Student politics played a big role in Bangladesh's struggle for independence and has been an integral part of national politics. The glory that began in the hands of Bangabandhu - is it diminishing? What is the current scenario of student politics in Bangladesh?
2nd of March, 1971. Before Bangabandhu announced independence, the leader of DUCSU, ASM Abdur Rab raised the flag of independent Bangladesh and right the day after, Bangaladesh Students’ League accepted the mandate of an independent Bangladesh. Even before that, right after the partition of India and the birth of Pakistan, on March 11th, 1948 students protested against the parliamentary stance of making Urdu the only state language of Pakistan. In 1952 when no established political party announced any protests against the decision of making Urdu the only state language of the then Pakistan, the students protested, defied article 144 and got shot by police. In fact, Bangladesh Students’ League (BSL) was established on the 4th of January, 1948 whereas Awami League was not established until one and a half years later.
Some sources suggest that in 1963 a faction was formed within Bangladesh Students’ League popularly known as ‘Nucleus’ consisting of Serajul Alam Khan, Abdur Razzaq and Kazi Aref swore to deprive themselves of every luxury, even marriage until Bangladesh is liberated. BSL even proposed ‘an Independent Bangladesh” in their central committee’s extended meeting in August 1970. They formed a separate force named ‘Bangladesh Liberation Front (BLF)’ or Mujib Bahini during the Great Liberation War in 1971.
Factionalism within Students’ League between the likes of Abdur Razzaq, Serajul Alam Khan, M. A. Jalil, ASM Abdur Rab and Shajahan Siraj regarding their ideology (far left vs centre left) gave birth to Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, which eventually became a prominent political party later and is relevant in the national politics till date. Among other traditional student political organizations is Bangladesh Students’ Union which was established around 1952 and played a significant role in the independence of Bangladesh.
Even during the movement to establish democracy in Bangladesh during Ershad’s era, the students have laid their lives, held regular protests. Delwar, Selim, Raufun Basunia are among the martyrs of that movement. Most recently in 2007-08 democracy crisis of Bangladesh, the student political parties played a significant role.
As these incidents suggest –
- Bangladesh’s student political parties were able to push national political parties to take certain steps according to their agenda.
- They are the ones who historically stepped up in every movement regardless of the national political parties.
A dissection of the Status Quo
However, are those golden days gone? It still remains a matter of debate. Some argue that the level of political engagement and activism among students has declined in recent years, which is visible from the reluctance and even resistance towards politics in private university campuses. While others believe that student politics remains an important aspect of the country’s political landscape, despite the challenges it faces, which is evident from all the successful movements students organized in the last 10 years – Shahbag Movement for trial of the collaborators, Road Safety Movement, No VAT movement and so on.
Despite the significance of student politics in Bangladesh’s history, it has also been marred by incidents of violence and conflict, with student activists and political groups often clashing with one another, leading to a negative perception of student politics in the country. In recent years, student politics in Bangladesh has become a highly charged and controversial issue. Nowadays, student politics has been marred by various malpractices including violence, corruption, and political manoeuvring. Even, many of student political leaders’ involvement of criminal elements in student politics has also been a concern. According to a study by Conflict Research Group (CRG) and Microgovernance Research Initiative during 1991-2018, students played a part in over 25% of all political violence and such student involvement in political violence usually peaks when a new governing party consolidates control, when students fear their future possibilities may be threatened by legal changes, and during elections.
As previously mentioned, the student political parties were able to push their agenda in the mainstream political parties in the past. Nowadays student political groups are divided along party lines, with the two main parties being the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. These groups often engage in clashes, both on and off campus, and have been known to disrupt classes and exams. Other parties also have their affiliated student political parties.
