As I sit down to write what is on my mind today, I have this odd sense of déjà vu. It seems that I have had these exact same thoughts, felt this very urge to write them down, put together these exact same words. But there is one big difference. Unlike déjà vu, this is not just some mysterious sensation that cannot be explained. The truth is our entire nation really is stuck in a cycle of events. The same things keep happening over and over, and we can only respond through the same feelings of hopelessness.
Like the summer of 2012, or the last few months of 2013, we are once again stuck with strikes and blockades. Since Jan 5, 2014, BNP has declared continuous blockades until further notice. Just like the last time this happened, no one as yet has any idea what exactly a blockade is and how people are supposed to respond to it. Matters become a lot more confusing when one is dealing with a university of thousands of students. Should all classes and exams be held according to schedule? Would it be safe for students to commute, especially during the evenings?
To be honest, these days one has to be mindful of trouble from both BNP agitators and law enforcement agencies. Then again, maybe one cannot really blame the police either. Field-level BNP workers are resorting to extreme means, causing mass destruction and death. It stands to reason that the police and RAB would go all out to battle this anarchy.
Unfortunately though, at the end of the day it is the innocent bystanders who get the worst of it. They are both victims of the atrocious petrol bomb, and liable to being arrested for looking suspicious. As the saying goes, the kings engage in battle and it is the common people who die.
Thanks to my teaching job, I heard from multiple students who travelled back to their hometown who were now unable to commute back to Dhaka thanks to the blockade. The Ijtema came and went, and there was no sign of easing on the blockade situation. This was both surprising and hurtful to a lot of people, who honestly thought that all political parties would show the basic consideration of not inconveniencing one of the biggest gatherings of Muslims in this part of the world. But I suppose even the pretence of decency is now a thing of the past.
To further complicate the situation, BNP has now been calling two to three days of strikes every week, for the past several weeks. So much has been written over and over again about the economic loss these strikes cause, that I will not go into that all over again. In the past, I have myself written about the projected loss these strikes cause in the educational sector in terms of hours lost, time to graduate extended, and other such things. I will not go into them again today either.
Today I want to talk about loss in a very different sense, also caused by political uncertainty that keeps coming back in a cyclic pattern in our lives.
I teach mostly undergraduate classes in a university here in Dhaka. I have been teaching the same course for nearly three years now, which gives me the immense advantage of having every little detail planned out from Day 1. On the very first day of the semester, I populate my Google calendar with deadlines for multiple assignments, class tests, midterms, and final exams. I admit without any shame that I take a lot of pride in being this organised, and I make sure the class also knows how every detail of their teaching and evaluation has been planned down to the date and time.
This semester, however, things are different. My class is lagging way behind where it usually would be, three weeks into the semester. Assignment deadlines have had to be postponed multiple times, and so have class test dates. I always finish my lecture for the day with a short recap of the day’s topics, and a quick mention of what we will be doing next class. This semester, it honestly seems like a farce at times; given how neither I nor the students have any idea when the next class might be. We can plan ahead all we want, prepare all the necessary resources, but all it takes is one announcement from some political party, and all activity in this city comes to a halt with people staying indoors, glued to the television, apprehensive of what fresh horror might unfold this day, in this struggle for power by what used to be, one of the two biggest political parties in this nation. Why do I say used to be? Because to me it seems that today, BNP has relegated themselves to the level of some anarchist cell with no faith in, or intention to rely on, the due democratic process.
Setting aside all the tangible losses incurred by strikes, I would just like to say something about one substantial intangible loss it causes. It is not my intention to belittle any of the tangible losses, or to imply that what I will focus on is somehow more important. Put simply, many people much wiser than me are already talking about the other issues, so I thought I would spend some time to focus on this.
There has been enough scientific study to show that people do their best work under a moderate amount of stress. To be more precise, neither unending luxury nor utter chaos is conducive to optimal performance in people. People need to feel some pressure, some degree of anxiety, but they also need some degree of regularity in order to stay productive.
Imagine yourself in place of the student who has no idea when his next lecture will be held, or what day his exams might finally take place. I have been in such situations myself, back in October 2006. I have often spoken to extended family members in public universities, who have gone through closure for months on end. There is an overwhelming consensus about how such circumstances completely kill your motivation and leave you unmotivated about taking any action. It makes sense too. What is the point of being disciplined and following a routine yourself, when everything around you is just plain chaos?
This may seem like the classic academic ivory tower mindset. While people are dying of third degree burns, what gives anyone the right to complain about a disruption in routine? Once again, I do not belittle the sheer terror that seems to have gripped the entire city. People are scared to venture outside, and no one can rest easy until all their loved ones are home. Once again, my only excuse is that everywhere around me, people are already talking about these issues. These are the immediate and urgent outcomes of this mad rush for power. However, these urgent issues are taking up so much of our attention that we are being blinded to the slow cancer that is flourishing behind the scenes. Already the SSC exams have had to be postponed, no doubt causing significant stress and frustration to the examinees.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that there will be an end to strikes, causing even more delay and disruption. It is simply not fair to expect students to give their best performance in a situation fraught with such uncertainty. Once they have somehow made it through this tortuous process, they are bound to feel nothing but disdain for the country that allows such circumstances to arise in one of the most important moments in their lives. These thousands of students, worn down by the stress of endless politics, will never feel a sense of duty for the nation.
Why should they, when this nation is showing them nothing but apathy?
What can we expect from a party that is this inconsiderate of the common people, this single-minded in their obsession to attain power? Right now they are not in power, they are not even the opposition, and already their brand of anarchy is shaking the people of this city to their very core. Could we really trust them with power and governance?
But I digress. If BNP is losing popular support, then that is something their own policymakers must address. I would like to focus on what we could do, in the present, to ensure a better environment in which to hold the SSC exams. I believe it is now incumbent on the examinees, their parents, and above all the educators and academicians of this country to stand up and demand that their voices be heard. What are these strikes and blockades supposed to achieve? At what cost? Is there no way to find some mutually satisfactory solution that does not wreak havoc with the schedules and the peace of mind of thousands of SSC examinees, and countless more university students? This power-hungry politics has been a constant in our past, and is ruining our present.
Can we at least make sure it also does not poison our future, and the minds of those who will help us build it?
Hammad Ali is a teacher of Computer Science and Engineering at BRAC University.