Mujahidul Islam Selim, president of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), talks to Naznin Tithi of The Daily Star about the spirit of the 1962 education movement, the current state of our education system, and how commercialising it helps create further inequality in society.
How would you evaluate the 1962 movement that the Education Day commemorates?
The education movement of 1962 was an unprecedented event in the political history of this nation. The movement had been waged by the students of then East Pakistan for a pro-people education policy and to establish ordinary people's right to education. At the same time, it was our first attempt to revolt against the then Pakistani military ruler Ayub Khan. Inequality in education has always been an issue in our society. While the British imperialists followed a colonial policy to educate our people, in the Pakistan period, the Pakistani rulers continued to follow those policies and made new repressive policies to dominate and oppress the people of East Pakistan.
The British Indian policymakers planned to educate the Indians in a way that they would remain Indians physically but ideologically they would be like the British. To that end, they formulated a policy to educate only a section of the people to perpetuate their colonial rule in India. Pakistani rulers followed that same policy.
In 1962, the Ayub government published the Sharif Commission's report in which instead of ensuring education for all as a basic right, there was a clear attempt to commercialise education and make it accessible only to a section of people. It was specifically mentioned in the report that education should be considered a commercial activity, meaning that only those with money would have access to education while the door would be closed to the poor and low-income people. This also meant that the state would not take any responsibility for educating the common people.
In the Sharif Commission's report, it had been mentioned that "Urdu should be made the language of the people of Pakistan", "English should be made compulsory from class VI", "Education should not be available at a cheaper rate", "there is reason to see investment in industry and education at par", etc. The commission's recommendation that the two years' degree course should be upgraded to three years was also against the interest of the students and they took to the street to protest this move. For the poor farmers' children, it was difficult to study even a two-year course, and lingering the course length by one year meant that many would have to quit education. Thus, students from all levels joined the movement to press home their demands.
During that time, another movement was building up in favour of democracy. After martial law was promulgated in 1958 and Ayub became the self-appointed president of Pakistan and chief martial law administrator, he came up with his own constitution. A document named "basic principles" was publicised by the government in which the democratic rights of the people of East Pakistan were trampled upon.
During that time, the leaders of Awami League and the Communist Party (then operating in hiding) secretly held a number of meetings to end the suffocating environment prevailing in East Pakistan. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Comrade Moni Singh, Khoka Roy were present there. Tofazzal Hossain Manik Mia, the editor of Ittefaq, helped arrange these meetings. The topics of discussion included demand for democracy, release of political prisoners, independence of the judiciary, etc. A decision was taken from these meetings that the national leaders would call upon the Chhatra League and Chhatra Union to wage a movement together to push these demands. In one of the meetings, Bangabandhu told other leaders to take note of the demand for the independence of East Pakistan.
The 1962 education movement was simultaneously a movement for ending discrimination in education as well as for establishing people's democratic rights, as both issues came to the forefront when students protested the education report of the Sharif Commission.
Three students—Mostafa, Babul and Wajiullah—were killed when police opened fire at the students' demonstrations.
How would you compare the education system of the pre-Liberation period with the system that we have now? How far have we progressed in ensuring quality education for all?
Although the movement for a pro-people education policy started in 1962, it continued throughout the years till our independence in 1971. Around 1964, there was another round of student movement to reform the education policy. And after the mass uprising of 1969, the Nur Khan Education Commission was formed and it presented another education report. However, it was just a new version of the last two education commissions' reports during Ayub Khan's regime and was outright rejected by the students.
I was a freedom fighter and participated in the battle to liberate Dhaka. On December 17, I along with my whole battalion entered Dhaka and within 20 days Bangladesh Chhatra Union held a meeting. I was then the general secretary of Chhatra Union's central committee. In that meeting, we decided that we would make a draft education policy for the newly independent country. Accordingly, we formed our own education commission which published its report within two months. We distributed the report among the public.
When the Qudrat-i-Khuda Education Commission was formed, we from Bangladesh Chhatra Union presented our recommendations to the commission. Many of our recommendations were reflected in the commission's report.
To get back to your question, let me say that during Ayub Khan's rule, we used to say that free thinking and equal education for all were not possible in a subjugated country, and that democracy and independence are needed for making education accessible to all. Sadly, after almost 50 years of our independence, we could not yet ensure equality and equal access to education for all.
One of the key features of the Sharif Commission's report was that it considered education as a commercial product that could be accessed only by those with money. How would you assess the current situation?
Seventy percent of the tax that we give to the government is indirect tax. People irrespective of their income have to give this indirect tax at the same rate. Why do we give this money to the state? We give that because in exchange for that tax, we are entitled to certain services to be provided by the state. It is written in our constitution that it is the responsibility of the state to provide all citizens with food, shelter, treatment and education. We were making some progress in education after independence but now everything has changed.
Now it is being said that a university should generate its own income. The question is, how will the universities do that? By increasing tuition fees? If a university has to generate its income through increasing the tuition fees, the direct effect of this would be that only the affluent section of society will get the scope for education while those with limited means will be left behind. The economic inequality in society will then directly affect the opportunities to get education.
The direct result of commercialisation of education has been manifested in many of the events of recent times. We have seen how university teachers have resorted to plagiarism in writing their doctoral thesis, or how educational certificates can be bought now with money.
How do you suggest our public universities should be run if they do not generate their own income?
We have always been saying that one-third of our national budget must be allocated for health, education and social welfare. There is no alternative to increasing the budgetary allocation if we want to ensure equality in education. While research should be one of the most important things our universities should be doing, research is almost non-existent in these institutions. The public universities' budget for research is negligible, and whatever the budget may be, that also mostly remains unutilised. How will our universities generate new knowledge if there is no scope for research?
What should be done to remove inequality in education?
Our vision should be to reestablish the principles of 1971 through a social revolution. There is no shortcut. The Pakistani army and their local collaborators killed our intellectuals prior to our victory to cripple the nation. While a nation can be crippled through killing its greatest souls, it is also possible to cripple it through making its education system distorted, corrupt, communal and commercial.