Tanvir Ahmed was a student of University of Dhaka. He committed suicide at the very beginning of this month . According to his family, of the depression stemmed from not getting a government job even after trying several times. Despair drove him to that stage. Like Tanvir, thousands of young people have been trying in vain to land government jobs. Most of the students are living in extreme precarity—under emotionally, psychologically and financially stressful situations. The Liberation War promised a country of fairness and equality, but the state, education system and professional sector have been consistently failing the youth of this country in recent times. It is from this pent-up frustration, despair, anger and want that students are protesting and demanding change. They do not want change in a distant future; they want it now.
Even though the movement to reform quotas started in University of Dhaka, it has spread to universities all over the country. Students from Rajshahi, Khulna, Kushtia, Chattogram , Cumilla, Mymensingh, Barishal, etc. are also mobilising for quota reform. Today, even private universities have joined their peers from public universities in the struggle . Apparently, the central decisions are coming from the organisers at DU, allowing for coordinated action around the capital and the country. Students everywhere have been facing police brutality and attacks from students of ruling party groups. We heard from friends that there were physical attacks, sexual assault and rape threats by BCL goons in the student halls.
The most interesting thing about this movement is that it does not demand that the quota system be abolished, but instead demands for reform, particularly of the 30-percent quota for the descendants of the freedom fighters. This movement is even more justified because the protesters understand that women, ethnic minorities and disabled people are protected by the quotas. Quotas are meant to protect the marginalised, not create a new privileged class. In the current clientelist system, business as usual includes holding onto civil positions and giving access to positions through bribery and filial connections of people in power. The quotas are therefore serving the privileged class.
In the past few years all sorts of violence, murders and displacement have been justified by the state by citing the 'spirit of 1971' and the cause of progress. This is one more instance that has been covered up with this type of Bengali nationalism. Even in the parliament, the Agriculture Minister made obscene and unfair comments addressing protesters, one of which was: “Razakar's children would then exploit and use this quota”.
But, we ask, isn't it an affront to the true spirit of liberation to exploit people's sentiments to drive forth anti-people agendas?
The reform movement has gained acceptance in an extremely short time among the general public precisely because it uses the same consciousness, spirit and values of the Liberation War. The values which guided the Liberation War and the Declaration of Independence were equality, human dignity and social justice. These are the same values that have propelled the quota reform movement. For example, from the very beginning, women students from the DU halls, who are beneficiaries of the quota system, came out to join the movement by breaking the lock on the main gate. For the uninformed, at night the gates are locked from inside for 'security'. Many children of freedom fighters have been speaking up in support of this movement, demanding change and explaining how this particular quota category is furthering inequality and unemployment in the country.
The movement has proved its fairness and that the anger of the students is absolutely justified. The protesters have faced extreme police brutality and attacks from the students. Instead of deploying the paramilitary, police or BCL goons, the government has to form a commission to deeply investigate and resolve this issue. This movement has raised many questions about the existing socio-political structure. This movement is not just about inequality in the civil service sector but about inequality and power in all phases of society.
In solidarity with this movement we are demanding justice for the protestors.
Mohymeen Layes is a student of DU and an Assistant Coordinator, Center for Bangladesh Studies. Hiya Islam is a Fellow, Center for Bangladesh Studies.