by Mahfuz Sadique
<> Probably not conceived as a symbolic move in itself, yet an attempt to remove a few bricks from the main foundation of Aparejeyo Bangla at Dhaka University, the statue erected in remembrance of the Liberation War and its martyrs, was to be first ‘real’ tectonic clash of ideologies to dictate Bangladesh’s polity nearly three decades later. This phenomenon would prove to be true for both state and its thinking organ: the universities. That year was 1978. The remerged and renamed contender was the Islami Chhatra Shibir, as the flag bearing student organisation of its still hidden yet omnipresent ideological mothership, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh; the defenders: the general students of Dhaka University, eternal bearers of the new flag of Bangladesh and its ideologies. While the Aparejeyo Bangla has come to symbolise the War of Liberation, independent Bangladesh, and in many ways the ideological building blocks that this nation is founded upon, the Jamaat-Shibir camp’s failed yet persistent attempt to dismantle the Aparajeyo is as literal as the story of the clash between theocratic political Islam and secular democratic politics could represent — then and now.
In retrospect, Bangladesh had it coming. With less than a decade gone by, Bangladesh as a state was already diverging and dispersing from its original vision. A flailing state, its band-aided economy and even more bewilderment in the nation’s founding political establishment was taking its toll. The blazing days of the student-mass movement of 1969 fading, gradually, somewhere into the backburners of pre-Liberation history; its ideology being relegated almost to the realm of ‘revolutionary nostalgia’. The new nation, Bangladesh, was barely a decade old. With ‘secularism’ already dropped from the constitution through a decree on April 22, 1977 by General Ziaur Rahman, one of the founding principles of the young nation was already missing. Two assassinated presidents, two successful and a few unsuccessful military coups later, no one was quite sure where Bangladesh was heading. Almost as a precursor to the role-reversal of secularism, on May 4, 1976, a military ordinance by General Zia removed the restriction imposed on religion-based political parties and their activities right after liberation.
Immediately after the ordinance, two Islam-based political parties emerged — the relatively progressive camp of the old Mulsim League reappeared under the same banner, and the theocratic camp formed the Islamic Democratic Party. Yet, the mainstay of the Islam-based politics in the then East Pakistan and later Bangladesh was to wait till 1979 to declare their presence. Through a conference on May 25-27 of that year, ‘Jamaat-e-Islami Bagladesh’ publicly announced their return.
While Jamaat was taking it slow and easy, its student wing Shibir started early, and with a little attempt at secrecy. In 1978 they objected to the construction of Aparajeyo Bangla and even conducted a signature campaign against it at the University of Dhaka. Though their attempt was not successful, they did collect quite a handsome number of signatures. In a last ditch effort, they tried to sabotage the construction by removing a few bricks from the base of the under-construction statue. Their attempts were thwarted by the mainstream student political organisations and the general progressive attitude of the university’s students.
In fact, Shibir’s movements had started becoming public the year before. On February 4, 1977, a few inductees and some old leaders of the Islami Chhatra Shangha, the pre-Liberation name of Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, gathered unofficially at the Dhaka University Central Mosque. After a short discussion and prayers, the meeting adjourned. They had a new name — the Islami Chhatra Shibir. But student political organisations at universities have a legacy that runs from the Pakistan-era.
The dynamics of student politics, and the role religion has played in it, has changed gradually over the years. Student political organisations based on religious ideologies, just like their mainstream counterparts, have almost always had their origins and visions pegged to their mother-ships, the political parties. Religion-based student politics in our higher educational institutions has its roots from the Pakistan period. Though, in their organisational strength and ideological rigidity they had little resemblance to their present day setup. In the early sixties, three religion-based student organisations operated actively: Pakistan Chhatra Shakti, National Student Federation (later referred to infamously by its abbreviated form: NSF) and Islami Chhatra Sangha.
