Thousands of protesters have taken to Shahbagh Chattar in Dhaka, Bangladesh since April 7. Student protesters in the Chattar (square), right at the heart of the city, have demanded the reformation of the quota system that is applied in the recruitment process for the nation’s civil service. The government, having long ignored the protests, is showing signs of caving in.

The civil service quota

The system was introduced by executive order immediately after independence in 1972 and mandated that only 20 percent of the positions in the civil service be filled through a merit based recruitment process; the rest would be allocated to different groups deemed important by the government. These days, that figure has been raised to 44 percent, but the remaining 56 percent is still being filled by quotas. The figure below illustrates the quota distribution currently in place.

civil service quota system bangladesh protests
The civil service quota system in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Jericho

The system has been criticised repeatedly over the years, but political considerations have kept reform at bay. This year, fuelled by rising unemployment, political instability and an impending controversial election, students and job seekers took to the streets of Shahbagh. Their demands for reform were fivefold:

  • 10 per cent fixed quota instead of existing 56 per cent
  • Recruitment of meritorious students for government jobs if eligible candidates are not found under the quota  the government has agreed to implement this.
  • Cancelling the special recruitment test for quota candidates
  • Fixing an age-limit for all applicants  currently the age-limit for general candidates is 30, whereas that of candidates falling under the ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘indigenous’ quotas is 32.
  • Cancelling the facility permitting quota candidates to take the exams more than once

The demands were first put forward in February of this year. Protestors, perceiving no satisfactory response from the government, took to the streets in peaceful demonstration. On April 8, police attempted to disperse protesters through the use of tear gas shells and rubber bullets, injuring several protestors; following this the situation quickly escalated.

Raging against unemployment

Unemployed graduates formed a large portion of the protesting body. Numerous demonstrators interviewed by Jericho spoke of not having visited their families and homes in years for fear of embarrassment over their unemployed status.

A report published by the Economic Intelligence Unit cited graduate unemployment in Bangladesh at 47 percent in 2015. This figure has been contested but nevertheless it functions as a good indicator for the state of the graduate job market.

Several of the protesters were seen carrying placards saying, “Chakri noy toh bullet de, bekarotto theke mukti de” (Translation: ‘Give us bullets if not jobs, but free us from unemployment’).

One protester explained that the movement could not be halted through the use of force because a significant number of graduates had committed suicide and many were on the verge due to unemployment, hence the threat of death would be ineffective.

Shahbagh Chattar also saw protests in 2013 demanding the death penalty for war criminals from the War of Independence. Photo credit: Avijit04/Wikipedia Commons

Criticism of the Freedom Fighter Quota

In this context of high graduate unemployment, it is the ‘Freedom Fighter’ quota category that has caused the most outrage. 30 percent of civil service places are reserved for the children and grandchildren of Freedom Fighters (individuals who fought the War of Liberation in 1971).

Registered freedom fighters in Bangladesh are entitled to a range of state facilities including free international and domestic flights, monthly rations of staples, a mobile allowance, free organ transplant, no tolls, hotel stays, free utilities (capped) and a monthly allowance of BDT 25,000-45,000 (approximately USD 310-560). Housing projects are also underway. In addition, there are quotas in place at universities, schools and government jobs.

The total number of certified Freedom Fighters stands at 200,000. The fighters themselves make up significantly less than 1 percent of the population, whilst 30 percent of civil service positions are reserved for them and their descendants.

As such, this quota is frequently not filled. Only since March of this year has it been mandated that vacant quotas be filled by general category candidates. Even though there was a provision for this in the past, in many instances the Public Services Commission held special civil service exams for freedom fighters’ children to fill up those vacancies.

Apart from the quota being disproportionate and unrepresentative of the population, those demonstrating also argue that it is unconstitutional, breaking Article 29 of the Constitution by infringing on equality of opportunity as well as being discriminatory.

Academics and civil society have blamed the quota system for the deterioration of the public and civil services, as most policy making positions of the country have to be reached through these routes, and they are being filled by subpar candidates due to the quota system.

“Fake fighters”

There have also been several high profile cases of so-called freedom fighters having faked their, or their ancestors, role in the War of Liberation. It is estimated that approximately 33,000 sham fighters have been issued certificates and are enjoying government allowances and provisions.

