The puzzle of Chhatra League’s bashing up any one of its foes with obvious impunity is so unusual that its more akin to a puzzle than a political enigma. Violence has always been part of Bangladesh’s politics and nobody feels embarrassed about it. In fact, it’s taken for granted that the dominating political party will have students and youth wings which will have muscle power that will allow it to dominate the scene.
But the scale, regularity and impunity enjoyed currently are unprecedented. One never remembers such a situation though of course it’s all a matter of degree. But even last year or even a few months back this wasn’t quite the scene. What exactly is on?
An overblown trigger?
The anti-quota movement which began its current phase barely 3-4 months back was never a political threat to anyone because it is not a political movement as such. Its roots lie in the growth based economy without creating sufficient number of quality jobs. Had people had access to many jobs, things wouldn’t be so focused on government jobs. As economists have reported, graduates face a poor future and growth doesn’t reflect equitable prosperity. So even though there is not much politics, there is a sense of unrest. It is simmering underneath a remarkably placid political surface given it’s an electoral year.
But the resentment is a reality and the government knows that. The anti-quota movement is in itself not just about quota which applies to graduates trying to enter government jobs. Such is the high demand for such jobs - a government cadre being largely set for life - that ordinary students are turning into activists. The irony of course being those joining the movement for higher entry into government jobs are not going to get government jobs ever.
Be that as it may, social anxiety of most people except the rich and the powerful is increasing. It’s not a secret also that the urban scene is far more restless than the rural world where economic development has been more equitable. But here is the catch -22 which is creating greater pressure.
The villagers are producing more numbers of middle class due to several income sources. Many of them now are turning to the cities to become graduates who are then looking for jobs and not finding many. And that is fuelling resentment. If the last generation was happy that they could send their sons to college, this generation is not happy unless they get hired. One wonders if the government is in denial about the size of the unhappy middle class or not as pointed out by many economists.
If the market is unable to create jobs, then connections and networks, crime and informal work will grow to satisfy the economic demand. It will mean that people will try to look for decent jobs, as is usually the case. If that fails, they will look for bad jobs. If that fails they will look for freelance income. If that fails, not much is left except to join the long line of borderline legal economy and occasionally crime.
The messages from impunity?
The signal of impunity of Chhatra League has two messages. For a party which is at its peak of power it isn’t behaving like one as has been pointed out by many. It was rattled by the anti-quota movement and did back down in round one. The PM’s promise and later breaking it again show that its decision making was not well thought through as many pointed out. It was the same with the ruling party student leader who was expelled by her own organization first, then the University and then later taken back in the same order, and several others were expelled in retaliation as the university authority seemingly scrambled to be in lock-step with the ruling party student front. None were necessary and the entire scene was not a show of confidence.
Nor was the later version wise, which was to allow protesting activists to be bashed by Chhatra League as the police stood by. This was followed by denial of their involvement by government party national leaders. Later it was toned down to say that the BCL shouldn’t overdo it.
Extra-judicial killings are not a socially resented issue because those killed are mostly criminals and hence a “good riddance” attitude prevails. But the anti-quota activists are from the middle class whose network is large and goes beyond the campus. All are therefore affected by the quite unhindered beating up by the CL activists.
The attack on BNP leader Mahmudur Rahman while he had gone to obtain bail by the Chhatra League’s Kushtia unit is another example of the same puzzle. Was this necessary? Has it helped get more support or made the ruling party look stronger? Exercising impunity is never considered a sign of confidence. And so why is this supremely confident party behaving as if it needs it party enforcers to do what they want. And with no sense of consequence whatsoever?
The economic message
If jobs don’t grow at a much higher rate than they are now, the number of people wanting to join Chhatra League will grow as it becomes obvious that if you are part of the BCL, you can do whatever you want without any legal consequence. This is already happening and may grow more. So the bashing without police interference are basically becoming membership advertisement for the growing graduate population to seek a career in BCL not the government only.
But that is not enough of an explanation. The huge rally, the declaration of support, a largely loyal media, and most importantly, a depleted BNP with Khaleda Zia in jail but allowing an informal law and order system makes the whole situation far too puzzling. Why use so much force which is wholly unnecessary on such puny enemies?
Questions without answers, questions and more questions.