While Pakistan Chhatra Shakti was relatively obscure, the NSF and the Sangha had political muscle behind them. Established in 1956, as the student wing of the Khelafat-e-Rabbani party and later endorsed by then politically powerful Muslim League, the NSF had always been plagued by internal strife but remained a powerful and ‘bullying’ student organisation with direct backing from the East Pakistan governor Monem Khan. Though referred to as the ‘musclemen on campus’ and also responsible for first bringing violence into the student politics of Dhaka University, the NSF never had a strong footing among general students. And even more significant was their lack of political vision. Worth mentioning is that the cultural front of Khelafat-e-Rabbani, Tamaddun Majlish, played a pivotal role in favour of the language movement, in its early days.
But the Islami Chhatra Sangha, the Bangla name of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, was a different story. Though, not a front running student organisation at the time, prepared the ground for the Islami Chhatra Shibir of today. Syed Abul Ala Maududi had established the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic political party based on his own ideologies, in 1941. Right after the partition of India and Pakistan, the student wing of the party — the Islami Jamaat-e-Talaba (‘Talaba’ meaning students) — was formed in Lahore on 23 December, 1947. But until 1954 there was virtually no student representation in the organisation from East Pakistan. It was only in 1955 that a full-fledged East Pakistan wing, the Islami Chhatra Sangha, was formed.
Another organisation that played a crucial role in galvanising the Islamic student movement was the Jamiat-e-Talabae-Arabia, though it did not fall under the general fold of student politics. This organisation’s member base were the madrassah-based students in the country. Till the mid-1960s they complemented the powers of the Chhatra Sangha.
The first major clash, in terms of viewpoint and action, between Islamic student bodies and the mainstream surfaced in the 1969 student movement, when countering the 11-point general demanding self-rule from Pakistan, the Islami Chhatra Sangha put forward their own 8-point charter, which favoured the confederation. This resulted in the first visible alternative Islamic student force emerging alongside the majority student factions. There were even some violent clashes between the two opposing camps that left a prominent Chhatra Sangha leader killed.
The beginnings of the Chhatra Sangha in East Pakistan might have been modest but by the late sixties they had mustered considerable clout within the organisation’s All-Pakistan (Nikhil Pakistan) body which culminated in the election of Matiur Rahman Nizami (presently a minister in the four-party alliance government and also the head of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh) as the president of the national committee. This was the first time that an East Pakistani was at the helm of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing for all of Pakistan.
Islamic student organisations, taking their cue from their parent parties, always treaded the line of an Islamic state in direct contradiction to the ideologies of both the mainstream right and left student bodies which centred their actions around the four basic governing political principles of the progressive politics at the time: Bengali nationalism, self-rule, socialism and the most objectionable to the Islamic camp: secularism.
Stepping stones to the mainstream
While the actions of today’s mainstream student political organisations — some originating from the pre-liberation period and some formed later — have shifted from their original political philosophies (few of them consider their political charters as guiding principles) the contradiction between progressive and religious-conservative student politics, set off in the Pakistan period, carried on to the times of Bangladesh.
While in between, Jamaat-e-Islami’s pro-Pakistan stance and its members’ involvement in acts of genocide during the War of Liberation made it the chief hate-target in post-Liberation periods. And as most of Jamaat’s leadership had come through the Shangha (presently Shibir), their slates were certainly not clean. For starters, the central committee of the Islami Chhatra Shangha in 1971 became the de facto committee of the infamous Al-Badar, which was responsible for the killing of intellectuals. Shangha members became members of Al-Badar by default.
What is more disturbing is that, unbeknownst to many, the present highest decision making body, the Central and Working Committee of Jamaat-e-Islami — Majlis-e-Shura — is mostly populated by members of that controversial Shangha executive committee vis-à-vis high-ups of Al-Badr central and district committees. Starting from the present Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami, the present industries minister Matiur Rahman Nizami, to the founding president of Shibir, Mir Kasem Ali, and the following two presidents — Mohammad Kamruzzaman and Abdul Zahir Muhammad Abu Neser — were all documented office bearers of the Al-Badr. They and many other former members of the Shangha, who later went into Jamaat, are responsible for ‘crimes against humanity’ according to documents at the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum.