There are even recorded cases of some people claiming benefits when they could not have been more than four-years old at the time of fighting. Indeed the politicisation of the process has led to many genuine fighters not claiming their dues.

sheikh hasina bangladesh civil service quota
The Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. Photo credit: Kremlin.ru

Support for the Quota

Supporters of the quota claim the system is in place to help level the playing field for backwards and disadvantaged groups.

The State Minister of Information, Tarana Halim, further argued that all quota allocations are usually not filled and that those remaining vacancies go to high achieving general candidates. She further claimed that in the 2016 intake for the Bangladeshi Civil Service, 70.38 percent of jobs were awarded on merit.

However, this still leaves 29 percent of roles unaccounted for, and since the largest quota is targeted to benefit Freedom Fighters and not ‘disadvantaged’ groups, the general population is unwilling to accept this defence.

Many sponsors of the quota system are of the belief that freedom fighters and their families deserve extra benefits for having liberated the country. While most Bangladeshis agree with that to a degree, a large section feel that the benefits should be limited to two generations.

The political context

The chief political parties in the country have used this disagreement and promoted divisive political ideologies to build their respective voter bases. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League favours those it considers pro-liberation (i.e. those who supported the war of independence) and deems the rest as ‘Rajakars’ (War Criminals).

The stark divide has now given rise to a situation where even the suggestion of lowering the quota allotted to Freedom Fighters’ families is interpreted as a direct affront to those who liberated the nation, and thus an act of disloyalty. This has created artificial backing for the system, as political leaders and those in policy making positions are hesitant to voice dissent.

In a parliamentary meeting to discuss a resolution to the situation, the Minister of Agriculture, Matia Chowdhury, labelled the protestors as ‘Rajakarer Shontan’ (Children of War Criminals). Protestors immediately demanded an apology and that has been added as their sixth demand.

Current Developments

According to police, on April 8 the protesters threw rocks, set two cars on fire and vandalised the fine arts institute and the home of the Dhaka University vice-chancellor. Police forcefully dispersed the protest, leaving at least 100 demonstrators injured, and detained 15. Allegations of police threatening female protestors with rape also circulated. Numerous reports of brutal counter-protests by the ruling party’s student arm, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), have also been recorded.

Nevertheless, the increasing number of protesters steered the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman, to openly voice his and his institution’s support for the movement.

Counter protests

Outside Dhaka, freedom fighters and their families rallied to oppose the quota reform movements. Ruling party politicians alleged that the leadership of the movement had been hijacked by opposition parties. Local mainstream news maintained that the situation remained under control and only provided very limited coverage of the developments.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her discontent with the movement, labelling them as ill-mannered and inconsiderate for causing disruption to traffic and academic life. Female participants of the protests were criticised for coming out at night. She also refused to condemn the brutality on the part of the police and pro-government protestors from the BCL.

A government climbdown?

However, in a huge concession, she stated that despite disagreeing with the demands she would recommend the scrapping of the system altogether in order to avoid the risk of future protests. The protesters were hesitant to halt protests till the decision received official confirmation, with some expressing concerns that the Prime Minister was merely buying time.

In the short term this seems to have worked. Protestors remain in disagreement regarding whether or not to continue demonstrating. Then, on the morning of the April 12, a voice clip of a conversation between the acting Chairperson of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Tarique Rahman, and Dr. Mamun Ahmed, a Professor of Dhaka University, was leaked.

Rahman is heard instructing the professor to organise the movement and assemble students. This created room to taint the movement as an attempt to destabilise the country by the BNP, giving rise to fears that the decision would be revoked using this excuse.

By April 13, the government seemed to have backtracked. Concerns have already been raised from experts and law makers regarding the constitutional contradictions that may rise from blanket withdrawal of the quota system.

By this point, the movement had been effectively diffused. The BCL claimed credit for the perceived success of the protests and brought celebratory processions, making regrouping difficult.

Protestors outflanked

Further, at the height of the protests on April 9, the Digital Security Bill-2018 was placed before parliament. Section 21 of the proposed law says, “anyone spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, using digital devices or instigates to do so, will risk being sentenced up to 14 years in jail or a fine of up to USD 125,000, or both”.

As per section 43 of the draft law, a police official can search or arrest anyone without any warrant issued by a court.

For freedom of speech activists, this marks a sinister twist and has the potential to cripple any future protest movements before they have even begun.

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