Article: When You Fear Yourself! ‘Freedom’ in Bangladeshi Academia

by Manosh Chowdhury

25th May 2021


A Tricky Position

It can be a very tricky exercise to talk about academic ‘freedom’ in Bangladesh. I found myself in similar position when some European students interviewed me, on two occasions, about press freedom in Bangladesh. Two serious problems lie behind the premise of this kind of discussion: firstly, in most cases, the interviewers assume that they are coming from the land of ‘freedom’, a position that I do not buy unconditionally; secondly, the exchange takes place within narrowly set parameters. My response, then, is to remain pointedly aware of the liberal presumptions around discourses on ‘freedom’. But, if one probes the problematic aspects of these premises, one risks being perceived as someone who is not bothered by the precarious situation of the Bangladeshi press and academia. This is definitely not the case with me. I am very much concerned with the situation – more so, when I see things in a global context.

Universities, with their specific historical contexts, have always been conceptualized as a hub for producing ‘good’ citizens for the ruling system. Since the bourgeois renaissance in the European continent, there were negotiations among university ‘stakeholders’ and with political entities outside the universities to uphold bourgeois liberty in ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’. There is a need to be reminded of this history, against the ever-growing rhetoric that frames universities as a space to instigate democratic, or even radical, political thought. While there have been instances across the globe of students taking the role of antagonists against centralized power, these should be seen as abrupt interruptions to systematic indoctrination, and not a linear outcome of the universities’ mission, regardless of their professed commitment to democratic will.


The Over-hyped University Act 1973

The University Act 1973 has long been a point of reference in Bangladesh, especially among those academics who take pride in the ‘autonomy’ of the (public) universities. As an academic, I have found this campus based vocabulary of ‘autonomy’ (shayotto-shashon in Bangla) to be a little overenthusiastic, despite its familiar rehearsal in any protest gathering. This habit of blowing universities’ freedom out of proportion is a response to the prolonged military regime in Bangladesh and its persistent attempts to topple the autonomous nature of these institutions. As a ‘young conscious motivated university student’ and later as a ‘young’ faculty member, I too got overenthusiastic about this autonomy, but, with more critical understanding, the celebrated 1973 Act could in fact be safely adopted by any ‘modern’ university in the world. Written originally in English, the Act was just a beginning in the newly independent nation of Bangladesh, and perhaps calmed some nerves in the universities that experienced a series of interventions from the state machinery during the 1960s. Pakistani authorities, having experienced numerous uprisings from within the public universities located in East-Pakistan, perceived universities as a space that fuelled anti-statist and/or ‘nationalist’ sentiment, and had to control them. The newly independent nation, however, did not find much reason to do so. The document itself is a fairly mechanical, legislative piece of work, with no consideration of pedagogical aspects or the nature of the relationship between the faculty and the students. Another drawback of this Act, perhaps, is its indifference towards what the modern world knows as ‘postgraduate’ universities. More or less, Bangladeshi universities were instituted as ‘undergraduate’-heavy universities, which was somewhat at odds with the development of universities in the wider international community.

But the key point is that, despite the celebrated ‘autonomy’, this Act is more-or-less similar to the legislative configuration of most universities around the globe. Actualizing a democratic atmosphere in a university, or in any institution for that matter, takes much more than merely producing a document. I strongly dislike the global trend of script-based political discussions – one must remember that even regimes based on apartheid, or caste- or gender-driven biases often do not have any officially discriminatory laws.


No Watchdog in the Classroom

Until very recently, classrooms in the universities, especially the public universities, were absolutely surveillance-free. Indeed, many faculty members have long relished this freedom, taking the opportunity to talk at length about all the success stories of their own lives, about their foreign trips, about family prosperity, about the recent electoral polls, about how they worship the monumental political icon/s – without even bothering with any remote connection to the syllabus at hand. An advantage of this context, however, is that a professor can easily introduce issues that are a little more serious, perhaps involving state-agencies, malfunctioning administration, corporations, multinationals, profit making systems, and maybe the military and their transnational nexus too. There has always been a slight risk of ‘students in disguise’ conveying messages to the administration or the ‘people-in-charge’ of the institution. The influence of modern student evaluations is another factor (though the execution of this procedure is open to manipulation in all sorts of ways) – they have not yet been introduced at public universities, but are being discussed by the governing (and monitoring) University Grants Commission as a ‘next step’. For the private universities, classroom scrutiny has been routine, mostly in pursuit of what the authorities call ‘quality assurance’ – but in general this takes a distinct tenor from ‘censorship’ and ‘surveillance’ as they are discussed here.