With this tainted legacy, Shibir started its new journey. After its re-emergence, it started expanding rapidly but with stealth. For the next few years, the University of Chittagong and University of Rajshahi become hotbeds of Shibir’s activities. The regions — Chittagong and Rajshahi — themselves had strong religious underpinnings, not of a subversive, murderous kind, but more spiritual and conservative than the rest of the country. They also made significant gains at other smaller, yet locally important educational institutions. One of their other major strongholds has been the Islamic University in Kushtia and the BL College in Khulna. Though the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology is a relatively young institute, the Shibir camp has gained considerable clout due to external factors.
The process of Shibir’s recruitment was so discreet that it was hard to assess its total member base, or even supporter base. It was not until Shibir started flexing its muscles for control of the many residential dormitories at those two universities that its real power showed.
Starting from the late seventies till this day, Shibir has kept a stronghold at the universities at Rajshahi and Chittagong through numerous student killings, terrorising general students and a general impression of their vicious political vindication. By the eighties, Shibir started being known as the rog-kata (vein-cutting) party since their most common form of terrorising was cutting the veins and tendons of political opponents. Despite the growing clashes with the mainstream student camps — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-backed Chhatra Dal and Bangladesh Awami League-backed Chhatra League — Shibir’s overall presence at campuses was never as visible as the other two.
Despite all the claims to violence, Shibir’s eternal quest seems to be that of legitimacy. Since its re-emergence in 1977, it has participated actively in every students’ union election in Bangladesh’s public universities. In 1982 they reaped the crop of that effort. The 1982 elections of Chittagong University Central Students Union saw the Islami Chhatra Shibir winning the entire panel with Jasimuddin Sarkar winning the coveted top post. This was the first time a Shibir panel had official legitimacy. The same year saw the first and only split in Shibir. A faction led by a senior influential leader, Ahmed Abdul Kader, opposing Jamaat’s direct intervention in the student wing formed an alternative Shibir. Though it was short-lived, some leaders of Shibir left around 1983. Most of them joined Chhatra Majlish, the student wing of the Khelafat Majlish party. In fact, the Chhatra Majlish is probably still the only other serious religion-based student political organisation operating at public universities. But their numbers are dwarfed by those of Shibir’s.
After several years of public presence at Dhaka University, Shibir was dealt a blow in 1983. On February 4 of that year, Shibir organised their biggest public programme at the Ramna Battmul on their founding anniversary. The programme was trashed by activists of the Chhatra Sangram Parishad, an alliance of 14 democratic students’ organisations, which was agitating against martial law at that time. In fact, during a procession brought out by Shibir in 1982, a grenade attack injured two of its members. The 1983 incident was in many ways the death of Shibir’s public face at Dhaka University. In fact since, they have not brought out any public procession or held any gathering on the Dhaka University campus.
But to presume that just the resistance from opposing political camps is the only reason Shibir has not come out strong in public would be gross miscalculation of its powers. In fact, Shibir’s ‘real’ presence at Dhaka University is as pervasive, if not more, than the two major political camps. Shibir’s overall strategy over the last two decades has been to lay low and gain ground through one of the systematic recruitment processes of any political party. Since there has been no students’ union election at Dhaka University for nearly a decade and a half, compared to other student political organisations Shibir’s true support base has never clearly shown.
Throughout the eighties, Shibir had shown consistent performance at the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union. Even when they had little visibility on campus due to a combined alliance between the progressive left and the two major political camps, they invariably came third in the students’ poll and secured no less than 1,100 of the registered student votes. The figure is two decades old, but even by that standard a significant one. Another event that had an overall impact on the growth of Islam-based politics, and in its wake abetting Shibir’s growth, was military ruler General Ershad’s constitutional concession to the Islamic camp by making Islam the state religion in 1988.
