Bangladesh: PM scraps quota system amid protests by Dhaka University students

'The quota system in Bangladesh is a faulty mechanism in its current iteration,' students tell Newslaundry.

WrittenBy:Saakhi Chadha
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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in an address to Parliament that she has decided to scrap the quota system in government services. “The quota system will be abolished as the students do not want it,” Hasina was quoted as saying.

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The decision to abolish the quota system came following country-wide protests by thousands of students from universities across Bangladesh. Following several days of protests, Hasina announced, “They have demonstrated enough protests, now let them return home.”

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Students rally in solidarity with the Quota Reformation protest.

Gathered under the banner of Bangladesh Sadharam Chhatra Odhikar Sangrakkhan Parishad, the protests began on Sunday, April 8, from Dhaka University where demonstrators clashed with police personnel deployed on the ground. More than 100 students were injured by water cannons, tear gas shells, rubber bullets and batons.

The current quota system was first established by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founding father of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, in 1972. Following his assassination, it was disabled in 1975. Hasina re-established it in 1996.

As per the current system, 56 per cent government jobs are reserved for particular groups, including 30 per cent seats for descendants of freedom fighters, 10 per cent for zila quota, 10 per cent for women and 5 per cent of the seats are reserved for ethnic minorities.

Dhaka Tribune reports that if there are no deserving candidates from these groups, the posts remain vacant.

Students’ demands

The protestors, who have been agitating for nearly two months, have the following five demands. First is a 10 per cent reservation in government jobs for freedom fighters’ children and others — a 46 per cent decline from the current quota — with the rest 90 per cent to be filled on the basis of merit. Second, if seats reserved under the quota system are not filled, then the vacant posts should be filled by candidates from the merit list. Third, stop special recruitment under a fixed quota. Fourth, introduction of a uniform age limit in government jobs, and finally, scope for switching jobs under quota facility to a different candidate on the basis of merit.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Anindya Shubhra Banerjee, a BBA student at the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka, said, “The quota system in Bangladesh is a faulty mechanism in its current iteration. When a few people tried to change this and marched to reform the system through a peaceful non-violent movement, they were systematically oppressed with tear gas, rubber bullets and the like, and their lives were endangered.”

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Written on his back, “May the meritorious be free.”

On Sunday, the organisers were peacefully protesting at Shahbagh before they were forced to move some 2.3 km away to the Teacher-Student Centre, after the police started using teargas shells, batons and water cannons to disperse them.

Following this, protestors broke into Vice Chancellor Dr Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman’s home and vandalised it during the early hours of April 9. They burnt the furniture, torched his cars, and gas cylinders were exploded, Dhaka Tribune reported.

The VC, nevertheless, has expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, calling their demand logical. In a press briefing on Monday, Akhtaruzzaman claimed that the attackers were not Dhaka University students but outsiders.

The protest in Dhaka is not an isolated one. Quota reform-seekers held demonstrations in other parts of the country such as Rajshahi, Jahangirnagar and Chittagong. Students from private universities took part, with those from East West University, North South University, Daffodil International University, Independent University, United International University, American International University of Bangladesh and University of Information Technology and Science taking to the streets. In spite of the strength of the protest, local media refrained from adequately covering the issue perhaps due to ‘governmental influence’, Banerjee told this correspondent.

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The poster reads, “May the spirit of 1971 reignite”

The latest decision by the prime minister to scrap the quota system has received mixed reaction from students. Speaking to Newslaundry, a BBA student, on condition of anonymity, said, “Nobody wanted zero quotas. That’s bad. Minorities and other groups need protection. But by scrapping quotas entirely the government gets to make us look bad. To the general masses, we are now inconsiderate and aggressive. This makes us lose the moral high ground. We went from reformists to abolitionists. To make matters worse, we don’t have the media channels to fight back.”

Newslaundry spoke to other students as well. Aunindo Ishrak from Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka, said, “We protested for a reformation of the quota policy in the civil service system. Instead, we were offered abolishment of the quotas altogether. Our struggle was against oppression. Abolishing quotas altogether will replace older form of oppression with a newer form. Nonetheless, our government is receptive to our collective plights and a decision was made in just three days. I am grateful to our policymakers for such an immediate response.”

The movement has exposed deeper fault lines in the country’s political environment. As Banerjee points out, “When kids know that nothing works unless you take to the streets, there’s a huge problem in the system of the nation itself.”

Photo credits: Faruq Reza Mitul, alumni of the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.

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