We are with you, Viqarunnisa!

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By rahnuma ahmed

“…far from a mere method or an a priori technique to be imposed on all students, education is a political and moral practice that provides the knowledge, skills and social relations that enable students to explore for themselves the possibilities of what it means to be engaged citizens, while expanding and deepening their participation in the promise of a substantive democracy.”
Henri A Giroux, Lessons to be learned from Paulo Freire, 23 November 2010

Solidarity rally for Viqarunnisa Noon school and college students, central Shaheed Minar, July 15, 2011. From left to right, Ayesha Khanam, professor Delwar Hossain, Zonayed Saki, Mushrefa Mishu, Advocate Habibunnesa, professor Naseem Akhter Hussain, professor Gitiara Nasreen, Ferdousi Priyabhashini, Faizul Hakim Lala, Nur Mohammad, professor Akmal Hossain, professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Rahnuma Ahmed and Nurul Kabir observing a one-minute silence to pay their respects to 40 students killed in Mirsarai road accident. Professor Anu Muhammad, and dramatist and actor Mamunur Rashid joined the rally later. The rally ended with songs of resistance sung by Arup Rahee and his band Lila, Amal Akash and Samageet, and Krishnakoli Islam. Photo: Indrajit

Solidarity rally for Viqarunnisa Noon school and college students, central Shaheed Minar, July 15, 2011. From left to right, Ayesha Khanam, professor Delwar Hossain, Zonayed Saki, Mushrefa Mishu, Advocate Habibunnesa, professor Naseem Akhter Hussain, professor Gitiara Nasreen, Ferdousi Priyabhashini, Faizul Hakim Lala, Nur Mohammad, professor Akmal Hossain, professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Rahnuma Ahmed and Nurul Kabir observing a one-minute silence to pay their respects to 40 students killed in Mirsarai road accident. Professor Anu Muhammad, and dramatist and actor Mamunur Rashid joined the rally later. The rally ended with songs of resistance sung by Arup Rahee and his band Lila, Amal Akash and Samageet, and Krishnakoli Islam

Forty killed in Mirsarai road accident, July 11. Thirty-nine were schoolboys, aged 11-13, on their way home from a football match. http://tinyurl.com/4xpno3a Unimaginable swathes of grief sweep surrounding villages, engulf the nation. Three day mourning in educational institutions; the truck driver, chatting on his mobile as the truck skidded and plunged into a canal, still eludes arrest. Of humble backgrounds, father is an autorickshaw driver, a rickshaw puller. Dreams have crumbled into a void.

We mourned their deaths at Shaheed Minar last Friday, July 15, as we rallied in support of Viqarunnisa Noon students who are demanding the speedy trial and punishment of the schoolteacher accused of raping a student, who are against the return of Hosne Ara Begum as principal (temporarily replaced) on the grounds that she had suppressed the allegation.

News of more deaths as I write. Six college students beaten to death allegedly by Keblar Char villagers in Aminbazar, Savar, a drug belt. http://tinyurl.com/3d5b45g Media reports indicate villagers mistook them for robbers. The seventh surviving student says they had gone there to try drugs. Just `out of curiosity’ (The Bangladesh Today, July 19, 2011).

The law and order situation has worsened to alarming levels as police forces get largely deployed to contain the discontent of opposition political parties. To contain political dissent, a civic right. To contain student protests, as Viqis, both present and alumni, allege. Threatening phone calls; he claimed to be the officer-in-charge of Ramna thana, an allegation denied (New Age, July 17, 2011).  Police and Rapid Action Battalion forces were positioned outside Viqarunnisa’s main campus in Baily road, when hundreds of guardians joined students to protest.  Ex-Viqis have been prevented from entering the campus, threatened with arrest. Lists of alumnis who are blogging and networking on facebook have been prepared by the detective branch, searched out, threatened. If alumni allegations are to be believed, by treason.

I read and re-read the complaint of the Viqarunnisa Noon student, dated July 4. I am a regular student of the Basundhara unit. I attended all coaching classes conducted by my schoolteachers, I wanted to do well in my exams.

I look at her handwriting. Neat, but hesitant. Small letters. Who was with her when she wrote it? Her mother? Her sister? Thoughts race around in my head, the letter must have been drafted before being copied on to blank sheets of paper. How long did it take? How did she feel? How does she feel?

Was her father in the room as well? ‘A father normally does not discuss such issues with his daughter’ said a father, as he took part in the human chain held outside Viqarunnisa on July 9. But I went with my daughter. We don’t want this to happen to other girls (New Age, July 10, 2011).