Probably an outcome of that decision came the same year when Shibir staged a full-fledged attack on the residential halls of Jahangirnagar University, which left a Chhatra Dal leader killed. Following the attack, Shibir faced a countrywide resistance, and the event triggered the eventual formation of the All-Party Students Unity, which led the anti-Ersahd movement at all universities.
No public university charter officially acknowledges any political entity on campus. But while all major student political camps are represented and consulted with regarding major issues, the Dhaka University authorities have kept Shibir out of the fold from the very beginning. While in the beginning it was voluntary, with more and more Jamaat infiltrations into the teachers fold, this moratorium has been maintained by the strong opposition from the two major political camps.
The dynamics of student politics saw a major shift after the 2001 general elections, as Jamaat became an ally in the BNP-led government. Taking queue from national politics, Shibir stepped up its offensive on opposing student organisations. And in perfect cohesion with Jamaat’s growing influence in both state power and its various organs, Shibir started enjoying privileges that were not there before.
One of the first instances of misguided blessing from the main ruling party, the BNP, was during a violent incident at Rajshahi University in 1993. On January 14, a clash between Shibir and a combine Chhatra Dal-Chhatra League led to the death of a student. Instances of Shibir’s killings actually went into overdrive during the early nineties, especially at Rajshahi and Chittagong University. As a backlash of that incident, on February 5, Shibir and the combine ‘Students for the Liberation War’ got into a clash that turned out to be one of the most violent days in student politics’ history in Bangladesh. Five people died. Shibir had used crude weapons, including bows-arrows to attack their opponents. The ruling party’s student wing, Chhatra Dal, also opposed Shibir and was involved in the clash. But in an almost role-reversal, the then Home Minister Matin Chowdhury sided with the Shibir camp and even gave an official statement in parliament for them.
Throughout the nineties Shibir’s clout has increased manifold. And there seems to be a grand strategy in all of its moves. Their recruitment process starts even before the students enter university. Former Shibir high-ups have gone onto set up university admission coaching centres where students with good academic records are taken into the fold. An agency recently reported that ‘Shibir is carrying out its activities through 12 university and medical coaching centres manned by high-level policy makers of the party across the country’.
‘Of the coaching centres conducted by Shibir, Focus for Dhaka University, Concrete for BUET, Index for Chittagong University, Success for Islami University, Songshaptak for Jahangirnagar University and Retina for medical colleges are identified as the main establishments’, states the report. ‘Shibir’s political activities that include new recruitment are carried out at nearly 150 branches of these coaching centres, where the Shibirites are teaching aggressive, vengeful values masquerading as Islamic values.
‘The annual income of these 12 coaching centres is Tk 25 crore, which they are spending for spreading their activities that includes arms training,’ the report quotes a Shibir activist as saying.
The agency report states that Shibir leaders who are directors of these coaching centres include Shishir Monir, the president of the organisation’s Dhaka University unit; Badra Alam Didar, the president of Chittagong University unit; Abdul Hannan, the president of Islamic University unit; Sayed Fayjul Khalil, the president of BUET unit; and Mahbubur Rahman Jewel, former president of Dhaka Medical College unit.
Those coming from rural areas and with financial difficulty are given assistance with subsidised housing and even monetary assistance. Blocks of housing have been rented under Shibir’s direct supervision at Shahbagh, Azimpur and Chankharpul areas of the capital. In addition to being used for housing, it has long been suspected that these are kept as bases for keeping a large of number of Shibir activists and assisting in their activities.
With the strength and spread of Islamic political parties growing with every passing year, and as two Islamic political entities (Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and Islami Oikya Jote) are sharing state power, the underlying conflict between the mainstream and the obscurantists is reaching dizzying heights.
Other Islamic parties which target universities, such as the, Islamic Shashantantra Chhatra Andolan, Islami Chhatra Majlis, Khelafat Chhatra Andolon, and the relatively new start-up Hizb-ut Tahrir, do not have any specific support base. But most activities of these organisations in turn have assisted the growth of the greater movement to legitimise Islam-based politics within the mainstream, or as is the case with such organisations, engage students with their politics.
