Students in many of the female dormitories put up strong resistance against any manipulation of the ballots. The government-backed student front was defeated in all the centres and rigging was resisted. The active role of the young people, the resistance displayed by the students, the victory of the quota reform movement leader Nurul Huq as VP (vice president) -- all these added a new dimension to scene.
Even now the students are stridently demanding a fresh election.
There is a different trend to the activism of Bangladesh’s young students. There has been the movement for the Sundarbans which pointed to the young people’s attention towards the country, life, nature and people’s rights. They want to play an active role in all this.
Then there was the quota reform movement where the youth protested against corruption and discrimination in government jobs. The youth stood up valiantly in their movement for safe roads.
There have always been two trends in youth activism, particularly in student politics. One remains close to the socio-politics of the ruling coterie and the other is a struggle for change.
The first trend represents the ruling party and plays the role of hired hoodlums of corrupt powers. This leads to the disintegration of the youth force.
The second trend is not well organised, lacks backing, is subject to oppression and adverse reaction. The state and the administration of the educational institutions eye them as the enemy. But it is this second trend that represents the strength of the new generation.
Presently the government-backed student front -- Bangladesh Chhatra League -- controls all the educational institutions in the country. All the dormitories are in their control.
The teachers in the residential hall administration are mere facades. The student residing in the halls are completely held hostage by the student leaders who decide upon room allotments and hall management. A rule of fear is established and the students are forced to take part in processions, allies, attacks and so on. They are treated like a reserve army.
The ‘gono room’ or mass room in the halls are used to break the individuality of the students and render them into virtual slaves, forced into total subservience. The domination of the ruling party student wing leads to violence, extortion, sexual harassment, tender manipulations, trade with appointment and other crimes.
And certain teachers back them in their own interests.
This role of the government-backed student organisation is nothing new. What BCL is doing now is nothing but a continuation of NSF, the student organisation of Pakistan’s military ruler in the past, General Ayub Khan. NSF would unleash a rule of fear in the universities back then and even the teachers were not spared.
It was hoped that all this would end after the country became independent, but that didn’t happen. Polling centres were taken over during the student union elections and ballot boxes were snatched away.
During the rule of Ziaur Rahman, Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal was established as the main student organisation in various educational institutions. During Ershad’s rule, the government-backed Jatiya Chhatra Samaj could not stand up in the face of the opposition student unity. Various universities at the time were centres of the anti-autocracy movement. And so the student union elections were held almost regularly then.
After the rule of elected governments began in 1991, every government that came along established supremacy of their respective student fronts. If it wasn’t Chhatra Dal, then it was Chhatra League that controlled the universities. And no student union elections were held. Over the past 10 years, Chhatra League has monopolised control over the educational institutions.
It was towards the end of the 1990s that students began to revolt against such monopolised power.
It started in Jahangirnagar University. The students there formed a new unity against sexual harassment and rape on the campus. Those accused of sexual harassment and rape were leaders of the government-backed student organisation.
The left leaning student organisations were not strong enough to stand up against them alone. But they actively organised a movement of the general students, female students in particular. Even the threats and fear unleashed by the ruling party student front could not silence them.
This gave rise to new leadership. It added a new dimension to the student movement.
In the subsequent years, similar movements rose up on various campuses around the country. These included the movement against sexual harassment in Dhaka University, against violence and terror of the ruling party student front in Jahangirnagar University, against the police raid in Dhaka University’s Shamsunnahar Hall and so on.
In later times, general students and left leaning organisations also stood up against increased tuition fees and other issues. The movement against sexual harassment led to the High Court order in this regard and every university having to take up a policy regarding sexual harassment.
Over the past two decades, young students have actively participated in movements for the protection of natural resources and universal rights. They took part in the movements against deals that went against public interest, against gas exports, unjustified hike of gas and electricity prices, open-pit coal mining at Phulbari and so on.
There are questions, of course, as to why the left-leaning organisations can’t stand as a powerful force despite their movements and their support from a large section of the students. They have their weaknesses, but their strength lies in perseverance, not letting up on their protests.
That is why despite all the manipulations and controversies of this DUCSU election, new leadership has emerged in resistance against repression and rigging. The success of the movement lies in its justification and public support. And women leadership has come forward along with leadership from among the offspring of the working class.
(Published in the prothom alo online on 19 March 2019)