Student Politics in Bangladesh Under Military Autocracy


S M Akram Ullah*

Abstract: Student politics in Bangladesh has an affluent history. It has a long historical background that contributed on our political system with some specific features. One of the most important features is that student politics has a vigorous anti-autocratic stance that put up a role in bringing the democracy in the country. The key interest of this paper is to explore how students have become championed to the course of people against military autocracy’s attempt to curb democratic rights during both General Gia and General Ershad regime. Another important matter of this paper is to know how students raised their voice and fought against the military onslaughts taken by both Zia and Ershad. At the same time, a concise history of student politics in Bangladesh will be put up before the discussion of Zia and Ershad regime. Alongside, a discussion on how Zia and Ershad tried to curb the democracy in Bangladesh has been taken into consideration in this paper.

Keywords: Student Politics, Military Autocracy, Bangladesh.


Demand of democracy had always been a major issue in the struggle for self-determination by the people of Bangladesh. The country’s people realized the true nature and benefit of democracy. So, the much wanted parliamentary democracy was enshrined in the constitution of 1972. But it turn out to be a one party monolithic system within two years (Ahmed, 1991:13). Bangladesh within its journey of three and half years, has lost its great leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was assassinated by a disgruntled small coterie group of junior military officers on August 15, 1975 with many of his family members (Haq, 1994:187). With the setting out of Mujib, the country was thrown into a boundless perplexed situation. Later, Bangladesh saw the bureaucratic military oligarchy by General Zia and Ershad, opposition to the regimes first came from the students who tried to oust the military autocracy of both Zia and Ershad and played vital role for democracy. In this article, an attempt is made to discuss the role of students against the military autocracy of both Zia and Ershad. At the same time, an abridged history of student politics will be discussed below.

A Brief History of Students Politics in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, students have played an active role in politics like the students of all underdeveloped countries. Students have always been a significant pressure group and student politics in the past made important contribution to the democratic development of Bangladesh. Since the very beginning of 19 century, students of Bangladesh played an important role in the struggle for establishing democracy and for independence from the British colonial rule. At the very initial stage of student politics, students, the conscious part of the Bengal, influenced by the Bengal Renaissance, fought against superstition and conservation and they defined the rights of man along with the demand for free and compulsory education for all (Anil Seal, 1971:196; Chatterjee & Ray, 1997:209) .

The 19th century saw a major trend in the development of some student organizations in Bengal. Academic Association, Sorbotottodipica Sava, Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge, Deshahitaishenee Sava, Calcutta Students Association, Samadarshi Ghusti, etc. were the main student organizations of that time. The members of these organizations focused on the development of society as well as country, fought against suppression, deprivation and degradation of Bengali by the British, opted for autonomy, denied the caste system and did not believe in private property (Banerjee, 1998:75; Sarker, 2002:111; Joshi, 1972:5).

Before the end of the British rule, students took part in various anti-British movements, especially in the Civil Disobedience Movement and in the Quit India movement. They were more active in these movements and played vital role in these struggles. They fought for their country against British rule with a great patriotic fervor (Ghosh, 1969:35). During the course of the movements, students of that time assumed leadership in all movements and providing leadership, they made these movements successful (Altbach, 1971:142-143). At the end of the British rule, students of Bengal put contributed in curbing communal riot and holocaust, which broke out in Bengal. They took part in the anti-riot activities and worked whole-heartedly to bury the hatchet between the Hindus and Muslims (Chottapadhyay, 1984:83).

After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the student community in East Pakistan emerged as the main force of protest against all sorts of suppression, oppression and exploitations. The post-independence phase of student movement was triggered, at first, by the issue of a democratic constitution making for the new state. Students of East Pakistan organized themselves for this political issue and they outright rejected the proposals for future constitution of Pakistan of Basic Principles Committee for the first time (Choudhury, n.d.:72). At this sphere, students observed strike and took the leading role in absence of the national political leaders.

The students led the historic Language Movement of 1948-1952. Later, students upheld the ideal of language-based Bengali nationalism most enthusiastically. In 1954, students put forward 22-point demand, which included higher education for all, and they moved to root out the disparity between the two wings. Students protested Ayub Khan’s insertion of some undemocratic provisions to the constitution in June 1962 and opted for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. They also agitated for liberal, secular and scientific system of education, for adult franchise and for Bengali autonomy under Six-point programme of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They fought for the release of Sheik Mujibur Rahman from the Agartala Conspiracy Case (1967-69). In fact students were the main force in organizing the mass uprising in 1969 that brought about the fall of Ayub Khan (Ahmed, 1991:129-132). At the end of Pakistan period, large number of students joined the Liberation War of 1971 in various capacities launching a guerilla type or war against Pakistani Military and their collaborators. Their glorious role in all liberal movements in erstwhile East Pakistan and their tremendous sacrifice for the people’s rights and liberation made them heroes of independent Bangladesh (Bhatnagar, 1997:133).

In the new country, also student movements played crucial role in restoring democracy. During the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman regime, student community opted for mass education system. They urged the government to take steps to make up education policy demanding. “There must be representative from the student community in the education policy commission” (Hannan, 2000:15-20).  During this regime, intra-party fued in Chattra League was a constant phenomenon. Among all student organizations, Chattra League (JSD) with its parent organization became a strong opposition force and a challenger of the regime (Jahan, 1980:80-88).

Ziaur Rahman Regime

General Zia took over state power through coups and counter coups in November 1975. After his assumption in power, the political scenery had been changed and a violent irruption had taken place in the political arena, especially in the educational institutions of Bangladesh. The student community took a stand and launched agitation activities against Zia’s dictatorial activities and militarization of politics. Students led their actions on to the streets and launched their anti-government movements for the withdrawal of martial law and emergency powers, introduction of parliamentary democracy, release of all political prisoners and restoration of freedom of press etc. organizing strikes, street agitations and the like, to dislodge the Zia regime from power (Hasanuzzaman, 1998:70). Opposition to the regime first came from the party workers of JSD who were mostly students. They treated Zia as anti-revolutionary and mounted criticism against him for being in favor of the sympathizers of the west and rightist elements. They made a strong agitation against Zia but it soon inflicted due to a tough action adopted by the Zia regime. As a protest they observed a general strike on 31 July 1976 (qtd. in Rahman and Murad, 1999).

Zia regime adopted a measure of allowing limited party activity from July 1976 and issued a military decree saying, “Political Party means an association or body of individuals which pursues, or is engaged in, any activity with political purpose including propagation of any political opinion and includes any affiliated, associated or front organization, such as student, labor cultural, peasant and youth organization, of such association or body (Jahan, 2000:16).” This military decree soon became known as Political Parties Regulation (PPR) by which various parties were permitted to operate “indoors” from July 30, 1976 (Hasanuzzaman, 1998:71).  As an effect of PPR, various student organizations got approval to do politics in the country and they became known by their respective parties. Thus, the Chattra League stood for Awami League, Chattra Union for CPB, Chattra League (Scientific Socialism) for JSD, Islami Chattra Shibir for Jamat-i-Islami Bangladesh and at the last, Jatiotabadi Chattra Dal for BNP. It is true to say that every parent organization and their student body mixed together in the political sphere as well as in the educational institutions. They kept their existence alive in the academic institutions with the presence of their student bodies that acted as the substitute organization and launched their activities in the educational institutions to save the interests of their parent organizations instead of serving the interests of the nation (Hasanuzzaman, 1998:70). In fact, the student organizations began to lose their quality from that time onwards.

Zia regime saw a great resentment in May 1976 when Zia repealed Article 12 from the constitution and withdrew the restrictions on communal and religion based Islam pasand right wing parties who were debarred from politics during Awami League rule. Zia, through an official order, gave the communal parties a great chance to be revived and rehabilitated in the polities with old and new nomenclature under PPR. As a result, students of pro Liberation forces branded Zia as anti-liberation forces and mounted criticism against Zia for playing role on the part of communal and religion-based political parties. At the same time, they took their stand against Jamat-Shibir on this issue. Due to this reason, a number of clashes had taken place between pro-liberation forces of Students community and Islami Chattra Shibir in many educational institutions of Bangladesh that perturbed the whole educational system and made the society more strife prone. It should be mentioned here that about thirty clashes had taken place in the whole country, especially in the educational institutions between Islami Chattra Shibir and the pro-liberation student organizations. During Zia regime around five hundred students were injured and four were killed due to these clashes (Maniruzzaman, 1988:216).

