No student election for 27 years

Students want
Dhaka University Central Students Union election, the president and the chancellor of the university asked for students’ union election, the vice chancellor of the university seems sympathetic to the demand for DUCSU, yet there has been no student body election for nearly three decades. Talking to students, teachers and university authority Nahid Riyasad writes about the ongoing movement for DUCSU.



‘Bastard! We demand DUCSU ভাত দে হারামজাদা)— reads a graffiti on the walls of Dhaka University campus.  The graffiti reminds us of the canonical Dhallywood movie from 1980s depicting the struggle of an orphan girl against extreme poverty with the same title — Bastard! Give me food (ভাত দে হারামজাদা  ) .’  During the autocratic military regime, when majority of rural Bangladesh was suffering from constant food crisis, the movie represented that anguished time through the story of a young girl’s life journey and her cries for just a plate of rice. However, the title of the movie came from an equally evocative and politically significant poem of poet Rafiq Azad written during the famine of 1974 — ‘Give me rice, or else will eat the map (ভাত দে হারামজাদা, নইলে মানচিত্র খাব!). In a time when the country was still recovering from the devastation of war of 1971, Azad’s poem captured the public anger against a group of unscrupulous political elites robbing the economy, and the failure of the government to ensure the bare minimum rights of its citizens, that is their right to food.

When students of Dhaka University draw inspiration from this epic movie and the poem to demand the student body election for their campus, making metaphorical comparison between food for survival and democratic governance for their right to education, it demands our attention.

This graffiti started appearing on the walls of Dhaka University after a student of the same demanding immediate Dhaka University Central Students Union election started a fast unto death protest programme. Why would a student dare to sacrifice his life for ‘just a student body election’! —many asked. Why is this demand so important? Talking to ranges of stakeholders from general students to student leaders to university authority, this essay is an attempt to understand the importance of student body election for university education.

Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 from Pakistan, however, democracy went absent till the 90’s. With the uprooting of military despotic government, another practice was buried — the election of university student unions. From the chancellor to the students, everyone seems to want it but student unions’ elections never happened in the age of democracy. The last DUCSU election was held 27 years ago. This story will focus on the movement for DUCSU. However, similar scenario prevails in every university of the country. At the moment, students of Jahangirnagar and Rajshahi University are also demanding student elections.

The failure, one could say, a rather intentional failure, of the university authorities to hold timely students’ union election is a clear violation of the university ordinance of 1973. This practice is breaching express provisions of Articles 4 and 20 of the ordinances presidential order number 11 and the fundamental rights ensured under the article 27 of the same order. In the last 27 years, in lieu of this violation, all the senate committees and vice-chancellor elections of the university are unconstitutional. In the senate of DU, five seats are reserved for the student representatives that are vacant since the fall of autocratic regime in 1990. Therefore, it would not be mistaken to say, when the country marched towards democratic governments, the universities took a backward step.

In March of 2017, the High Court has asked the vice-chancellor, registrar, proctor and treasurer of University of Dhaka to explain as to why ‘their failure or inaction in discharging their duties to hold DUCSU election for the last 27 years ‘should not be declared illegal’. In relation to that, High Court has asked the same question back in 2012 to the DU authority. Unfortunately, the authority remained silent. The president of Bangladesh, who happens to be the chancellor of the universities, also demands the same. President Abdul Hamid, on Saturday, March 4, while addressing the 50th convocation of DU had asked for the university students’ union election. He said, in order to develop new leadership as well as strengthen the democratic foundation of the university, DUCSU election is necessary. Even after the president’s appeal, the demand remains unheard by the university authority. But, why is that?

To understand the reasons behind the administrative inaction in holding DUCSU election, New Age Youth has approached the acting vice-chancellor of the university, professor Dr. Md Akhtaruzzaman. When asked about the show-cause letters issued by the High Court, he says that we are obligated to explain ourselves to the High Court; however, his response is inconclusive, ‘our lawyer is seeing to this matter’. In response to the question that why DUCSU is inactive, defunct for such long time, he responded, ‘Reasons behind the culture of no students’ union election is, in fact, very hard to trace down to one point. There are different political parties which, through their student wings, are active on campus. Then there are other technical and security issues involved that are holding the authority back from arranging the election. It is tough to create a balance’. According to his responses, it appears, he is sympathetic to the demand of DUCSU, as he claims, ‘Vice-chancellor is not someone who will go to every protesting student and console; however, as this is a democratic government, I went there to break his [Walid Ashraf’s] hunger-strike. Considering his family’s plea to me and the university authority, we went there instead of using police force to demonstrate a more humane approach.’ However, he was at unease when asked about DUCSU as students’ constitutional right ascribed by the ordinance, ‘Recently university campus is being vandalised with graffiti demanding students’ union election in unacceptable language, these are the works of extremists (Ugrabadi) and they might want to destablise the overall situation of the campus’.

