Not a lost cause

We must reflect on why the students at SUST protested, and what these protests revealed

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The recent student protest at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) became subdued since they broke their hunger strike. It came as a relief, as many protesting students had become seriously ill. These students were on hunger strike for more than 163 hours following a protest initiated against hall administrators’ mismanagement. 

Facing non-cooperation from the university authority and followed by attacks by the police, the protest culminated into a demand for the vice-chancellor’s resignation. Even though the protesting students withdrew from the extreme measure, we must reflect on why the students protested and what these protests revealed.

We have witnessed similar student protests in the past few years. Huge student crowds gathered in the streets with demands ranging from over-hauling public transport, enacting new traffic laws, nulling imposed VAT on tuition fees, restructuring the quotas in government jobs, banning student politics on campus, etc. 

However, one could say, on many occasions, the scales of the protests are disproportionate to the practical results achieved in terms of altering politics or public policies. Nonetheless, these protests have substantial implications -- showing us the importance of dissent and protest. 

For example, let us look back to the recent student protest. There was no clear hierarchy among these protesters and no prominent leaders. Moreover, the patterns of camping, fundraising, communicating with the media, interacting with the authorities, etc, reveal egalitarian structures among the protesters. 

Besides the acephalous character of the protesters, they could momentarily reverse the hierarchical nature of the social-institutional structure. For instance, in response to the instruction to vacate the student halls, students rhetorically announced and instructed the teachers and officials to leave their university accommodations. Furthermore, they refused to send a team of representatives to Dhaka and meet and discuss with the education minister. 

There was a crucial turning point in this student protest. It started against a student hall’s administration and later turned into a demand for the resignation of the VC. Even though we all know that even if the existing VC resigned, the new appointee would hardly be any different, the students kept the demand. If we explore the reason, we find that the protesters’ demands express grievances and an urge to turn away inequality, feelings of deprivation, and injustice in the existing state of affairs. 

Students usually do not complain until the people-in-charge show carelessness to the utmost level. Besides moral injunctions, the immediate and tangible outcome of the protest may seem minimal. The authorities, as always, assured the students that all their “just” demands will be met. But the difficult life situation of students on university campuses -- food, accommodation, and logistics -- will continue to be unimaginably limited. 

By and large, the SUST protest will vanish from our attention, and the problems will persist. Nonetheless, the students have shown that it is possible to collectively express dissent and challenge authority. 

It is no exaggeration to claim that we must dissent if we want a just society. Dissent enables us to dream of a community free from existing misery and inequality. If we do not ask questions and do not raise doubts about prevailing systems, we will not dream of a new society. Historically, dissent has changed the world for the better. The history of progress is a history of dissent. Our desire to change the world, expressed in protest, ended slavery, colonialism, and racism to some extent. 

Yet we do not think of dissent as a positive phenomenon; instead, it is treated as treasonous and unruly. Authorities do not welcome dissent: When students in SUST complained about the hall provost and demanded her resignation on January 13, nobody paid attention. Then, on January 15, as they continued their protest, the student league of the ruling party attacked them. But they persisted in their cause and barricaded the VC. Facing blockade, the VC sought help from the law enforcers -- who arguably rescued him after attacking and dispersing the protesting students. 

Hence, the protest escalated, students did not leave campus as instructed, some started a hunger strike, and the VC remained under blockade by the students. Meanwhile, like every other student protest, authorities expressed doubts about sabotage by anti-state actors.

The ways authorities respond to student protests indicate the authoritarian social values we have built. Acceptance of hierarchical authority is one of our most “revered” social values. The hierarchical culture implies unquestioning obedience of people towards authorities, such as the government or state officials, political leaders, teachers, elders -- that is, anyone with a higher social rank. 

As a result, everyone is expected to accept their judgment and not question their actions. This phenomenon results in less dissent and less reason for accountability from the ruling elites. Simultaneously, they enthuse authorities to look for conspiracies behind any dissent or protest. 

Therefore, even if student protests do not achieve the pursued goals, in evaluating the outcomes, we must be aware that dissent does not at once make a perfect world; instead, it gives us hope, pointing out injustices and encouraging protests in the future. 

Student protests are momentous events as many civic bodies and public intellectuals have stopped being the watchdogs of the administration or have become parts of it. These students have kept our hope alive for a better tomorrow by not conforming to the norm. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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