Written by Gopika Kumaran
Once again, the streets of Dhaka are filling up with students in protest against the age-old quota system for the Bangladesh Civil Service Examination. On February 25th, students began staging demonstrations in various campuses against a quota system that creates one of the most competitive exams in the nation. Recently, protests turned violent. To understand this growing unrest in Bangladesh, we must first try to trace the source of the problem.
Understanding the Reservation Controversy
56% of the seats in the current system are allocated to quotas, while minorities comprise only 5% of the population and only 44% are included in the ‘general’ category. This means that 220,000 graduates fight for 2400 to 3000 government jobs and a large number of reserved positions still remain vacant because there are not enough people to fill in the reserved seats.
30% of the seats are allotted to the descendants of freedom fighters; the protesters claim that this quota has been abused; they carry facts to back this claim. The list of freedom fighters has been changed six times since 1971. When there were too many applicants, the term of service for freedom fighters was increased to control eligibility. The terms and conditions are changed often, and the listing is not transparent enough. There have been various instances where senior officials have used freedom fighter certificates, which have been found to be fake. Even the Public Service Commission, in their 2009, 2011 and 2016 reports, stressed on the difficulty of implementation and the need for simplification of the quota system.
The quota has its heart in the right place. It was introduced by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, for freedom fighters. In 1996, it was then extended to their children and grandchildren by his daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Even in late March, PM Hasina reiterated the need for the quota to pay the freedom fighters their due respect and said that the quota would stay, amid growing protest. Eminent author, respected academic and activist Dr Muhammad Zafar Iqbal also urged the need to protect the reputation of the freedom fighters, although he agreed that reform was necessary.
A group of students, most from Dhaka University, have been carrying out protests since 2013 and had filed a petition in January 2018 which was rejected in March by the court, on the grounds that none of the petitioners was hurt by the quota system. The Dhaka University (DU) Vice Chancellor Akhtaruzzaman expressed solidarity on the university’s behalf, saying “the students had brought up logical points and reform is necessary.” The Dhaka University Teachers’ Association showed their support in a letter signed by President Maksud Kamal. The organisation said that reform of the quota system was a ‘necessity of the era’.
On April 8th, Dhaka University’s campus became home to a large-scale protest. However, this soon turned violent when the police started dispersing the crowd using teargas shells, batons, and water cannons. The conflict continued, and the next day the demonstrators answered by throwing brickbats at the police. It is disappointing that the protest had to culminate in a final showdown of violence. Only 150 injured students could bring this issue into the spotlight, and provoke the PM to give some sort of a promise to act against the quota.
These protesters are not making noise without providing suggestive remedies. Hasan Ali, a PG student who is part of the protesters from Dhaka University, told ucanews.com that they don’t want the quota to be completely abolished. They want the quota to be below 10%, which would leave 90% of the seats to be fought fairly on merit. If there are no eligible candidates from the quotas, recruitment can be done from the merit list. Protesters also demanded mechanisms to stop the “repeated use of quota privileges”. The current demands are organised into a 5-point list including the ones above which was submitted to the PM’s office.
This reservation quota was relevant at the time it was introduced, in 1972, because it was just after the Bangladesh war had ended. It helped to protect freedom fighters, war-affected women, and other minorities. Apart from being reformed multiple times since its implementation, reservations for war-affected women was also abolished shortly after. Yet, the freedom fighter’s quota has never been reduced and was even expanded in 1997 to include fighters’ grandchildren. If the reserved seats are not filled, they are left vacant. Having left huge vacancies in these past few years, it is time to reconsider the size, efficiency, and relevance of the quota.
To Reserve or Not to Reserve?
Like most countries and affirmative action, it seems fair that Bangladesh’s quotas were created to balance and adjust for historical setbacks. Yet, unless regularly re-evaluated, these quotas might create new imbalances in themselves. Instead of empowering and protecting freedom fighters, the reservation for the public service exam is actively creating seat vacancies. Neither are these seats used by the freedom fighters’ kin nor are they accessible to meritorious candidates, creating an imbalance out of irrational deprivation. The students of Bangladesh are reeling under the effects of these imbalances, thereby demanding a reduced (not abolished) quota.
On April 10th, Prime Minister Hasina said she has decided to scrap the quota altogether because “students do not want it”. She also promised special arrangements for jobs for people with disabilities and backward ethnic minorities. The students had suspended the protests for a while, but there was no concrete action even after May 8, which was the deadline set by the students. A spokesperson for the Council to Protect Bangladesh’s General Students Rights told Al Jazeera that until the government passed a gazette notification, they “have no option but to be on the streets again”. Dhaka University’s classes are empty and the streets of Dhaka have filled with student-protesters again. And because the affected citizens do not seem to be backing off this time, one can hope for an inspired action and peaceful dialogue initiated by Hasina’s government. After a long, gruelling struggle, a resolution may finally be in sight for Bangladesh’s aspriring youth.