For more than two weeks in campuses across the country students demanding a review of the controversial quota system for appointments to civil bureaucracy experienced brutality of a monumental scale. On June 30, they planned a press conference at the Dhaka University premises to exert pressure for the gazette notification on quota reform. What was essentially an exercise in peaceful, orderly and democratic practice was viewed by supporters of the ruling party as “a conspiracy of nefarious quarters to destabilise campuses” and “a challenge to the government.” Hence they lost no time to swoop on the organisers, successfully disrupting the press conference.
The state agencies in some instances through inaction appeared to have abetted the criminal acts, and in others, through zestful performance, inflicted immeasurable harm to the protesters, their families and friends. Instead of apprehending clearly identified perpetrators and bringing them to justice for violating the law, they hunted, detained and took leaders and participants of the quota reform movement into remand. They also wielded force to disperse protests and demonstrations of teachers, guardians and concerned citizens. Ministers, non-state cohorts of the establishment, including commentators, journalists and even vice chancellors, joined the cacophony in branding the dissenter students as "disrupters."
The extent and intensity of violence have been widely reported in the media. Images and footages of senior functionaries of the student wing of the ruling party mercilessly beating the peaceful protesters with rods, poles and even a hammer, in different parts of the country, were rife. What began as mayhem by the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) at Dhaka University was soon to be replicated in Chittagong, Rajshahi, Savar, Rangpur and many other cities of the country. Claiming unbridled authority in keeping the campus under control BCL openly declared its intent of freeing those of “the elements engaged in destabilising the campuses”.
But all failed to draw any form of disapproval, let alone rebuke, from any responsible member of the government and the ruling party. The perpetrators enjoyed carte blanche in carrying on their heinous agenda of quelling dissent. On July 15, a new low was reached when two conscientious members of the social science faculty of Dhaka University expressing solidarity with the victims of violence, were manhandled.
In committing their acts of violence the perpetrators not only breached the sanctity of the University premises, they marred the inviolability of the Shaheed Minar, a monument that symbolises dissent.
In one instance several female students were assaulted at the Shaheed Minar while they were protecting fellow protestors. In another incident they dragged out a quota reform supporter from inside the library and beat him in front of the professor librarian of Dhaka University, injuring the latter. In a few cases, the BCL forcibly detained protesting students and subsequently after rough treatment handed them over to the law enforcement agencies. Leading protesters were threatened with dire consequences at their homes and dormitories.
The responses of the university administrations were utterly disappointing. Little was done to protect and assuage the concerns of the protesters. After days of violence that rocked Dhaka University and disrupted the campus life, the Proctor went on record claiming he had no idea that such attacks had indeed taken place. He went to proclaim that he would “act only if complaints were filed.” In Rajshahi University while the proctorial body failed miserably to protect students from attacks and harassment, it registered a rare success in prevailing upon the lone teacher who was expressing his disgust over campus violence by coming to campus barefooted. Jettisoning age-old tradition of offering support, sympathy and facilitating medical care to the victims of violence, irrespective of their political affiliation, the university administrations and teachers' associations appeared to have sided with the perpetrators.
The responses of law enforcement agencies in dealing with the anti-quota movement have been revealing, if not appalling. The police and other agencies took no action against BCL activists as they announced programmes to thwart planned peaceful public events. Instead police personnel vacated the Shaheed Minar premises when the BCL activists confronted the peaceful demonstrators. After any violent episode instead of apprehending the perpetrators the law enforcement personnel went after the victims. While images and video footage of the wrong doers were made widely available in the print, electronic and social media, there has been a palpable indifference in acting against them. Several dailies have published the photos, names and designation (offices they hold in BCL) of the perpetrators. While they roam around the campuses scot free, it was the victimised peaceful protesters (whom the police and the administration had failed to protect) who are now being chased by members of law enforcement agencies. There is little doubt if law were left to take its own course most of the perpetrators would have been charged with criminal offences, including possession of dangerous weapons, causing serious bodily harm, unlawful detention and abduction. No less poignant was the statement of Marium Farah who after enduring the harassment of BCL activists on her way home was taken to police custody only to go through yet another round of humiliation and mistreatment. “I thought the police station would be safe”, Farah noted, “but it was like a second hell”.
Putting to shame the excesses committed by the British colonial and Pakistani police against student activists at least two severely injured quota reformist students were denied treatment in public hospitals. In one instance, the parents of the injured claimed that the victim was forcibly discharged from a private medical facility.
The law enforcement agencies lost no time in pressing charges against innocent activists and even successfully lodged petition for taking some injured ones to remand. One wonders on what grounds the hon'ble magistrates granted such petitions. The poor students were only exercising their constitutional right to voice concern on a matter of public policy that affects their future and also of the nation. They were victims of mindless violence, not the perpetrators. The frustration of the agitating students is understandable. Almost no action was taken despite the prime ministerial commitment for "abolishing the quota system", something that the quota reformers did not ask for. Prolonged silence and near inaction was intermittently interjected with confusing statements from responsible functionaries: "not aware", "no instruction", "no progress", "decision after PM's return", "gazette after Eid" and the like. Months ago during negotiations agitating students were promised immediate formation of a high level committee, a position reiterated by the Cabinet Secretary. It was the latest round of agitation that forced the administration to form the committee only on July 3.
The moral bankruptcy of the ruling quarters to face legitimate challenge politically leads them to resort to unfair and false insinuation and innuendoes. This prompted even the erudite law minister to state that BNP and Jamaat are provoking the quota reform movement. The powerful general secretary of the Awami League shared the view. While negating the claim that BCL was responsible for the campus mayhem he argued that the BCL committee does not exist now and thus the organisation would not take any blame. Does the minister really want the public to believe that members of BCL wither away when committees stand dissolved? Readers may recall that protestors were labelled as Razakars in April by a senior minister, known for her fire-brand student activism. Without any shred of evidence the blame of ransacking the DU VC's residence has been conveniently passed on to the quota reform activists. If that be the case, doesn't the onus lie on the administration to publish the report of the investigations and prosecute the perpetrators?
Donning the invisible mantle of police, if not of a detective, the Vice Chancellor of Rajshahi University drew the conclusion that the quota reform struggle is essentially "an anti-government movement to carry out sabotage." His counterpart in Dhaka University concurred terming it as "machination of evil power." Quite candidly he shared with journalists that video footages of protesters reminded him of "provocative video messages of Taliban, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram."
The reactions of the government, the ruling party and their cohorts to the legitimate demands of the quota reform activists lay bare their deep alienation from the masses and their concerns. It reflects their vulnerability to any form of collective resistance. It also reveals the partisan bias of the state institutions that not only fail to protect the victims of criminal wrong-doings but also condones acts that are inhumane, illegal and contrary to the provisions of the constitution of the republic.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka.