Bangladesh's Epicenter of Political Tumult
Students and Teachers at Dhaka University Fulfill a Tradition of Protest, and Pay the Price
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 23, 2007; A18
DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Nearly every political milestone in Bangladesh has its roots in the stately, tree-lined campus of the University of Dhaka, where student-led protests have repeatedly given rise to sweeping changes in government. So it came as little surprise to many students last month when the anti-government rallies they started mushroomed into violent street demonstrations in other cities.
According to the common axiom here: So goes the campus, so goes the nation.
"The DU campus is a barometer for the country's political mood. Because of our long history of poverty and bad government, it's been in the students' interest to be politically active," said Aninda Rahman, a 24-year-old English student at the university. "It's the students' duty within the framework of Bangladesh to give a voice to the people."
Today, however, several weeks after the most dramatic protests yet against the military-backed interim government, it's become clear that the university and its students have paid a price for their activism. Some students and teachers thought to be behind the protests have been jailed. The government has shut down the campus, putting padlocks on the lecture halls and emptying out the dorms. Officials said the campus may open after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan ends in mid-October.
Such disruptions are not unusual in this South Asian country, where there have been 22 coups -- some successful -- since its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Some students say it takes up to six years to complete a degree because the university is often shut down during political tumult.
"Sometimes the students think, there just has to be a better way," said Mahinur Rahamar, 23, a business student. "It's frustrating when school keeps getting shut down. Our families are working class, and they suffer when we can't finish our degrees. But that has always been our tradition. I'm not sure it can change."
The current political controversy centers on opposition to an interim government that came to power in January. Diplomats say the government, led by respected banker Fakhruddin Ahmed, quickly won international respect for protecting the judiciary's independence, ending partisanship in the election commission, requiring voter registration cards in elections, and helping to clean up a political system that is perennially ranked by Transparency International as one of the world's most corrupt.
But now many of those same diplomats who praised the government fear that the crackdown on corruption, and on students and professors, has gone too far. Rights groups point to mass arrests and the brutal suppression of student protests. Human Rights Watch, based in New York, says as many as 20,000 people have been jailed on corruption charges in the past seven months.
While the University of Dhaka has been leading the protests, it has also become the front line for what is being called the "Battle of the Begums," or women of high rank, a reference in this case to the two women who have dominated Bangladesh's politics for the past 16 years. Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the leaders of the two main political parties, have been jailed on corruption charges. But their supporters are widely seen as polluting the school's tradition of independent political activism by bribing student leaders and encouraging professors to back their causes.
Bangladesh's interim government insists that much of the recent student activism stems less from political conviction than from aggressive recruiting tactics by political parties. The parties have agents as old as 40 living on campus as "student leaders," working to influence student votes, critics and diplomats say.
"Our Socratic tradition has always been one of our greatest strengths," said Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a government adviser and a former ambassador to the United Nations. "But now, I think the students and even some of the professors are taken over by professional politicians."
According to local reports, the August protests began innocently enough. In what has become known as the "Umbrella Incident," a university student haplessly opened his wet umbrella, splashing a soldier. That set off a tiny scuffle. But the scuffle was enough to provoke students to vent outrage over the presence of troops on their campus.
The day after the Umbrella Incident, M. Anwar Hossain, a respected biochemistry professor, helped organize a demonstration to address a growing list of grievances with the government, not the least of which was the banning of protests -- part of a martial law imposed seven months ago to squelch public outcry against the military-backed interim government's delay in holding elections.
Soon after, Hossain was arrested at his home for inciting an uprising. He is still in jail, awaiting trial.
Amnesty International, along with foreign diplomats, has asked for Hossain's release. Hossain's son, Sanjeeb, a 22-year-old law student, has said his father is not politically involved with the jailed protest leaders and was only trying be a guardian for the students, helping them demonstrate against a repressive regime.
"It's scary when professors and students are in jail, since it's like the soul of the country is behind bars," Sanjeeb Hossain said in an interview. "This is terrible for our family and terrible for Bangladesh. It's not as simple as just to blame all of this on politics. He was trying to protect student rights, that was it."
Some of the country's most famous sons graduated from this school, including dozens of elected officials and internationally recognized leaders, such as Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Fazlur Rahman Khan, considered the greatest architectural engineer of the second half of the 20th century for his design of the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center in Chicago.
Today, most students at the University of Dhaka are from working-class and middle-class backgrounds. They see themselves as the voice of a largely poor and illiterate nation.
Their position as protectors is perhaps best illustrated by a photo that surfaced here recently. The image, which has been widely circulated on the Internet, shows an unarmed student kicking an army soldier. It has become such a stirring emblem of the students' power that the photojournalist who took the picture has gone into hiding, fearing for his life.
"That photograph said it all," said Shahidul Alam, a renowned photo gallery director in Dhaka. "That image is such a powerful symbol of our times. It shows the power of unarmed students against the ego of the military."