Monday, August 18, 2008

Rebels without a Cause

Student politics, which has a glorious history of leading the nation towards independence, has become hostage to corruption and thuggery

During the fifties and sixties, the students, in the absence of a vigorous labour movement, have led the country's politics. Our history is littered with such examples: the victory of secular United Front in the general elections of 1954 that has kicked the Muslim League out of the political landscape of East Pakistan and, a better example perhaps, is the mass upsurge of 1969, when a wave of nationalism has torn the castle of military dictator Ayub Khan's castle into pieces. In fact, till 1980's the student politics have provided the national politics with great leaders who, when met with the challenge with time, has shown brinkmanship, charisma and leadership quality. Most of the leaders of national politics who make news nowadays are, in fact, the product of the student movements of pre and post independent era. From Matia Chowdhury to Mahmuduur Rahman Manna, Mujahidul Islam Selim to Rizvi Ahmed, student politics has gifted us with leaders whom no dictator can buy, who, time and again, have upheld their principles. In fact, during Bangladesh's independence war, students have worked as vanguards, kindling the light of hope in an abyss of darkness. During the anti-autocracy movement of the nineties, the student organisations, most of which had a left lenience, have shown resolve and unity to fight an amalgam of enemies: religious fanaticism at home and global capitalism abroad.

It has started to go wrong after the fall of Gen HM Ershad in 1990. The leaders of the mass upsurge, most of whom have been students, have quickly sold their souls to the devil. Amanullah Aman, the then VP of Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU), at that time married and the father of a grown-up, has become a Member of the Parliament (MP). Many student leaders have followed suit, a few thousands like him have quickly become millionaires. Student politics, as far as Aman's success story has proven, is like a long-term investment: it yields at maturity. In fact, Bangladesh's student politics is a textbook example of what happens when politics takes a back seat and is controlled by god-father-like national politicians. The degeneration that has been slow during the military dictatorship of the eighties has spread fast in the early and mid nineties. Student politicians have become more interested in winning government tenders than bringing out street processions for better educational facilities. While the price of pen and paper skyrocketed in the mid nineties, two different factions of the government-backed student organisation have found themselves in an hour-long armed conflict over a tender of the Roads and Highways Department.

The situation is even worse at the district levels. In the absence of proper politics, local MPs and leaders of the district ruling party call the shots. Their wishes remain command for local student politicians, who become mere bullyboys of the local leaders. The politics of violent confrontation and relentless corruption that we have witnessed in the last couple of decades have given birth to the most notorious of criminals who lead the two big student organisations. These young people go to the rallies, cheering for one Begum or the other, and to fund their insatiable greed they indulge themselves in criminal activities. From extortions to killing, the long hands of some student leaders are extended everywhere.

Most educational institutes, especially at the tertiary level, do not have adequate seats at the dormitories that they have. A large number of these dormitories, if not all of them, are always controlled by the government-backed student organisation; they recruit the ordinary students by luring them with seats in the hostels; armed goons guard them; gunfight between armed student factions becomes the order of the day. The soul of our future national politics becomes the breeding ground for thugs and goons. Development suffers, education remains in the hands of a selected few who can afford to go abroad to further their studies.

What ails the education sector the most is indeed corrupt student politics. But the government cannot escape the blame: since independence, subsequent governments have never prioritised education. New private universities are set up, where education is sold at Tk 4 lakh a degree, where class rooms are of ten feet by ten feet, where universities do not have an administrative building of their own, let alone a proper laboratory for science students. Some private universities in the capital have even had ready-made garment factories on the upper floors. While basic education is going far beyond the means of the millions and the government plays the role of an apathetic bystander, an army of unemployed are entering the job market with little skill to meet the growing demand of a burgeoning economy. Thus the poor remain poor; living outside the paradigm of power. The economy of $60 billion has also had around 19 lakh young unemployed men, the amount is mammoth when one considers the fact that there is a staggering 2 crore 65 lakh 85 thousand underemployed young men and women, some of these join one of the big student or youth organisations, which thrive on corruption and misrule. As the country's squabbling politicians ignore the plight of the toiling masses, the poor and the marginalised do not have any other way to make their voices heard but translate their frustrations and grievances into angst. These unemployed youth give the national politicians the much-needed fuel in the general elections or at any other desperate moments.

The picture is indeed less than perfect for those who want to find the inner thread of the occasional bouts of violence that rule the streets of our cities at the slightest whiff of discontent. An overhaul of our economic policy is the order of the day; it needs to be made pro-people, pro-poor to be precise. It is the responsibility of the government to educate its own citizens, more public schools and universities must be set up, education has to be made absolutely free till the tertiary level. Private universities have to be forced to give scholarships for the poor students, especially those who hail from poverty-stricken areas. Vocational training and secretarial courses have to be incorporated into the secondary and higher secondary education system, so that the dropouts can get a decent job after passing these public exams. Sending skilled and semi-skilled workers is one of the thriving sectors of our economy; our primary and secondary education must go through a change so that we can have our share in the growing labour market of North and Eastern Europe.

A moratorium for a year or two must be imposed on politics on the campus. It means feuding student politicians and politicised teachers will have to learn to think and act independently. Meanwhile, the political parties must stop using students as cannon fodder. The Election Commission has to enact electoral laws that will discourage the parties from having student fronts. Students studying at different public and private educational institutions will have to be given student housing, enrolment must be based on merit alone. Students are the future of our nation, they are the nation builders of tomorrow; our future as a developed nation depends largely on how we mould them to face the challenge of the new millennium. The Private University Act has remained only on paper-- the University Grants Commission must take stringent measures to enforce it. Any private educational institute who fails to follow it must be punished. A ceiling on fees on private universities needs to be fixed. Elections to the student bodies of all educational institutions must be held on a regular basis.

The reason why we talk of democracy in every breath we take and do not practice it in everyday life is because the very concept of justice and equality is not engrained in our society. The students have to be taught about democracy from an early age, and schools, colleges and universities are the places where they will learn to practice democracy to lead the nation to the path of progress and development. A bleak future awaits us if we fail to save our children from the clutches of corrupt moribund politics. Our future as a developed economically independent nation is entwined with the way we reshape the face of student politics.

This article was first published in the June 27, 2008 issue of The Star Magazine