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Student Violence Signals Growing Resentment against: the Caretaker Government in Bangladesh

Sreeradha Datta is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 24, 2007

    "I want a country where the army cannot arrest anyone without a warrant. I want our political parties to be democratic, transparent and accountable. I want fair and neutral judges. I want the right to vote. I want there to be no such thing as a legal fatwa. I want the war criminals of the 1971 genocide to be tried, condemned and jailed. I want to vote. I want a country worthy of my desh-prem. I want a country." -- Tahmima Anam, New Statesman, January 22, 2007.

    An innocuous football match on August 20 between students of two Dhaka University departments in the university campus turned violent when students clashed with the police in the gymnasium. A verbal duel between a policeman and a student sparked the clash, which left hundreds injured. The sudden outbreak of violence led to students going on a violent rampage and demanding the immediate withdrawal of the army camp, which had been established in the campus after the caretaker government assumed power. While the caretaker government's expression of apology to the students for the incident and its decision to remove the army camp with immediate effect were steps in the right direction, the marked sense of anger amongst the students as well as professors has spread far beyond the university campus.

    The demand for the withdrawal of army camps (a feature introduced by the second caretaker government) from all university campuses swiftly gained ground. And within hours the agitation had spread to the Rajshahi University campus, turning it into a virtual battle ground between police forces and protesting students. Media reports indicate that the violence took a turn for the worse with students of the Islamic Chatra Shibir joining the fray. The situation worsened further when several hundreds more from other colleges like Kabi Nazrul Islam and Suhrawardy College joined a students procession in a show of solidarity. The sudden escalation of violence led to the imposition of curfew and the government closing down universities and colleges in all metropolises, thus forcing students to vacate hostels immediately on Wednesday evening.

    Indeed, university campuses in Bangladesh have been grounds for political battles, and students taking recourse to violence has not been an unknown occurrence in the past. Significantly, given the present prevailing emergency situation under a civilian interim government in Bangladesh, such an incident has the potential to result in far reaching consequences. In brief, the present political condition in Bangladesh arose in the wake of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led coalition government completing its term. The scheduled 9th Jatiya Sangsad (parliamentary) elections had to be postponed since the ground situation was not conducive to the holding of free and fair elections, leading to the second caretaker government taking over the reins of power in January 2007. Initially, the Fakhruddin Ahmed-led cabinet of ten advisors was welcomed by most people, but, now, eight months later, public opinion seems to have undergone considerable change.

    In his first nationwide telecast on January 22, Fakhuruddin Ahmed outlined a comprehensive seven point 'reform' program aimed at meeting the "people's demand" for uprooting corruption, the introduction of ID cards and the use of transparent ballot boxes, etc. He also expressed his government's intent to make "all-out efforts to hold an election participated by and acceptable to all." While it is true that the imposition of an emergency stabilised the volatile political situation, the caretaker government however soon assumed a character that had not been envisaged for it under the constitution. According to the 13th constitutional amendment which legalised this form of government in Bangladesh, the caretaker government is meant to provide "to the Election Commission all possible aid and assistance that may be required for holding the general election…." But the present interim government has gone far beyond the mandate that had been assigned to it, with Chief Advisor Ahmed reiterating his commitment to hold elections only before the end of 2008.

    The caretaker government's drive against corruption found many supporters initially, but public enthusiasm began to wane as it gradually became clear that this Army-backed government was acquiring increasing powers. On the one hand, it endeared itself to the people through populist measures, but on the other its increasing political involvement, including repressive measures against Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia and their parties, have forced many people to question its real intentions. Bangladesh today finds itself in the unenviable position of having to choose between an unelected government running the country along military lines and elected governments run by political leaders who have not allowed democracy to fully take root.

    What clearly emerges from the current violence involving students is the underlying political tension in Bangladesh. The situation on the streets is far from normal. Bangladeshis are tired of the constant power struggle between the two main political alliances, and have also become wary of the interim government. However, instances of people's opposition against government policies being expressed openly have so far been few. The notable exception being the hundreds of Awami supporters who defied a political ban to come out on to the streets to greet Sheikh Hasina on her return from the United States.

    It is in this context that the violence being witnessed in recent days assumes significance. A banal exchange between a student and a policeman provided the trigger for the suppressed frustration and latent anger that had been building up over the past few months against the present government. Given the unpredictable nature of the present situation, there is a lurking fear that the military could intervene directly in the country's politics if the caretaker government were to prove its inability to address the growing public resentment against its rule. Bangladesh thus seems set to endure a further period of political instability.