By Prapti Rahman
Bangladesh’s leadership seems to be backtracking on a promise to abolish quotas for civil service jobs that have angered university students and led to many weeks of protests, which have turned violent as pro-government youth activists allegedly beat up demonstrators.
At least five Western embassies in Dhaka have issued statements in recent days expressing grave concern. They urged Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, which faces a general election at the end of the year, to allow protesters to carry on peacefully with their demonstrations.
A cabinet-appointed committee is expected to release a report next week on whether and how to reform the policy. But, in an apparent climb down from a pledge she made three months ago to do away with the quotas, Hasina on Thursday said her government would not alter a key quota.
A centerpiece of the decades-old system, it sets aside 30 percent of civil service jobs to veterans, as well as relatives and descendants of those who fought in Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war.
Meanwhile, protest leaders have been arrested and the crackdown on the student-driven movement demanding reforms alarmed some Western governments.
The American embassy condemned “the outrageous attack on peaceful demonstrations by university students, the future leaders of Bangladesh’s proud democracy,” saying in a Facebook post this week that it stood in solidarity with those exercising their fundamental democratic rights.
“As friends of Bangladesh, we stand together with the protesting students in their demands for their right to assembly and their right to articulate their concerns to be protected by the rule of law,” the Norwegian embassy said Tuesday on its Facebook page.
At least 16 protesters have been arrested since early April, including 13 during the first 12 days of July alone, police confirmed.
Only one has been released on bail, while no activists from the youth wing of the ruling Awami League party have been arrested in connection with alleged assaults on student protesters, sources said.
The latest arrest occurred Thursday when A.P.M. Suhel, a student at Jagannath University and joint convener of the movement to reform the quota system, was taken into custody. Police said he was arrested on suspicion of participating in vandalizing the residence of Dhaka University’s vice chancellor, reports said.
A friend who witnessed Suhel’s arrest by plainclothes officers said activists from the Awami youth wing had attacked him a day earlier.
“Suhel was mercilessly beaten at the Jagannath University campus by the pro-government students wing Bangladesh Chhatra League,” Lucky Akhter told BenarNews.
‘Anarchy cannot be tolerated’: PM
The protests at university campuses in Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities turned violent in early April when videos showed young men armed with machetes entering the campus of Dhaka University and going after and beating up demonstrators.
The tensions and violence at the time prompted the prime minister to announce that she would end the quota system for coveted civil service jobs.
“Why do people suffer again and again?” Hasina told parliament on April 11. “To stop such suffering and [protest] movements, I announce the abolishment of all quotas, loud and clear. I say abolishment.”
The protests died down but picked up again after the end of Ramadan in mid-June when demonstrators became agitated over the government’s apparent inaction in following through on Hasina’s pledge. The protests intensified with leaders of the quota-reform movement announcing a boycott of classes and exams unless their demands are met.
“Students across the country are with us. Students of at least 16 departments of Dhaka University boycotted classes and examinations. We received similar news from Rajshahi University, Chittagong University and other educational institutions also,” Hasan Al Mamun, one the leaders of the movement, told BenarNews.
He said protests would continue until student leaders in police custody were freed and harassment and attacks targeting their movement ended.
In early July, the government announced that a committee would review the quota policy and issue a report. That report is expected to be submitted to the cabinet by July 19.
However on Thursday, Hasina, citing a High Court case related to the quota for war veterans, said this particular quota would remain intact.
“How would we violate that?” Hasina told parliament, referring to the court case. “It will be a clear violation, so we can’t do that.”
And, in an apparent warning to the demonstrators, she added, “anarchy cannot be tolerated.”
A leader of the protest movement, Nurul Haque Nuru, said the prime minister’s latest pronouncement left students nationwide feeling “dissatisfied.”
“It’s a betrayal to the students,” he told BenarNews.
What they want
Students have been protesting against a policy instituted since 1972 that sets aside quotas for some select groups in employment for government jobs. Under the system, 56 percent of civil service jobs are guaranteed for these groups, led by the war veterans and their families, which claim the lion’s share among the quotas, at 30 percent.
Among the other quotas, 10 percent of government jobs are reserved for women; another 10 percent for people from less privileged districts; 5 percent for members of indigenous communities; and 1 percent for physically challenged people. The remaining civil service posts are filled through competition.
As a result, protesters said, only 44 percent of the jobs are left for candidates who must compete for them. Most are university graduates in a country where 48.2 million people were unemployed last year, including 1.4 million with college degrees, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. The country’s unemployment rate stood at 4 percent last year, according to the World Bank.
“In Bangladesh millions of graduates remain jobless, and the existing quota system has shrunk our opportunities in getting a suitable job,” Hasan Al Mamun said.
A fellow protester, a master of science candidate at Dhaka University who identified himself only as Ataullah, insisted that the quota-reform movement was not out to deprive veterans of the 1971 war and their families of the quota reserved for them.
“We have utmost respect for them,” he told BenarNews. “What we want is a reduction of quotas and a level playing field for all.”