Literature, kerosene and Professor Mahmood

The Daily Star  July 11, 2019

Literature, kerosene and Professor Mahmood

The moment the news of students pouring kerosene on a professor came to my attention, I instantly thought it must be fake news. Either that or I was hallucinating. Because the thought of pouring kerosene on a professor and trying to light him on fire—an attempt to murder—is indeed shocking.

The word “shocking” is an understatement. How can students in a civilised country—in fact, these people are miscreants in the name of students—do such a thing to a professor? This incident should move each and every citizen of the country.

Unfortunately, however, there has been little reaction; we have seen next to nothing in the form of a protest or a rally. Only a handful of professors and students protested the act by posting comments on social media. Professor Abdul Mannan, ex-UGC chairman, wrote an insightful column in Bangla Tribune on July 5, 2019, in which he articulately penned his thoughts on the state of private university education, along with lending his support to Professor Masud Mahmood.

Dr Masud Mahmood, a well-known professor, poet, and critic, has been teaching English literature for about 40 years. His students know well how erudite a professor he is, how knowledgeable a person he is, and how successful a teacher he is. I wrote a few words about him on social media that I would like to share here as well: “Professor Dr Masud Mahmood is one of the best teachers of English literature I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s erudite, and his deep knowledge of literature, outstanding skills of making classes interesting, and wide range of study deserve praise, and are beyond comparison. Himself a poet, Dr Mahmood analyses poetry in the classroom as if he were from somewhere else—precisely, he creates magic in the classroom, and students remain spellbound. His direct student, I’ve been inspired to be an enthusiast of poetry, to a great extent, because of him. Those who have attended his poetry classes must bear the enriching experience throughout their life… I’m angry, have lost the words to protest the abominable acts of the miscreants whose deeds should never go unpunished, as it’s a disgrace to all teachers. Please, ensure exemplary punishment for the criminals so that no one dares to dishonour a teacher this way.”

Studying literature requires mental preparation, a certain mindset, something most of the students of English departments in our country lack. In literature, a wide range of areas, including various cultures and myths, are studied. Those who do not hold a liberal attitude to diversity, including the issues of sexuality, should think about subjects other than literature to study. Among a certain number of students, like the ones in University of Science and Technology (USTC), the wrong message about literary studies is being spread.

Professor Mahmood has a pure literary frame of mind, and he looks beyond the ordinary, mundane reality. His classes on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” and so many other outstanding pieces of literature are simply feasts for literature aficionados.

Working as a devoted and committed—in the truest sense of the words—faculty member for 40 years in the Department of English, University of Chittagong, Professor Mahmood joined USTC as an adviser to the English department. As per many different newspaper reports, after joining the department, he took steps to bring academic order. Then he found that a few teachers were irregular and they did not care about improvement—they even lacked basic qualities in teaching. Therefore, the authorities, in consultation with the department, sacked those teachers. He might have had no role behind this, but they thought Dr Mahmood might have had a hand behind them being laid off.

Later some graduate students of the department complained that Professor Mahmood openly talked about sexuality in the classroom. They even brought allegations against him accusing him of harassing female students. They went to the local deputy minister for education who ordered an investigation. Both USTC administration and police found the allegations to be false, and Professor Mahmood resumed working in the department. It’s also the first instance that police investigated allegations against a professor. In his column, Professor Abdul Mannan expressed his concern about this incident.

Frustrated by the outcome of their conspiracies, the students, allegedly instigated by others, took the drastic step of trying to kill Professor Mahmood. The miscreants dragged him out of his office, took him out to the university premises, poured kerosene on his body and one student tried to set him on fire. They even snatched away a valuable book from his hand, tore it up, and threw it away, hurling abusive words at Professor Mahmood. If some other students had not come forward to rescue him, he might have been burnt to death on the spot. The whole episode must have been one of sheer horror for a veteran professor like Dr Mahmood.

The incident gives rise to some questions: what had the USTC administration done to protect Professor Mahmood? How did the students who had brought false allegations against a respected teacher resume their studies in the university? What disciplinary actions had the authorities taken against them? Did they investigate if other conspirators had instigated the students?

A university has its own disciplinary committees, headed by the vice-chancellor, which provide protection to its teachers, students and officials. But how is this university, USTC, running its academic activities in such a lackadaisical state of security with such an administration? The concerned body of higher education should look into the USTC administration.

We should form a common platform to seek justice for Professor Mahmood. The way he was humiliated is unprecedented, and if exemplary punishment is not meted out, the culprits and conspirators will essentially be given a licence to attempt to kill teachers in broad daylight. Teachers and students at all levels—schools, colleges and universities—should protest acts of violence in educational institutions and stand by the victims. I humbly request Federation of Bangladesh University Teachers’ Association to come forward so that such incidents are not repeated in future.

Above all, it’s time for all of us to think about the way we have been treating our educators and whether they are being given the respect they deserve. We need to think about what that means for the values and morals of future generations and for the education system as a whole.

 

Dr Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, a poet, translator and academic, is Associate Professor in the Department of English, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh. He was once a student of Professor Masud Mahmood. Email: msijewel@gmail.com

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