It’s been 10 days since Jahangirnagar University went into lockdown after the activists of Bangladesh Chhatra League attacked protesters demanding the resignation of Vice-Chancellor Professor Farzana Islam. The dormitories remain shut, classes and exams postponed, and all academic activities put on hold. The protracted shutdown, however, has done little to quell the agitating students and teachers. According to our JU correspondent, the protests rage on, defying a ban on rallies and processions on campus, despite the news of cops harassing the families of student protesters. One student has been sued under the Digital Security Act for her comments on Facebook. There have also been warnings of dire consequences, including withdrawal of funds for public universities, if the protesters don’t fall back into line.
Strangely enough, these diktats, threats and scare tactics seem to have only strengthened their resolve that what they are doing is the right thing. The question, therefore, is not if the VC can retain her position—which she can, unless instructed otherwise—but if she should, given all that has transpired in the past few weeks and her own role in it. The question over her moral authority arises for a number of reasons.
Exhibit A: Allegations of corruption against her. Set aside the fact that for over two months, the protesters have been demanding an investigation into her alleged involvement in corruption and mismanagement of a Tk 1,445-crore campus development project. It can be recalled that the now-deposed Chhatra League President Rezwanul Haque Chowdhury Shovon and General Secretary Golam Rabbani had in September admitted to demanding their “fair share” from the VC. Rabbani also accused the VC of giving Tk 1.6 crore to the JU Chhatra League unit, a claim that both the VC and the JU BCL president dismissed. But the fact that an allegation was levelled against her compromises her position as an administrator, and she should have stepped aside to make way for an enquiry into this—which is a universally accepted normal practice. Also, doesn’t the confession by Rabbani, which apparently led to his removal, at least merit an investigation?
Exhibit B: The VC’s unabashed public display of affection for Chhatra League, which is ironic given that it was Chhatra League that tied her name to the corruption scandal. Having repeatedly sided with one group of students, hasn’t she lost her moral authority to represent the ordinary students and teachers who have been routinely terrorised, hectored and forced to conform to suffocating diktats by the members of the same organisation?
Exhibit C: Exposing the protesters to danger. Her weakness for power, her inability to handle a crisis, and a stunning lack of empathy were all on display when she publicly thanked Chhatra League that unleashed terror on the protesters on November 5. Prior to that, the VC had been confined to her residence for nearly 18 hours by the protesters demanding her resignation over the corruption allegation, which is something the students should not have done. In the ensuing attack, at least 20 teachers, students and journalists present on the scene were injured. Not one to apologise for her failure to handle the situation, she later defended the attack and put the blame squarely on the protesters.
For over two months, Jahangirnagar University, the country’s only fully residential public university and traditionally a hotbed of pro-student activism, has been plagued by a crisis because of one person who, by her own admission, was reluctant to take the job for a second term. In an interview with The Daily Star last week, Professor Farzana Islam said, “Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have completed my four years [tenure]. I tried to leave, but the government thought that it would be wise to keep me here as I did not give any trouble to anyone. And that brought me trouble.”
She then defended her role in the ongoing crisis and highlighted how this was nothing new in the history of JU, saying none of the “vice-chancellors belonging to the Awami League”—apart from her—could complete their tenures in JU. “What we see in the cases of Awami League VCs is pathetic. Prof Alauddin could bring independence to the country, but he could not do anything at JU,” she said, adding that even an influential VC like Shariff Enamul Kabir was forced to step down from his post.
It’s bad enough to admit that her job as a VC in the second term was not her first choice. But aligning her failures with a trend to remove JU VCs midway through their tenures, without providing any context to their particular cases, speaks of someone unsure of herself and her legacy. Instead of engaging in the hard graft of evaluating her situation and the current moods and needs in the university that she is responsible for, she finds herself deriving legitimacy from her own interpretation of a questionable past.
By all indications, it is evident that a controversial and reluctant VC serves neither the government, which needs a strong administrator in the university—and one with a cleaner image—nor the general students and teachers, who need a guardian and leader that they can trust. The time has come for a course correction in JU. It is the responsibility of the government to undertake that all-too-important task. From a pragmatic point of view, the government’s most responsible step should be to launch an investigation into the corruption allegations. The question here is also of moral authority and whether the present VC has it. We need to think of that if we’re to find a solution that will be acceptable to all.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.