A sign of the increasing might of the Shibir during the first power-sharing of its parent organisation, Jamaat, came in 2003. That year Shibir demanded its inclusion in Paribesh Parishad, which is the university’s council of top officials and all student bodies to oversee the campus atmosphere. All Paribesh Parishad members in 1992 agreed not to allow any communal activities on the campus, a decision that was a blow for Shibir. The pact remained throughout the nineties, and in 1999, Shibir activists were again driven out of the Dhaka University campus by the Chhatra League when they tried come out publicly.
On the other hand, this decade has turned out to be the rosiest for Shibir. A sampling of its confidence in its power base came in December 2002, when the then president of Shibir declared that no meeting of the Paribesh Parishad could be held without Shibir during the tenure of the present four-party alliance government.
Following the alliance’s landslide victory in the October 1, 2001, general elections, Shibir had started asserting its presence at the Dhaka University campus by putting banners, sticking posters and bringing out processions in disguise on many occasions.
The undeclared moratorium on Shibir at Dhaka University almost seems to be fading as in many other educational institutions. There has been speculation that some rising leaders and members of Shibir had actually crossed over to the mainstream Chhatra Dal and Chhhatra League in an attempt to infiltrate their organisational setup.
As a catalyst for growth, Jamaat’s female students’ wing — Islami Chhatri Sangstha — has also been growing rapidly. It is very active in the female dormitories and common rooms, where they make targeted interferences on girls’ concerning their lifestyle, and in the process coercing them into their fold.
While recruiting fresh members through its no-longer-clandestine activities, the Jamaat lobby among teachers at the universities of Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Shahjalal, Khulna is getting ever stronger. In many ways this growing phenomenon could be considered the last hurdle that Shibir needs to cross to make it strong enough to attempt hostile takeover bids.
A significant number of former Shibir leaders have been getting teaching positions at universities. While some positions have been ensured through the Jamaat lobby, the system of recruiting activists among students with good academic backgrounds and assisting them — financially or otherwise — has helped Shibir in this infiltration of the teaching fraternity. Some have taken up resident positions as house-tutors, provosts of several halls. With their growing presence, they are also qualifying for previously-unheard-of privileges. They play a key role in accommodating the Shibir members in residential halls through allotment of seats. Dhaka University sources have repeatedly warned that Shibir has built up its strongholds in Salimullah Hall, Jasimuddin Hall and Haji Muhammad Muhsin Hall.
Nearly thirty years have passed since the re-birth of the Islamic political camp at our higher educational institutions. Combined progressive students’ movements have kept its growth under check, but with stealth and strategy, Islamists have slowly strengthened their foothold.
While Shibir is yet to tap into wider general students’ body, a stagnant ‘depoliticised’ psyche of general students has resulted in their (students) disassociation from any of the other major student bodies of either the right or the left. After the anti-Ershad movement brought together students throughout the eighties, the nineties saw a gradual fallout phase which has resulted in a great vacuum. As the ‘incorruptible purists’ of left student bodies in the 1960s and 1970s become a distant memory, a great intellectual lapse has engulfed the universities, and waits to be filled by a force which sees the gap and decides to fit into it.
Enter Hizb ut-Tahrir
While the country’s progressive thinking organs, the public universities, are being infected by slow encroachment from the Islamic Chhatra Shibir camp, the more socially disconnected and market-driven private universities are seeing green growth of another Islamic political camp: Hizb-ut Tahrir.
