Student politics and its ugly side
Sun, Aug 22, 2010

HISTORY student Abubakar Siddique, 21, was in his dormitory room on Dhaka University's campus in February when a sharp object flew through a window and dealt him a blow on the back of the head.

Siddique, a farm labourer's son who dreamt of being a teacher, died soon after - a victim of savage clashes between rival student groups at the university in recent years.

"A huge fight had broken out in the dining hall, the police arrived and they fired teargas to break it up," said student Shafiqul Islam, a childhood friend of Siddique, describing the night he was fatally injured.

"I don't know what killed him ... it could be a brick.

"Siddique wasn't involved in student politics, he just worked hard, he wanted to be top of the class," said Islam.

Bangladesh has had a long and proud history of student politics.

Dhaka University, the country's largest and most respected institute with some 30,000 students, was at the heart of the struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971.

But now at the university, everything from getting a bed at the dormitory to enrolling in a decent course is controlled by student political bodies.

"Student politics has become so polluted in Bangladesh that it is now working against the students' interests," said Serajul Islam Choudhury, a professor emeritus at the university. "There is no idealism, this is about greed. Student political leaders make money from extortion, from selling tenders, they control the accommodation for students, the facilities and food at the canteen," he said.

Bangladesh's three main political parties have strong student wings, which they fund and allegedly arm with swords and even old guns.

In return for providing a ready reserve of young rioters when needed, the political parties allow their respective student wings to make money from their control of the university education system, Choudhury said.

Following the Awami League's December 2008 landslide election victory, their student wing - the Chhatra league - has been fighting to reassert its supremacy on campus.

The clash that killed Siddique started when rival factions of the Chhatra League began attacking each other, police said.

All the student wings have the power to shut down Dhaka University's campus if they call a strike.

That in return can cause examinations to be cancelled, which delays the graduation of tens of thousands of students.

Students claim that student leaders act like "gangsters" on campus, by eating at campus canteens for free, keeping the best student rooms and facilities for themselves and harassing professors or students who try to oppose them.

Many of the student leaders are in their 30s and 40s, and they continue to enrol in the same courses without ever graduating.

"Sometimes I feel like a stray animal ... many of the student leaders abuse the system. They live in dormitories that are supposed to house five students all by themselves," said one student, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals.

"We must pick sides in order to access basic services."

The student, who reads political science, said he only got accommodation when he agreed to join JCD, the student wing of then-ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

After a year living in a small mosque alongside another 70 students, he was then forced to change allegiance when the Chhatra League took control of the campus to get a place in a five-bed dormitory.

"Often, we come to class but the main gates to the lecture hall will be barred to stop us attending classes, then we have to participate in their political programmes," he said.

"It was my dream to have a university education, I was so happy, I felt so lucky to have been accepted, but all that was shattered when I got here," he said.

Some 90 percent of the university's students come from the countryside and need help with accommodation and living costs in Dhaka, said its vice-chancellor Arefin Siddique.

"It is very detrimental to their studies if they have nowhere to sleep, no decent meals, or if their classes are suddenly cancelled and if they are forced to pick a side, or worst, if they become a victim of this violence," he said.

The university administration has been working hard to improve its services for students despite the odds, he said, but it was a slow process.

Even major political parties are alarmed by the impact that student politics and violence is having on universities, with the ruling Awami League recently seeking to distance itself from the Chhatra League.

In July, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told parliament the government would now take a "zero tolerance" approach to campus violence.

The government is urging law enforcement officials to crack down on runaway student wings.

"But until the major political parties stop using the student wings as their 'bouncers' to assert their influence and supremacy, the violence will not stop," Choudhury said.

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