Identifying the student political parties according to their ideology and creating a distinction or at least a spectrum from an ideological point of view – economic left to economic right, progressive to conservative, might not always be realistically possible due to the fact that ideological lines have often been compromised and the lines are blurry at best. However, Islami Chatra Shibir (ICS) and Islami Shashontontro Chatra Andolon are parties that openly claim to be Islamist and communal politics have been banned at Dhaka University by the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU). Previously Islami Chatra Shibir and Chatra Samaj have been banned by a consensus of the other parties according to the Paribesh Parishad Agreement at Dhaka University. The Paribesh Parishad (Environment Council) exists till date, which originally comprised of 19 parties during its establishment, some of which ceased to exist at this point.
Unidentified Level of Autonomy
One important note here is that not all affiliated student political parties have the same level of control over themselves. Some student political parties exercise more autonomy than the others in terms of decision making. For example – BSL was established before Awami League and has historically exercised autonomy over Awami League to some point, but JCD was established with active patronization of BNP and therefore has never exercised that level of autonomy at all. On the other hand, Students’ Union still holds their council where councillors can vote to decide their leadership, so they still are able to maintain significant level of autonomy, while for BSL constitutional autonomy still exists. However, the constitutions of these parties do not have any clearly written policies regarding the level of affiliation. Some, for example JCD does not even have a constitution which they could agree on.
Most student political leaders have an ambition to become national leaders, therefore during their student political career, they seem to have a tendency of pleasing the leaders of the national party they are affiliated with. Therefore, even without any written policy regarding affiliation, there is an intentional compromise of autonomy.
How to decide senior leadership of the student political party?
According to their constitution, most student political parties are required to hold regular councils in different levels where councillors from the sub-ordinate units are supposed to vote in order to elect the upper-level of leadership in the hierarchy. However, only national councils are held in reality. In many districts, no council has been held in over 10 years. Therefore, a top-down leadership approach is in effect in the peripheries as explained later in this article.
In the aforementioned national councils, councillors from all around the country gather to elect the national leadership of the student political party. However, in case of both the main parties – BSL and JCD the councillors at times willingly waive their voting power in favour of their organizational parent, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in case of BSL and Khaleda Zia in case of JCD. These national leaders of the student political parties in turn decide the lower level of leadership.
The Top-down Leadership Approach
The leadership of these organizations are decided by senior leaders of the party. The hierarchy is usually as such – the university committee, the president and the general secretary to be more specific, decides the committees of the residential halls. For example, in case of Bangladesh Students’ League, the most popular one currently – university committee’s president and general secretary decides who will be the presidents and secretaries of the residential hall committees. Then in turn the presidents and general secretaries of the residential hall committees decide the complete committee of the hall consisting of 100-150 members usually.
The problem with this approach is that a candidate willing to be a president/secretary of a hall unit does not have to become popular to the students. Their acceptance to the junior party workers does not matter. Only pleasing the immediate senior leadership of the parent unit is sufficient to become a leader which overall creates a lack of accountability to the junior party-men because leadership is imposed from the top, not gained from the bottom. Therefore, the bottom line sometimes has to coerced to follow a leadership which has been imposed on them.
A Democratic Approach – Is there a way?
Many left-leaning student political parties like Student Federation, Student Unity, Student Front etc. where control of the affiliated national political party is limited to some extent, they have more factionalism within them. Each of the aforementioned three parties have got divided into two factions. Recently another leftist student political organization, Students’ Union has seen two committees in Dhaka University. Such cases of requisitionist factions rising within the student political parties were common when all the parties were independent.
Even in case of Bangladesh Students’ League (BSL), there were multiple factions in 1985. One that followed Sheikh Hasina leaded by Jalal-Jahangir, one that followed Abdur Razzaq leaded by Fazlu-Chunnu and one that followed Shafiul Alam Prodhan. Finally, the faction following Sheikh Hasina has existed till date and considers Sheikh Hasina their organizational parent. End of factionalism did strengthen the ability of the organization. On the other hand, factionalism within leftist parties led to the demise of a few such parties and factions; existing factionalized parties have weak organizational capability at this point. Therefore, even if there is a more democratic approach, there has historically been lack of a mechanism of proper dispute resolution within the parties.
