PM vows to scrap job quotas after huge student protests

Nationwide student protests paralysed campuses in Bangladesh last week as students demanded reform of the quota system reserving government jobs for particular groups. More than 100 people were wounded in clashes with police at the University of Dhaka on 9 April as rubber bullets and tear gas were fired to disperse the crowd.

Tens of thousands of university students in Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, Barisal, Rangpur, Sylhet and Savar rallied on campuses, boycotted examinations and classes, and blocked nearby roads and highways in what has been described as one of the biggest protests of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decade in power.

Currently, only 44% of recruitment for public sector jobs is on merit.

The remaining 56% of positions are reserved for five disadvantaged groups – 30% is for the offspring of freedom fighters active during the country’s split from Pakistan in the 1970s, 10% for residents of disadvantaged districts, 10% for women, 5% for ethnic minorities and 1% for people with disabilities.

Protesters want the quotas to be reduced to 10%.

“We believe this is injustice. These special groups represent only 2% of the population while the remaining 98% of people fight for 44% of jobs,” said student leader Nayeem Khan.

Protesters’ additional demands include filling vacant positions from the merit list if eligible candidates are not found from the quota groups, abolishing the special examination for quotas, bringing uniformity in age-limit for government recruitment processes, and stopping the use of the quota facility more than once.

Huge protests

The protests, which began last Sunday, caused huge traffic congestion in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka and other major cities, gaining youth and mass support across the country, as well as the backing of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Students were seen painting graffiti on roads and walls and chanting slogans in the gatherings to press home their demands. Unidentified miscreants ransacked the University of Dhaka’s fine arts building and vandalised the home of Vice-chancellor Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman on 8 and 9 April.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina condemned the attack on the vice-chancellor’s residence and said those who masterminded and perpetrated the assault would be punished. “We will find out those who were involved and the students must help us do so,” she said.

Akhtaruzzaman and the Dhaka University Teachers' Association or DUTA had expressed solidarity with the student movement.

The student organisation Bangladesh Chhatra League, which is allied to the ruling party, clashed with the protesting students on some campuses, including at Dhaka University.

Prime minister promises change

As violence escalated, a 20-member delegation met with government representatives early in the week. On Wednesday Sheikh Hasina announced in parliament that government job quotas would be scrapped.

“The quota system will be abolished,” she said, but described the protests as “irrational”.

Agitating students returned home on Wednesday evening after the announcement.

Rashed Khan, joint convener of Bangladesh Sadharon Chhatra Odhikar Songrokhon Parishad – Action Council for General Students' Rights – the main protest organiser, told University World News: “We have decided to postpone our movement as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that there will be no quotas in government jobs.”

Support for change

Shoeb Abdullah, a political science student at Dhaka University who supports the quota reform movement, said students are demanding reform of the system, not its abolition. “Yet we welcome this announcement and we will wait until the gazette notification from the government,” he told University World News.

He expressed concern, however, over police cases filed against some students – who have not been identified – during the clashes.

Many academics also support reform of the quota system. Renowned Bangladeshi writer Muhammed Zafar Iqbal said last Monday that the demand for quota reform was “logical”.

Former cabinet secretary Akbar Ali Khan said reservations for freedom fighters should be reviewed. In his view this quota was contrary to the country's constitution.

The quota system was first introduced in 1972 during the tenure of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the iconic leader of Bangladesh's independence movement.

Some changes were introduced in 1997, expanding the quotas to include the offspring of freedom fighters. If jobs could not be filled from this group, the posts designated for them would be kept vacant.