‘When the right time comes, we shall achieve our goal,’ said a smiling Mohiuddin Ahmed when I interviewed his last year. As the head of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bangladesh, he is an Islamist revolutionary with a twist. Having graduated from Bangladesh’s top business school, the Institute of Business Administration at Dhaka University, with enviable scores, Mohiuddin presently teaches the same corporate strategies at his alma mater. But the number of students attending his business classes are dwarfed by the attendance at the Chhatra Sabha (Students’ Society) sessions of the Hizb ut-Tahrir. He and others like him represent the new face of the Islam-based religious politics that is slipping into the mainstream of Bangladeshi consciousness. Unlike in the past, his foot soldiers are career-oriented, upwardly mobile young men and women, from the country’s public and mushrooming private universities. Almost tip-toeing into the ‘ideological vacuum’ left from the aimless student politics of mainstream student bodies, Hizb ut-Tahrir is, to use his own words, ‘selling the time-proved cocktail of popular discontent and faith.’ And they are selling well.
But there is the catch. What this ever-growing number of ‘modern Muslims’ envision, with intoxicating and chilling precision, contradicts the principles of conventional liberal, democratic and secular society, and nations that abide by it.
For a man who is the chief coordinator and spokesperson of a religion-based political party presently banned in several Middle Eastern states, throughout Central Asia, Germany (the reason cited was anti-Semitism) and Pakistan, Mohiuddin couldn’t appear any less worried. ‘We have done nothing to instigate such a response. We do not believe in any form of violence, or force,’ he explains. When asked about the size of the membership roll, Mohiuddin claims that figure is not compiled. What he does reveal is that attendance in the monthly seminars they hold is in the region of 250-300, and not always the same people.
Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded in Jerusalem in 1953 by an appeals court judge, Taqiuddin al Nabhani. Initially the group’s operations were restricted to the Arab countries. The group first appeared in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Today, Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to be have operations in more than 100 countries.
Hizb ut-Tahrir Bangladesh, the country chapter of the international organisation of the same name, which envisions a Shari’ah-based Khilafah state, has been gaining most momentum through its activities at the country’s private universities. Alongside its national launch in Bangladesh in 17 November, 2001, just weeks after the 9/11, with anti-American sentiment and Islamic fervour peaking, the party started off university chapters at several public and private universities, including Dhaka University and North South University. While Shibir has been the flag bearer of Islam-based student politics at public universities, Hizb ut-Tahrir has their eyes on a strata of students isolated from the mainstream. Non-practicing students, marginalised from mainstream politics, and open to discussions on lifestyle, society and science sprinkled with faith were the party’s first and prime target audience. But why this specific cross-section?
Islam, intellectually speaking
Though, the political ideology they represent is radical in terms of its values and implementation, the approach they have taken is least to say modern, and even appealing to the moderate Muslim, university crowd. Engaging in dialogue with both general students and opposite camps on previously taboo issues among Islamists through numerous seminars, discussion sessions and study circles, they are tactfully using the same political tools that previously worked so well for leftist student bodies during their heydays. The topics covered include ‘Existence of God’, ‘Blind faith of Atheism’ and ‘Cloning’.
While Bangladesh has just seen close to four years of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which renounces all acts of violence even to achieve goals, is fast gaining popularity among a special class — the urban upper- and middle-class.
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities, as with any rising political organisation, need a constant supply of committed, intelligent and resourceful members. Young men, and women, fit exactly that profile. What better place to recruit such youth than universities? And with a burgeoning private university students’ body filled with ‘disoriented’ youth from well-off backgrounds poised to take up decision making activities of big business, Hizb-ut Tahrir concentrates its most effort into them.
While at Dhaka University, initial successes were thwarted when in late 2003 activists of Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the main opposition party Awami League, chased away several Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Despite the incident, they have splintered support in the Commerce Faculty of the university. Several general students have mentioned being approached by Hizb ut-Tahrir, and some of them have also admitted to attending their seminars.
Along with the one at Dhaka University, one of the first ‘circles’ formed was at one of the leading private universities: North South University. Though this ‘circle’ had no physical infrastructure to show for, they aggressively started preaching their cause through some initial contacts. To put it mildly, they had a field day, everyday. Encouraged by the initial success, Hizb ut-Tahrir started putting in more concerted effort into private universities. At present, they have groups at Independent University Bangladesh, East West University, American International University Bangladesh, BRAC University, City University, Southeast University and Northern University.
