Shahjalal University protesters march with torches, leaving VC Farid Uddin in darkness

Students agitating to force Vice-Chancellor Farid Uddin Ahmed out of the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology have marched with torches after cutting electricity and water supplies to plunge his residence into darkness in an attempt to turn up the heat on authorities.

Farid Uddin, however, has won the support of his fellow public university VCs. Bangladesh University Council, a group of VCs of 35 public universities, said in a statement they believe the protests are a ploy to destroy Bangladesh’s higher education.

The change of tactics in the bitter dispute came on Sunday after the protesters laid a siege to the VC’s residence in the afternoon, obstructing people from entering the house on the restive campus in Sylhet amid a hunger strike.

The students painted graffiti on the campus throughout the day as part of their protests as the hunger strike continued outside the VC’s home for the fifth day. “We are firm in our demand. We can’t back off now,” said a student.

Sadia Afrin, one of the protesters, said they cut the connection around 7:30pm. It could not be confirmed if emergency power kicked in when the power outage began at his home.

Another student, requesting anonymity, said they decided to cut off the electricity supply because they could not accept that the VC would “live in comfort while the strikers were in distress”.

After laying the siege, the protesters said they would not allow anyone other than law enforcers to enter VC’s home. One of them, Yasir Sarker, had earlier threatened tougher measures yet in the afternoon, such as cutting utility connections to Farid Uddin’s home, and they finally did so in the evening.

Sadia said Education Minister Dipu Moni was supposed to resume talks with them in the afternoon, but they have not heard from her.

Tulshi Kumar Das, president of the teachers’ association at the university, was speaking to the media when the protesters disconnected the power supply.

He said they are concerned over the incident, urging the students not to tread the path of violence.

He also said it was the government’s responsibility to deal with the protesters’ demand for the VC’s removal and end the hunger strike by resolving the issue.

Later in the night, more than 1,000 students marched on the campus carrying torches. They rallied afterwards and burnt an effigy of the VC.

One of them, Mohaimanul Bashar Raz, urged the protesters not to leave the campus until their demand is met, although the institution was closed amid protests a week ago.

The protesters had earlier alleged threat by teachers. A spokesman said almost all the students who took part in the hunger strike got phone calls from their departments with veiled threats. “Their families have been told that no one is here to see them. But doctors of our team of volunteers are looking after them round the clock.”

“The teachers of a department even tried to force a striker to drink juice. These incidents are affecting their [strikers’] mental health, but they are still determined to continue the hunger strike until our demand is met.”

The protesters said 16 of the strikers were hospitalised. Five more joined the strike, raising the number of strikers outside the VC’s home to 12.

Following a meeting with teachers on Saturday, the education minister talked to the protesters after midnight via video call, urging them to end their hunger strike.

The protesters, however, refused to budge from their demand for the resignation of VC Farid. They said they were ready to sit for talks, but would not end the hunger strike until their demand was met.

Farid Uddin, a former president of Dhaka University Teachers’ Association, was appointed Shahjalal University VC in 2017. He was awarded a second term in August last year.

Students had begun protests earlier this month to demand the resignation of Zafrin Ahmed Liza, provost of Begum Sirajunnesa Chowdhury Hall, after she had allegedly ‘misbehaved’ with students.

Though she was eventually removed, students have continued their campaign to press for the resignation of VC Farid Uddin after police used batons, tear shells and stun grenades to break up a protest.

Police charged 300 unnamed students in a case last week over the protesters’ clash with law enforcers. Later, the students launched the hunger strike to push for the removal of the VC and the dismissal of the case against protesters.