Nurul Haque Nur, 26, has climbed to the peak of student politics in Bangladesh despite a humble background, multiple beatings and not being affiliated with any political party.
On March 11, Nur was elected vice president of the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union (DUCSU), in a stunning upset for the student wing of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party. The position ranks behind the university vice chancellor in power and influence on campus.
His victory followed a national election in December in which opposition and independent candidates were crushed in a vote that ushered in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s third consecutive term in office.
It was the first DUCSU election permitted in 28 years, and Hasina has invited the winners to tea at her residence on Saturday.
The student union of Bangladesh’s premier university is revered because its leaders organized protest movements in the 1960s that fueled the drive for independence from Pakistan, ultimately achieved in 1971.
Nur, one of five children of a farmer from southern Bangladesh, was admitted to Dhaka University in 2013 to study English, seen as a prestigious course of study.
He briefly got involved with the Bangladesh Chhatra League – the Awami League’s student wing – but later decided to “snub politics” because, he said, its cadres would lock students who didn’t attend organized protests out of their rooms.
A few years later he led protests against a civil service quota system that reserves 56 percent of jobs for disadvantaged minorities and veterans of the 1971 independence war – leading, the students said, to widespread unemployment of university graduates.
The peaceful agitation spread across the country but was ultimately branded as unpatriotic, and protesters were beaten. Nur spent weeks in hospital after a merciless beating in July 2018.
In an interview with BenarNews, Nur said he faces “continuous” threats against his life – but he stays focused on problems faced by regular students.
During his one-year term as vice president he hopes to improve living standards in dormitories, where there are more bodies than beds, and new students sleep on the floor in crowded “guest rooms” run by powerful student organizations.
BenarNews: What will you do about quality of life on campus?
Nur: One of my agendas will be to release students from political abuse. As there have been no elected student councils for a long time, political parties force students to support them. ... University teachers and administration are also very politicized; they think about politics more than education. I will try to free academic activities of this university from bad politics.
BN: If you get any chance to talk to the prime minister, will you raise concerns regarding irregularities in the national election and democracy in Bangladesh?
Nur: [I]n our country the democratic system is collapsing, and citizens are losing trust in democratic processes. If I get a chance I will flag those issues to the prime minister.
BN: So far as we know, you were forced to leave your student housing?
Nur: Not forced to leave actually, I was threatened to be killed. I filed a complaint to the university administration, but they could not ensure my security. That’s why, due to insecurity, I left the hall.
BN: Are you or any of your family member facing insecurity now?
Nur: Continuously I am receiving threats, till now. Openly they are saying on Facebook that I will be shot dead or beaten to death, not only my family members, or my father, people who love me, all are in fear...
[I]n daylight, people are taken and blindfolded, at night groups identifying themselves as law enforcers take people into custody, and later law enforcers say they did not take anyone. ... Always, we all are in fear that any night while returning home, anybody can be taken away and nobody will acknowledge it. What can ordinary people do in this situation?
BN: You were attacked last July, and you claimed that when you were taken to the government medical hospital, they refused to treat you… You are getting attacked continuously, but you are not stopping your activities. What is the source of your courage?
Nur: I would say, the state has become a monster now, it is swallowing citizens rather than protecting them. On one side we are getting beaten by students who support the government and on the other side, we are abused by the state law enforcers. They are even stopping us from getting [medical] treatment.
It didn’t only happen in last July, but very recently, on the 11th March, on Election Day, I was attacked and injured at Rokeya Hall [of Dhaka University]. I was taken to the Lab Aid Hospital in Dhanmondi, but they instructed Lab Aid doctors to refuse my admission. Then I had to go to a community clinic at Moghbazar for treatment.
[W]e are living in a culture of fear, stopping people from speaking by force and by creating panic. They also tried to stop us, but they could not make it, because we know we have support from the ordinary people of this country... someone has to protest for the sake of the country and people’s welfare.
[H]istory is always made by oppressed people...we are trying to bring some changes.
Prapti Rahman and Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka and Mahbub Leelen in Washington contributed to this report.