The time is now
Reforming the BCL would do wonders for the image of the AL and the PM
What will it take?
If the brutal beating to death of Buet student Abrar Fahad is not enough to persuade us that BCL criminality needs to be brought to book, then I don’t know what will.
The nation has been shocked to its core by this vicious killing carried out in the dorms of the country’s premier educational institution, and the public is united in the feeling that if this incident cannot be the catalyst for deep-seated and far-reaching reform within the ruling party student wing then something very serious is broken within us.
Let’s get one thing straight.
Bangladesh Chhatra League today bears about as much resemblance to the Chhatra League of the 1960s that battled bravely on campus at the forefront of the liberation struggle as Donald Trump’s Republican Party does with the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Times change and political parties and their affiliate organizations change with them. I do not want to hear the current crop of BCL cadres wrap themselves in the borrowed finery of the role played by the BCL in 1952 or the 1960s or the 1980s. That was then, and this is now.
The current crop of BCL cadres were not even born when the BCL was in its heyday and a force for democratic rights without which we would not be independent today, and their criminality shames and dishonours an organization with a storied history.
At the same time, their criminality also brings massive disrepute to its parent organization the ruling Awami League, and the time is long past due for the AL to clean house and end the impunity enjoyed by its student wing.
Because, let’s face it, there is a direct line between the shelter and protection the BCL benefits from and the crimes that too many of its members commit. This must end.
The AL government has accomplished a great deal in the past 10 years, and there is no gainsaying the benefit to the country as a whole from this time. But all the good work done by the government, all the millions lifted out of poverty, all the development that has reached to every corner of the country, all the services that we now take for granted — all these achievements are tarnished by the criminality of their student cadres.
The time has never been more propitious for the PM to take up the challenge of cleaning up the BCL.
I get that in the volatile politics of this country student cadres are like nuclear weapons. The other side have theirs, so you have to have yours. Unilateral disarmament is not an option.
Once upon a time, it was the BCL which was all that stood between us and oblivion, standing up to the killers of the NSF in the 1960s, the Freedom Party in the 1980s, and the Shibir in the 2000s.
But times have changed. BNP and Jamaat have been brought to their knees and their student fronts, Chhatra Dal and Shibir, are barely functional and no threat at all to the ruling party.
If ever a time existed when it would be possible to clean up our university campuses, this is it.
What, after all, is the point of the unprecedented power and security currently enjoyed by the ruling party if not precisely this: To use their apex position atop the political firmament to bring lasting reform to our polity and society.
Freeing our long-suffering public universities from the grip of criminals would surely be the perfect place to start.
We do not live under Pakistani colonial domination or martial law, when the only opposition to brutal and autocratic regimes could be mustered on university campuses.
When we live in a parliamentary democracy, there should be no need for political parties, least of all the ruling party, to rely on shock troops or for the issues of the day to be fought out on university campuses.
Indeed, to the extent that student politics serves any purpose at all, it should be to provide opposition to a government, not to buttress the power of government.
The glory days of the BCL were when it was an opposition force, standing up for democracy and liberty in the face of autocracy, both in the 1960s and the 1980s. Being the student front of the opposition is a very different thing from being the student front of the ruling party.
In fact, with political street battles thankfully a thing of the past, what purpose does the BCL as it currently exists even serve for the AL?
Its utility to the political party it claims to serve and under whose protection and shelter it operates is far outweighed by the damage it is currently doing to the image of the AL.
Too many BCL cadres use their position not to serve the party but as a license for criminality. They illegally influence the admissions process, control the residence halls, and even corrupt the examination process.
There is not a public university campus across the country where the academic atmosphere has not been disfigured by the reign of terror that has been imposed on it by members of the BCL.
It is a national tragedy that we have allowed so-called student politics to completely destroy the fabric of public education in the country.
The point is not necessarily to turn our colleges and universities into politics-free zones, though I personally see nothing to be lost by doing so. Student politics is banned in private universities, without any ill-effects that I have noticed.
However, what is more important is to ensure that there be zero tolerance for any crime committed by ruling party student cadres. Political activism and organization are one thing. Extortion, intimidation, and violence are quite another.
The BCL does not need to be decommissioned. I dare say that there exist conscientious and public spirited members of the organization who are as sickened by the crimes committed in their name as the rest of us are. They need to be empowered and the organization needs to be returned to its idealistic roots.
But the BCL does need to be reformed, from top to bottom. There should be no place in it for those whose actions would harm the image of the AL.
To do so would send an unmistakable message that it is a new day in Bangladesh. To fail to do so threatens to undermine all the good that the government has done.
The point is to make public universities safe for common students. It is absolutely unconscionable that to attend public university in Bangladesh means to have to live at the mercy of politically connected criminals.
Imagine a world where our university campuses are free of extortion, intimidation, and violence.
Imagine a world where the country’s best and brightest can pursue their dreams of higher education without having to live under the shadow of fear.
Imagine a world where a reformed BCL is a by-word for integrity and devotion to the common good, as it once was.
The benefit to the nation would be incalculable. And the benefit the image of the ruling party and the PM would be almost as great.
Zafar Sobhan is Editor, Dhaka Tribune.