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Are Bangladesh youth done with 1971 legacy? Anti-quota student protests question old ideas

Students question why jobs are given to those who flaunt their parents’ sacrifices over their own merit.

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On social media and in the streets, young Bangladesh is pushing back against the old one. It is trying to usher in an era where merit gets recognised and rewarded, and jobs aren’t just given away to those flaunting their parents’ sacrifices for the country. On the face of it, it seems like a good fight to fight.

The million-taka question, however, is whether the nation’s youth is trying to shed the very idea of Bangladesh in its quest for a more just system. Thousands of students from Dhaka University and other educational institutions have brought the capital to a halt. They’re protesting against the quota in government jobs, demanding a complete rehaul. Under this provision, 30 per cent of government jobs are reserved for the children and grandchildren of patriots who spilled their blood in the 1971 Liberation War.

Some troubling questions

In Bangladesh, 56 per cent of entry positions in government jobs are reserved for specific “entitled” classes”. Apart from 30 per cent reservation for the progeny of freedom fighters, 10 per cent of the positions are allocated to women, 10 per cent to different districts based on their population, 5 per cent to ethnic minorities, and 1 per cent to people with disabilities. This means that general candidates can only apply for 44 per cent of the country’s government jobs.

Varsities such as the University of Rajshahi have been protesting against this since 2018. This ‘quota reform movement’ had spread outside Dhaka to places such as Chittagong and Comilla, and roads and highways were blocked. It even took a violent turn, with allegations that the student wing of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, the Bangladesh Chhatra League, had attacked protestors. Later that year, the government decided to scrap the entire quota system.

However, on 5 June 2024, “the (Bangladesh) High Court declared the circular that cancelled the quota system as illegal. After the government appealed the ruling and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court upheld the HC directive, students once again were forced to launch a movement,” the Daily Star wrote on 7 July.

Hasnat Abdullah, a Dhaka University student and an organiser of the protests, told The Daily Star that their only demand now is that “all illogical and discriminatory quotas in public service are scrapped through the passage of a law in parliament, keeping a minimum quota for backward citizens in line with the constitution.”

There is indeed some merit to the argument that the 30 per cent quota should be reviewed. Especially given the fact that some serious doubt has been cast on the process of listing freedom fighters in Bangladesh

As reported by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in May, the number of unemployed people in the country increased by around 2.4 lakh to 25.9 lakh in the first quarter of 2024. So, the government’s 56 per cent reservation policy is bound to be critiqued.

What is alarming, though, is how the protesting students seem to have cut off the umbilical cord with their country’s birth story.

Sharin Shajahan Naomi, who teaches law at the Independent University of Bangladesh, told INDIANEXPOSE that the 1971 war has little relevance left for the nation’s youth. “They [young people] treat 1971 freedom fighters with indifference. They even make fun of those who are “äbegi” or overly sentimental around 1971 and the war of independence,” she said. According to Naomi, this anti-quota campaign even saw several memes, jokes and comments mocking the 1971 war and freedom fighters. “This is shocking to those of us who hold our birth story dearer than ourselves.”


Also read: Smart Bangladesh or Sharia — For Hindus, it’s Hasina or an abyss this election


Moving on from 1971

Students’ movement to scrap the quota for freedom fighters’ descendants comes on the heels of another protest that rocked Bangladesh after Sheikh Hasina returned to power on 7 January. The “India Out” campaign, carried out by social media influencers and activists, exhorted Bangladeshi citizens to boycott all Indian products. It alleged that New Delhi had helped Hasina retain power undemocratically by manipulating the electoral process.

While this came as a shock to many Bangladesh watchers in India, the anti-incumbency sentiment against Hasina had been turning into an anti-India sentiment for quite some time. And this was happening even when Narendra Modi and Hasina’s bonhomie and New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Dhaka were making headlines. This souring of relations became evident in the viral video of Bangladeshi fans cheering India’s defeat in the ODI World Cup 2023. Many X users in India blamed this celebration on Bangladesh’s rising communalism against Hindus, but the situation is a lot more complex than that.

As is evident from the current quota protests on Dhaka’s streets, Bangladeshi youth do not dig their 1971 origin story in the way previous generations did. By extension, many today are dismissive of the role the Indian Army played in helping Bangladesh become an independent nation. Pakistan Army’s 1971 ethnic cleansing in the country has also been largely forgotten, with the average Bangladeshi youth more inclined to cheer for the Pakistan cricket team in a match than India.

On 19 November 2021, the Pakistan Cricket Board thanked Bangladeshi fans for their support during the Pakistan-Bangladesh clash in a T20 match in Dhaka. “Hundreds of fans lined up along the road to cheer the Pakistan side after they whitewashed the hosts in the three-match T20 series, with the PCB tweeting out a video clip of it from its official handle,” Arab News reported. Even a decade ago, openly cheering for the Pakistan team would have been unthinkable in Dhaka.

A skewed quota system has become one more headache for the Hasina administration –after inflation, joblessness, alleged corruption in high offices, and accusations of electoral malpractices. India must keep an eye on Bangladesh’s civil society as it cannot afford to lose the one true friend it has in the neighbourhood.

Deep Halder is an author and journalist. He tweets @deepscribble. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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