Five things we learned from the VAT protest

Zafar Sobhan

VAT 3_0

The government can listen

The first and most important lesson we learned is that, contrary to popular opinion and expectation, the government is willing to listen to protests, and that, in the right circumstances, it is willing to reverse course. This flexibility on the part of the government signals both a political maturity as well as a growing self-confidence that augers well, both for the government and for the public.

Compromise is not weakness

For too long in Bangladeshi politics, the government reversing course on any question was seen as a sign of weakness, both by the government, and possibly by the electorate, as well. This made compromise on almost any subject virtually impossible, as to compromise was seen as losing.

What is notable about the government’s about face on VAT on private universities is that the move has been hailed as statesmanlike by the general public, and the government has gained points not lost them by virtue of its reversal. The lesson is clear, and this is a very positive development for our political culture.

No need for violence

I hope the opposition is watching carefully and noting that this protest succeeded in large part because it was peaceful. The notion that there is no alternative to the mayhem and murder of political protests has been definitively disproved. Imagine what the BNP might have achieved over the past few years if it had pressed its case peacefully. In fact, it was the non-violent nature of the VAT protests which ensured that they did not alienate the public, something that was crucial to the movement’s success.

The only language the government understands

That said, it should be noted that it was only when protesters took to the streets and shut the city down that they got what they wanted. The long campaign both before and after the tax was imposed was contemptuously ignored until the students took their beef to the streets. It should never have had to get to that point. No violence is good, but if the only way we can change the government’s mind is to make the public feel the pain, then that remains a serious problem.

Public opinion matters

One of the key advantages the protesting students had, and which was not lost on the government, was that there was widespread support for their movement, even among those who were being severely inconvenienced by it. In short, what the public thinks does make a difference, and there are limits to policies the government can enact which do not have popular support. Had the popular support not been there, the outcome may have been very different.

Source: Dhaka Tribune


  1. Maturity of the Government is acknowledged. However the Private Commercial Profit motivated Universities should not be allowed to evade to share their profit with the society at large by paying a tax/VAT. Potential students should never be used as political fodder to ferment discontent. Students are for studies, not for sale or hire.


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