The role of students in establishing and maintaining democracy in Bangladesh has never received careful scrutiny. As the chart below shows, student politics has been a deadly, internecine affair. Today, student groups are used by political parties as private armies: they are given guns, told to collect taxes and bring down the government through violent hartals. They have become a highly criminalised group.
They are perpetrators as well as victims. Take the rape and suicide of 15-year-old Mahima. Activists of Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal, the student wing of the ruling BNP, picked her up from her home and gang-raped her on February 13th, 2002. The rapists also took photographs of the scenes and circulated them in public. On February 19th she committed suicide by taking pesticides. She was raped because her father and brother were opposition activists.
Or take the following news item: "A number of remote villages in Fatikchari have made screaming headlines. Enraged by crimes ranging from dacoity to rape by a gang, simple villagers were bold enough to ignore bullets and other lethal weapons and beat 10 members of the gang to death. For years, a notorious gang of 20-30, allegedly with links to the Chatra Shibir and Chatra Dal [ruling coalition student and youth wings], has unleashed a reign of terror in the area. On the day of the incident the criminals raped three women, collected illegal tolls from about 50 traders and also tortured some. (The Bangladesh Observer, February 19th, 2004)"
The role of foreign donors, such as USAID and DFID, in promoting such a state of affairs must be carefully considered. These organisations fund local NGOs. In fact, the role of donors in promoting NGOs has been studied by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their book Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Oxford: James Currey, 1999). The writers speak of an "aid market" that local NGOs know how to exploit (p. 23).
"The political significance of such a massive proliferation of NGOs in Africa deserves closer attention. Our research suggests that this expansion is less the outcome of the increasing political weight of civil society than the consequence of the very pragmatic realisation that resources are now largely channelled through NGOs. (p. 22)" Bangladesh has 20,000 NGOs, probably the highest number in the world. The authors also - like myself - attribute the spread of democracy since 1990 to donor pressure, and reject outright the notion of an emerging civil society: "It cannot simply be a coincidence that, now that the West ties aid to democratisation under the guise of multi-party elections, multi-party elections are taking place in Africa.(p.118)." As The Economist says: "...the cold war's end prompted western donors to stop propping up anti-communist dictators and to start insisting on democratic reforms" (December 18th 2004, p. 69). It is, therefore, a myth that students overthrew the dictator in 1990 and ushered in democracy: it was the donors who brought us 'freedom'.
Studies have revealed that only 25% of donor money reach the poor in Bangladesh (New Nation, September 26th, 2003).
The total silence of the NGOs on the subject of student politicians killing each other over turf can be explained in terms of their eagerness to please donors: the students are an integral part of the democratic process. If these boys did not take to the streets, the parties would not rotate in power. The disturbing picture of a "freedom industry" emerges, with crime (on the part of the local parties) as the base of the pyramid and the donors as the apex.