested properties after their Hindu owners abandoned the lands in 1965 and possibly left for India for good. As those buildings were abandoned, they started to use those as dormitories.
In 2007, the university hired an audit firm to locate its properties. The firm, Masih Muhith Haque & Co Consortium, in its report suggested that the university initiate moves to reclaim possession of six dormitories -- Shaheed Anwar Shafique Hall, Shaheed Azmal Hossain Hall, Bani Bhaban, Shaheed Shahab Uddin Hall, Tibet Hall and Abdur Rahman Hall.
About the other halls, the firm said it would be "unwise" to move to restore ownership of those on various grounds such as they were declared khash land or were being used for educational purposes.
Ever since the audit, the authorities on numerous occasions sought help from the education and the land ministries in recovering the halls, said Vice-chancellor Mijanur Rahman. “But little has been done despite our repeated appeals in this regard."
The current “owners” maintain that they either inherited or purchased those. But they cannot explain as to how they can own vested properties, given no individual can own such properties.
Vested properties are properties abandoned by Hindus, and under the law, only the actual owner can get back such properties on submission of documents that prove the claim.
Dhaka-7 lawmaker Haji Mohammad Selim is one such current "owner". The university authorities say Selim, also a Dhaka city AL leader, occupied a portion of the 8.89 katha properties of the erstwhile Tibet Hall in Waisghat to build the Gulshan Ara City Shopping Complex. The multi-storey market opposite the Ahsan Manjil is one of the biggest and busiest malls in the old town.
But Selim claimed that he was the rightful owner of the land.
POLITICS AND MOVEMENT
Earlier in 2009 and 2011, the university students launched similar movements, demanding return of the halls. Through the 2011 movement, they even reclaimed Habibur Rahman Hall on Golok Paul Lane from the grip of some influential locals.
During the 2009 and 2011 protests, general students and leftist student organisations played a significant role while the Chhatra League maintained a clear distance, said a number of general students.
It is interesting that the BCL is leading the ongoing movement and it is intriguing how it all began. Two days before the students took to the streets to recover the Tibet Hall, now under Haji Selim's occupation, Selim said in parliament on February 10 that while "Shibir cuts tendons, the Chhatra League chops off people's wrists and heads".
The next day, on February 11, the central BCL in a press release termed Selim a "tokai" (street child) and the Jagannath University Chhatra League began demonstrating on the campus on February 12 to reclaim Tibet Hall.
The first two days of the movement focused solely on recovering this particular hall, and from the fourth day the students started demanding that all the occupied halls be returned to them. As part of the movement, the students marched towards Tibet Hall on February 23, and a clash with police ensued, leaving at least 50 injured, including teachers and students.
On the record, Chhatra League leaders say their movement is all about reclaiming what was once taken away from the students.
But several BCL leaders of the university unit said on condition of anonymity that they initially wanted to recover Tibet Hall "to teach Haji Selim a lesson" for his comment about the BCL.
However, the efforts to "teach a lesson" gained momentum when general students and leftist student bodies joined the movement.
In his support of the students' demand, Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid told the demonstrators on Wednesday, "Steps would be taken to recover the 11 dormitories from the illegal occupants."
He also called on the "current owners" to vacate the halls to avoid legal action.
Contacted, Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka Shaikh Yusuf Harun said the land occupied by Haji Selim was indeed vested property and that his office was working to find out the actual owners of the other properties.
“Once we get the documents, it will be clear who own the properties. It will not be wise to comment before that," he added.