A looming crisis of a countrywide political movement started by university students over the service quota system seems to have been averted by a bold move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She has taken the wind out of the sail of the movement by declaring her decision to end the quota system altogether, albeit in a sentimental but effective way.
Her decision may have taken everyone by surprise, even the protesting students, as the decision went above and beyond their call. They wanted reform of the system, not an end to it. The system benefited not just the freedom fighters and their descendants, but also women and under-privileged classes.
It remains to be seen how a total termination of a system that has been around for four decades would impact the country, and how the decision will be implemented.
The decision may halt a potentially bigger political outburst of a national scale ignited by an issue that affects a small segment of the population (people seeking government jobs), but it still does not answer the question why such marginal issues morph into national movements. An immediate reason for the student protests is the perceived unfairness of the quota system in government service that favours highly disproportionate reservation for the freedom fighters and their descendants.
But this may not be enough to explain the ability of the students to attract thousands of protesters to their cause in a matter of hours all across the country, unless there are deeper undercurrents. These undercurrents do not happen overnight. The countrywide unrest over this issue is just the tip of the iceberg. There are riptides that may lie deep under these currents.
A history of protest
Historically, mass movements have been caused by seething anger and unrest over political rights such as freedom of speech, voting rights, and resistance to autocratic powers. Many times such resentments lie dormant but can surface only when triggered by some mistaken policies or missteps by the government. Such missteps may occur from neglecting early signs of trouble, or inability to handle an incident that affects general public.
The people movement, and later revolution, in Tunisia in 2011 were triggered by the symbolic suicide of a small shopkeeper. In an effort to escape the suffocating unemployment that was rampant in Tunisia, this young man had started a shop, which was raided and destroyed by the police on charges of a lack of license.
In protest, the young man committed suicide by burning himself in the public square. His death by burning spread like wildfire which was simmering from galloping economic disparity, uncontrolled corruption, and graft among politicians. Soon, the political storm would engulf the whole country.
The rest, as we know, is history.
Next came the well-known Tahrir Square protests in Egypt and the birth of the so-called Arab Spring. The Arab Spring may have wound up as the Arab Winter, but it is worthwhile to remember how a small group of students assembled via social media grew into a massive national movement. It was able to mobilize not only students but also people from all strata of the social spectrum, including the mighty army that threw its lot with the people in the streets.
The movement was able to not only dislodge the Hosni Mubarak powerhouse, but also dismantle a political coterie characterized by rampant corruption that Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors had built in the name of national integrity over four decades. Pity the old army-backed politics is seemingly poised for a rerun, but it does not alter the historical turnaround of 2011 in Egypt which was triggered initially by a small group of people.
There are several other such incidents that occurred in the last decade in several parts of the world that were started by seemingly innocuous gathering of people
There are several other such incidents that occurred in the last decade in several parts of the world that were started by seemingly innocuous gathering of people after an incident or some form of protest that gained strength to make a wider impact and develop into national movement.
The incidents initiated by small groups brought together other larger groups and galvanized them into action by providing them a common platform of protests and nationwide campaign. The incidents helped to bring into fore grievances against authority that were not addressed before and people felt neglected. These grievances may be economic, political, social, or simply personal.
There is no reason to draw any parallel between the student protests which took place recently in Bangladesh and those which happened in the Middle East nearly a decade ago. But there are lessons that our government may take from previous unrests among the youth elsewhere.
It’s the economy
The students who wanted a reform of the quota system wanted so because they felt marginalized in an economy where job prospects had become elusive with a system not allowing fair competition. According to a report of Economist Intelligence Unit of the Economist (2015) nearly 50% of college graduates in Bangladesh remained unemployed. A quota system turns job prospect further into an illusion.
Added to this is the frustration of the common man to be able to access services in the country which are supposed to help him. Be this in law enforcement, recourse to justice, education, or health. A pervasive system of graft, political favours, and nepotism has kept these away from the reach of the common man. And this happens when the authorities who control these institutions that provide the services remain unaccountable to people.
When the politics of a country becomes difficult because changes cannot be brought about in a transparent manner, people take extreme recourse. These extreme measures are sudden upsurge of sporadic movements from apparently simple or even non-political issues which appeal to a broader swath of public opinion and morph into bigger movement of a political change.
The issue of quota-based services may die down for now because of a bold political move by the PM, but it may not immune the country from other political movements in the future demanding redress of the grievances.
In a democratic country, such grievances are better addressed by elections where people participate freely to send those to the legislature who they think understand their problems and are well suited to serve them.
We will not require a patchwork solution of our problems and solve them on a retail basis if we have a parliament of legislators who are truly representative of our people. By removing the quota system, we may remove only one obstacle for your youth.
A more fundamental approach would be to build an economy that attracts investment and creates opportunities of employment. This investment will come from more transparency in our governance, restoration of rule of law, and establishing democratic practices. We hope the upcoming elections will lead us that way.
Only the promise of fair elections can remove the perils of any riptide underlying the latest student protests.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.