The strange case of JnU
For over a decade now, there have been class boycotts, exam cancellations, cases and counter cases, and even violence on the streets, but none of these has solved the accommodation problem of Jagannath University students.
Over the years, while successive university administrations have not done enough to address the issue, the government and the University Grants Commission (UGC) in particular allocated little money to buy land and build halls there, teachers and general students have said.
Pushed to the wall as they always have been, JnU students have returned to the streets again, demanding Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's personal intervention this time.
This year's protest comes two years after the 2014 failed attempt to reclaim the land of the 12 halls of the erstwhile Jagannath College that went to the hands of “illegal” occupants of various categories in the 1990s.
The current occupants include police members, a lawmaker, businessmen and leaders of Awami League-affiliated bodies.
“On the hall issue, we have lost confidence in the university administration and the education ministry. We now want a clear roadmap from the prime minister outlining how the government plans to give us a place to live,” Kishor Kumar Sarkar of the zoology department told The Daily Star last Thursday on the JnU campus.
Founded as Dhaka Brahma School in 1858 and renamed Jagannath School in 1872, the 158-year-old institution was taken over by the then Pakistan government in 1968. It opened graduate and post-graduate programmes in 1975 and was approved as a full-fledged public university during the BNP government rule in 2005.
Eleven years on, it remains the only public university out of the 37 in the country that has no student dormitories. There are no quarters for some 600 teachers and about 500 officials and employees either.
That's strange because one of the main features of a public university is that it is residential. Also, the Jagannath University Act 2005 under which the JnU was established as a public university makes it clear that it is a residential university.
Students allege they still have no dormitories because the university authorities and the government are indifferent to their sufferings.
Over the years, the authorities have managed to reclaim some land from grabbers following street agitations by students. Also, the university has its own land in Keraniganj. But the authorities have yet to build a single hall on any of the land.
Currently, some 20,000 students study here. Most of them live in hostels and messes, some miles away from the campus, at an average cost of Tk 5,000 to 6,000 a month. That's in addition to their fees and transport costs.
This is extremely expensive, given the majority of the students come from lower or lower-middle class families from across the country, students and teachers said.
Assistant Prof Chowdhury Shahid Kader said for the first five years after JnU became a public university, no one even thought about the hall problem. Everybody was busy restructuring the administration and recruiting teachers.
“But two main problems are reluctance of the administration and financial discrimination by the government,” he said.
“That's true, at least partly. But we are trying,” said Proctor Nur Mohammad.
According to him, the reclaimed land areas of the old halls are too small to build dormitories. Also, the district administration has leased out the land to the JnU for only a few years. Under Rajuk law, construction projects cannot normally be undertaken if the lease period is below 99 years.
But Shahid Kader, who teaches history, said if the VC used the influence of his office and sat with the government and Rajuk authorities, this particular rule could be worked around considering the sufferings of the students.
Contacted last night, VC Prof Mijanur Rahman said, “The media and some people talk about 12 halls. But the fact is we have no halls, we never had any halls.”
He called upon all to come out of this misconception.
“Jagannath University is a public university. We need land. It is for the government to decide where that will be ... Tell me: Can it be the job of the students and teachers to reclaim land and halls?”
The JnU students are no strangers to street programmes for halls.
They boycotted classes and exams to take to the streets in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014. But this year is different.
Students always face difficulties in renting living spaces as house owners do not want to take in bachelors. But after the July 1 Gulshan terror attack, the problem deepened.
Many students, including those from the JnU, have been asked to vacate their messes immediately. Some JnU students are now staying with friends in Dhaka University halls, after being driven out by their house owners.
The ongoing protest, which began on August 1, came against this backdrop.
In the past, whenever they launched a demonstration for halls, the authorities would say there is no land to build dormitories in that part of the town; it's dense.
But now that Dhaka Central Jail has been relocated from Old Dhaka to Keraniganj, students are saying that the government can give them the land to build halls.
Two years before the students' call, the VC wrote to the home ministry on March 23, 2014, requesting that the ministry hand over the prison land to the university so it could set up some halls there. He wrote again on August 11 this year to that effect.
