On the morning of July 24, 2019, a few photos of academic buildings of the University of Dhaka surfaced on social media. The caption of the photos read: “Do not pay heed to the rumours and attend your classes and exams. Regular activity is running as normal.” Contrarily, announcements were made on the same social media platform urging students to gather in front of the Central Library to protest the affiliation of seven colleges to the university. The university was under lock and key and students did not attend classes or exams for three consecutive days before the student wing of the ruling party broke the locks, freeing the entrances. Protests had erupted due to the perception that the affiliation of the colleges would hamper the academic activities of the university. The protests were subdued before they could meet their goal. Nevertheless, these protests, like several other student movements of the recent past, bear signs of egalitarian aspirations and a desire to break free from an authoritarian political culture.
In an age of neoliberal capitalism in which representative democracy, civil society, dialogue, negotiation and advocacy are the norm, one might think that protests and mass uprisings are irrelevant. However, social scientists such as Alain Badiou and David Harvey have argued that political change can come through popular uprisings. Looking into the anatomy of recent student protests in Bangladesh, one could deduce that they are of similar nature—for example, the quota reform movement, the road safety protests, and protests against VAT on education in private universities. The government had to give in to the demands of students when it came to these three protests. A new law on road safety and changes in driver recruitment and payment were introduced after a series of protests during July 29–August 8, 2018. Similarly, protests against quota in government jobs in April 2018 led to students in many public and private universities boycotting classes, and the prime minister finally announced that there would be no quota in government jobs. Likewise, in September 2015, after a few days of protests, VAT on tuition fees at private universities was withdrawn.
Beyond the targeted goals, these protests altered the status quo, albeit for a short time, and reflected the egalitarian aspirations of students. For instance, on July 29, 2018, students of different schools and colleges occupied the streets of Dhaka after a speeding bus killed two students. For a few days, students directed traffic and stopped vehicles to check the licences of drivers in many cities throughout the country. They used social media to livestream their activities and communicate information about areas of action. VIPs could not use the “wrong way,” as they often do, and had to wait in traffic for long hours like the rest of us. An army officer had to drive himself as the driver did not have a valid licence with him and a judge had to travel in another vehicle because of faulty paperwork. Mothers brought food and fed the protesting students in the streets and people in general happily cooperated, generating an atmosphere that we had never seen before. There was a rare sense of unity which we had not witnessed even during the protests for quota reform or the elimination of VAT on education fees.
The protests demanding road safety turned violent after the first few days. Law enforcers attacked the protesters, and vandalism and chaos were rampant. Politicians and ministers requested students to retreat from the streets acknowledging that students have shown how traffic should be maintained. Politicians alleged that anti-state forces were trying to destabilise the country under the disguise of student protests. Consequently, schools were declared closed, but students still came out to the streets claiming that allies of the government were trying to sabotage the peaceful protests. They repeatedly demanded a law to be ratified in the parliament for ensuring road safety. All the while, the authorities wanted to sit for a talk with the representatives but students reaffirmed that they “do not have any leaders or representatives,” and maintained the road blockades avowing “renovation of the state is ongoing.” Violence increased and law enforcers became stringent. Subsequently, students vacated the streets as the government initiated the formulation of a new law.
Similar horizontal cooperation with no recognised leadership was eminent during the latest student protest against affiliation of the colleges with DU. They demanded the decisions be formalised rather than remaining as promises. Eventually, a committee was formed to explore the provisions for annulling the affiliation of the seven colleges. The process is still underway and, therefore, the protests have been momentarily restrained.
The student uprisings have shown the capacity of the people to collectively challenge state authority which sociologist Emile Durkheim identified as effervescence: a time of great collective shock resulting in frequent and active social interaction, possibly leading to a revolutionary or creative epoch. Frequent student protests indicate that memories of large-scale uprisings are significant in initiating protests. Fundamental elements of these protests are: a festive atmosphere, auto-generation, networks among protesters created and sustained through social media, takeover of infrastructures (e.g. roads and official buildings), and gradual expansion throughout the country. The organisational character of the protests exhibits a new form of organising “discontent”. Thus, we can identify much larger implications of these protests beyond the reductive label of “student protests”. Despite having seemingly rhizomic and ephemeral characters, the student uprisings, in Alain Badiou’s words, have the possibility to womb an “[idea] capable of challenging the corrupt, lifeless version of ‘democracy’, which has become the banner of the legionaries of Capital…”
Research on mass uprisings in Bangladesh has always been analysed from the venture points of transferring political power but the student protests show promises of changing the political system from within. These uprisings have shaken the image of a powerful sovereign authority and claimed sovereign power ephemerally that has generally remained unexamined. Nonetheless, student uprisings represent something irreducible to the orderly world represented by NGOs, trade unions, civil societies, bureaucracy, and political parties. These protests reflect a horizon beyond state authority and are an expression of egalitarian aspirations.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.