Currently, Dhaka University (DU) campus is full of excitement and apprehension due to the much-awaited Dhaka University Central Students' Union (DUCSU) and hall union elections. All the students' platforms including Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), Bangladesh Jatiotabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), quota-reformist group (Bangladesh Shadharon Chhatra Odhikar Shongrokkhon Porishod) and the coalition of left-wing student organisations have declared their panel of candidates who will contest the elections on March 11, 2019. The DUCSU and hall unions—in which all the representatives are to be democratically elected—act as the official spokespersons of all the students of DU. However, for the last 28 years, the DUCSU and hall unions did not exist.
The last elections to DUCSU and hall Unions were held in 1990; in 1992 the then unions were made defunct by the university administration. This implies that with the advent of democracy in Bangladesh, students of Dhaka University, who were the forerunners of all the movements against authoritarian regimes, lost their only platform for exercising their democratic rights.
Why have elected governments not been interested in organising DUCSU and hall union elections? Perhaps the answer lies in their policy of controlling and containing the students of Dhaka University, who have always been a major proponent of anti-establishment movements. The elected governments of BNP and Awami League allowed their student wings to establish overwhelming dominance in the university campus to thwart any form of student agitation that could go against their rule.
Consequently, students of their rival groups were evicted from the campus and dormitories often through murderous conflicts. Whenever students from other groups or apolitical students staged any demonstration against an unpopular move of the government, cadres of the parties were unleashed to subdue them ruthlessly. The governments knew very well that had the DUCSU and hall unions been functional, their student wings could not have enjoyed such undisputed dominance on campus.
However, the demand for DUCSU and hall union elections was not forgotten. Time and again, such petitions were raised, to which the administration turned a deaf ear. On March 11, 2012, advocate Manzill Murshid sent a legal notice to the then vice chancellor (VC), proctor and treasurer of DU to take steps to hold DUCSU elections. Having received no reply from the university authorities, he filed a writ petition demanding elections on behalf of several former students of DU. On January 17, 2018, the HC directed the DU authority to hold DUCSU elections within six months. However, the DU authorities, appealed against the High Court order after nine months in September 2018 when a contempt petition was filed against the VC Professor Dr Md Akhtaruzzaman and two others.
In this regard, we should also remember the lone struggle of a DU student named Walid Ashraf demanding DUCSU elections. From November 25 to December 9, 2017, Walid continued his hunger strike for 15 days demanding DUCSU elections. The VC and some influential teachers of DU broke his hunger strike, assuring him that steps would be taken to hold the elections. Seeing no sign of fulfilment of that assurance, in January and April last year, Walid again staged his lone demonstration, defying threats and harassment by the ruling party cadres. Finally, he was forced to withdraw his sit-in protest by the university authority on security grounds.
President Abdul Hamid, the chancellor of the university, has, in several of his convocation speeches, discussed the importance of a functional DUCSU. Nevertheless, the DU authorities did not take any visible step to hold the elections until September 16, 2018. On that day, after a meeting with the student organisations of DU, the VC suddenly announced that elections would be held by March 2019.
The confusion over the elections started to clear up as several steps such as amendment of the DUCSU constitution, appointment of returning and presiding officers and the declaration of elections schedules were taken quite promptly in the last two months of this year.
Although students are quite excited about this election, they are also perplexed about the sudden mood swing of the university authorities. Many candidates fear that the university authority now want to hold the elections because measures have already been taken to ensure a landslide victory of the BCL candidates. Their apprehension is not baseless.
The current VC of DU, who will conduct the election as the chief executive of the university and also will be the president of DUCSU, has hopelessly failed to prove his image as a neutral guardian of the students in the last two years. In 2018, when DU students were being assaulted relentlessly by the BCL cadres and by the police during the quota reform movement, he did not take any step to protect them. Instead, he condemned the quota reformist students and compared them to Taliban militants.
Again, he is not an elected VC either as required by the university act. The act requires that the senate members would elect a panel of three candidates for the VC position. Then, the President will appoint one of them as the VC for the next four years. However, the current VC was appointed on September 4, 2017 on a temporary basis and has not been regularised yet. Chances are high that the VC, who needs the current government's favour to be regularised, might turn the tide of the election in the government's favour.
In fact, he has already taken several steps that has strengthened this possibility. Despite repeated requests from various student platforms to allocate polling centres in the faculty offices, polling centres have been allocated in the university halls—all of which are strongholds of BCL cadres. Obaidul Quader, general secretary of Bangladesh Awami League, delivered statements in support of this move.
In the last 10 years, BCL has effectively evicted all students, who showed any sign of allegiance to BNP and its allied political parties, from the halls. On January 23, 2018 when students of several left-wing political parties besieged the office of the VC protesting oppression in the campus by BCL, the BCL cadres launched a violent attack on the protesters and 'rescued' the VC from his office, according to media reports. The students who participated in the protest have been evicted from the residential halls by the BCL cadres.
Again, during the quota reform movement, BCL cadres singled out students who participated in the quota-reform movement and drove them out from the halls. And, the DU authorities did not take step to protect them. Candidates from the quota-reformist students' group were also repeatedly assaulted by the BCL cadres during their publicity campaign for the DUCSU elections. In this situation, it is difficult to believe that fair and transparent elections will be conducted in these residential halls of DU where BCL still reigns without a rival.
The sudden reformation of the DUCSU constitution has also prompted questions. The student organisations recommended that all the students of DU, regular and irregular, should be allowed to participate in the election (as voters and candidates). At first, the five-member committee appointed by the VC to amend the constitution also accepted this recommendation. Ultimately, however, the committee introduced the age limit of 30 to be able to participate in the elections, which allowed all the leaders of BCL to participate but disqualified students of several other organisations particularly of JCD, the arch-rival of BCL.
These facts are tell-tale signs of a manipulated election that might decisively harm Dhaka University's reputation as the most esteemed educational institution of Bangladesh. DUCSU's glorious past is so inseparably connected with the liberation of Bangladesh that after 28 years of painstaking wait, if Dhaka University delivers a sham DUCSU election, it will be disgraceful for the entire nation.
Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org