It has been nearly three months since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared of abolishing all sorts of quota privileges in the public service amid students' nationwide demonstration demanding reforms in the recruitment system. She was unambiguous in announcing - "The quota system will be scrapped as the students do not want it." When the quota reform protests peaked, the prime minister told the parliament on April 11 that she would rather see the system go than sufferings of the people due to repeated protests. Up until end of June neither the government issued any gazette in this effect, nor did constitute any committee to look into the matter.

It took another bout of agitation to make the government compelled in forming a cabinet secretary-led committee on July 2 to look into the quota issue. When the April 11 prime ministerial announcement was 'abolishing' the quota system altogether, this committee has given a mandate with several options to choose from - review and/or reform and/or revoke. It's up to the government to determine upon receipt of the committee report (in 15 working days) that whether it should go for quota abolishment or some sorts of reform to the existing quota system, which is heavily against meritocracy.

When someone appears for exams to get selected for public service in Bangladesh, his/her chance of getting the job depends less on merit and more on quota privileges. The quota system that is still in force keeps as high as 56 percent positions up for grab under quotas, which include; 30 percent for freedom fighters' children and grandchildren, 10 percent for women, 10 percent for people of less-represented districts, 5 percent for people of indigenous communities, and one percent for the physically challenged candidates. So every right-conscious people in the country, which is not limited to the protesting students or jobseekers only, consider that there must be a reform in the quota system if we want to see our future leadership in public bureaucracy is formed with people who are chosen on the basis of merit.

But months after government's assurance and clear promise about quota abolishment/reform, it appears now that taking to the street for drumming up support for a rightful cause can be most dangerous thing to do in Bangladesh. General students who are just trying to hold press briefing or forming human chain as a democratic way of reminding government about its forgotten promise are being targeted, humiliated, intimidated, roughed up and manhandled on the campuses of some of the country's highest seats of education in wide public view on broad daylight. The way a group of students, who are said to be members of a particular students' organisation, brandished rods and sticks and beat up many general students in the past week just for their joining a peaceful quota reform movement, is barbaric to say the least. And they did so in complete impunity with law enforcers playing a passive/bystander role. In certain cases, media reports say, police even left the places of occurrences naively allowing the 'hooligans' prowling around in search of their prey. When media approached police they said keeping sensitivity of varsity areas in mind they informed proctorial authorities about ensuing unpleasant incidents. And the height of it was then - when some proctorial authorities of academic institutions simply shrugged off responsibilities to their injured and humiliated students saying "none informed them about those incidents."

Over the past one week or so dozens of photographs and video clips depicting alleged Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) men mercilessly beating up quota reform activists, giving them chase of their life, pounding and bettering them have gone viral. Bangladesh witnessed such barbaric acts - all in the name of defending government against a movement, which ironically the government itself had given recognition through acknowledgment that the need for quota reform. Some say such hooliganism stemmed out from a perceived notion in certain political circle that whoever asking for reform in the quota system belongs to the camp that doesn't liking the idea of freedom fighters' children and grandchildren getting a 30 percent quota privileges in government jobs. But such interpretation of the quota reform demand is largely misconstrued. The quota movement activists have clarified many a times that the reform demand has to be seen holistically - it's nothing particularly about one quota privilege or the other rather, it's about giving merit a better chance.

It was shocking for not only the fellow students but also for many teachers and guardians to see newspapers flashing reports that how tertiary-level students are being humiliated and intimidated on campuses all around the country, on Shahbagh, Central Shaheed Minar and National Press Club areas. Some quota movement leaders were detained by police, some picked up and later released allegedly by pro-government student body. Some were put on remand after being sent into jail in cases that were previousely unheard of. In a democracy cases can be pursued against people if they're found to be guilty of one offence or the other but, when people get to see some students with the name tag attached of certain brand getting away with committing offences - it stirs disturbances and a deep sense of anguish in public mind. There have been similar instances in the past where ruling party appendages were seen trying to chastise opposition dissent behaving as another arm of law enforcement.

When certain quarter continued 'political policing' over students by beating them, throwing them out of their dormitories and not allowing them to exercise their democratic rights of gathering, holding rallies and media briefings, some teachers, guardians felt compelled to rally support in favour of the rightful cause of quota reform, seeking justice for the repressed students. Police on Tuesday (July 3) foiled a demonstration of a platform of parents and teachers at National Press Club in Dhaka protesting the detention of quota reform leaders. Police also allegedly assaulted a Dhaka University teacher when a platform of parents and teachers gathered there for holding a demonstration programme expressing concern over the detention of quota reform leaders. Two of the organisers/participants - a former university teacher and an ex-left-leaning student leader were picked up too only to be released a little over half an hour later. These all reflect a shrinking space of dissent, which go counter to the spirit of democracy that we often so proudly boast.

Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor, United News of Bangladesh

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