The ministry has yet to respond to either of the letters, said Engineer Md Ohiduzzaman, registrar of the university.
Apart from residential halls and research centres, the university proposes to build five museums -- one named after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and four named after the four national leaders who were killed in that jail in November 1975.
THE CURRENT STATUS
Even as students suffered from accommodation crisis, most of the erstwhile Jagannath College 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, schools and madrasas.
In the face of severe accommodation crisis faced by female students, the authorities in October 2013 undertook a project to build a 20-storey hall for them opposite the campus.
The 36-month project was supposed to complete in October this year, but in the past 34 months, only the basement has been completed.
Meanwhile, the authorities last year sent a proposal to the UGC for building a 20-storey dormitory for the male students on the 25-bigha land in Keraniganj. They are now waiting for the government's approval for the Tk 275-crore project.
Several teachers and officials said the main problem facing the JnU is that its campus is too small (about seven acre; DU has 321 acres) for a public university. If the government allocated them a bigger piece of land in Keraniganj, for example, they could shift the campus there.
However, there are others who are against this view. According to them, the hall problem can be solved without shifting the campus.
THE LOST HOME
The university authorities say the Jagannath College administration took over some properties in different parts of the old town, after their Hindu owners abandoned those in 1965. The College then started to use those as dormitories.
But between February 6 and 10 in 1985, people in different parts of the old town launched a series of systematic attacks on the halls and drove out the students. No one died, but many from both sides were injured, according to locals who were among those who evicted the students.
"The Chhatra Samaj [the pro-Ershad student body] men would harass local girls, buy food on credit and never pay, extort money from businessmen and do drug business, day after day," an elderly person at Malitola told The Daily Star during the 2014 students' protest.
The row began in Mughaltuli (now Malitola), where 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.
The halls were then grabbed one by one and have been sold and resold for crores of taka.
In 2007, two years after it was made a university, the JnU 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.
Since then, the land of three halls -- Habibur Rahman Hall, a part of Shaheed Nazrul Islam Hall and Bani Bhaban -- and an open field have been reclaimed, while the others remain occupied.
The current “owners”, including Dhaka-7 lawmaker Haji Mohammad Selim who built a multi-storey market on the land of Tibet Hall opposite the Ahsan Manjil, maintain that these are their land.
But they cannot explain how they can own vested properties -- properties abandoned by Hindus, and under the law, only the actual owner can get back such properties on submission of valid documents.
Because the halls are on vested properties, the college and the university authorities had no papers and it was hard to prove the claim of their ownership, though it was a piece of cake for the grabbers.
Several cases and counter cases are now pending before courts in this regard.
The legal battles apart, the JnU faced discrimination in terms of budget allocation from the beginning.
Other than the Tk 100-crore sanctioned six years ago to build the 20-storey hall for the girls and an academic building on the campus, development budget for the university is zero, said Ohiduzzaman, the registrar.
“We have no land and no fund to build halls. This is a key reason why we could not build halls on the reclaimed land. But now that we purchased some land in Keraniganj, we can build some halls there if we get funds,” he said.
Dr Kazi Saifuddin, president of JnU Teachers Association, agrees, with frustration.“Not only halls,” he said, “because of this financial discrimination, we cannot offer many other facilities to our students.”
“It [the protest] is hampering their education. It is a loss for the country. Who knows, there might be an accident!” he said, and called on the education minister to sit with the teachers to find a way out.
Asked, UGC Chairman Prof Abdul Mannan said, ”Definitely there should be halls, and the students' demand is logical. But where and how the halls will be built must be decided at the policy level.”
On the allegation of financial discrimination against JnU, he said the term “discrimination” is relative and rather sweeping. “The budget for one university must not be compared with another, because the cost and other realities of one university are different from another.”
But what can the UGC, as the regulatory body, do to solve the accommodation problem?
“If the university authorities send us a project proposal and if we find it logical, we will send it for the government's nod,” he said.
That's a long shot. For now, the students want to hear from the PM before they return to their classes where they belong.
[Rafiul Islam contributed to this story.]