The burden of having eyes in a campus of the blind
There have been some disconcerting developments at Dhaka University following the botched Ducsu election on March 11. The latest of these is the Provost Standing Committee's resolution adopted on March 18 urging the university authorities to take action against eight faculty members who dared to blow the whistle on the irregularities committed during the election. Needless to say, the teachers' assessment was consistent with what the vast majority of the voters experienced and what the print, electronic and social media reported on the day of the "election".
In building its case against the eight teachers, the Provost Committee accused them of engaging in "unauthorised" monitoring of the elections, spreading "untruth" and creating "confusion". It also found the teachers to be "motivated" in "tarnishing the image of the university." In view of the perceived misdemeanour of the concerned teachers, the august committee urged the university authorities "to take action against them" for their "condemnable" acts.
Instead of engaging in soul-searching on what is generally recognised by most students and faculty members of Dhaka University as yet another missed opportunity in democratic practice in the highest seat of learning (rightly claimed to be the birthplace of democratic struggle of the nation) and taking action against those who were instrumental in thwarting such an effort, the committee demanded action against those who essentially narrated what they saw with their own eyes and what the voters, the students, told them.
The committee's use of the term "unauthorised" raises some interesting questions. In their rebuttal of this charge, the accused teachers reminded the committee that the much-cherished Dhaka University Order, 1973, accords all faculty members proctorial power and it is that prerogative that they had chosen to exercise on Election Day. The teachers further claimed that the chief returning officer (CRO), the person entrusted to conduct the election, was duly informed of their plan and had granted verbal permission. One can assume that, the CRO, being cognisant of the provision of the 1973 Order, granted permission. So far, the CRO has not denied the claim that such permission was granted. Onus therefore lies on the Provost Committee to clarify on what ground it termed the concerned teachers' action "unauthorised".
The priority of the provosts is worth noting. Their March 18 resolution did not address the concerns of the overwhelming bulk of the students who claimed election irregularities with hard evidence that was corroborated by media reports. The committee failed to recommend actions against those responsible for such a debacle. One wonders if any of the members of this group raised the question whether they, in their capacity entrusted to conduct fair polls, had really delivered the tasks that they were mandated to do. This election not only raised hopes of the students of Dhaka University, it was also keenly followed by people at large.
The Provost Committee's claim that it did not receive a single complaint of election irregularity is revealing. Does it betray the fact that aggrieved students did not expect a fair investigation from the hall administrations that, in their view, had failed to remain impartial? Or is it because they feared retribution from the high and mighty who, in reality, call the shots on campus? With such widespread allegations of irregularities, if the intent was right, could not the Provost Committee suo moto institute an investigation?
The assertion that the teachers had "tarnished" the image of the country could not be further from the truth. The Ducsu election has not only frustrated the voters, it has also disappointed the CRO who was honest enough to express his "embarrassment". Even the pro-vice chancellor (administration) owned up saying, "We have to bear the responsibility." The immediate past vice chancellor also acknowledged that the election was marred by controversies and irregularities and blamed the university administration for the fiasco.
Can the convener of the Provost Committee please explain, if the eight teachers are culpable in "tarnishing the image of the university with ulterior motives," why aren't those senior functionaries of the university and the ex-vice chancellor guilty of the same charge?
Some facts need to be put on record. The Ducsu election was long overdue. It took 28 years for the university authorities to hold the polls, that too only after a series of protests, including hunger strikes by general students, and intervention of the higher judiciary. In the preparatory stage, while talks were underway between student groups and the university administration, the latter rejected all major demands of the opposition student organisations. Included among those were shifting the election to a later date, setting up the voting centres in the academic block rather than student dormitories, increasing the voting time period by a few hours, and sending ballot papers and boxes to the voting centres on the morning of the election—not the night prior to the election. The pro-government students' organisation opposed these demands. Not surprisingly, none of those innocuous and reasonable demands were accepted by the university authorities and no reason was assigned for the rejection.
The university authorities also need to explain the following: (a) why some hall administrations turned down the reasonable demand of the contestants and their supporters to show the empty ballot boxes before the polls began, (b) why bagful of stamped ballot papers were found in one hall and blank ballot papers were found outside the voting centres in another hall, (c) why actions were not taken when obstacles were created when non-resident students wanted to vote, through intimidation and by jamming the booths (causing inordinate delay in casting votes) to discourage voters waiting in the queue, (d) why the ballot papers did not have serial numbers as is generally printed to ensure that an accurate number of ballot papers is printed and to track which set of ballot papers goes to specific centres, and (e) why the ballot papers and boxes were sent to the student dormitories in the evening before the election when those places are only minutes away from the administrative block.
It is morally incumbent upon the university authorities to provide a satisfactory response to each and every question raised above before it considers any action against the eight teachers on the advice of the Provost Committee.
It is significant that all eight independent candidates won Shamsunnahar Hall polls. The success is attributed to the overnight vigilance of the voting centre by the female candidates and their supporters of the hall. This led many to speculate that if the polls were truly fair, then such results might have been replicated in other halls and the central students' union.
In an environment vitiated by partisan politics, the eight teachers, mostly young, reported what they witnessed with their own eyes. They had done so to ensure that the university remains a place where students can freely exercise their democratic rights, including the right to franchise and the freedom to express. In a situation where there's an ever-shrinking democratic space, it is in everyone's interest to uphold the sanctity of the university. The sooner the university authorities, including the Provost Standing Committee, acknowledge this, the better it would be for the institution that is on the threshold of celebrating its founding centenary.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.