Bangladesh: Quota Politics
Abhijit Chakravertty

What began as a small protest against quotas in government jobs in Dhaka University on 17 February 2018 soon spread to Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Mymensingh, Sylhet and some other parts of the country. It reached its peak on 8 April when students blocked Shahbagh Square, an important traffic intersection in central Dhaka, forcing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to make an impromptu announcement in the Parliament on 12 April that the decades-old quota system would be abolished.

Student agitations against the quota system, which was introduced in September 1972 soon after the Liberation War, are nothing new. What is significant is that the current cycle comes in the run-up to the elections scheduled later in 2018 in which Sheikh Hasina will be seeking an unprecedented third consecutive term for the Awami League (AL). At the core of the issue is the 30 percent reservation in government jobs for the children and grandchildren of freedom fighters; the other quotas are 10 percent for women, 10 percent for districts, five percent for ethnic minorities and one percent for the disabled. This leaves only 44 percent of government jobs open to general candidates who can compete on merit. Further exacerbating the problem, the AL government issued a circular in 2010 stipulating that the unfilled vacancies in the freedom fighters quota would be carried forward. In January 2018, the admission in Parliament by Syed Ashraful Islam, Minister for Public Administration, that 3.59 lakh posts in different ministries and departments were lying vacant probably provided a spark for the anti-quota agitation, coming as it did after years of jobless growth of the Bangladesh economy.

In a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, ethnically homogenous, and linguistically integrated, the main polarising factor is the pro and anti-liberation sentiment. The AL claims credit for fighting the Liberation War and securing freedom, and paints the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JeI) as political outfits that collaborated with the Pakistani forces, both during the Liberation War and later whenever they were in power. The series of convictions of senior leaders of the JeI and the BNP by the War Crimes Tribunal has further cemented this narrative.

As Bangladesh approaches yet another election, possibly in December 2018, the student agitation against the quota system has the potential to snowball into a major election issue. It has the politically tantalising mix of youth aspirations and Liberation War sentiments and is likely to be seized by all players in the election game. Although the BNP is in disarray, with its chairperson in jail and its convicted vice-chairman in exile, and the JeI has been de-registered by the Election Commission, Sheikh Hasina is aware that returning to power for an unprecedented third consecutive term is a challenging prospect. While the last election in January 2014 was a walkover for the AL, this time the BNP will certainly participate in the polls, even if it is held under the incumbent PM.

In the backdrop of a nine-year anti-incumbency factor, corruption allegations, charges of going against Islamic values, and soaring unemployment, Sheikh Hasina has made overtures to the radical Islamic outfit Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), recognised madrassa degrees, backed out from reforming land inheritance laws allowing rights to women, and encouraged the formation of pro-Islamic political fronts - all designed to divide the opposition BNP/JeI votes. However, the coalescing of student groups over the quota issue could derail this strategy if the BNP begins to spearhead the agitation. Historically, the JeI has opposed the quota system and, more recently, BNP leaders have supported the current agitation with their call for merit-based appointments in government jobs.

In this scenario, the apparently impromptu announcement in the Parliament by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, that the quota system will be dismantled, may well have been a carefully crafted strategy to test the waters. On the one hand, by announcing the total elimination of all quotas, Sheikh Hasina has gone beyond the protestors’ demand to reduce the quotas from the current 56 percent to 10 percent. On the other hand, senior minister and a close confidant of the Prime Minister, Matia Choudhury’s statement calling the agitators “children of Razakars (war-time collaborators)” has taken the debate to the other extreme. While the AL’s supporters may grudgingly accept as political expediency of Hasina’s wooing of Islamist forces, the abolition of the freedom fighters quota will certainly alienate the party’s core constituency. Therefore, by polarising the debate within her own party, Sheikh Hasina hopes to arrive at the correct equilibrium between quota abolition and maintaining status quo. The delay in the follow-up of the announcement in the Parliament by way of government notification also indicates that a political balancing act may be underway. In the months ahead, one may see a dilution of the present quotas but not before the intensification of protests from both sides of the divide.

(The author is a former Special Secretary, in the Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW) and deals with India’s immediate neighbourhood and various national security issues).

(The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct.)


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