Bangladeshi students urge end to violent campus politics

Students concerned that High Court decision to overturn a ban on political groups at university could lead to more unrest

April 12, 2024
woman buying national flag of Bangladesh to celebration of Bangladesh Independence and National Day at Madhupur, Tangail
Source: iStock/Kabir Uddin

Students at a Bangladeshi university campaigning to keep political groups off campus are unlikely to succeed, academics warned, as the government continues to rely on its student arm to keep dissidents in check, despite the resulting violence.

At the beginning of April, students at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in Dhaka boycotted classes, reportedly telling local media they would return when authorities agreed to keep the campus free from politics. 

But the university, which banned political groups in 2019 after undergraduate student Abrar Fahad was murdered by members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student arm of the country’s ruling party, has little choice in the matter. On 1 April, the country’s High Court stayed the ban following accusations it was unconstitutional, and later ordered the institution to lift a prohibition on a member of the BCL’s leadership committee entering dormitories.

Although the concept of student politics generally conjures up ideals of a healthy democracy, the opposite is true in Bangladesh, explained Julian Kuttig, a postdoctoral research fellow at Ghent University. “The ruling political party needs these…leaders to control universities and students because students have traditionally always been a transformational force,” he said. 

Student groups in Bangladesh are notoriously violent, punishing those accused of failing to adhere to the party line, such as in the case of Mr Fahad, who had criticised the government on social media. As the country’s current leaders, the Awami League, have become increasingly authoritarian, including arresting political opponents in the run-up to the most recent election in January, the BCL has grown to become the dominant group on most campuses in Bangladesh.

In particular, the organisation controls access to dormitories, which students – particularly those from poorer backgrounds – rely on for affordable accommodation. Once in, they are forced to participate in pro-government activities or face often violent punishment. 

As a result, “students pass their academic lives in a fearful environment”, said Muhammed Rashedul Hasan, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. “The presence of any student wing of the ruling party causes a nightmare for the common students,” he said. “In the case of BCL, it reached an extreme level.”  

He added that the “majority” of students in Bangladesh want to keep campuses free from politics, but with the government on the side of the BCL, and vice-chancellors and other senior university leaders often appointed by the ruling party, students are unlikely to be able to change the status quo. 

Speaking at an event at Dhaka University on 9 April, the country’s foreign minister, Hasan Mahmud, said he had been “surprised” when student politics were banned at BUET, calling the policy undemocratic. 

“Student politics has contributed to BUET, and many distinguished politicians have been born from student politics who have led and are leading the country,” Dr Mahmud said, before warning against “violence and hatred”. 

“It’s a bit tricky,” said Dr Kuttig, who agreed that the student protests were unlikely to succeed. “Because the government, while criticising the violence to a certain extent, needs these students.”

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