Bangladesh Slideshow

24 May, 2009

Glory to Shame

Last week Afroja, a very good friend of mine, was invigilating at an examination at the public university where she works. When an unruly student tried to cheat, time and again, she finally took away his exam script. And this is where my story begins.

The young man belonged to the student wing of the Awami League - the party that is now in power in Bangladesh. Furious that a mere teacher would have the audacity to try and stop him from cheating, he first threw a tantrum. Slammed down his hand on the desk, threw down his pencil case, threatened that if he was not allowed to finish the exam he would not allow any other student to do so either. My friend held her ground, refusing to be intimidated. So the young man called in reinforcements. A jeans-clad and sunglass-sporting gang descended on the other students like birds of prey, and took away exam scripts from some, shouting obscenities all the way, threats showering down on the heads of students and invigilators alike.

Wait, wait, the story gets better (okay, worse). Senior teachers were called, and senior leaders of the student body, AND the police! The rowdy student was expelled from the examination, and a subsequent decision was taken at the highest level of the university to suspend him for the time being, and to file a criminal case against him, for the threats he had issued to my friend. My friend came home that evening in a police vehicle. The rowdy young man was taken to jail.

End of story? Of course not! Merely the beginning. Senior student leaders went to the Departmental Head to ask (??) him to lift the case, to revoke the suspension, and to allow the student to continue with the exams. So how much would you like to bet that the leaders were summarily told off by the Head? Well, if you had bet anything, then you lost. For the Head caved. He called my friend to ask if they should lift the case. Another senior invigilator at the same exam gave a statement to the investigation committee that the situation was 'under her control' all the time, and that it was the hot-headed new teacher (my friend) who had been irrational and impulsive! So, another meeting was held, the suspension has been revoked, the case will be lifted, and the student given a license to kill, er, cheat at exams. And who will dare say a word against him? Or the likes of him? My friend has received a lot of calls from unfamiliar numbers over the past three days, and can anyone tell me who will ensure her safety when she next goes to the campus? She will have no option but to arrive at some sort of compromise with the all-powerful student leaders - just to make sure she can continue with her legitimate duties unhampered and unharmed.

Are you wondering how a mere student, or a student wing of a political party, can have so much clout? If so, then you must be from outside the Indian subcontinent, for student politics is a concept still alien outside this region.

For the uninitiated, let me tell you that almost all political parties in Bangladesh have highly active student wings. Student politics gave a new dimension to Bengal politics in the early 20th century and the incentive to student activism mainly came from the nationalist movement launched by the western educated Bengali-middle class. The revolutionary terrorist movement, swadeshi movement and the non-cooperation movement made student politics institutionalized in the first quarter of the 20th century. Student politics has a particularly strong hold on Bangladesh, and I must admit that perhaps there is no other country in the world that is more indebted to student politics than Bangladesh. Indeed, it has given us the right to speak Bangla as the state language, and has given us independence.

However, the glorious era of socially-sensitive and ideology-driven student politics was slowly transformed by a gross manipulation of young minds by a self-serving political leadership. Fragmentation within political parties led to segmentation within the student wings, and affiliations degenerated into a patron-client relationship. In order to establish control over student fronts, the major political parties and their factions began to enlist even non-students into the leadership of student organizations. The non-student leaders of various student organizations are used in intra and inter party political rivalries, where winning is the only thing that counts, by fair means or foul - preferably the latter, often through meaningless loss of lives. The moral bankruptcy of the new generation of political leaders has played a major role in pushing students away from ideology-driven politics towards money and power-driven politics. These student activists are all powerful, extortionists of the highest order, and can pretty much do as they please, on campus or off, for they have the full support of the political leadership.

Now that I've finished blaming the political leadership, let me turn towards the teachers - those who belong to the noblest of professions, whom we look upto, who hold the torch of education aloft. The world over, this is the profession that carries the highest glory, commands the deepest respect. However, it saddens me to say that some teachers in Bangladesh, especially at university level, wish to keep on excellent terms with the student wings of political parties. Student politics is vertically linked with teacher politics, all the way up to the office of the Vice Chancellor.Teacher politics is a curse even worse than this new generation student politics. These teachers keep on good terms with the political leadership and reap benefits. Of course, it is quid pro quo, and in return, these teachers do not ever wish to be at odds with the 'special students', who mostly don't bother about attending classes, only show-up for the exams, and then try to cheat, and mostly get away with it.

And when someone like Afroja puts her foot down and tries to stop it, we recoil in horror at the sheer audacity of this small fry. The entire system conspires against her. I just spoke with her a while ago on the phone, and she is justifiably depressed. She does not fear for her life - you only die once after all, although cowards die many deaths, and she is a very brave soul. She is depressed because for the rest of her teaching career at this university, or indeed at any other public university in Bangladesh, she will forever have to compromise on her ethics and values, and work within the 'system' that has evolved.

My hats off to you, Afroja, for having had the courage to do the right thing. My hats off to you, for showing what integrity and morality is - vestigial traits in our teachers. You have done nothing wrong, so hold your head up high, although I fear you will be punished in some form or other for doing the right thing.

I am so ashamed of ourselves as a nation, and of teachers especially. In a time that calls for situational ethics, moral courage is becoming less evident as a leadership trait. When did we allow ourselves to become complete puppets at the hands of the political leadership? And how can we come out of it? Do we even want to?

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