Bangladeshi students march in a protest against the quota system near Dhaka University. Photo: Nabiullah Nabi
Bangladeshi students march in a protest against the quota system near Dhaka University. Photo: Nabiullah Nabi

Bangladesh’s decades-old system of reserving a large chunk of seats in the civil service exam for people under various “quotas” is set to end.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced on Wednesday that the much-debated quota system would be abolished.

Hasina’s announcement came in a parliamentary session against the backdrop of a large-scale student movement that had built up over months and reached boiling point last Sunday, when thousands of students came out on streets across the country.

More than 100 students were injured and at least 10 detained by police in sporadic clashes at various places, most notably at Dhaka University, where the protest originated, before it spread to other universities.

The students demanded that the quota system to recruit civil servants be reformed because it was being abused and it denied general students who did not qualify for specific quotas a decent chance of getting a job with the Bangladesh Civil Service.

Adopted from the colonial British rulers, competitive exams to recruit government officials are prevalent across the subcontinent, including in India and Pakistan. After its liberation from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh formed its own Public Service Commission (PSC), which has been conducting the BCS exam since 1972.

Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman first introduced the quota system in the war-torn country to give more opportunities to the valiant freedom fighters, as well as women and people from small districts.

The ministry of cabinet affairs issued an interim recruitment policy in which 20% of civil service positions were to be filled up by merit, 30% by freedom fighters (or their descendants), while 10% were allocated for war-affected women and 40% for district quotas.

The system was amended four times. Currently, 30% of civil service jobs are allocated to the children and grandchildren of freedom fighters, while 10% go to women, 10% go to people in districts that lag others, 5% go to members of indigenous communities, and 1% go to the physically challenged — leaving only 44% to win a place on merit.

Over half of the country’s 220,000 university graduates take part in the exam every year. But there are usually only 2,400 to 3,000 jobs on offer.

After the riots, Hasina said: “There is no need for a quota system in the public service.” Now, all jobs would be allocated on the basis of results in the three-part exam.

Abolishment vs reform

The PM’s decision to completely scrap the quota has received a mixed reaction from both the protesting students, experts and common people.

Leaders of the protesting students said they wanted to slash the quota from 56% to 10% as this would create a level playing field, while also protecting the rights of citizens from minorities.

“We wanted quota reform, not abolishment,” Rashed Khan, a joint convener of the Council to Protect Bangladesh’s General Students Rights, said on Wednesday. The student body said they would discuss the news and announce their reaction.

On Thursday, Nurul Haq, another joint convener of the group, read out a list of demands saying they want swift notification of the PM’s announcement, unconditional release of detained students, payment of medical bills for injured students and an assurance that no one involved in the protest would be harassed in the future.

However, Asia Times learnt that many of the protesting students want the quota amended, not abolished.

“This is not what we have protested for,” Rafsan Rashid, an agitating student said. “We didn’t oppose a quota for minorities or physically challenged. They should be preserved,” he said.

A group of teachers from public universities also issued a statement saying they support reform of the system, not abolition, because it is needed for underprivileged people like ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, leaders from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which voiced support for quota reform, opposed the PM’s decision to end the system.

On Thursday, BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said: The prime minister’s announcement for the annulment of quota is contradictory to the Constitution. There’s a dirty trick in it.”

However, constitutional lawyer Dr Shahdin Malik suggested that a commission should be set up to sort out whether the system is reformed or abolished.

A prudent movement

Meanwhile, political observers said the students had staged one of the most significant protests in the 10 years that the Hasina regime has been in power.

Political analyst Zia Hassan described the student movement as a “prudent one” and said protesting with placards about “Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a mature decision from the students.”

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the father of incumbent PM. Students in almost all of the rallies across the country carried placards with photos of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Many said this was unprecedented.

Hassan said students specifically argued against the 30% quota reserved for freedom fighters’ grandchildren. “This is an extremely sensitive political issue and the protesters could have easily been vilified by the government and their supporters as an anti-liberation force.”

He said the ruling party often described “dissenters against the current regime as an anti-liberation force” to cover many of their misdeeds.

But with protesters carrying pictures of the “father of the nation” and chanted slogans like “There can be no discrimination in Bangabandhu’s Golden Bengal” it was hard to call them “an anti-liberation force”.

“So I would call that a very prudent decision from them,” Hassan said.

Senior BNP leader and former law minister Moudud Ahmed said the government’s announcement was “a victory for the people, while the government has suffered a defeat.”

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