Education can wait, freethinking can be shelved, and new ideas can sleep
When I set foot in Leeds in West Yorkshire, I was greeted by the chilly north wind. With shivers running up and down my spine, I somehow trudged across the rail station.
And there I met a group of youths – they were all members of the university students' union. September is the beginning of the academic year, and students start to flock to this city then. They are greeted at the rail station by members of the students' union who advise them on where to lodge and what to do next.
The next few days were amazing too. I had to go from one building to another to register, to open a bank account, to find a place in a hostel and so on. Someone from the students' union helped me out all along.
The students' union was housed in a very nice building that had a bar, a discotheque, a gym and many small rooms where student groups could meet and hold discussions. I joined some of them – one was on non-proliferation of nuclear arms, one was on forced military training, and one was on literature.
Students would hand over flyers to you, asking you to join their groups, which were funded by the university.
The union office was a very pleasant place and offered the opportunity of many intellectual activities. Students could organise flash sales to sell many interesting things – from innovative posters to art to funky apparel.
Once I found some members of the union campaigning and collecting signatures to be sent to the university administration to protest a decision to erect a new building. The students felt that would destroy the university's ecology – it was one of the greenest places I have ever seen. Once the union demanded more computer lab facilities.
After coming back to our Dhaka University where I also studied for some years, I only saw the rundown building of the students' union from the outside, but never had the nerve to enter it.
Throughout the day the leaders of the student union, or Chhatra Netas as they were called, brought out processions on campus demanding the fall of Ershad (he was then the president of the country), or demanding the release of some national politicians from prison, or something similar that had to do with national politics.
The slogans that activists shouted during union elections still reverberate in my mind because they are so deeply ingrained there through repeated incantation: "Amana (Aman, who later became a minister), Khokana (Khokon, another BNP leader), Khaleda Zia" and "Dudu (now a BNP politician), Ripon (a BNP politician too)", "Santrashider kalo hat vengey dao guriya dao (break the black hands of criminals)".
There were hefty campaigns. But not for a single day or a single moment did I find the student union, or rather the student leaders, talking about the rights or the plight of students.
In the meantime, the students suffered.
They had terrible lodgings at the hostels, and the rooms were allocated only at the mercy of these student leaders with the promise of joining their groups. The library was anything but a library. Nobody ever held any teacher accountable for not holding class for days together. I myself found many teachers in my department whose once-in-a-blue-moon appearance in class was regarded as a great privilege.
I remember I once borrowed a book from the central library and did not return it on time. The library probably fined me half a taka or 50 paisa.
The fine could not be paid at the library. I had to get a form from the library (or maybe from the administration building, I have forgotten).
I had to fill-out the long form and get it signed by the department chairperson, then get it signed by the librarian, then from the administrative official, and also from other places that I have completely forgotten.
Then I had to go to the bank and stand in a long queue for hours to pay my 50 paisa fine. After that experience, I never borrowed books from the library again.
There was a similar hassle at every point for every other formality. Our great student leaders or the union did not talk about them, did not make them an issue, ever. These were insignificant problems that were too trivial for consideration by their invaluable and glorious brains.
They actually were all doing sycophancy, or "Lejurbritti" as they call it in Bangla, of the national leaders. Because they knew where money and power lies. Their main grab was national politics and the money that flows with it.
Even now, years down the line, our student politics is still the same. Or maybe it has become worse because the role of money in politics has become even more prominent.
These student leaders are now being used to beat up school children who protest for safety on the streets, to chase away opposition men, to take control of any 'unwarranted' situation.
So when they get such important assignments, they also take a free ride by grabbing work contracts, by creating complete anarchy on the campus, by being the semi-gods that they have become today.
Education can wait, freethinking can be shelved, and new ideas can sleep.
I remember Zia Haider Rahman, the Bangladeshi-born new literary sensation, who once said during a visit to Bangladesh that when ideas are not encouraged in a country, when ideas are dead in a country, that society cannot advance any more. That society becomes dead as well.
With the current curtailment of freethinking, we are also breeding a dead society.