Suppressing the Fearsome Quota Movement

Originally published in Dhaka Tribune.

Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) men have violently attacked peaceful participants of the quota reform movement over the past two days with the police’s assistance. Many leaders of the movement have been picked up and beaten on the streets, often in the presence of the media.

But why is Bangladesh’s largest student organization so hell-bent on quashing a movement that millions of Bangladeshi students have committed to?

Because they are afraid. They are afraid of the power and solidarity that this movement has shown so far. In the 10 years of AL’s rule, no student group has been able to stand up to the reign of terror that BCL has claimed over the general students more effectively than the quota reformers.

Because the quota reformers got such an upsurge of support from the powerless students in the college campuses at its peak, it was able to push back on the dauntless authority of the BCL. Even though this bout was followed by a series of repressive actions from the students, ranging from eviction from university housing to petty intimidation, the damage to BCL’s influence had been dealt.

Many BCL leaders even saw the acceptance of the reformers’ demands and the subsequent celebration of the movement by the party as further damage to the dignity of the party. So why did the party accept the demands of the movement in the first place?

The movement, in its peak, had grown so strong and had mobilized so many students, that it was impossible to directly quash the movement by brute force, and even political co-optation was not on the table because of the antagonism between BCL and reformer leaders that had instantaneously risen in that period.

Therefore, the only means of co-optation was through an acceptance, even if a false one, of the demands of the movement.

But how was the movement able to mobilize such a fearsome mass? It seems that issue-based movements such as the anti-Rampal protests or the MPO-inclusion movement have had a hard time gaining broad-based support since the 2013 populist episode (Shahbagh-Hefazat).

However, the quota reform movement was able to overcome that challenge with a very tactful framing of their grievance. There were small tactical decisions that helped them to organize and mobilize, such as using the motifs of the Liberation War and the anti-dictator movement of the 90s, forming district-based and institution-based organizations and creating a strong central body with multiple leading figures.

But the most effective aspect was the framing of their central grievance. They chose a specific policy issue (the distribution of the reservation system in public jobs) that was already seen as quite unjust. This perceived injustice received further momentum because of the skewed economic development of Bangladesh that has left a large chunk of the middle and lower-income people out of its growth (CPD studies have shown that one in three highly educated youths in the country are unemployed, whereas the average per capita wage has declined over the past few years).

The quota reform movement thereby arose as an outburst against this unequal distribution of economic growth. Indeed, at one stage, the reformers even took aim at all sorts of discrimination.

However, the leaders of the quota reform movement were very intentional in limiting it toward a single-issue focus. Following the same limiting trend, leaders used the motifs of the ruling party from the very beginning, to make sure that they were not misunderstood as a political challenge.

Therefore, even if the participants had other grievances, they were not allowed to be voiced. While this limiting strategy may have worked very well in the early stages of the movement, allowing it to appeal to powerless students who wanted to stay out of electoral politics but wanted reforms of the system, it has become a burden at this stage, when the movement has been dragged into a confrontational position with the ruling party.

Because the movement has now presented itself as the only veritable third force against the power of the BCL and the populist expression of the frustrations of youth, the ruling party, especially the BCL, needs to silence it if it wants to go into the election cycle unperturbed.

In order to keep its influences solid and its policy positions favourable to its beneficiaries, the party may see the need to quell the movement of the people so that it can claim that the people are with it and not outside of it.

That is why BCL has put in so much time and effort into proving that the movement has been co-opted by opposition forces. While this may not have been a big problem for pre-2013 populist movements, when reformist movements often sided with political opposition because of strategic benefits, it has become a large challenge for the quota reformation movement because of its own limited pro-government framing.

Because it identified itself as pro-ruling party and non-electoral, the only move that remains open to the reformers against BCL’s smear campaign is to actually prove that they have no connection with the opposition forces whatsoever, which is a very hard thing to do in a movement this size. Going forward, the existence and popularity of the quota reformers will depend on how well they tackle the charges of co-optation.

While the BCL is active with its brute power and smear campaign, the AL is playing the game of mirages, offering the protesters tokens such as the seven-member committee that was recently formed to probe into the quota crisis.

Which means, if the students still continue their protests for a faster solution to their problem, or even in demands of justice for those who have been attacked, they will promptly be identified as political operatives of the opposition, and their demands will be discredited as wrongfully motivated.

If the students slow down or back off, it would just allow the BCL to continue with its repressive campaign. The ruling party’s token, therefore, presents a two-fold problem for the quota reformers.

If they are able to tackle the charges of co-optation, or form their own electoral alternative, (which is highly unlikely, given their initial non-electoral framing) the movement could save its leaders, and become a big challenge for the ruling AL and its student wing.

Because the waves of students seem unstoppable so far, new leaders emerge to sacrifice their bodies as soon as the BCL abducts, injures, or otherwise maims the previous leaders. These waves will keep coming until BCL and AL successfully delegitimize or suppress the movement.

Which form this suppression will take, if any, will depend on the crucial decisions that the remaining quota reformer leaders will take at this tumultuous time.

Anupam Debashis Roy is a student of International Affairs and Economics at Howard University, and the editor of alternative media platform Muktiforum. 

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