Anti-quota Movement, Violence, and Diplomatic Norms
Dr. A J M Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, Professor and Founder Chair of the Department of Television, Film, and Photography, University of Dhaka : The student movement demanding the reformation of the quota system in state jobs has turned into a quagmire for the government. This movement has been shrouded in misunderstanding, miscommunication, and mishandling. Delay in the settlement of the issue is allowing the opponents of the government at home and abroad to infiltrate the movement to fuel it to be a game-changing act in the wake of the upcoming parliamentary election. Can the government undo this booby trap? This movement originated several years ago but has culminated into a mass student movement recently. This sprang up based on a misconception that poor quality candidates get government jobs, especially civil service jobs, bypassing meritorious candidates because of a quota system. Like in many other countries, Bangladesh reserves quotas in state jobs for many groups of people such as the freedom fighters, women, minorities, and physically challenged for creating equality in society. But the number of reserved jobs is higher than the number of jobs open for competition. Every job seeker has to pass the competitive examinations to get a job; however, the candidates belonging to the groups who have jobs reserved for them can get jobs despite their inferior positions in the merit list, creating a sense of deprivation among the superior candidates. During the last four decades, many reserved state jobs remained vacant because of the lack of suitable candidates . The Sheikh Hasina government addressed this by amending the job quota system. After the amendment, the reserved jobs are open to other candidates when there are no suitable candidat es from the groups which enjoy job quotas. The anti-quota movement leaders either are not aware of this amendment or advertently suppressed this information to bolster their movement for revisions to the job quota system.
Police attack on the student rally at Shahbag and Dhaka University campus helped to rile up students for participating in the movement. During the clash between the police and the students, a vested quarter spread rumors on Facebook that a Dhaka University student was killed by police firing to agitate the students. A mob of the movement activists attacked and vandalized the residence of the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University. Facebook has been used as a means to organize students. Rumors, fabricated stories, and distorted as well as concocted images played key roles in agitating students and garner public sympathy for the movement and its leaders.
The Prime Minister and the general secretary of the ruling party have duly realized the magnitude and consequence of the movement but a large portion of the ruling party and its student wing misconceived the movement as they either read it as an anti-government movement or as a movement organized by the anti-government forces. Reckless and derogatory comments made by a key minister about the participants of the movement further fueled up the agitation. This is not to deny that the anti-government elements and the elements which opposed the creation of Bangladesh have poked their noses in the movement. It is quite usual for them to try to use any opportunity to topple the government. It becomes easy when many in the ruling party and its different wings fail to grasp a popular movement and prefer to thwart it by rhetoric and repressive means. The movement is turning out to be a grotesque coalition of elements belonging to the extreme right and the extreme left.
The General Secretary of the ruling Awami League showed prudence in dealing with the agitating students. He sat with them and discussed how their demands could be fulfilled.
The Prime Minister in a speech at the parliament stated that there would be no job quota and asked the Cabinet Secretary to find out means to facilitate state jobs for ethnic minorities and the physically challenged. After the declaration of the Prime Minister, the movement split into two fractions. One fraction withdrew from the movement by hailing the Prime Minister while another fraction decided to carry on until the Prime Minister’s declaration got formalized by a gazette notification.
Delay in formalizing the Prime Minister’s declaration and poor communication and lackluster comments about the government move on the quota system by the top bureaucrats of the country such the Cabinet Secretary and Public Administration Secretary created confusion among people.
Manhandling of the leaders and activists of the quota movement on different university campuses by the police and some members of the student wing of the ruling party have swayed public opinion against the government. In an extraordinary development, foreign missions including the U.S. and some European missions have also weighed in to protect the rights of the organizers of the anti-quota movement. Although anyone can ask whether the Vienna Convention which provides immunity to a diplomat in the host country allows them to meddle in the internal affairs of the country, it is common for foreign diplomats in Bangladesh to comment on internal issues.
The recent developments in the anti-quota movement indicate that it could drag the government’s reputation through the mud if it fails to resolve the issue in a reasonable manner. The demand for reforming the job quota system is a popular demand and organizing protest rallies is a constitutional right. The government needs to watch out for the elements which are out there in its political wings, bureaucracy, and the law enforcement agencies to create opportunities for the anti-quota movement to take an ominous turn.