Dhaka University (DU) has long played a pivotal role in the politics of Bangladesh. Student movements and leaders, who were educated in the university, played key roles in the founding of an independent Bangladesh. The university also had a major role in the nation’s struggles against autocracy.
The current prime minister and the speaker of the house are all alumni of the university, as are several members of the cabinet.
The Dhaka University Central Students Union (Ducsu), a student body mandated by the university’s laws, was at the core of many such movements.
Today is the 12th day that Walid Ashraf, a post-graduate student of social welfare and research at DU, carries on his hunger strike demanding Ducsu elections before the upcoming Victory Day on December 16.
The last time the student body was functional was in 1990. Since then, under successive democratically elected governments, there has been no election to the Ducsu administration.
President Abdul Hamid, who is the ex-officio chancellor of DU, recently urged the university authorities to hold Ducsu polls as soon as possible during a convocation.
Walid told the Dhaka Tribune: “The university administration is undermining the freedoms and rights of its students. They are ignoring the chancellor’s call to hold Ducsu elections.”
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Progressive Students’ Alliance (PSA), a left-leaning student organisation, has declared solidarity with Walid’s hunger strike and asked for the immediate release of a schedule for Ducsu polls, said Umme Habiba Benozir, the president of the leftist Student Federation.
She added the authorities were yet to pay any heed to their demands.
Over the past 27 years the successive DU administrations and governments have shown a steady pattern of duplicity, committing to Ducsu wholeheartedly and glorifying its roles in the nation’s history, but at the same time not doing anything to hold an election.
Ducsu was formed in 1924 after the establishment of Dhaka University in 1921, and its first vice president (VP) was nominated in the 1924-25 academic session. Since then, the VP used to be nominated until 1953 when the first election was held.
The last Ducsu election was held in 1990. It was the sixth election after independence. Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal-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.
Ducsu leaders are entitled to sit in the university senate, representing students’ interests.
Despite the long absence of a functional Ducsu, the university still collects Tk120 in Ducsu fees from students every year. In 27 years, this money has built up to Tk10 crore by some estimates.
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Analysts and former Ducsu leaders say the government and the university authorities have not taken the chancellor’s speech seriously, as no visible progress has been made yet to hold the election. They say for decades the state and DU authorities have been violating the students’ right to have a say in the university’s running.
DU law department teacher Asif Nazrul says the governments in power are the main impediment to Ducsu election.
“The two parties who have ruled the country since 1990 understand the strength of elected students’ unions very well. These parties, during their rules, have failed to establish good governance, human rights and rule of law; so, they fear that if students organise, they would go against them. That is what happened earlier and therefore, the governments do not want Ducsu or other students’ union elections to be held.”
He pointed out that if students backed by the opposition party win the union elections, there is a possibility that they will mount massive movements. If they win even a few seats, ruling party-aligned students will have to allow their opposition to co-exist on the campus.
“Even if students backed by the government win, Ducsu may appear as a parallel power which is a threat to the dominance of any particular leader,” he said.
Former Ducsu VP Mahmudur Rahman Manna told the Dhaka Tribune that the DU authorities do not want the election due to the government’s unwillingness.
“Teachers and officials who are faithful or loyal towards the government are appointed to the administration. Decision-making is not independent in the university as the vice-chancellors are appointed under political consideration. They do not do anything that can be risky for the governments,” Manna said.
DU teachers and former student leaders say students of the institution are not very conscious of their rights due to the absence of protesting politics in universities.
“If the election is held regularly, students will be encouraged to take part in the process, they will be able to differentiate good and bad. During our time, we used to talk to the authorities often and protest irregularities in administration,” Manna said.
Serajul Islam Chowdhury, professor emeritus of DU, said the absence of central students unions in public universities was having a terrible impact on the society.
“Universities have failed to create future leadership in thousands of students, who are becoming less sensitive to their political, social and cultural responsibilities,” he said.
“Even during autocratic rule, student bodies were active, but since democracy has been restored, Ducsu became inactive without any good reason. This is an important element of our democracy that has gone missing,” he said.
Veteran journalist and political analyst Prof Afsan Chowdhury, a DU alumnus, suggested that the relevance of Ducsu had been undermined as a direct result of the actions of political parties. He said: “Those in power do not want Ducsu elections. If the polls are held, their weakness and unpopularity may be exposed.”
Afsan further mentioned how Ducsu elections have less meaning now to most students as they are busy with just securing a job and not ensuring their rights as students in the university.
Students protesting have said they will continue their demonstration till their demands are heard.
“If the authorities do not heed our demands within the deadline, we will launch a tougher movement to secure our student rights,” said Benozir, a PSA leader.
Professor Akhtaruzzaman, the vice-chancellor of DU, said: “We are very sympathetic to the students’ demand for Ducsu elections. We have instructions from the president and the High Court to hold the polls.”
He claimed that the university was fully committed to holding the elections, adding: “It will require time to create the right environment for holding the elections peacefully.”
Despite various protests and demonstrations, “the authorities will not be responding to any headlong demands,” he said.
Akhtaruzzaman added: “Six or nine months is not enough time to clean this 27-year-old mess.”
Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid was unavailable over mobile phone for comments despite several attempts.