Bangladesh political society has been blunted by a repeated failure to revive student unions in the country’s public universities, leading academic figures have said.
Former student leaders, teachers and analysts say Dhaka University Central Students' Union (Ducsu) played a vital political role during national transitions like the language movement in 1952 and the Liberation War in 1971.
However, the historical powerhouse has now lain dormant for 27 years, with successive DU administrations and political governments showing a clear lack of interest in reviving the student body.
Professor Emeritus of Dhaka University, Serajul Islam Chowdhury, said the absence of central students unions in public universities in Bangladesh was having a “terrible” impact on society.
“While in previous decades, the universities were considered to be a ground for enriching students socially, culturally and politically, nowadays they seem to be lifeless and mechanical due to absence of Ducsu, Rucsu and Jucsu,” Prof Chowdhury told the Dhaka Tribune.
He said the universities have failed to create future leadership from thousands of students, who are becoming less sensitive to their political, social and cultural responsibilities as a result.
“Even during autocratic rule, students’ bodies were active but when democracy was restored, Ducsu became inactive without any valid reason, which shows that our democracy is incomplete,” Prof Chowdhury said.
On May 22, a group of DU teachers locked in a fistfight with agitating students who were demanding Ducsu polls during the senate teachers’ representatives election. A similar incident took place during the VC panel election earlier this month.
Citing this incident, the professor emeritus said that it was “ridiculous” that the university has been holding polls to elect teachers’ representatives to a senate from which student representatives have been absent for almost three decades.
“Elections under the DU Teachers’ Association and Officers’ Association are taking place on a regular basis but the authorities are reluctant to restore Ducsu to provide a platform for students.”
Former Ducsu vice president (VP) Mahmudur Rahman Manna told the Dhaka Tribune that the university authorities do not have the courage to revive the students’ body as they have to show loyalty towards the government.
“The big parties are not interested in creating new leadership, because they want to maintain dynastic politics in the country,” he said.
“Decision-making is not independent in the university as the vice chancellors are appointed under political consideration.”
Former Ducsu general secretary Mustaq Hossain says the key reason is political.
“The two big parties - Awami League and BNP - always prioritise their own student wings' interests. The equation of AL and BNP regarding Ducsu election is the key here.
“After getting power, they never take initiative to hold the Ducsu election. The university authorities seem to be at peace due to the absence of a legal student body in the policy making table,” Mustaq told the Dhaka Tribune.
He also blamed existing students’ organisations for failing to push for elections.
The last Ducsu election was held in 1990. It was the sixth election after independence. JCD-backed Aman-Khokon (Amanullah Aman and Khairul Kabir Khokan) panel won the election and they stayed the leaders of the students’ body until its dissolution.
Despite the long absence from the university senate, DU still collects Tk120 in Ducsu fees from students every year. In 27 years, this money has built up to Tk10 crore by some estimates.
Professor Mahfuza Khanam, former Ducsu vice president, said that university authorities were silent on the question of students' legitimate rights and privileges despite several discussions in the university's senate and syndicate meetings over the years.
“In order to hold the election, at first the governments have to agree with the decision. The Education Ministry has the responsibility to monitor its progress. The VC and the students organisations have to play the necessary role to hold the polls,” she said.
“If President and Chancellor Abdul Hamid gives an order, the poll would be held accordingly,” she said.
Abid Al Hasan, president of the university unit of the ruling party’s affiliated student body, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), said his organisation was always supportive of the demands of general students for holding the Ducsu election.
“Chhatra League has been working to uphold students' rights and privileges in the campus in absence of the central students' union,” he added.
“The university authorities may be able to tell you what is the obstacle to holding the Ducsu polls. Chhatra League is always supportive of students' demands,” Abid said.
BNP-affiliated Chhatra Dal's university unit joint secretary, Saif Mahmud Jewel, said student political organisations backed by ruling parties become so closely involved with their parent organisations that they lose their individuality.
“When they depend on other parties or authorities instead of students, they become morally incompetent to fight for students’ rights,” he said.
“As student leaders have become morally incapable, they cannot push the authorities for a Ducsu poll.”
Tuhin Kanti Das, the president of the DU unit of leftist political body Bangladesh Students Union (BSU), said that general students and their rights had been “neglected for many decades” due to the absence of the students' body.
“The absence of students' representatives at the DU senate body bars them from voicing their needs and views in the any academic or administrative policy making or budget making in the university,” Tuhin said.
“The students are unable to protest malpractices by teachers like weekend and evening courses.”
On March 19, the High Court issued a ruling asking the authorities concerned to explain in four weeks why they should not be directed to hold Ducsu elections within a stipulated period of time.
In the rule, the court also asked respondents to show causes why “their failure or inaction in discharging their duties to hold Ducsu election for last 27 years should not be declared illegal.”
The bench of Justice Naima Haider and Justice Abu Taher Md Saifur Rahman came up with the rule after hearing a writ petition filed by the former Ducsu VP, Sultan Muhammad Mansur Ahmed, and GS Mustaq Hossain and current student Zafrul Hassan Nadim.
Dhaka University and its vice chancellor, registrar, proctor, treasurer and education secretary were made respondents to the rule.
Asked about the authorities' stand on holding the elections, DU Vice Chancellor Prof AAMS Arefin Siddique declined to comment.
“It is a sub-judice matter,” he said. “We are currently working on the HC ruling.”