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Before everything, there were the students

A raging battle for the soul of SUST

Update : 26 Jan 2022, 12:39 PM

There are always unwritten rules that the world of news has to abide by. From the universal laws of fact-checking to the local laws that shouldn’t need explaining, there are always greater forces at bay that shape the words that flow from the tips of our pens. While a central ethos of news is the quality of being objective, if one looks at the history of the world, one quickly finds out that such a thing does not exist. History is written by the victor -- it has happened before, and it happens now. And in no place or time is this more painfully obvious than now. 

Bangladesh has always been a hotbed for student protests. From the raging marches of the 1950s to the wakeup call to our whole traffic system in 2018, to say that Bangladesh owes a lot to these protests would be selling them short. Sadly, more often than not, these protests end in political hijacking with the powers-that-be using these protests for their own ends. For the ruling party, it is always the parties out of power that are trying to create anarchy and chaos. For the parties out of power, it is proof of the incompetence of the ruling party, and a way for them to drag the current cabinet out. 

But what gets lost in these tales of power are the people in the middle.

From the banana republics of the 1920s to the streets of Dhaka in 2018, it has always been the regular people who laid down their lives in order to gain something that they have a direct stake in. And as always, it has always been the regular people that have been forgotten in the annals of history. 

On that note, much will be said about the protests in SUST in the coming days. There are already dissections of the whole issue by men in suits, operating from their own newsrooms. There have already been statements from state agents as to why the protest turned out the way it turned out, and the parties out of power are lurking in the shadows, ready to seize the limelight in a moment’s notice. 

But before all this, there were the students. For the record, this is their story. 

The protest originated in one of the residential halls of SUST, one Begum Sirajunnesa Chowdhury Hall. According to one of the residents and someone who had been with the protest since its inception, there were a lot of issues in the hall. From juniors not being able to leave the gonorooms and take up residence in their own university appointed dormitories, to allegations of teachers turning the four-person rooms into rooms that held eight people, and that students who had affiliations with the university administration getting preferential treatment -- the list is endless.

Owing to these issues, the students of the hall in question tried to meet up with the provost, one Zafrin Ahmed Liza, who reportedly belittled the girls and said that they had nowhere to go but the halls, and refused to sit with the students to listen to their justified complaints. Now, we can never know what happened in that conversation, but if we go by the example set by the VC of SUST, one Farid Uddin Ahmed, where he basically objectified girls from another university by saying that no one wants the girls of JU as their wives, then it isn’t hard to imagine Zafrin Ahmed Liza acting in a same way. Adding to that, the fact that she had resigned citing “personal reasons” further adds credence to the fact that she did, in fact, do something with the students, and the students had the right to complain. 

Following this, the students tried to contact the proctorial body, who apparently didn’t know about anything that was happening in the halls. The VC first said that he wouldn’t meet the students, but later came out during the early hours of Friday during the night and assured the students that their demands will be met. At this stage, the students had three demands: 

  • The provost of Begum Sirajunnesa Hall had to apologize for her remark
  • The provost of Begum Sirajunnesa Hall, Zafrin Ahmed Liza, has to resign 
  • The problems that gave birth to the issue in the first place have to be solved 

During Friday noon, the students met with the VC, who said that they were unable to meet the first two demands. I get that there can be issues with the second demand, but why can’t teachers, who are supposed to be the flag bearers of morality and good character, apologize to their students when they are themselves in the wrong? We hear of teachers protecting their students from all harm, of giving their life for students. And the provost couldn’t issue a simple apology?

Things escalated further as there were reports of attack from a "certain” sector of the university on Saturday night. Things got worse as the VC tried to hide in the ICT building and the students barricaded him in order for themselves to be heard on Sunday noon. Following this, apparently, a teacher came out and asked the students to make way for him, saying that he would help them. But this turned out to be a Trojan Horse of sorts.

Before this, police were already present within the SUST campus, all decked out in shields and riot gear. When the teacher asked to make way, the police apparently used that gap to brutalize and harm the students. Things get a bit muddled after this. According to my sources, there have been at least 18 people who had to seek treatment for their wounds, the names of whom I am not mentioning for obvious reasons. According to the medical records I got hold of, most of these students had to get X-rays, with people being advised to use something to support their elbows and ankles. Now, we already know what the official statement regarding this brutalization is going to be.

But no matter what happens, the police are still dealing with students. The police have been getting attention globally for the methods they use to put down suspects, and we know what happened with a certain country and the summit for democracy. Why did the police have to be so aggressive with their actions? Why did the police escalate instead of de-escalating the situation? Surely, even if some rocks were thrown -- and that too is playing the devil’s advocate -- rocks aren’t as powerful as tear gas and rubber bullets.

Why did it have to come to this? 

The recent development of this news is that SUST is closed down, it is full of armed personnel, and the students want the VC to resign as well. Funnily enough, the teachers have taken to the streets to protest the “disrespect” they are facing from their students. Now, I have been a part of a public university, and I can testify to the degree to which teachers can mentally torture students -- with impunity, no less. But I don’t even need that, as we have it on record that the VC himself, Farid Uddin Ahmed, said that the girls of JU were not “marriageable.”

If the VC himself can stoop so low, then is it any surprise that the other teachers would as well? And if that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, are these teachers even worthy of their designation anymore? Do we still treat them with the same level of deference as we have always done? 

At the end of the day, we all know what is going to happen. SUST is closed, 24 students are on a hunger strike, and the powers that be are prepared with the whole, well-rehearsed show-stopper. As of my last inquiry, 16 out of 24 students are in the hospital, while another one has gone home as his father had a heart attack. Even after that, the teachers won’t budge, and they have gone as far as to suggest that there is maybe a third party that is pulling the strings from the shadows, something that we have long since seen coming. Adding to that, a guard on campus was caught trying to pass in with a bottle of Phensedyl, and the detained guard alleges that it was for the teachers.  

Now, this is absurdity of the highest degree. Students who are exercising their democratic right to protest are being beaten black and blue, and the people that are allegedly doing illicit substances are getting the royal treatment from the powers-that-be.

A number of narratives will spring forth in the coming days. People from all corners of society will try to twist the narrative left and right, all in order to further their own agendas. But the students will have to go back to SUST. And, God forbid, if anything happens, it will happen to the students.

On that note, their account needs to be told, and has to be reserved for the future generations. Before everything, there were the students. 

For the record, this is their story. 

Nafis Shariar is an Apprentice Sub-Editor at Dhaka Tribune.

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