The shroud over the picture is not entirely cleared as there are no definitive reasons for the election not to be held. The highest authority of the university while sounding ambiguously sympathetic to the demand, his response on non-execution of DUCSU was inconclusive. Therefore, New Age Youth approached some general students, university teachers and activists. Moshahida Sultana, associate professor of department of accounting and information systems at DU expresses her concerns. ‘We know DUCSU election is needed, but in what way; however, is yet to be sorted out. Students’ unions are essential pillars of democracy and this cannot be ignored. Without this union, all the university decisions are partial. The common misconception among the teachers is that the election will create unrest in the university and cause student violence. This might be true considering our political reality but should it prevent the universities from practicing democracy? Universities need to hold the elections and deal with the aftermath duly. In these circumstances, all the students and activists need to be alert and carry on with their movements in demand of students’ union elections.’

While talking with Neelima Akhter, assistant professor of the department of English in DU, another interesting perspective comes up. She says that holding the DUCSU means to have a poll consisting of 36,000 students, which is obviously a mammoth of a task. However, as without a student body the structure of the university is incomplete, holding the poll is a must. ‘This union is a place to cultivate future leaders, students with convincing leadership skills and motivation gets solid training through the students’ unions’, she says. Professor Neelima expresses her frustration too, ‘Students’ unions were a regular scenario in the university campuses, which is a staple in the practice of democracy, and stopping such a quintessential democratic practice will not translate well in future’.

On Wednesday, December 13, Bangladesh Chatra Union arranged an open discussion in demand of DUCSU election. Present and former student leaders of previous students’ unions were present there; to name a few, Yeasin Alpana, Shamsuzzaman Hira, former vice chancellor of Jahangirnagar University Anwar Hossain, Mujahidul Islam Selim, Murtaq Ahmed, Mahmudur Rahman Munna attended the open discussion. Speakers demanded students’ union elections right away and expressed their frustration at how this important practice of democracy has been killed starting from during our ‘ascension’ to democracy in 1991! A left-wing student activist raised a question, that, private universities have been operating in our country for over 25 years, these institutions have no idea of a student union; so how many graduates might be there without any notion of what a union can do or even why a union is important? Even present public university students demanding DUCSU election, have no idea what will DUCSU body do, because they have never seen a students’ union before.
It was in the fall of 2011, the following happened at a top-ranking private university of Dhaka. Several students sat for a meeting with the dean of a department, about certain irregularities and complaints about the course curriculum. The student ‘representatives’ were not elected by any poll; hence they have no legitimacy to speak as student representatives. They were humiliated by the authority in the meeting and subsequently expelled from the university following a Facebook status about that meeting. Now, should there be a union, this matter would have brought different result. Discussing this issue with Farhan Habib, a former private university student and an organiser of both ‘no-vat’ on education movements, more perspectives on the necessity of a students’ union come up. ‘Without a students’ union, no university is a complete institution. Private universities have owners’ body, teachers’ body and so on but no students’ union. As if, students have nothing to say. As a result, a culture of autocracy is practiced in the private universities, which, in turn, will produce more people who will be reluctant to others’ opinion’, Farhan alarms. A student body means we have a group of elected students who are entitled to negotiate with the authority about their demands and problems, this culture is completely missing in our tertiary education.

From various perspectives and discussions with concerned people, one thing becomes crystal clear — everyone wants DUCSU election. This being said, the question of ‘why’ still remains in the dark — why is the election not being held? On the wall of aging DUCSU building, another graffiti reads, ‘Students want DUCSU, VC wants it too, who is preventing student election?’ The answer perhaps lies with those who enjoy tangible and intangible undue benefits of an undemocratic environment on campus.



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