Our Vice Chancellor, often celebrated as the first woman VC of Bangladesh, recently on the 5th convocation of Jahangirnagar University, took pride of the fact that ours is a gender balanced university as the number of female and male students in the university is very balanced (Prothom Alo 6/02/15) . I am sure she had all the good intentions when she made this comment in front of thousands of graduating students and other dignitaries.
Approximately two hours before this comment, I was having an ordinary ride back to Dhaka from JU campus by a local bus. Bus rides are of course not ordinary anymore. You tend to think all sorts of extraordinary things when and if you are riding a bus. With the incessant use of patrol bombs these days and buses being the favorite target, buses are usually empty and you would more often than not get a seat. A JU student sat beside me and after the usual pleasantries, I asked him about his hall (dormitory) life.
He said, the halls are ok now that one group (read political) is out. I asked what he means by that. He replied, usually when there are two groups, there is more trouble, more fight. I felt sorry to hear this. I told him that what makes me most helpless about our Public Universities is that here students come to study from all over the country from the widest possible class, cultural, political and ethnic background, yet we have not been able to control the very narrow political culture in the universities where when differences occur, even death of a student is possible (think about all the death of students in Public Universities due to student politics, the most recent being Zubair’s killing in Jahangirnagar University).
As a member of this intuition, I wish I knew how to stop this. I share this anxiety with the student who sat beside me. He tells me, this can be stopped if the university authorities were strict in executing their responsibilities and did not do what he means “selective justice” (some people get a life time expulsion while others do not, according to student’s political clout). I then asked about the proctor’s body and his take on this institution of the university which is responsible for student’s disciplinary issues. In his opinion, the proctor’s body simply listens to the students who have political clout (for the time being this is BCL). Why they listen? That calls for a new article. But for the time being I can say that bosses of both the university administration and the powerful political parties are the same.
And of course we all know that. I am more interested in more day to day affairs of the scheme of things. So I ask what is the effect of this politics in the day to day affairs of the university? Especially in the halls and the roads and the campus in general? Replying to these queries, the student gave me a harrowing picture, some of which I know from the newspapers. Nevertheless, listening this from someone who is a witness is always useful. One picture is particularly problematic: he says that there is not much respect for female students in the campus. Often female students would be insulted in the roads by mobs of students having links with the party in power. These insults, gestures and attitudes towards women (not detailed here) in my opinion amounts to sexual harassment, the trauma of which is too difficult to bear. Usually, all this takes place in the evening hours when there is a program and students are out on the campus for attending different programs, he added. My student tells me that one of his female friends has gone through similar experience and he hasn’t been able to do anything. Even junior students wielded power. He once complained to a senior brother (who has some political clout; also note he hasn’t gone to the proctor’s body). The senior brother’s response was minimal; he could only ensure a “sorry” from the perpetrator of the violence. My student did not have much hope either. After all they all are doing politics together, he says. They all need each other. For me, however, what was more important was why he went to the senior brother? Who gave this responsibility to the senior brother? All of these instances need attention from the university administration, specially hall administration and the proctor’s body.
Out of exasperation I guess he then finally says: “I wish I had also joined any of these parties; at least I wouldn’t have gone through this insulting situation.” At this point I stop. We were about to reach Dhaka soon. I could clearly see some kind discomfort in his eyes. After all he has said some things which he cannot tell all the time. There is too much pressure and he has no other way not to stay in the university dormitory. This boy came all the way to Dhaka from a southern district of Bangladesh. His father seemed to do a small job but is able to support their son studying in Dhaka. He is the eldest in the family and perhaps the only one who lives in Dhaka, a city which is becoming expensive in terms of living. I am sure much expectation rests on him. But I worry: can he survive all the trouble he has to endure in the university? As faculty members, we at best try to do our best in the class room. But what about the other spaces of the university? Is it too much naïve to ask for their safe university life?
 Surely, today Public Universities can boast of the fact that they cater to the mass people of this country, not only the urban middleclass, something unlike the 1980s and 1990s when urban middleclass dominated the scene; this urban class of the yesteryears could make laid back songs such as “first year kete jai, TScr oi barandai, second year kate kichu classe, third year mathai hat…you spend the first year in TSC’s veranda with not much work, you have few classes in the second year and in the third year, you are at a loss, don’t know what to do!). Songs are different now! One particularly interesting one is: “Raja jai raja ashe, bokachodara bokia roi ..Kings come and go, fucked up people remain the same” or “matha zhimm zhimm kare”
Mahmudul Sumon teaches anthropology at Jahangirnagar Univerity. Blogs at Thotkata.