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View from the neighbourhood: Unfree campus

A weekly look at the public conversations shaping ideas beyond borders — in the Subcontinent.

Written by Aakash Joshi | Published: October 28, 2019 7:58:18 am
The torture and murder of Abrar Fahad by the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) has shaken the country. The torture and murder of Abrar Fahad by the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) has shaken the country. (Source: Abrar Fahad/Facebook)

The torture and murder of Abrar Fahad by the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) has shaken the country. Violence by the BCL, the students’ wing of the ruling Awami League, has assumed disturbing proportions, evidenced by the presence of “torture rooms” on campuses. While murders like Fahad’s shine a spotlight on the intolerance for dissent against the government, they have also brought questions about the independence of universities, even at the level of physical space.

Writing in The Daily Star on October 23, Naznin Tithi brings up the issue of how universities need to have some power over their own spaces.

After Fahad’s killing, and Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina’s directive, the country’s education ministry has directed that anti-ragging cells be formed. But the real issue may lie elsewhere, according to the article: “The real problem is far too complex and Abrar’s murder has exposed this very well. In most public universities, the administration has completely lost control over the halls. In many cases, the hall administration has literally become non-existent. For example, in Dhaka University halls, the BCL practically plays the role of the administration when it comes to allotting seats to the newly enrolled students.”

But why have “hall administrators” ceded this power? According to Tithi, there are three factors involved: “The BCL has terrorised not only the students, but also the teachers as well as the university authorities. Secondly, in order to fulfil their political ambitions, a section of teachers are allegedly assisting the BCL in carrying out their nefarious activities on campus. Lastly, being recruited on political considerations and sharing the same ideologies, many teachers are unwilling to take action against the BCL.”

Dissent in Nepal

The October 25 editorial in The Kathmandu Post flags what it calls “another in a series of attacks on freedom of expression and the right to free speech”. Musical artists Durgesh Thapa and Samir Ghising have been arrested by the Nepal police for “ spreading messages that go against ‘Nepali values’ through their music”.

The editorial pulls no punches and calls for the government to “check itself before it wrecks itself”. Its invocation of the country’s diversity, both in terms of religious and social practices, holds particular salience for India as well: “In a democratic country — especially one with such a diverse population where some espouse marijuana usage as cultural and religious and others home-brewed liquor as integral parts of their rituals — it is hard to comprehend just whose values the authorities were referring to. More importantly, any hurt societal values notwithstanding, the constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and expression should be enough to deride the police’s recent actions. The government and its security apparatus have been making undemocratic moves ever since it came to power, more brazenly each time.”

The editorial ends with a warning for the people of Nepal, and to some extent the ruling communist regime: “The government’s recent illiberal actions have the potential to set a trend, something that should worry the public. When all people protesting against the government are locked up, and when all music artists are forced to change their lyrics to suit the government’s narrative, the next person they might come after is you.”

Discomfort in Delhi

The October 24 editorial in Dawn presents a view on the international reaction vis a vis the change in Jammu and Kashmir’s legal status and the clampdown on communications in the state. Thus far, the newspaper has lamented that there has been little admonition of India in the global community, despite Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s best efforts. The recent editorial’s tone, however, is more optimistic.

Three recent reactions — from the US, Turkey and Malaysia — are used to make a case that the global reaction is bothering New Delhi . First, “US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells reiterated Washington’s position in a briefing giving to a Congressional panel, saying that the US considers the LoC ‘a de facto line separating two parts of Kashmir’.” Second, “Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stood by his criticism of India’s tactics in [Kashmir] at the UN General Assembly in September. The veteran leader’s forthright comments have drawn the ire of Indian trade bodies, with one concern calling for a ban on the import of Malaysian palm oil.” Finally, “Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s raising of the Kashmir issue — also at the UNGA — has reportedly made Narendra Modi postpone a forthcoming visit to Ankara.”

According to Dawn, India had thus far, due to its economic heft and influence, “bully smaller and less powerful states into toeing its line”. However, now stronger states are calling Delhi out. The editorial states that “all the spin in the world cannot change the situation on the ground” in Kashmir. It also asks India to engage in a dialogue with Pakistan and Kashmiris.

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