An interesting turn of events in recent times makes the private university phenomenon even more lucrative for Islamists. As private university licences from the University Grants Commission have become as abundant as the certificates they give out, opportunist Islamists have acquired quite a few. While some had started quite early, like the International Islamic University-Chittagong, Asian University of Bangladesh and Darul Ihsan University, relatively new Islamic hubs such as Northern University, Manarat University, Bangladesh Islamic University and Green University are also becoming hotbeds for Shibir and Jamaat lobbies. Almost all are owned by Jamaat bigwigs. The recruitments at these universities are done keeping Shibir credentials in consideration. The Asian University of Bangladesh has had phenomenal growth and is planning outer campuses in cities of Saudi Arabia.
From the very beginning, students started paying attention. At North South University , dozens of members attended their group sessions after prayers at the most convenient location, the prayer room. While not just staying restricted to male members, they started recruiting female members. Within months Hizb ut-Tahrir had become a topic of discussion. Though the number of core members remained low, sympathisers grew rapidly.
‘Their leaflets are minimal but attractive in design and many of them are in English, which conveniently caters to the psyche of private university students. Their members mingle within the general student body. Be it in the canteen, in the student lobby, in the study areas, and mostly in the tea-stalls adjacent the university, they whip up conversations with any student on some topical issue, like the Iraq war or hartal, and eventually bring up their discussion sessions,’ says a final semester student at North South University.
Authorities at the universities observed the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir with caution. And breaking their self-imposed embargo on student’s engagement with political organizations, they stayed quiet. As prayer rooms, canteens, rest areas, study rooms became the political playing field for Hizb ut-Tahrir, they just overlooked it as general religious practice. Only when their activities became elaborate did the authorities ask Hizb ut-Tahrir to take their activities outside the campus perimeter. While group sessions shifted to local mosques near the university, and restaurants, the political activism of Hizb ut-Tahrir members at private universities has continued.
Though officially denied, insiders within the university administration and several faculty members have indicated that as religion is a sensitive issue, the universities think it better to ignore it. A highly-placed source in North South University said that the US Embassy brought up the issue with the university two years back as many of the universities’ graduates go on to attend graduate schools in the US. Activities of members of the party have been under heightened scrutiny since then though with a spread out member base within the general body, their activities have merely taken a more clandestine nature.
An interesting loophole within the systems of private universities is that student unions, or student political bodies, are not legally prohibited at any private universities as none of the private universities have published ‘statutes’ which legally restrict students from forming student bodies.
While Hizb ut-Tahrir is actively entertaining its political aspirations, it is interesting to observe that other political camps, either from the right or the left, remain completely absent. Ideologically, the left student bodies are the only ones that are directly in clash with Hizb ut-Tahrir. But they seem surprisingly inactive. A little inquiry revealed a classic reasoning; adding to a better understanding of the rise of faith-based student politics. The Student’s Union, the largest leftist student body operating at public universities, do not consider private universities as legitimate educational institutions, and therefore they don’t operate in them.
For what its worth, political Islam’s foray into Bangladesh through capturing the minds of the decision-making future citizens, has both new and old faces. Shibir at public universities and Hizb-ut Tahrir at private universities are gathering clout. The more student activists both Shibir and Hizb-ut Tahrir gain, the closer they get to their ultimate goal — be it a general Islamic theocracy, or a Khilafah state. As faith-based organisations, students have been found to be connected to them even after leaving their student status, and as they are rising through the ranks in Bangladesh’s state machinery, commercial establishments, these two party’s financial and organisational capacity is increasing likewise as all members contribute both compulsorily, and voluntarily. And along with it, as political Islam flexes it’s growing electoral muscle, Shibir and Hizb-ut Tahrir may no longer need to stay a mere phenomenon hidden from view. The trend, at least, shows that a day may actually come when these green brigades of political Islam will stand tall behind their ideological backers, and shout: step aside!
Published: The New Age/ September, 2006