Zia regime witnessed another student’s resentment in 1977 when he held referendum in order to legitimize his rule and consolidate his power. A group of students under the banner of JSD stood up against it and tried to resist the referendum. They mounted criticism through posterings in the country. Maniruzzaman remarked that young JSD cadres, especially students through their party posters vehemently criticized the referendum and they treated the referendum as nothing but a ‘political bluff’ of the Zia regime (Maniruzzaman, 1988:216).

Political situation further deterioted when Zia tried to build a student organization, Jaitotabadi Chattra Dal, applying the policy of divide and rule and distribution of patronages and benefits. In this sphere he picked up the members, those who were not at all concerned about party ideology and programs. Instead they were simply busy to get government patronages and power. He formed his student front through using coercion and violence against political opposition (The Holiday 10 Feb. 1980, qtd. in Rahman, 1998: 103-149). As a result, a number of frequent clashes and violence had taken place between Jatiotabadi Chattra Dal and opposition’s student organizations for which the congenial atmosphere of the educational institutions became paralyzed in particular and of the whole country in general. In making such a violent situation in the country, the Sarkari student organization (student wing of BNP) became champion in most of the cases. It is true to say that during Zia regime, more than thirty three clashes took place in the educational institutions between Jatiotabadi Chattra Dal and oppositions student organizations in which five were killed, around five hundred were injured and many educational institutions especially the universities and colleges, were closed down sine die (Westergaard, 1986:98). Such a situation became intolerable and alarming and threatened the Bengali nation as a whole.

Apart from this, Zia regime faced another movement in 1980 when the opposition political parties launched their anti-government movement on the streets to dislodge the regime from power in order to get rid of the controlled democracy of Zia. Under the banner of a ten-party political alliance, student supporters of opposition parties took part in this movement and they raised their voice and mounted criticism against Zia for changing the nationality from Bangalee to Bangladeshi, returning to Islamic ideology from a secular position, giving advantages and patronages for the revival of the collaborators of the Liberation War 1971. They also made criticism that Zia ruled the country through an authoritarian system under the garb of presidential democracy like Ayub Khan of Pakistan (Hasanuzzaman, 1998: 98). Besides raising voices and mounting criticisms, students became forceful against government by launching violent political programs, like hartals, street agitations etc. during Zia regime (The Daily Ittefaq, 18 December 1982).

Hossain Mohammad Ershad Regime

Lt. General Hossain Mohammed Ershad took over state power on March 24, 1982 and ruled the country till the end of 1990. During his regime, he faced a number of movements. The first serious challenge to his regime came from the student community. In September 1982, when Ershad tried to impose a new education policy, the student community became united and initiated movement against the new education policy of Ershad under the umbrella of 14 student organizations. They termed the new education policy as regressive and ‘reactionary-ideological’. In fact, it had some negative and regressive features that was be proved from Ershad’s speech. At a Seerat Conference in December 1982. Ershad said,

I want children to read the Quran in Arabic, remember Allah when they converse. We want Islamic education every-where through giving Islam a place in the constitution…. I want to introduce such an education system so that students are not brought up as revolutionaries, rebels (Kabir, 1999:76).

Through such speeches Ershad, in fact, expressed his regressive ideological overtone to the new education policy. The secular, non-communal and influential student community and their organizations mounted criticism against such an approach and 14 student organizations observed the Shikkha Divas on September 17, 1980, although all types of political activities were outlawed in the country. At last, the 14 student organizations formed an alliance that moved against the anti education policy and Ershad’s autocratic rule throughout 1980s. It expedited for a signature collection program against the new education policy and collected 2 lacs signatures from all over the country (Kabir, 1999:76).

