The March 11 election to Ducsu, or Dhaka University Central Students' Union, marks a moment in the history of student politics that is at once tragic and cathartic. Tragic, because of the way it was conducted, and cathartic, because it confirmed our suspicion that it couldn't have been conducted in any other way. And so, after 28 years of being marooned in a fantasy bubble, here we are, waking up to the reality that a fantasy bubble feels good to be in while it lasts but it is not meant to last forever.
That fantasy—or as I like to call it the “Ducsu Dream”—had basically two components: 1) that Ducsu would be revived to protect the interests of the students; and 2) that it would play the role that it had historically played until 1990, when the last Ducsu election was held. It was a beautiful dream, an innocent dream. Over the decades, that dream was valorised and passed through generations like hereditary nostalgia. There were some practical reasons for it too. Ducsu was, after all, not just one university's claim to fame because of its historic role in many socio-political movements of this nation, or its endearing label as the “second parliament of Bangladesh” or the fact that it produced future leaders. It was, quite frankly, a beacon of hope for everyone, a touchstone in any campaign against injustices anywhere in the country.
But while we held on to that dream, the world outgrew us. Bangladesh found itself trapped in a peculiar model of democracy in which power is completely centralised and sycophancy is the norm. The continued erosion of democratic values, intolerance of dissent and diversity, politicisation of democratic institutions, growing divisions and moral decay in society, and the post-modern distrust of any central narrative or established views/platforms meant that—even if Ducsu is revived through an election—it is unlikely to ever be restored to its former glory. The March 11 election only served to prove that point.
On the more mundane issue of why the ritual of an election could not be held all these years, there is plenty of blame to go around: for the political parties, which wanted to manufacture a vacuum so they could plant their own people and establish control over the university; for the DU administration, which cavalierly dismissed all demands for an election, secure in the knowledge that its authority would not be challenged; for the teachers, who failed to stand up for the students' rights of representation; and for the media, which demagogued the crisis. Everyone seemed to benefit from a no-Ducsu situation—everyone except the students.
There are a number of ways to read the recent Ducsu election and assess its impact—and the most practical one is, naturally, the most frustrating. This is not just because of the “shameful” manner in which the election was held. The new Ducsu VP, Nurul Haque Nur, is one of only two students elected to the union's 25-member executive committee; the remaining 23 posts were filled by candidates from Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling party. Nur's successful bid is in no way an accurate reflection of what happened during the election, which was rejected by most contesting parties and candidates including Nur himself, alleging widespread irregularities. Nur and his Ducsu colleagues have already made their mutual distrust known publicly. What can be expected from such a divided camp?
At its most basic level, this election is guilty of corrupting our historical memory of Ducsu. Living the Ducsu Dream year after year was exhausting, but seeing that dream shredded and stomped into the dust, metaphorically speaking, was quite painful. The election, besides leaving an aftermath of uncertainty, also reflected a paradigm shift in student politics: it served to “legalise”, according to an associate professor of DU, Chhatra League's control over the campus. With the de-facto and de-jure powers both in the hands of Chhatra League now, except in a few halls where non-BCL candidates won, it is likely to make life far more challenging for the general students and the activists of opposition student wings.
Meanwhile, assaults on Nur on the election day and the subsequent demonisation campaign launched against him by Chhatra League have set a corrupting precedent for Ducsu, and indicate what lies ahead for other non-BCL winners and candidates. If anyone is to benefit from this compromised situation, it is the teachers loyal to the ruling party and the already compliant university administration. Is it any wonder that the DU VC was “delighted” after the election was over?
The 2019 election has also set a model for Ducsu which may be emulated in the coming days. It's like the “Khulna Model” of controlled election, which was followed last year during the Khulna City Corporation election and subsequently in Gazipur and other elections, including the 11th parliamentary election. As I explained in another column, this model “seeks to prevent elections from getting messy through a shift towards more subtle and non-violent tactics fashioned to weaken the opposition from within.” The Ducsu 2019 Model has also proved to be quite effective; it showed that Ducsu can be turned into an advantage rather than an embarrassment. It also showed that Ducsu doesn't have to be a threat to the powers that be. In the foreseeable future, we are probably going to see more such elections in other student unions and even in Ducsu.
Future of student politics
As we read last rites over the Ducsu Dream, let us remind ourselves that part of the Ducsu hype in recent times was due to the supposed revival of student leadership. The role that students played in recent years—organising several “successful” movements including the quota reform movement, the road safety movement and the VAT movement in private universities—drew a comparison with the historical role that students played both before and after the 1971 war of liberation. Ironically, these movements, largely taking place outside DU or without a central role played by its students, represent the shifting ground beneath the enduring appeal of DU-based student leadership. With the students of private universities and even schools and colleges becoming increasingly vocal, it also signals a gradual distancing from the traditional dependence on students of public universities to initiate or lead such movements.
It is, therefore, time to discard our past-bound mentality, look beyond the nostalgic trappings of Ducsu revivalism, and brace for the fast unfolding realities. It is time to consider the fact that Dhaka is expanding—and with that its tertiary education landscape and the potential of divergent leadership. Today's reality is vastly different from the reality in 1990, when the space for leadership was significantly small and centralised and when there was not one single private university. Not to mention, the idea of using social media to initiate social movements, which reduced dependence on the need for an organised platform, was still an unknown concept. That being said, Dhaka University is still a force to reckon with and its potential to serve the students and the country in general is unmatched. But it is no longer the only force.
It's important to note that the benefits of having a Ducsu of the kind that was just formed may be far outweighed by the disadvantages. The March 11 election marked the beginning of a new trend in student politics; only, it's not the trend that the students would have liked to see. For nearly a century—since it was first formed in 1923-24—Ducsu has been championed, quite correctly, as a model for pro-student, pro-people politics by the students. Even after it was kicked into the long grass by pro-democratic governments after 1990, its example has been used to justify the existence of the brand of student politics that has developed afterwards. That brand of student politics, which didn't produce leaders but only sycophants, saw students being used as pawns in the bigger political game. What will its advocates say now—after the death of the Ducsu Dream?
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.