When you look back, one year after the announcement by the prime minister scrapping the quota system, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? And how do you view the transformations that have taken place since?
We launched the quota movement on February 17, 2018. It lasted for nearly eight months, until October 4 when the public administration ministry issued a circular officially scrapping the quota system. In that sense, the movement was the biggest since the pro-democracy movement in 1990. But the history of protests against the quota system in the public service is quite long. During my first year at DU in 2013, I also saw protests by students, which were snuffed out. But the anger and frustration never went away. In a way, all those unsuccessful attempts were instrumental in creating the momentum that prompted students under the banner of Bangladesh Sadharan Chhatra Adhikar Sangrakkhan Parishad (Bangladesh General Students' Rights Protection Council) to take to the streets on February 17 with a five-point demand. And then on April 8, students from almost all major universities and colleges in the country came out on the streets. It was a spontaneous gathering. The students were angry. They felt that the quota system was archaic and anti-meritocratic, and therefore needed to be reformed.
What happened during those days is public knowledge. Any newspaper timeline will tell you what we did or what was done to us. Most of it played out in public. However, the prime minister's announcement on April 11 can be seen from different perspectives. Firstly, it scrapped all quotas in one fell swoop. It brought considerable relief to the agitating students, but also caused a bit of confusion as we wanted only “reforms” in the system—not its abolition. And for the quota activists, the relief was short-lived, as the announcement brought in its wake an unfortunate chain of events including detentions, remands, court cases, assaults, death threats and so on. Like many others, I was also subjected to torture and harassment. My family and I had to constantly worry about the safety of my life. The experience that I went through is, frankly, indescribable.
In your view, how successful was the quota movement?
Our demand was for reforming the quota system for classes I, II, III and IV jobs in the public service. But the government scrapped the system altogether—although for class-I and class-II jobs only. Despite that, we welcomed the decision. There is, however, a smidgen of doubt about how effective this decision will be given the age-specific quota which remains in place. All things considered, I will say that the purpose of the quota movement couldn't be achieved in full. It was partially successful.
After all the announcements and decisions, there still seems to be a tendency in some circles to discredit the quota movement. Why is that?
It's unfortunate that such a thing should happen because our movement was built on a simple and unambiguous premise: we wanted “reforms” in the quota system. We were neither against any party nor against any particular form of quota. But some people within the government still talk as if our purpose was exactly that. You may recall that a few days ago, the vice-chancellor of Rajshahi University called the quota activists “Razakarer bachcha” (offspring of Razakars). Such derogatory comments, while very frustrating for the activists, also reflect poorly on the government itself as it failed to convince its own people of the judiciousness of its abolition decision.
The preliminary test of the 40th Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) exam will be held on May 3. It will be the first since the abolition of the quota system, which had been in place in one form or another since 1972.
Yes, for the first time in 47 years, the BCS examination is going to be held solely based on merit. Notwithstanding the reform/abolition conundrum, it's a historic occasion—and a welcome development not just for the young job-seekers but also for the entire nation. An administration peopled by efficient professionals will naturally be better than one where most people are selected based on considerations other than merit. Recruitment on the basis of merit will improve efficiency at the public sector. Also, the government will be better-equipped to serve the citizens and deal with its many challenges.
Some quota activists fear that they have been marked and their job prospects in BCS and other public recruitment tests might be negatively affected. What do you think?
I remember when I was remanded for interrogation, I was approached by two officials who would abuse and harass me. They would tell me, threateningly: “Do you think you will get the job for which you joined the movement? Who will give you a job? You've ruined your life by joining this movement. See if you can cross the threshold of the viva board.” Not just me, the quota activists in general faced many such threats. I remember even a highly respected teacher of a public university also repeated the viva threat, saying the activists should be spit in their faces. The problem is, a number of activists are still grappling with pending court cases. So it's possible that those threats are real, and I know it's a scary thought. But personally, I am not much bothered about that. Job or no job, we will keep fighting for the students and the people.
Part of the enduring popularity of the quota movement was that it grew spontaneously under a non-political platform. Later, some of the leaders of the Parishad transitioned into “mainstream” campus-based student politics (through participating in the Ducsu election). Would you call it an ideological transformation?
The Bangladesh Sadharan Chhatra Adhikar Sangrakkhan Parishad was formed primarily for the quota purpose but later we dealt with other issues related to the students such as DU question paper leaks. The general students embraced our platform. We have been able to win their trust through our activities and sacrifices. So naturally, there was a demand for our participation in the Ducsu election.
Regarding your question about whether it marked an ideological transformation for us: no, it did not. For us, our participation in the election was but an extension of our pro-student activism. Ducsu, as per its constitution, is a social and cultural organisation, not a political one. But it has been given a political character and some even call it “the second parliament”. But for us, it's a platform to protect and advance the interests of the students which we have been doing all along anyway. There is no reason to link us or our activities to what passes as “student politics” today.
You said the quota movement was partially successful. Does it mean it might be revived to fully achieve its purpose? In other words, will the Parishad cease to function or will it continue?
We cannot definitively say that we have seen the last of the quota movement. The quota system still remains in force for class-III and class-IV jobs. Whether or not there will be protests against that system in the future is up to the students. About the future of our platform, as I have already said, it has moved beyond its foundational purpose. The platform may participate in future Ducsu elections and other such elections for students. Presently, we are in the process of preparing a constitution for the Parishad. It's going to be a difficult task as all of us are students, have regular classes and exams, and lack experience in such matters. But once done, it will set forth guidelines for our future activities. In the foreseeable future, since the Ducsu revivalism attempt didn't work out, we will try to play the role that was expected of Ducsu.