Student politics had a glorious past in Bangladesh as many student leaders played a significant role during different national crises of the country. Starting from the Language movement and up until the overthrowing of the military dictator in the 1990s, the student leaders sacrificed their lives for the welfare of the country. But, over the period, the silhouette of student politics has changed in the country. The aberration started seriously from the 1990s onwards. After the restoration of democracy for the second time, every successive government has failed to control their student wings. As a result, student leaders, particularly the student wing of the party in power, get them engaged in different activities that were not being practised previously by the student leaders. They use to get engaged in activities like extortion, tendering, exploitation of different opportunities, the establishment of supremacy in the campus, create pressure on the university administration for getting undue privileges and so on. Due to such activities of the student leaders, a negative image has been created over time about student politics in the country. A number of factors that hav facilitated the process of such eccentricity are the absence of elections in student unions at the public universities, the abuse of student leaders by the university administration and lack of control of the political parties on their student wings.
Unfortunately, political parties did not take any proactive initiative to control their student wings in the last two decades. For instance, in the last ten years, we have comprehended that many of the ruling government’s achievements have been faded away due to controversial activities of their student wings. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once withdrew herself from the position of the chief patron of the Chhatra League. Even though, they failed to control their student wing, which is really exasperating. Another grim area of student politics is the lack of co-existence of the student wings of all parties at the university campuses. Since the 1990s, it has become a trend that the ruling party student wing has ousted the opposition party student wings from the campuses in their endeavour to establish their supremacy. The process continues even in the residential halls also. This is not at all worthy for the future of student politics in the country.For the last couple of years, there has been a discussion on the importance of holding student union elections in different public universities. Even, someone filed a writ petition in the court asking directive for the university administration to hold the election. In response to the writ petition, the court has provided a directive to the Dhaka University Administration to take necessary initiative for holding the DUCSU election by March 2019. Accordingly, the university administration has been taking preparation for holding the election. Like Dhaka University, the Rajshahi University Administration has also taken steps towards holding the RUCSU election in the near future. These are really very praiseworthy initiatives of the university administration. But, at the same time, there are several challenges that may put their efforts under serious criticisms.
First of all, the university administration will require to take an appropriate initiative to ensure the co-existence of the leaders and supporters of all student wings at the campus. One encouraging fact is that we have seen through electronic media that the central leaders of Bangladesh Chhatra League and Chhatra Dal have expressed their craving to ensure co-existence for all at the Dhaka University campus. However, after a few days, Chhatra Dal has submitted a memorandum to the vice-chancellor to shift the date of the election for at least three months. They were of opinion that the university administration will require to ensure co-existence of the students in the residential halls for the first three months and then they should declare the election schedule. Since there is a directive from the court to hold the election within March 2019, it is unlikely that their demands will be considered by the university administration.
Second, the university administration must ensure that leaders and supporters of all student wings can avail all sorts of facilities like the ruling party student wings. If the leaders and supporters of the opposition student wings would not be able to freely campaign for the vote, the election would be questionable. All the university administration should bear in mind that elections are going to be held in public universities after more than two decades. So it is their prime responsibility to make sure that the new beginning starts through a free, fair and credible election.
Third, the university administration should make sure that only the regular students would qualify to contest the election. In the past, we have seen that ex-students got selected as the leaders of different student wings at different universities. This practice squeezes the scope for the development of leadership among the students. This also frustrates meritorious students to get engaged in student politics. But if we fail to motivate the meritorious students to get involved in student politics, we would not find capable future leaders who could contribute to the development of the country. At present, one of the brute realities is that the Chhatra League has a strong base at most of the public university campuses. Thus, people would feel that they would win the election at any cost even though they come out as the winners through free, fair and credible elections. Thus, the university administration, as well as the Chhatra league leadership must behave in such a way that all students irrespective of their political identity could stay at the campus and exercise their voting rights freely. This would not only increase the credibility of the university administration, but also help the government to get appreciation from the countrymen.
Elections to the students’ union could create a new opportunity for the students to grow as leaders. Thus, we all should remain concerned about the credibility of these elections. The responsible authorities must ensure that all the students exercise their voting rights without any fear while choosing their leaders. They should choose those leaders who would work for the welfare of the student community. They should not use their position as a mechanism of maximising their personal benefits like the student leaders of the present time.
The election to student unions at different public universities is a new development in the contemporary political environment in Bangladesh. At the same time, there is an inherent risk with these elections as the students are the main parties in these elections. Thus, all the actors involved must behave very rationally and strategically in order to make sure that nobody gets an opportunity to catch fishes in the dirty water centering these elections. If it happens, this will have a negative impact not only in the education sector, but also in other sectors of the country where the government would find them in a wobbly situation. Finally, it is our expectation that the process of the development of talented leadership of the students would commence through the elections to the students' unions of different public universities.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh.