Academic freedom under pressure in Bangladesh

BANGLADESH has made economic progress under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The country has maintained an impressive growth record of between 6–7.9 percent over the past five years. The World Bank endorses the country as among the five fastest-growing economies in the world and forecasts economic growth as both strong and stable.

Former World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu has argued that three factors have contributed to this ‘brilliant’ Bangladesh story: positive social change in terms of women empowerment, a booming textile export industry and government support for grassroots financial inclusion. Bangladesh’s economic outlook is commendable given that the country is facing challenges such as climate change and the Rohingya refugee crisis.

But there are many cracks beneath this glimmering story. One recent report finds that inequality in Bangladesh is at an all-time high. Increasing corruption, a lack of balance between the three branches of government, the threat of fundamentalist Islamist militancy, political repression and rampant abuse of human rights show that it is too early to celebrate Bangladesh’s development.

Bangladesh is not experiencing the type of development espoused by Amartya Sen that removes ‘the various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency’. Unfreedoms are embedded in the story of Bangladeshi development.

Economic power and freedom in Bangladesh are now highly regulated. The political system is being run by patronage where allegiance to the ruling party has become a precondition for making individual progress. This political model is putting pressure on Bangladeshi academics.

Academic freedom possesses four key elements: freedom to teach and discuss, to carry out research, to publish the results and make them known, and to express opinions about the academic institution or system within which one works and to participate in professional or representative academic bodies without being censored. This definition of academic freedom was agreed upon unanimously by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1997.

In Bangladesh, three out of these four academic freedoms are under pressure. In the past two years, news of university professors being kidnappedphysically assaulted, arrested, remanded and thrown into jail have surfaced. In some cases, promotions have been halted and research grants not disbursed to academics who were deemed dissenters.

Some were sent on forced leave or suspended for voicing their criticism or penning articles that went against regulated history and political narrative. Academics have faced violent physical attacks and have been investigated and suspended before being reinstated. The number of persecuted academics is still low but these reports have had a chilling effect on the wider academic community. Many local academics are avoiding politically sensitive research to ‘avoid trouble’. Academics who write political commentaries or research democratisation and security-related issues are under tremendous pressure. Academics in non-sensitive fields are also not immune to this.

Recently, a senior Dhaka University professor found detergent and antibiotics in milk produced by five top companies in Bangladesh. Disagreeing with these findings, the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock was reportedly set to take legal action against him. The Ministry could have chosen instead to discredit the validity of the professor’s research. But it did not. The Ministry reportedly considers this research a conspiracy against the country’s milk industry.

In the words of one Bangladeshi professor, ‘increasing government interferences [and the] concentration of too much power in a few hands within university administration’ have contributed to a system detrimental to academic freedom. The position of administrators at public universities has become highly politicised and many are acting to deter dissenters and democratic practices on campuses.

There is a persistent effort from various agencies and pro-government academics to locate and discredit dissenting academics as ‘anti-government conspirators’ who are against the ‘image of the state’, despite criticism being fundamental to social progress.

The government of Bangladesh should encourage academic freedom instead of suppress it. Academic freedom is fundamental to long-term economic progress. A nation cannot progress without academic freedom, with unfair economic institutions and with a corrupt and oppressive political system.

Innovation plays a key role in economic progress. Without academic freedom, innovation will not take place in Bangladeshi universities. The sustainability of economic progress in Bangladesh is bleak because academic freedoms are tied to political institutions that influence, control and censor so-called ‘dangerous questions’.

Mubashar Hasan is a Research Fellow at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, the University of Oslo, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Humanitarian and Development Initiative, the University of Western Sydney.

This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons licence. 

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