I am trying to make sense of the events that started with the Dhaka University students flaring up in protest on Monday, August 20.
Nearly everyone calls the initial event that sparked the rebellion a 'tuccho ghotona' – a trivial or insignificant incident. The next morning, when I wrote in my journal I found myself accepting that description. I called it a 'petty incident.'
On thinking about it more, I'm not so sure.
What happened on that day?
This is what I gather from newspaper reports.
At the stadium next to the university gym, a football match was in progress between two departmental teams. It started to rain. When a student fan opened an umbrella, army men behind him objected and cursed the student. At the end of the match, more army men arrived and beat up the student and his comrades.
The news spread on campus and students began to gather. Police did too and barred them from protesting. I do not know the order of action-reaction, but students pelted the police with bricks and police fired rubber bullets and tear gas. They also made baton charges. At one point, according to a Daily Star account, the police handed over some students to the army who took them inside the camp. Screams were heard from inside. The clashes continued into the night. Most of the 100 or so injured were students. Many were taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Some army officials came to the hospital, some sort of apology was offered, but the students spurned them. The police response had escalated passions.
The next day the government expressed sadness for the initial incident and agreed to remove the army camp and investigate the incident. But by that time the protests had escalated.
One could perhaps say, in relative terms compared to what came later, the initial incident was a small one. But I think our easy adoption of the word trivial expresses a cultural acceptance that certain kinds of abuse are not worth getting too upset about.
In reality, it seems that the beating holds a good deal of significance.
The army camp was set up there seven months ago after the emergency was declared. I've seen reports of students being upset that they couldn't freely use their gym any more. An athletic facility is not a trivial campus service. Sports are part of the campus culture and students also have physical education requirements.
Why was the camp set up there? There has been military rule before, but at no time was an army camp installed on campus. I believe the exception would have been Pakistani occupation during the 1971 war.
This decision reveals a disconnect between the current regime and the students. It may have something to do with the feeling, sometimes expressed by the authorities, that DU needs to be forced to shape up because students have simply become tools of the corrupt politicians, there is nothing positive among them, there are simply goondas among them, so a close watch needs to be on them.
Dhaka University has long had goondafied student politics, and the ruling party has always been responsible. In the 1960s, Governor Monem Khan sponsored the NSF with its leaders Khoka and Passpartout terrorizing the campus with beatings, stabbings, and even snakes. In the 1970s, after independence, several students were gunned to death at one hall by Awami League followers. During Ershad's rule, his party's student wing controlled the campus. The situation continued after the elected governments came to power starting in 1991, with both the BNP and Awami League student supporters being responsible.
Dhaka University has also had a tradition of student resistance to authority. It's been the centre of every progressive movement in east Bengal's history since the language movement.
How can Dhaka University be freed from criminalized politics, be allowed to become a centre of quality education, and at the same time leave room for students to concern themselves with the country's larger affairs? I don't know if there are any quick solutions. But the solutions will have to come from among the students, faculty and staff, with outside interests – politicians, government, police, and the military respecting campus autonomy. No progressive change will come simply from declarations, bans, and repression.
The decision to install the army camp was a blunder. Though Dhaka University has had much of its autonomy eroded, there's still a well-entrenched sense that there should be autonomy. Students do not look at police and militarised presence with anything but suspicion.
The police presence over the last seven months has been weary on the students. On one hand, police permission's now needed for events and activities. Even to organize events for flood relief this summer, students had to pass through police-bureaucratic obstacles.
And when there were incidents of gangsterism, the police presence seems to come down hard on the victims while forgiving the perpetrators. A few months ago, the student wing of the Jamaat e Islami terrorized students over seats in a certain dormitory that they control. After a fracas ensued, innocent students were thrown in prison, while the Islamists got out on bail. I read appeal after appeal in newspaper columns, pleading for one student who was the only support for his poverty-stricken family and now because of being put in jail would miss his exams. I read no report that the appeals met with generosity from the law.
In this context, when a chasm grew between authority and the students, the beating at the football game becomes representative of the overall power relations. It is hardly trivial.
A soldier or policeman should not disrespect a citizen. Beatings should not be tolerated. When a student is beaten, we should not accept it. And we should not minimize its wrongness.
That first night I heard a student on the radio cry out, “An uneducated soldier beat an educated student.” I have a problem with that. It's not an issue of education or lack of education. Or is it okay if a commissioned officer, with an equivalent degree to a BA, beats a student who has yet to get a BA? Can an HSC passwalla beat 'only' an SSC holder? A person in authority simply should not beat another person. Period.
The deeper problem is that we accept beatings as part of the natural order of our society.
Teachers beat school pupils. In Class 5, I played the role of a teacher. I remember my props. I borrowed my father's stern looking rimless glasses. I wore a dhoti. I can't remember if I held a book in my hand. But I did have that other important educational instrument: a cane. School beatings continue. Parents sometimes even tell schools that they should beat their children.
Right in the home, parents may beat children, but employers freely beat kajer lok. Often it escalates into torture and murder.
On the streets, police beat tokai and rickshawallahs, the most powerless people. Mobs of citizens beat suspected muggers and pickpockets, sometimes to death. Inside jails and prisons, beatings are standard procedure. My father did it when he was an SI, trained in the British colonial police. I doubt we were kinder in precolonial times.
If beatings could create goodness among people, however people may define goodness, Bangladesh would have been the country with the largest population of good people. Instead we are, well, we are what we are.