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Since the chief actors of last July’s terror attack in a posh Dhaka precinct were discovered to be radicalised upper-class kids, university students have come under stern glare. Often, some fear, with counterproductive consequences. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • FACE OF TERROR: (From top) A woman displays a photo of her son who worked at the Holey Artisan Bakery, Dhaka; the site of the attack; a protest rally in a nearby village

Shoriful is barely out of his teens. He likes to wear Pathan suits and skullcaps, sports a well-trimmed goatee, prays five times a day and knows the Islamic sermons by heart. That and the fact that he is currently a student of a reputed private university in Dhaka make him a “person of interest” in the eyes of law enforcement agencies. This is Bangladesh, a year after the terror attack on Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery.

“It’s difficult to convince people that not everyone studying in a private university joins the extremists, and my religious inclination doesn’t make me a radical either,” says Shoriful, who goes to one of the universities at Dhanmondi in Dhaka.

Private universities in Bangladesh are a 1990s phenomenon. The first one was North South University (NSU), which came up in 1992. Today, there are 96 of them, boasting a three lakh-plus student community.

Investigations following last July’s carnage – 22 people were shot dead in a café in an upscale neighbourhood of the Bangladeshi capital – revealed that three of the five terrorists were English-medium schooled, religious-minded, beard-toting rich kids. One of them was from NSU. Police said the university’s former pro vice-chancellor, Gias Uddin Ahsan, had sheltered the attackers in a flat owned by him. Soon after, police arrested many teachers and students of various such universities who had links with the radical group, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Recruitment of young men by terrorist and Islamic radical organisations is not new. For decades, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir – the student wing of the country’s biggest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh – has been wooing and winning over young impoverished madrasa students. Many students of the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) also signed up for the Chhatrashibir. They had been offered scholarships, free coaching and books in exchange.

But what the Dhaka attack showed up was different. This was a class shift. The Hizb ut-Tahrir was tapping into a different demographic altogether. Naturally, the “phenomenon” attracted a lot of media attention.

The Tahrir’s changed tactics led to a reflexive change in attitudes. An administrative crackdown followed. Profiling of students of private universities, previously unheard of, became a routine affair. And life was never the same for the likes of Shoriful.

“One of my students shunned the Pathan suit and started wearing trousers. Earlier, he used to keep a beard but now he is clean-shaven. He did so because he realised that people regard him with suspicion,” says Janina Islam Abir, a lecturer in the Media and Communication department at Independent University. “Also, some of our students have been distancing themselves from their overtly religious friends.”

The general opinion among private university students is that life in Dhaka has suddenly become claustrophobic – it’s the state’s surveillance being streamed upon them.

Police have instructed landlords, particularly those in Dhaka’s posh Uttara, Mirpur and Banani areas, to avoid renting out rooms to bachelors, especially students of private universities. Should they do that, tenant details must be shared with the local police station. That’s not all, random questioning by police has become the new normal.

“Whenever we pass the diplomatic zone in Dhaka, we are stopped by the police. The first thing we are asked is, ‘Where do you study?’,” says Ridoan AGM, a third-year student of Independent University. He adds, “Earlier, we carried our ID cards when we went to university, now we carry it whenever we step out of our homes to ensure we are not harassed by the police.”

The state’s probe has penetrated the campuses too. Once again, one must fall back on the 2016 revelations. According to police investigations, universities were used by a section of radical teachers to indoctrinate students. They would apparently use the prayer rooms to talk to students on conflict and religion, share books on liberating the land of the Muslims, global jihad and Islamic rulings on democracy. One recruiter had told The Telegraph shortly after last year’s attacks that rich college students usually lacked a purpose in life and, therefore, were more prone to buying into the “martyr” dream.

Experts – social as well as behavioural – had also remarked how these youngsters did not have very strong family ties and lacked knowledge about the secular and cultural ethos of the country. Also, in the absence of students’ unions and active clubs and committees in these universities, they spent the larger part of their student life online with no “real” outlet for their youthful fervour. In fact, there has been enough evidence to support the view that the young men involved in the café attack were radicalised online.

After the attack, many universities installed closed-circuit television cameras in prayer rooms. Students were asked not to mingle with pupils they “are not sure of”. In NSU, which had earned a reputation for being “a den of extremists”, vigilance was more aggressive. It has since formed an anti-terror committee and asked students to remain alert. Insiders say, it recently suspended a group of students for allegedly forcing women classmates to wear the hijab.

As it happens, many innocent students have been caught in the crosshairs. Take the case of the student who approached a counsellor for a bothersome obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The university administration suspected him of being a radical because he wore kurta-pyjama and sported a beard. “They asked me to question him rigorously about his background and try and find out if he had any connection with radical groups. I refused because I am not trained to deal with issues related to radicalisation. But another colleague grilled him so hard that he did not return for counselling,” says a counsellor of NSU, on condition of anonymity. She still believes the student really had suffered an OCD affliction, no more. Police too, apparently, “randomly” pick up young men and label them radicals. Going by news reports, in the past one year, a dozen “masterminds” have been hunted down.

If we have not heard the liberal thinkers speak up against this and for the rights of the student community at these universities, it is because they haven’t spoken up at all.

In fact, writer and historian Muntasir Mamun told The Telegraph over phone from Dhaka: “There is no such profiling.” So, was he denying all this is going on? Mamun admitted that students might feel “societal pressure” because names of one or two private universities had come up again and again for their involvement in terrorist activities, but added that it was a “temporary phase”. He said, “This will end soon, as the government is making a concerted effort to root out terrorism.”

Rooting out extremism from Bangladesh will, if anything, be a long haul. Radical forces seem to be only expanding their base in the country. But stereotyping is possibly not the best of solutions. “Some of them [students] feel intimidated by this constant vigil and are hiding their real selves in public. They are becoming introverts,” says Shami Suhrid, psycho-social counsellor and lecturer at BRAC University.

Counsellor Tamanna Chowdhury of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) seconds that. She also throws in a warning. “Youth between 18 and 23 are vulnerable. Eventually, this alienation may push them to join radical forces.” But who’s listening?

In the meantime, in the absence of any kind of support, private university students have decided to take things into their own hands. They have started doing their bit to change the societal notion that they are “rich kids with extremist views”.

In the past one year, they have organised conferences, Sufi concerts and photo shoots to spread the message of peace and tolerance. On March 26, which is the Bangladesh Independence Day, students of the Eastern University painted their palms red and green – the colours of the Bangladeshi national flag – took selfies and posted them on Facebook.

In February, a Belgian mother, whose son went to Syria to join ranks with the terrorists, was invited to address students and parents at ULAB. She spoke on how to read the early signs of radicalisation among young men. Recently, students of five private universities organised a film festival under a project titled, “Film-making and television journalism for peace and tolerance in Bangladesh”. It showcased 12 films shot by students on radicalisation in Bangladesh and ways of containing it. Some universities are trying to engage ” muktijoddhas” or freedom fighters of the 1971 Liberation War to interact with students and talk to them about the history of Bangladesh.

Is it helping? Not all of these efforts can bear fruit overnight, but some are. Students claim that the interactive sessions give them a sense of context, help them engage in debates on politics and Islam. “Earlier, we used to listen to radical views in college canteens or clubs but never reacted because we didn’t know what to say. Now, we can confront them with valid arguments,” says Ridoan. Shoriful adds, “The onus is on us to change the perception about our tribe.”

Listen closely. Or recall Wilfred Owen. Bangladesh is ringing with the Anthem for doomed youth.




  • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...