Police fire teargas shells at students from Dhaka University protesting against the quota for government jobs. Scores were injured. Photo: Nabiullah Nabi
Police fire teargas shells at students from Dhaka University protesting against the quota for government jobs. Scores were injured. Photo: Nabiullah Nabi

A peaceful protest against the quota system in government jobs turned violent in last week as students clashed with security forces in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

The protests added to tensions already high in a crucial election year, and political positions are being drawn sharply, with the government keen to avoid any criticism.

Hundreds of protesting students were injured in clashes at Dhaka University, which turned into a virtual battleground on Sunday. News of attacks by the ‘Chhatra League’, the student wing of the ruling Awami League, on fellow students, possibly with weapons, set tempers soaring. The Chhatra League has denied these rumors.

Many observers considered this one of the largest protests faced by the ruling Awami League regime in its two consecutive terms spanning over the last 10 years. Thousands of students, mostly from Dhaka University, the country’s premier institution, took to the streets and occupied the capital’s busy Shahbagh intersection near the university campus from Sunday till Monday. This was a bid to press for their demands and reform the quota system in Bangladesh’s civil service examination. Under the current system, more than half of the jobs (56%) are allocated to various quotas, while 44% are left in the general category for people who sit exams.

The police fired teargas and rubber bullets to evict the protesters from Shahbagh after they occupied the crossing for several hours on Sunday. The protesters backed off but took positions some 200 meters away, inside Dhaka University and continued their protest. Meanwhile, unidentified goons, wearing masks attacked and vandalized the residence of the DU Vice Chancellor’s house on Sunday night, which protesting students claimed was an “act conducted by outside forces to divert their movement.”

In retaliation, police detained a number of injured protesters. But no cases were filed against those who were detained. On Monday morning, the protest grew after students learnt that some of their colleagues had been apprehended.

By noon on Monday, almost all the public universities across Bangladesh expressed their solidarity with the protesters. Students at state-run universities in Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, Barisal, Rangpur, Sylhet and Savar boycotted classes and staged rallies.

Under fire, the government sent senior Minister and General Secretary of the ruling Awami League Obaidul Quader along with other leaders to sit with representatives of the protesting group — “Council to protect Bangladesh’s General Students’ Rights”, which was set up to press for reforms of the quota system.

Quader, while talking to the students at the Secretariat in the capital on Monday evening said: “The government is not rigid on this. We will positively consider the rationale of your demands.” He also promised them “reasonable reforms” by the first week of May.

‘An unfair quota system’

Hasan Al Mamun, convener of the protest group, told Asia Times that they had suspended activities “for some time” but would come out on the street if the government did not implement “reasonable reforms”.

“We believe this quota system to be unfair and discriminatory,” said Mamun. “And we will continue protesting unless it is reformed.”

The group has been protesting for quota reform since mid-February but their movement escalated over the last two days to an unprecedented level. Each year about 120,000 graduates seeking work sit for some 2,000 to 2,200 government jobs, making it one of the toughest competitions in the country.

The current system reserves 56% government jobs for selected groups, depriving many deserving candidates from entering the public service. Some 30% of seats are reserved for descendants of the freedom fighters, while 10% are reserved for “zila (district) quota,” 10% for women and 5% for ethnic minorities. If the 55% quota is not filled, 1% goes to the physically challenged.

Mamun said the students want the number of reserved seats slashed from 56% to 10%, and 90% of jobs allocated on the basis of merit. The protesters oppose the 30% quota reserved for descendants of freedom fighters and say that allocation in this and other systems has been greatly abused.

The list of freedom fighters has been changed six times under different governments since Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971. The process of listing freedom fighters is not transparent enough, so the list has become controversial.

There have been instances of freedom fighters’ certificates used by senior officials being proved to be false after investigations. When the Liberation War Affairs Ministry said last year that it was making a new list of freedom fighters, about 150,000 new people applied to be included. Later, most were found to be false claims.

A failed writ

In March, the High Court rejected a petition calling for reform of the quota system in government service on grounds that the petitioners were not harmed or aggrieved under Section 19 of the constitution, which says “The State shall endeavor to ensure equality of opportunity to all citizens.”

Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman introduced the quota for freedom fighters in 1972. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, introduced the quota system for the children of freedom fighters in 1996, when she first came to power.

At a major rally in the port city of Chittagong in late March Hasina said that the quota system for government jobs for freedom fighters, their children and grandchildren would remain. “We must have a special system for freedom fighters as we’ve got our independence because of their sacrifice,” she said. However, a large part of the population opposes this.

Noted educationist Muhammad Zafar Iqbal who wrote a number of books on Bangladesh’s liberation war told the media on Monday the quota reform was needed to protect the honor of freedom fighters. “There has been anger among people over the freedom fighters’ quota. Freedom fighters, their children and their families are being humiliated because of this,” said Iqbal, “Quota reform is necessary to secure the honor of freedom fighters.”

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