I was late in my Bangla coaching class, Parimal sir asked me to wait, he said he’d help me with the bit that I’d missed. After everyone left, he closed the main door, he entered the room and shut the door and before I could understand what was happening he came and tied a piece of cloth around my mouth. I struggled but he quickly tied my hands behind my back with my orna. He then beat me, he beat me badly. He took off all my clothes, he took pictures. He then physically tortured me.

Parimal Jaydhar was arrested on July 6 from his wife’s sister’s home in Keraniganj. He was remanded for 5 days. In his confessional statement to the court on July 11, he admitted to the allegation of rape but denied taking any pictures, said the investigating officer (The Daily Star, July 18, 2011).  He was sent to jail on the magistrate’s order. The video was the incriminating evidence, but a mere denial seems to have satisfied the investigating officer. Is there more to it than meets the eye?

He had threatened me. I must not tell anyone. I must continue to attend his classes. If I didn’t, he would release the pictures on the internet. He even threatened to kill me. I was mentally shattered. I felt lost. I didn’t know what to do.

She was raped twice, on May 28, and again, on June 17 (Victim deposes before magistrate, bdnews24, July 18, 2011).

I went to Parimal sir’s coaching class. He was teaching another batch of students, he told me to wait in the next room. He sent them away soon and entered the room. He shut the door. I ran and told him not to. He shoved me, my head banged against the wall. It hurt. He shouted at me, `toke bolesi amar icchar baire jabi to toke jaaney mere felbo'(I warned you, if you go against my wishes, I will kill you). He then tortured me physically, most brutally.

The rest of the complaint meticulously details what happened next. It helps to explain why guardians later joined in the Basundhara protests, why it spread to other campuses.

June 18 was a holiday, I went to school the next day and told my classmates. They advised me to disclose what had happened to Lutfar Rahman sir, the head of our Basundhara unit. He was unavailable that day. I told him on June 21, he said he would look into it. But when I saw Parimal sir in school the next day, I went to Lutfar Rahman sir again. He provided assurances. June 23 was parents day, Hosne Ara Begum apa visited our branch on the occassion, Parimal sir wasn’t present. I was absent the next 2 days, I was ill. On June 28, my classmates and I discussed why action had still not been taken against Parimal sir. We decided to inform the principal. We wrote a letter demanding that he should be given exemplary punishment, it was read out, everyone present signed it willingly. We requested Lutfar Rahman sir to forward it to Hosne Ara apa. Please note that everyone at school got to know of the incident on the 27th when I had been absent. A copy of the complaint was forwarded to the chairman of the governing body (Rashed Khan Menon), who is also chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on education.

Viqarunnisa principal Hosne Ara (now replaced) says, she is not to blame. Parimal was suspended after the complaint was officially received on June 28. Only the governing body has the authority to sack him, it did do so on July 5, it suspended two other teachers as well, Barun Chandra Barman and Abul Kalam Azad. http://tinyurl.com/3oymagd It’s a conspiracy, she says, it’s because I had stopped the `admission trade’ (bdnews24.com, July 15, 2011).

Students allege that she failed to stand beside the raped girl, that she had given instructions that the latter should not be allowed to come to school. Guardians are infuriated. How can the authorities of such a prestigious school, one that excels in public exams year after year, often breaking its own previous records, be so callous toward allegations of teacher rape? Hosne Ara, they insist, should have come to Bashundhara campus immediately to take strong steps, to allay their fears. She should not have responded to them simply over the telephone, which she did when they entered Bashundhara campus en masse on July 29. She finally went to the campus on July 3, a day on which hartal had been declared as early as June 18.

The student’s father filed a complaint at Badda thana on July 4. Hosne Ara and the acting head of the Bashundhara branch Mujibar Rahman were also accused. Parimal was eventually arrested on July 6.

Before the July 5 governing body meeting, Hosne Ara met with college teachers, and reportedly said, `[how can it be true] why, she’s like a boy,’ supposedly because the girl was good at sports lending herself to social stereotypes, i.e., unfeminine, unattractive to men. Hosne Ara is also reported to have said, 1 or 2 such instances (rape) are likely to occur in an institution as large as Viqarunnisa which has 18,000 girls. Students allege that school authorities had initially attempted to disregard the allegation on the grounds that it had not taken place on school premises but at the coaching centre. That Hosne Ara had threatened to expel students who took part in protests. She is reported as having said, what occurred was `sex’ (not rape), it was `mutual.’

Some think, school authorities delayed in taking action against Parimal in the hope that as he’d succeeded in the Public Service exams, he’d leave, and the incident could be brushed under the carpet. Others are infuriated at his application not having been closely screened, as similar allegations were reportedly made against Parimal at the school where he taught previously.  A culture of impunity toward sexual harassment and rape by male teachers prevails, say guardians; they point at a similar incident which occurred several months ago at Motijheel Ideal.  The teacher was merely sacked. Rashed Khan Menon, as the member of parliament of the area, is the chairman of the governing body at Motijheel Ideal too.

