The Sylhet Crisis : Academia, A Symbol of Oppression?

In the midst of the political turmoil we saw the academic crisis in Sylhet, particularly at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST). What was interesting was the chain of events and the subsequent portrayal by the media of the whole issue. As one may think that the whole issue has been settled but one has to ask whether irrationality has prevailed over reason and logic. Academia should be for the people not the opposite. In Sylhet we saw how a group of reputed academicians backed by Bangladesh’s elitist media were able to overturn a legitimate demand by the locals of Sylhet. Without getting into the philosophical definition of democracy, we can define it as when people decide how the society they live in shall run. How the people shall delegate that power is an ongoing debate but as far as contemporary times are concerned, public institutions such as the universities, libraries, schools, parks and places where people of all walks of life gather are generally where real democracy functions. Those places allow people to decide their fate and a feeling of solidarity evolves through the belief that each and every person is being given a fair chance. SUST is no exception in that regard. The crisis in SUST sparked when there was a demand to abolish the combined examination process in which applicants in both Jessore and Sylhet can sit in their respective cities under the same examination paper and can be admitted to anyone of the universities based on the scores they achieve in the test. The decision for abolishing was a popular demand by the people of Sylhet and pretty much all the local parties and ironically both the BNP and Awami League submitted separate memos to the VC of SUST for the abolishment [D]. Locals in Sylhet allege that the combined system reduces the probability of the locals to be admitted to SUST and in addition to the abolishment there were demands even to introduce quotas for the people of Sylhet. Combined examination process or not, we may or may not agree but the demand was legitimate. However, once the combined process was indeed abolished, the very glamorous “academic couple”[E] resigned from SUST and with the help of mainstream media made it look like a crisis of unparalleled proportions. Eventually, the VC of SUST overturned the decision and postponed the exam and remains that way till today [C]. The focal point was always on the couple and their thoughts. An entire region was held hostage to a successful propaganda campaign by mainstream media. However, this success was due to the years of veneration of the “academic couple” by mainstream media and in turn stifled academic freedom in all forms and means. For years if not decades in Bangladesh, there has been a perception that our academics are more knowledgeable than anyone else which is not unusual in a country where disparity is staggering and on the rise. Academia has been the face of the elites and still continues to play that role. However, with the fledgling public education sector, came the rise of its privatization in the name of economic liberalization. Consequently, it became a matter of time in which academicians became nothing but pawns of Bangladesh’s elite. And such a notion becomes even more dangerous when “ideology” is blended in, as it plants the seeds of intolerance and strangulates the dissemination of other people’s views. The lack of accommodation of different views in important institutions like academia can lead to the death of democracy in society making academia a propaganda tool for the privileged few. Today SUST is yet to hold its entrance examination and at the moment there is an indefinite or uncertain postponement of the examination as the University authorities themselves are in a very ambivalent position. On one hand there is a popular demand from the Sylheti people and on the other hand there are a few people backed by Bangladesh’s powerful corporate media. The “academic couple” as they are known have a significant following in Bangladesh’s thriving elitist middle class. As the SUST crisis was unfolding we even saw how academics in SUST allied to the “academic couple” even mentioning that “liberation war minded” [A] people in the university would resign altogether if the admission process was not instituted in accordance to their liking. Such a claim is not only outlandish but grossly irresponsible and condemnable. The liberation war as we remember correctly was about establishing a democratic society with social justice and the people of Sylhet are not in contradiction with the spirit of the liberation war rather the contrary. The usage of rhetoric by allies of the “academic couple” with the support of mainstream media helps present those with an opposing view as the “enemy” and propagates a view that allows no room for debate but rather an abrasively aggressive attitude towards them. Hence, we get academic institutions that are societally futile. Quite recently we saw a group of well-known personalities gather at a very prominent hotel discussing about the then upcoming elections that amounted to nothing but a farce considering the fact that more than half of total electorate was denied their right to vote. One of the discussants was none other than a member of the “academic couple” who went out to say as paraphrased by the Daily Star [B] that people who wanted the election to be postponed as supporters of those who wanted Bangladesh’s now banned Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami to participate in the election. A pressing question has arisen here i.e. do you have to be a supporter of any particular party to ask for your democratic rights? Rather a person is always entitled to his/her democratic rights and shall never be denied of that. It’s the same kind of propaganda technique that was employed during the SUST crisis, lamenting those with opposing views as the enemy of state. It’s not unusual that the government uses the same technique when selling its policies to the general public, making those who oppose them as seditious personalities even if those people are have no affiliation. In the case of the “academic couple” it’s quite evident that they don’t have the slightest respect for people’s views rather they have been practicing academic elitism and seem to give the chesty outlook of having a prerogative. But it should be noted carefully that academic elitism is by no means limited to the “academic couple” and is very much prevalent within Bangladesh’s academia. Today we see a political crisis in Bangladesh and many foreign policy realists are even predicting civil war and we see talk shows every day where analysts always blame politicians but I don’t agree with them. Politicians can behave anyway they like but it is us the people to keep them in check so that they do not cross the line. And members of important public institutions like the academia whom have taken oath within themselves to protect the functionaries of democracy have betrayed the very people that they serve by simply convoluting the truth for self-interest. Sadly, but without a doubt the very last instrument of democracy i.e. the ballot box is no longer available to the public in how their fate should be decided in a country where many people have given their lives in 1971 for the very cause that we all have been denied to reap. Notes: (All References are From News Articles) [A] [B] [C] [D] [E] The term “academic couple” was borrowed from The Daily Star and all credits go to them for the terminology. ( )

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