Students’ activities got further momentum due to repression policy on the processions that were brought out in Dhaka University on November 07, 1982 in which many were wounded and arrested. It worked as a catalyst and an accelerator for further development of the students’ movement and helped the alliance to be transformed into Students’ Action Committee (SAC) on November 21, 1982. On the other hand, Chattra Dal and other rightist student organizations formed Sangrami Chattra Jote (SCJ). In making a strong movement against Ershad’s autocratic rule, both the student alliances tried to maintain liaison and they took same action programs in the anti autocratic movement (qtd. in Kabir, 1999:77).

Under the banner of SAC and SCJ, students took an oath to create a strong movement and termed the new education policy as “the self-styled government not based on the will of the people” (Forum, June-July, 1983:5) that would cripple the nation. At the same time, they demanded a “people-oriented, scientific and non-communal education policy” in lieu of a rotten education policy. They demanded revoking of the new education policy, withdrawal of Martial Law, release of student leaders and creation of a congenial democratic atmosphere in the campuses and in the country. Beside this, student community expressed their full support to the demands of other professionals’ organizations on the basis of 5-point charter (The Daily Ittefaq, 14 Dec. 1982).

Adopting a two-fold carrot and stick policy, Ershad proposed student leaders to talk with him on the issues of the movements. Students and their leaders rejected his proposal and continued their programs and they declared that they would gherao the Shikkha Bhawan on January 11, 1983. In this situation, Ershad took a hard line approach and threatened the students’ community saying he would resist the proposed gherao program by any means. Despite Ershad’s threat, students marched towards the Shikkha Bhavan (Ministry of Education) on January 11, 1983 with a mammoth procession, which made the agitating students stronger and more confident to be successful in their movement. It also helped the students to become united and established the leadership of SAC leaders to control the movement (details in Kabir, 1999:83-84). Students’ under the umbrella of SAC observed a gherao program and staged grand agitation on February 14, 1983. On that day many students died down including Zafor, Joinal and many student were injured due to brutal atrocity of the police. The next day, they staged protest against the brutality and observed hartal spontaneously in the whole country. Considering the prevalence and spontaneity of the students’ involvement, Ershad declared closing down of many educational institutions including Dhaka University sine die. But this attempt of Ershad could not stop the students from movement. They continued their programmes one after another and declared a 10-point programme (Alam, 1991: 33) on March 10, 1983. In this way, the issue based student movement turned into a point based movement that put a great impact on national politics to develop an anti-Ershad movement and in forming a 15 party alliance and a 7 party alliance. On February 28, 1984 students led by SAC brought out an anti-Ershad procession in Dhaka in which student leaders of Chattra League (AL), Ibrahim Selim and Kazi Delwar Hossain, died. For this incidence, students observed a countrywide protest strike on March 1, 1984, that introduced a mass-movement in the country (Khushbu, 1991:37).

During the Upazilla election in 1985, students all over the country launched an extensive protest movement, which enhanced the anti-Ershad students’ movement day by day. This time, students of Dhaka University brought out a procession on February 13, against which the students of the Natun Bangla Chattra Samaj (NBCS) backed by Ershad indiscriminately fired on the procession. In effect, Raofun Basunnia of Jatio Chattra League (JCL) was shot dead. In  such a situation, student community developed the anti-Ershad movement severely and diffused the movement in the whole country.

On November 10, 1987, student community opened a new chapter in the history of students’ movement. They demonstrated against Ershad’s government and observed Dhaka seizure program demanding the resignation of Ershad. On that day, a demonstrator, named Nur Hossain, died due to indiscriminate shooting of police. He wrote, “Soirachar Nipat Jak, (Down Dictatorship) Gonotontro Mukti Pak”(Liberate Democracy) (The Daily ittefaq 11 Nov. 1987) on his chest and back respectively. Since that day, people of all walks of life observe November 10, every year as the day of Gonotontro Mukti Divas.

