”Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
- Groucho Marx
Students and politics have been inseparable in our country for generations. From the Language Movement of 1952 to the uprisings of the 1960s, students have provided the momentum and sometimes the early calls for political changes, that would ultimately lead to the liberation of the country. Association of students in the momentous and history making events in some ways make them pioneers of political movements. Some of the great political names of the country, including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, made their mark as leaders in national causes when they were students in college and university. Those who did not join politics later served their nation from other walks of life as lawyers, doctors, professors, and other noble professions. They served a cause and moved on. They did not remain in public light as professional agitators or professional student leaders.
Birth of professional student leaders or agitators did not happen overnight. It happened from the time political parties began using students as proxies for their own political motives. In the 60s, student organisations in campuses would be identified with one or the other major political parties of the time for their perceived leaning to the ideology of a political party. But a direct entente or intervention by a political party in student affairs was not common. The intervention started when the Ayub-Monem political alliance tried to take control of student politics and planted their henchmen in university campuses to propagate their political philosophy and goals. Although the majority of the students did not fall for this bait, a good number would work as mercenary student leaders and sow the seeds of pernicious student politics that would later lead to armed conflict among students.
The great movement of the late 60s was able to unite the students for a national cause irrespective of party affiliation; but the system of entente between political parties and patronage of student groups by the ruling party, which the Ayub-Monem political alliance had introduced in the country, would never go away. Gradually, the much haloed student movement of the 50s and 60s would give way to a more vicious and partisan brand of student politics that would not only tarnish the names of students but also the institutions they belonged to. Students would openly fight for one or the other political party, often the ruling party as the latter carried greater strength in the campus and promised more benefits. The leaders of these student bodies became power brokers and the top leaders of the parties they were affiliated with hobnobbed with them for political support. Control of campuses by a political party was a much sought after goal, and these student leaders were pawns.
If the nexus of the political parties with the student bodies had stopped simply at garnering support of the students in political gatherings, it would have spared the country further aggravation and woe in college or education campuses. Unfortunately, student bodies and their leaders have also become brokers for career advancement of some of the teachers in the educational institutions. This would happen when, like the student organisations, teachers would also affiliate themselves with political parties of their choice and, ipso facto, unite themselves with a student body with similar political affiliation.
In the 60s, academic institutions were closed by authorities, and students were asked to leave residence halls because of political unrest. They were hardly ever closed because of fighting among students or riots on campus. Even in the heydays of muscle wielding goons of the ruling party during the Ayub-Monem alliance, teachers did not become prey to their stray attacks (except for one solitary incident where a noted Professor of Economics was assaulted by a rogue student. The student was rusticated by the VC). The teachers also did not feel the need or pressure to affiliate themselves with a political party, either for self-advancement or protection.
The downhill descent of student politics did not happen in a vacuum. It happened with the connivance of political parties, political leaders, politicisation of academic institutions and apathy of the intelligentsia. As things started to deteriorate, some scholars and intelligentsia called for the banning of student politics in campuses, forgetting that participation in politics by students had been a time honoured practice and many of our movements would not have been possible without them. No one ever recommended re-introducing the basics of an educational institution that are founded on teaching and teaching alone. This requires teachers who are dedicated to teaching and not career advancement by aligning themselves to different political parties. No one forcefully asserted to concerned authorities that educational institutions are not for advancing political agenda but for creating better citizens through education.
The incident at Shahjalal University of Sylhet last month, where students exercised their skills at belabouring their teachers, took campus politics in Bangladesh to a new low. This was not the first time that students in a campus went on a rampage and brought the institution to a standstill. Most often, however, the conflicts were limited to opposing political groups or clashes within the same party. Seldom had we seen a group of teachers becoming helpless victims of a planned assault by their own students. The incident is, in a sense, more shocking than the time when Ayub-Monem's goons took educational institutions of the country on a thrill ride that would change the very meaning of student politics in the country.
There are no words to denounce such appalling incidents. The law will perhaps be applied against the perpetrators, but won't that just be the tip of the iceberg? Campuses will not return to normal unless education becomes the top priority of our teachers and concerned authorities. The sooner our policymakers apply their minds to returning our educational institutions to their avowed objectives, the better it is for our country.
The writer is a commentator and analyst.