Parimal is one of 6 teachers, employed last year, who all belong to Gopalganj, Faridpur, same home district as the prime minister. Hosne Ara is reported to have bragged often of her friendship with the prime minister; her initial attempts, after being appointed principal last year, to change the school uniform to red and green (colours of the national flag), to change the name from Viqarunnisa to Fazilatunnessa (the prime minister’s mother’s name) were deeply resented by students, teachers and staff alike. Hosne Ara’s initial line of defense, that it was a `conspiracy’ because she had introduced the lottery system and put an end to the admission trade, slowly fell apart as news emerged of `extra’ students having been admitted, i.e., in addition to those who had succeeded in the admission tests, 25 in class one, and an additional 4-5 students in each class upto class seven.

As student protests continued, accompanied by a class boycott, a section of the governing body in Rashed Khan Menon’s absence (in USA) called a meeting on July 13 and removed Hosne Ara, replacing her with the seniormost teacher at Viqarunnisa, Ambia Khatun, as principal.  Students were overjoyed, they finally had a principal in whom they could trust, who would stand beside them. The mood at Viqarunnisa was festive, students ordered cakes, they celebrated.

Within hours, the Dhaka Education Board dissolved the governing body. It had failed to tackle the situation. Its term had expired last August. It had failed to initiate elections to a new governing body.  Ambia Khatun was removed too, the governing body’s decision was contrary to rules and regulations. True. Viqarunnisa teacher Manju Ara Begum was appointed the acting principal. The ad-hoc committee was tasked with overseeing the institution and appointing a new principal in six months (bdnews24, July 17, 2011).

On the same day, the education minister, Nurul Islam Nahid said, `evil forces’ were behind the protests at Viqarunnisa. I don’t blame the students, vested quarters are instigating them. How could they eat cake when the nation’s education institutions are in mourning due to the Mirsarai accident? But cake-eating had occurred later, what about the education minister’s own ethical duties, for, as a Viqarunnisa student said at the solidarity rally, `how could you, as education minister, not come to the school? How could you not feel concerned or obliged to come and see the situation for yourself?’ [from 0:45 secs]  Bashundhara students by the way, had faxed petititions to the education minister; they had also handed over to the prime minister’s private secretary an appeal requesting her to step in to resolve the crisis.

The `admission trade’ conspiracy theory, having proven to be shaky, government propagandists immediately latched on to the `evil forces’ theory. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party must be behind the student protests! Easily `proven’ since Khaleda Zia had lent her support to the protests, had called for punishment of all concerned; also, since the faction of the governing body which had removed Hosne Ara, was led by Khaleda’s former private secretary. Jamaat too, they must be behind the protests! Ambia Khatun’s headscarf lent `proof’, posters appeared overnight on Viqarunnisa’s outer walls proclaiming that Ambia was a Jamaat-i. So what if she had been the first to sign a mass petition against Jamaat politics launched by Viqarunnisa students two years ago, which, as a Viqi blogger points out, is deposited in the Liberation War Museum. So what if the mother of an ex-student, a Hindu, had turned to Ambia, to confide her sorrow at her daughter’s marriage to a Muslim boy.

Sections of the media, both printed and electronic, jumped in to divert public attention away from rape, from the school authorities suppression of the allegations, from the thick web of ruling party connections. http://tinyurl.com/3av9ync [0:08 secs] I watched several well-known faces, including newspaper editors, a woman TV anchor, and a former advisor to the military-installed caretaker government who is an educationist, repeatedly ask, how could teachers have allowed such young girls to go out on the streets? Why should they be demanding Hosne Ara’s removal?

It is up to us to turn these questions on their head, to ask, do you mean to say a raped girl should remain silent? That she, her family, that girls as a collective should not protest? But since the persons I speak of, are known to be women’s rights defenders, let me settle for something closer to the truth: I think what they mean is, protest against rape but only when it’s Yasmin (14-year old Dinajpur girl raped and killed by police personnel when the BNP was in power). http://tinyurl.com/3lsu38s Tailor your protests to suit `our’ side.

As an ex-Viqi put it at the July 15th solidarity rally, yes, we are being instigated. Yes, we are being provoked. By our conscience!

Apparently those who are opposed to Viqarunnisa’s student protests seem to have er… lost it?

—————–
Published in New Age, Wednesday, July 19, 2001 (Monday was Shab-e-Barat holiday)
Typos corrected, slightly changed version.

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