It was hard to know how to respond when I heard the news of a student’s brutal murder in a dormitory at Dhaka’s Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) in October. Abrar Fahad, a 21-year-old engineering student, was beaten to death over several hours by fellow students using cricket stumps and bamboo poles. His offence? To have allegedly criticised the government, in a social media post three days earlier, over a memorandum of understanding with India about water.
Like many educators, I was left speechless when I thought about this attack on a reputedly outstanding student in what should have been a safe place for him. But perhaps I should not have been so taken aback – because Fahad’s death was far from a unique aberration.
Unfortunately, acts of violence occur in almost every residential hall of Bangladesh’s public universities. Many of these buildings, students claim, amount to “torture cells”, where retribution is taken by student activists against those who publicly criticise the government’s policies.
Many of the 25 students charged in connection with Fahad’s death are members of the student wing of the Awami League, the ruling political party in Bangladesh. Students at several universities have held rallies to demand justice, and many people are now suggesting that student politics be banned from campuses altogether.
Such appalling incidents are a sad indication of how far student politics has fallen in recent decades. Students played a significant part in the efforts that led to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. Before that, they were pivotal in the 1950s campaign to recognise Bengali as the state language. And, more recently, they were in the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement that led to the overthrow of military rule in 1991.
In the democratic era, however, student politics has taken a nasty turn, becoming an extension of a national politics that is now rotten to the core. Political parties – especially when they are in power – use student activists as pawns in their own games, to shout down and intimidate the opponents.
So what can be done? We must first recognise that Fahad’s heinous murder happened because of the continuous shrinking of democratic spaces within universities, as well as a wider lack of tolerance in society and the routine misuse of power.
It seems extraordinary to have to state this, but the students need to be reminded that freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution of Bangladesh. Dissent in a democracy should not be labelled as heresy. Rather than responding with violence, the onus is on government supporters to rebut it with political wit and reasoned argument.
A total ban on student politics would be counterproductive in the long run. But it is time to rethink student politics and to sever the partisan ties of student wings to national political parties. Their blind allegiance to those parties has corroded the essence of youth activism.
Students have the right to get involved in politics, but it has to be exercised for the students. Above all, students must be able to think critically and express their opinions freely. After all, a truly educated and politically conscious student should be critical of flawed government policy in a democracy.
Without addressing these root causes of the degeneration of Bangladeshi student politics, the ban on student-led political organisations imposed by BUET’s vice-chancellor four days after Fahad’s murder will not work. Political leadership from the very highest level is an imperative.
It must start by recognising that universities should be free from the shackles of politicisation and that their overriding priority should always be their students’ welfare and safety. Once this point is accepted by the politicians, university administrations will be able to move to rid student politics of partisan affiliation and return power to those socially engaged students excluded at present.
This will enhance the students’ critical reasoning, leadership skills, tolerance and empathy with their peers. It might even enable them to offer a genuine student voice – useful and accountable – within university governance. If that happens, students will be empowered to thrive within universities – and, in turn, help their institutions to prosper.
Sheikh Nahid Neazy is associate professor and chair of the department of English at Stamford University Bangladesh, in Dhaka. He can be contacted at [email protected].