Violent student politics disrupting higher education

Following Bangladesh’s disputed election on 5 January, in which the ruling Awami League swept back into power, public universities have been witnessing violent clashes between rival student organisations. At least one student has died and more than 100 have been injured.

At least 150 people were killed before and in the aftermath of the poll, which experienced violent protests and large-scale arrests.

In the month since, the Awami League’s student organisation has clashed with opposition student groups and other students to establish supremacy on the campuses of at least three public universities. Bangladesh’s political parties all have student wings, with students often acting as ‘muscle’ for the parties.

“In most cases, the authorities are forced to close down universities after violence and this is hampering academic activities in universities,” Serajul Islam Chowdhury, professor emeritus at Dhaka University, told University World News.

Teachers and students fear violent clashes will continue on campuses in the coming months, as the opposition is demanding fresh elections.

The authorities were forced to shut down Rajshahi University on 2 February after the Awami League’s student organisation known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League or BCL, apparently attacked students protesting against rises in tuition and other fees.

More than 100 students were injured in the incident. Local newspapers published pictures showing BCL activists attacking students with firearms. BCL President Bodiuzzaman Sohag, however, denied that its activists were responsible for recent campus clashes.

Last month, a student was killed at Chittagong University in southeastern Bangladesh after violence involving the BCL and Islami Chhatra Shibir or ICS – the student wing of the country’s largest Islamist Party Jamaat-e-Islami.

BCL and ICS were also involved in violent clashes at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet.

Campus violence not new

Campus violence is not new to Bangladesh.

Every time there is a political crisis, violence between rival student organisations lead to university closures. These occur with such frequency in public universities that four-year degrees can take six to seven years to complete.

Local newspapers have reported 17 students killed in the last 25 years at Chittagong University alone after clashes between rival student organisations. The figures would be much higher if all universities were included. In most cases, the killers are not punished.

Mahdin Mahboob, a lecturer in electronics and telecommunications engineering at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, called in an opinion article in a local newspaper for a ban on student politics on campus.

“Since the inception of this country over 40 years back, students have been used time and again by almost all major political parties and their politicians for their own petty interests. And this has done more harm than good.

“It has caused too many deaths, both of people actively involved and not involved in politics. Too many injuries, too many hours of classes and academic days have been lost.”

However Junaid Saki, a former left-leaning student leader, said on a TV talk show that the problem was not student politics but university authorities failing to handle violence even-handedly.

“As a good number of teachers are linked with political parties, they cannot do their duties neutrally. This is making things worse,” he said.

Serajul Islam Chowdhury said banning student politics was not a solution. “We have to make sure that student unions are used for their own interests, and not for other political parties.”

Students should be politically conscious and banning student politics would not achieve anything positive, he stressed. “For a long time, student council elections were not held in the public universities. I believe if elections are conducted in the student councils of public universities, many problems can be solved.”