A press release that bares it all
The news that the Dhaka University authorities said they will take legal action if the university and/or its vice-chancellor, Prof Akhtaruzzaman, is mocked in social media is quite shocking. However, on second thoughts, it should not come as much of a surprise to anyone considering the sorry state of public universities in Bangladesh and particularly the previous behaviour of the VC in question. This stern warning was delivered in a press release issued by the university on Thursday.
The announcement came after The Daily Star published a cartoon along with a report about the university on June 15. Although the press release is worded as a "clarification" about the information in the report—which the university described as "misleading" and "fragmented" without directly mentioning the newspaper—the most intriguing part is that the university felt that it should send a chilling message to the public. This was a not-so-veiled threat. The university authorities have every right to offer clarification regarding any news report it deems misleading. In fact, it owed an explanation to the citizens about the allegations that it has not done enough as the premier institution of higher learning and research in the country during this pandemic, except for placing fences around the campus. The press release describes the university's efforts in continuing the testing of Covid-19, but falls short of providing its reasons for not emerging as the centre of research. "There is no denying that Dhaka University was not able to invent any testing kit, vaccine or medicine like Oxford University or Johns Hopkins University. But many know the reason behind it," the press release says. But to be candid, we don't really know. The university didn't explain it either.
The inadequacy of its "clarification" pales in comparison to its rude posturing about legal actions to muzzle any criticism or "mocking". The decision, according to the university, has been taken to ensure that the image of the university is not tarnished in the national and international spheres. While I was reading this news, I couldn't help but recall that the centenary of Dhaka University is only a few days away. Perhaps this press release is an indication of where the university stands in its 100th year.
This announcement raises a simple question: If a university and its VC cannot tolerate mocking, how would it teach tolerance and the lessons of freedom of expression? If an autonomous public university cannot tolerate differences of opinion, what would it teach its students? A university—or any educational institution including primary schools for that matter—offers education not only within the four walls of classrooms but through creating a free environment there. This is far more important for a university. Hundreds of years of higher education and the emergence of universities around the world have taught us that academic freedom is an essential element of the functioning of any university. Besides, public universities are funded by the citizens, and so they have the right to criticise them. Let us not forget that these universities are called "public" for a reason.
Half of the 100 years of Dhaka University was spent under colonial rule when it had very little autonomy. The 1973 Ordinance, which provides autonomy to the university, was enacted to avoid the control of the government so that there are no hurdles in exercising academic freedom. This autonomy also made the university accountable to the citizens. Even in the dark days of the 1960s under the military rule of Ayub Khan, nobody had heard of such a threat coming from the university administration, perhaps not even from the military rulers.
But, alas, in 2021, criticism of the university has been criminalised, and mocking has become an offence. In a sense, what DU is trying to do is not unique. In the past years, many have been detained and charged under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for mocking someone in power. Last week, Ahmed Kabir Kishore was charged under the DSA for, among other things, sharing a cartoon in social media. Kishore's ordeal did not start there, rather it began in May last year. He was abducted from his home by plain-clothes members of law enforcing agencies, remained incommunicado for 69 hours while he was interrogated, endured torture, and spent the next 10 months in jail before being released on bail. Kishore and many others now know well that cartoon is no longer fun. As such, the DU reaction to the cartoon in question is consistent with the existing practices in the country, but most importantly, with the mindset of those in power. It is fascinating that those who are in power think that they are invincible, yet a simple cartoon can make them worried.
The DU authorities are concerned about the university's "image", as if image is an abstract issue that has little to do with what is happening at the university. On the contrary, images are created by the behaviours of those who are responsible for leading the institution—and by the actions of the institution. This vague notion of "image" has become a catchphrase in recent years. If one must be vilified and harassed, it is enough to simply suggest that she/he has "tarnished the image" of individuals or the country. One of the crucial elements of the DSA is purportedly to protect the image of the country and individuals. The tendency to use this provision has reached a level that is nothing short of an obsession. Immediately before the DU's press release, the chairperson of the Political Science department of Chittagong University issued a notice to the students asking them to refrain from sharing anything related to the department, as it may "cause damage to the image of the department".
While the DU is concerned about its image, it never considered what kind of an image the "mass rooms" in the student dormitories provide. Students are forced to live in these so-called "Gonoroom" in unhygienic and inhumane conditions. Those who live within these walls are forced by the ruling party's student organisation to participate in its programmes, and often tortured if anyone dares to refuse. There have been incidents of deaths of students living in these appalling conditions. By no means are these conditions amiable to academic endeavour.
The university is concerned about its image but is not bothered at all that its budget has an allocation of less than 5 percent for research. That too remains unused. In its 2019-20 budget, a total of Tk 40 crore was allocated for research, but the university spent Tk 28 crore. This allocation was less than that of the previous year. These are the things that contribute to the "image" the university currently has, not a cartoon.
Dhaka University should not be concerned about its image—it is not its job to be in the business of image protection. The university's job is to independently generate knowledge, disseminate it, study it, ensure that the freedom of expression is ensured for everyone (students and teachers alike), and to administer the university free from external interferences. Interestingly, what hundreds of cartoons could not have done has been achieved by one single press release—it has laid bare the true state of Dhaka University. For that, we must thank the university authorities.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Illinois State University, a non-resident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and the President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).