Despite the lack of a ‘watchdog in the classroom’, many professors, if not most, have nevertheless indoctrinated themselves to self-censorship on a series of serious issues. Covid-19 caused a restructuring of the entire classroom scenario. With the persistent governmental claim of ‘internet-accessibility’ across the nation, teaching largely shifted online. Unsurprisingly, the faculty are now in a situation of being more scrutinized than ever. As such, questioning the nexus of state machineries or extra-state agencies remains a distant prospect within, or beyond, public universities.


The Digital Security Act, Cyberspace and ‘Bullying’

The Digital Security Act (DSA) has become the central talking point in Bangladesh in relation to ‘freedom of expression’, and it is affecting both academics and journalists to varying degrees. The DSA is part of a broader atmosphere where the ‘expected’ forms of expression are not only guided, but also ‘formed’ and ‘dictated’ – the off-limits subjects are the current government, cabinet ministers, good-book enlisted corporations, bureaucracy, and, most emphatically, the military. Government intervention in this regard has always been more vigorous in overtly public spaces, and the DSA marks cyberspace as the new height of ‘public space’. To be clear, even with recently increased surveillance, academia is still far less scrutinized than other forums. By way of a ‘risk scale’ of public criticism of state-machineries, it is citizen journalists who are at greatest risk, while English-language journal articles pass under the state radar almost completely. Bengali academic papers carry a little more risk, but far less than a post in any national daily newspaper, or even a comment posted on Facebook.

For academics, it is, then, largely a choice to remain in the comfort zone, or in a conformist zone. Their classroom performances are not scrutinized (for the mostpart), their academic pieces are mostly overlooked, and their English-language pieces carry even less risk. So it must be self-censorship that has restrained them from any critical stance for such a long period. The prevalence of self-censoring professors is an outcome of years’ long recruitment policies – ‘mediocrity’ is a strong word, derogatory too, but one cannot escape the concept in explaining the recruitment pattern in Bangladeshi academia nowadays. Combined with the huge ideological shift towards neoliberalism and the importance of ‘success’ or ‘drive’ in one’s academic ‘career’, academics are becoming more and more risk averse (with the exception of a handful of university teachers, mostly from liberal-social studies disciplines, who still urge democratic practices and critical thinking). Against the backdrop of growing conformity, things have become much more challenging lately. Teachers have faced serious charges, and have been repeatedly harassed and systematically punished for their expressions. The DSA has played a key role here – cyber-users, including teachers, are often are being scrutinized, and targeted, for their ‘momentary’ expressions, and not for their persistent, systematic, methodical analyses. The ‘chilling’ effect of the DSA and similar laws are actually playing the role of the organized goons of the recent past (a series of events in last two or three decades includes getting journalists and teachers fired, slapping or beating them, chopping off journalists’ hands or legs, and even beating them to death).

Further, in the paranoiac perception of the Bangladeshi government, mockery is blurred with ‘bullying’ as an intellectual-cultural act. Tentative ‘mocking’ of the government is defined as ‘defamation’, a crime which carries serious punishment – this is a tricky, manipulative workspace for the state-apparatuses. Of course, online abuse is commonplace more widely, especially in orchestrated male-chauvinist targeting of women, and also by government supporters targeting those they identify as ‘disloyal’ to the regime. Bullying is a consistent cyber-phenomenon, but in Bangladesh it goes unchecked, until that ‘bullying’ is directed against the government and its nexus. Do I really mind when ‘citizens’ bully the ‘governing system’? Understandably, I do not. But they – the citizens – cannot truly ‘bully’ a system that has systematically been ‘bullying’ its people, but can only be trapped in facing charges of doing so. But, as a first step, might it be possible for a subtle form of mockery to be reinstigated as a form of protest in the cultural space? With so little comradeship around, with the strictly maintained self-censorship of hundreds of our colleagues, and with the prevalence of short-sighted success-driven academic professionals, any step is a big step. Subtlety and patience are at the bottom of our groundwork.