Grouping on the Basis of Locality
The common modus operandi of most student political parties is that students within a university who come from the same district unite and neighbouring districts form unofficial coalitions to form a ‘group’ and that ‘group’ supports a particular central leader, preferably one from their region. Each ‘group’ has their own seats at the residential halls.
Centralization of Power around DU
Since most central leaders of the student political organizations are from Dhaka University, power is centralized around DU. Leaders of the ‘groups’ as previously mentioned, usually have a say in forming their district’s committee. Therefore, someone in Dhaka University can exercise disproportionately more power within the party than the others. And as mentioned earlier, the top-down approach of leadership works this way.
Freshers when they join a university, usually join a ‘group’. Due to seat crisis at the residential halls of the universities, freshmen can not be immediately allocated seats. Therefore, they live in hall rooms at large, named ‘Gono room’ (common room) and are regularly asked to go to Guest Room to introduce themselves to each other and the seniors at a regular basis. This is a political solution to an administrative problem. Guest room culture has often resulted in tortures even. Not all parties have guest rooms, the one in power does. This system of guest rooms has been introduced by Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal (JCD) when BNP was in power during 2001-5 which Awami League affiliated BSL has continued. However, recently BSL has started expelling party-men who have allegedly tortured others and expressed its goodwill to stop guest room culture.
Finance, Regulation and Election?
Student political parties have no proper channel of financing and therefore, they are dependent on the donation from national political party leaders. Due to their ability to organize a lot of students, they possess the ability of extortion which they might be able to exercise. However, such practices often result in ban from the party.
On the other hand, student political organizations do not have any way to register. Which elections will they appear in? Student body elections of course? But elected student bodies do not exist in most universities. Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) election was held in 2019 after 30 years of hiatus. Other student body elections in many other universities are still in hiatus for decades already. Moreover, due to lack of registration process or regulations, the student political parties are not bound to disclose their financials. This complements the lack of financing issues by keeping no proper and transparent way to finance student political parties.
Spotlight – the DUCSU Election
In Bangladesh, most student political organizations are supported by mainstream political parties and operate at public universities. University campuses have over eighteen student political organizations. Spokespersons of many of these organizations concluded that not holding Students’ Union Election in the educational institutions of the country is one of the main reasons behind the decay of the the glory of student politics. Besides, many of them accuses coexistence of political organizations is somewhat minimized.
Naim Hasan Hridoy, President of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal – Jasad backed student organization Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) Dhaka University Unit said, “we have seen student organizations are being used as the main political party’s muscle or shield in the game of expanding their influence. Whereas the aim and objective of the student organizations should be student-welfare, who are supposed to be frontline fighters in the crisis of the nation, today they are being targeted in the conflict of power.”
Regarding these issues, Riyad Rahman, Joint General Secretary of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) said, “At present, just as democracy has been locked up, student politics has also been suppressed. In the 90s, campuses used to have student union elections and there was coexistence among the student organizations of all ideologies. There is no student union election. There is no one to speak for students’ rights. Today students are getting involved in various unethical activities because those who work with students are not allowed to work.’’
Echoing almost the same words, Adity Adrita Srishty, General Secretary of Bangladesh Chhatra Maitree said, ‘it cannot be denied that the influence of the student organization of the ruling party has reduced the scope of student organization politics in other student organizations. It has to be accepted because politics is like that.”
Many leaders also tell that the main reason behind losing the glory of the students’ politics is the broken election system and lack of students-oriented programmes. Mentioning the crisis, Bangladesh Students’ Union (BSU) leader Rageeb Nayeem said, “It’s true that the students are not playing the role they were supposed to play. Also, left-wing student organizations are not able to play a significant role due to various reasons. The election system in Bangladesh is now broken. The role that DUCSU could play in the 80s or 90s, can’t play now because of the collapse of the election system.’’
