In the past week, waves of protest against the imposition of VAT on higher education brought Dhaka to a standstill, causing the denizens to take notice. For a change, private university students were leading a movement that was fast gaining ground among young urbanites. Supporters’ argument was simple, “Since education is not a commodity, it cannot be taxed.” For two months, the resentment simmered before finally blossoming into a full-fledged urban movement after several protesters were injured by police firing.
Now that the government has judiciously announced a reversal of the decision, there is a sigh of relief, not only because it’s good for education, but also because we all love to see young idealists win. Their cause was noble. Their character seemed apolitical. Their manner was non-violent. In Bangladesh, there is nothing more we could ever hope for from political demonstrations.
The protesters got the basics right: their demand was simple and unanimous. Ancillary topics like, withdrawal of VAT from school fees or demands for the de-commoditisation of higher education, failed to dilute the oneness of the demand. These were students rallying for a cause that directly affected them and then, returning to their places once the objective had been achieved. That is exactly what ‘citizen activism’ is. That is also precisely what ‘student politics’ should be.
It demands our admiration that young protesters, without structured leadership, managed to keep the issue focused and buoyant. A key feature was their use of creative slogans, pronouncements and their propagation through media. Instead of violence and fear, the protesters used creativity and intrigue to hold the attention of the onlooking, virtual Bangladesh.
The virtual world did not disappoint. They offered instant empathy, massive online propagation and opinion-shaping pressure to heave the cause into mainstream discussion. Once again, the much-scoffed, most-logged-into Facebook was in the thick of things, spreading updates, reporting law enforcement abuses and showcasing bold statements by protesters. The protests brought to the fore a myriad issues including the commodification of education, private universities’ not-for-profit status vs. shrewd business-practices, comparative social-statuses of public vs. private university students and the utility of non-violent movements in the region. It was unanimity on the VAT issue that made these necessary debates possible.
The unanimity may be attributed to the fact that the movement grew out of apolitical origins and would be over before it could be co-opted. Two decades back, apolitical movements would have been unthinkable in Bangladesh. The connection that students had with Bangladeshi politics dates back to well before the Language Movement. But in the post-independence era, young activists seemed boxed inside their respective ideological tents, re-emerging only for causes that affected tribal interests. They remained focused on control of resources and territory. The main rivals nurtured a culture of ‘showdowns’, a form of violent street demonstrations (a possible legacy of the anti-British revolutionary tactics of the 1930s). That is why, in 2015, apolitical and non-violent demonstrations are a novelty; a very modern adaptation. They signify a growing social belief that change is possible without violence and that governments are now amicable to such manners of exchange.
It is imperative that our political leaders take notice, because all governments must evolve with their citizenry. And if our citizen demonstrations are non-violent, then governments must learn to abandon their habitual ‘quell or dwell’ strategies and engage with them. If citizens raise legitimate demands in a civil manner, governments must be open to dialogue. Emerging leaders must note that instead of remaining quarantined to the virtual world, the movement successfully merged street activism with online consensus-building. Dealing with sophisticated methods of opinion-shaping requires a change in vision and tactics. New messages of pragmatism, in new methods of dialogues, through new media, must be conceived and employed. The alternative is guaranteed – political obsolescence.
Future activists must take note too: a non-violent model of popular protest has triumphed in Bangladesh. But let us acknowledge that this was an isolated, urban phenomenon. Not all groups will be homogenous and not all issues will go viral. Making complex issues mildly entertaining and graspable is a major role of the modern reformer. Issues of greater gravity will demand that the offline, rural hinterland be included in decision-making. That, in turn, will call for greater tolerance for socio-economic diversity, a different tone and greater patience.
The “No VAT on Education” movement has some obvious similarities with the 2013 Shahbag Movement. Both emerged spontaneously out of the collective consciousness, reflected a distaste for the prevalent political culture and its trail of violence, provided popular avenues for activism, grew as polycentric phenomena and succeeded in achieving their immediate goals. The other important similarity is in that the legacies of both remain unclear. While Shahbag did manage to influence legislation – it could not elucidate the demand for historic closure and a future roadmap that young Bangladeshis wanted. Likewise, the No-VAT movement may have achieved its immediate goal. But can it usher in an age of active citizenship and civil exchanges between rulers and subjects? When it comes to the legacy of popular non-violent movements, can form become more important than content?