In 1988 and 1989, students continued their glorious and valorous role in making an irresistible political movement in the whole country. In 1989 they observed 60 days countrywide hartals and blockades summoned by opposition parties. They continued their movement. Students’ movement got momentum again when the opposition parties sketched an outline of various programs and provided a sit-in-strike in front of the secretariat on October 10, 1990. In course of observing this program, 5 were shot dead including Jehad Hossain, 37 were bullet affected and 100 scores were injured. In this circumstance, students took an oath to oust Ershad from state power and they promised, “We would not let the blood of the martyrs go in vain. We will oust the present government, we will eliminate autocracy (Weekly Chitra Bangla, 14 December 1990).” In addition, the students also promised, “Until autocracy falls, we would not give up whatever blood we have to pay for this, whatever lives we have to sacrifice. We would not go back until victory comes (Bulletin, All Party Students Unity (APSU), Dhaka University, 3 December 1990).” Through bulletins against Ershad they declared, “Your hands are bloody, your legs are with leprosy, your throats are with sores. For God’s sake, step down, step down (Alam, 1991:36).”

Students of 22 rival student organizations came forward and created the Sarbo Dolia Chattra Oikkya (All Party Student Unity-APSU) in November. This new body provided unified and integrated leadership in the anti-Ershad movement and became instrumental in extending the unity movement and reduced the personal hatred of the opposition leaders. The APSU compelled all the major opposition alliances to accept their demands and to sign a Joint Declaration on November 19, 1990, highlighting the process of democratic transition (Hasanuzzaman, 1998:98).

This Joint Declaration purveyed an extra-ordinary strength to the all out efforts of the students’ community in particular and to the oppositions’ camp as a whole to oust Ershad’s autocratic government. Day by day, the anti-Ershad movement was getting new momentum one after another. The situation of the country became unruly and tumultuous and the people became angry. Student pulverized all plans taken by Ershad and transgressed all coercive measures including curfews. They led the movement with a vigilant eye to oust Ershad from his office and to establish democracy in the country. They brought the anti-Ershad movement on a lofty place in the first week of the last month of 1990. In this circumstance, Ershad became perplexed and lost all the way to stay in power. During this time, huge tumult, uproar of the people’s voice and a violent motion occupied the whole political scenario. At this juncture of astounding outburst, Ershad was compelled to resign from his post and handed over power to the nominee of Combined Opposition Alliance (COA), Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed (Hasanuzzaman, 1998: 98). With this resignation of Ershad the anti-autocracy movement and the mass upsurge became successful and the people saw the light of democratic transition in Bangladesh. It was a great victory on the part of the students, common people, and the opposition, which paved the way for the democratic transition in Bangladesh.


In Bangladesh, students as the most conscious part of the society, have played an active role in polities. They became a significant pressure group and student politics in the past greatly contributed to the democratic development of Bangladesh. Both Zia and his appropriate descendant, Ershad, have come to state power donning military uniform like Mufti. After their assumption to power, Zia concentrated all power in his hand. He imposed Martial Law, dissolved Parliament, banned political parties and restricted civil and political rights. During his tenure, Zia took stern action against the leaders and workers of opposition parties, imprisoned many party leaders and activists, gave sentence to death, banned on processions, brought night curfew in capital city, manipulated administrative machineries and media etc. He held a series of elections from local to national for gaining legitimacy of his rule in the country. All the elections were defective in nature that contributed to an erosion of public faith in the sanctity of the electoral system and caused damages to democracy. He created complete domination of Civil Military bureaucracy over the politicians in Bangladesh. All the things that happened during Zia regime were not conducive for establishing democracy in the political system. Ershad, the best descendant of Zia closely followed the same patterns and strategies of Zia to rule the country that were not also conducive for democracy. During Zia and Ershad regimes, students raised their voices and launched movements for the withdrawal of Martial Law and emergency powers, introduction of parliamentary democracy, release of all political prisoners, restoration of freedom of press etc. They also took part in many movements to topple down the military regimes and to get rid of their controlled democracy. Students mounted criticism against Zia’s and Ershad’s undemocratic activities, tried to foil all plans taken by them and transgressed all coercive measures including curfews. Ultimately, they have brought a hard earned democracy in the country in 1990 after the end of a continuous fight for fifteen year against Zia’s and Ershad’s military autocracies.


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* Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Rajshahi, Rajshahi.

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