However, the country’s ruling party-backed student organization Bangladesh Student League (BSL) doesn’t think that student politics in Bangladesh has lost its glory. Mazharul Kabir Shayon, President of BSL Dhaka University Unit said, “I think that the glory of student politics remains the same, only the context has changed.” Saddam Hussain, the president of BSL Central Committee and the former AGS of Dhaka University Central Students’ Union (DUCSU) said “We have all agreed to disallow communal politics at Dhaka University long ago when Paribesh Parisad was formed. Therefore, if communalist political groups try to enter the campus using violent manner, we rightfully defend against them. Other than them every party has equal access. All of them participated in the last DUCSU election. The leftist parties are hosting their councils and protests at the campus peacefully. The fact that they cannot attract attention of the general students is not BSL’s fault, neither is BSL to blame for that. However, we are always advocating for DUCSU and other student union elections around the country. We have always been demanding this to the authorities.”
Many of the leaders said that we can’t tell at once that the glory of student politics is losing. At different times students have joined various movements from their stands. The recent Ganajagaran Mancha, the quota reform movement and the safe roads movement are reminders of the role student politics plays in the nation’s crisis. They pointed out that student union elections in entire educational institutions should be held in order to ensure accountability within student politics and create a mechanism of check and balance.
The International Landscape
For decades, students worldwide have campaigned for concerns that impact them and their communities. Student politics has historically influenced social and political development. Students have led numerous major political campaigns in recent years because to social media and other digital platforms. Student political activity focuses on education, climate change, social justice, peace and conflict, democracy, and human rights, especially freedom of expression, assembly, and political involvement.
Look at the case of Jacinda Ardern, former prime minister of New Zealand. Jacinda was involved in politics as a student. Ardern was a researcher for Prime Minister Helen Clark’s office. Later, during Tony Blair’s presidency, she worked in London as a cabinet office adviser. Ardern was chosen to lead the International Union of Socialist Youth in 2008. There are Oxford University Liberal Democrats (OULD) and Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA) at the University of Oxford as well. However, they have avenues to engage in civil discussions and debates at non-partisan platforms like the Oxford Union. Same is true for universities like UCL, Glasgow etc. However, there have also been allegations of dark money being provided to these parties. There existed the Harvard Undergraduate Council until 2022 as a student body.
A Reform Proposal
Check and Balance through Elected Student Body – Private universities in general have a disregard for student politics. However, existence of student bodies can unite students and provide them a collective bargaining ability in terms of facilities. There are numerous incidents where students were able to bargain with the authority for their facilities when they had a student body.
Therefore, unionizing students is useful when it has an elected body. That also helps create a system of check and balance for the student leaders who would otherwise have no check and balance whatsoever. If the activities of any student organization are off-balance and disliked by the students, they can simply vote against them. As such, student have increased facilities and student politics itself will be fairer.
A Proper Channel of Funding: Student political parties can publish books, magazines, brochures etc. and sell them to their party-men. They should even be able to collaborate as an organization with different govt. bodies and work with them. As such, their huge manpower can be utilized while students will get first-hand experience. Student political parties may even provide services to the students to earn. There were services like Jobike, a bicycle rent service at Dhaka University. These entrepreneurial efforts can be taken by the student political parties, instead of businesses. That may incentivize the parties to engage more with the students for more funding.
Internships with Policymakers: Going back to the case of Jacinda Ardern, our future leaders can work as interns under a leader of their choice. Such arrangements can be made between the student political party and their affiliated national political party. The intern can provide research and PR support to the policymaker and paid for their service.
A Registration Process: The student political organizations have no registration at this point. The parties can be registered under the election commission. Currently the student body elections, however non-existent they may be, do not happen with any party’s banners even though the students form panels approved by each party. Such registration process might allow the parties to have country-wide participation in student body elections. Therefore, create a way to regulate them.
This article was written by The Confluence Editorial