Modern Dhaka varsity battles terror shadow

Actions of a few students put North South University on watch list

By Devadeep Purohit in Dhaka
  • Published 25.07.16
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Eight private security guards, some of them in bullet-proof jackets, stand at the gate scanning the vehicles entering the campus. Before you enter the imposing building, there's another round of checking by uniformed men.

North South University (NSU), Bangladesh's first private university that was set up in 1992 and has 22,000-odd students, is trying to come to terms with unwelcome attention and uncomfortable questions the Dhaka café attack has dredged up.

Since the attack, this is probably the first time an Indian reporter is stepping into the university to hear its side of the story at a time the Bangladesh security apparatus has cast its glare on the campus.

"The university is under our scanner," Md Monirul Islam, head of Bangladesh's newly formed counter-terrorism and transnational crime cell, had told this reporter ahead of the trip to the campus.

In a country offering few opportunities for quality higher education, the university in Dhaka's upscale Basundhara neighbourhood has produced professionals working for Google and Nasa and has always symbolised the aspirations of the youths of Bangladesh.

Now, however, a handful of the products of NSU are being linked to terror attacks, including the July 1 café attacks that killed 22 people, mostly foreigners.

One of the café attackers, Nibras Islam, was an NSU student. Hasnat Karim, a hostage at the café who was later released, once taught at NSU and is a suspect in the case, police say.

Another student, Abir Rahman, has been arrested on the charge of hacking two policemen to death at the Id congregation in Kishorganj, around 140km from Dhaka, on July 7.

North South isn't alone. Most of the country's 76-odd private universities, run by boards of trustees, and hundreds of its private schools have been under the government's scanner since the July 1 attack.

From scanning the curricula to checking the library books, the security agencies are leaving few stones unturned to ascertain whether these educational institutions have had any role in the growing radicalisation of youth that has emerged as the biggest challenge for the Sheikh Hasina government. The law-enforcing agencies have prepared a list of universities and schools that are under the closest scrutiny. (See chart)

Dhaka's ruling establishment doesn't hide its suspicion of the private universities, many of them run by boards packed with loyalists of the Opposition alliance of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami.

A senior official at NSU's public relations department said that Atiqul Islam, the vice-chancellor, was not available for comment. "We are busy setting our house in order and doing what we are supposed to do. The VC will speak at the right moment," the official said.

But a teacher at NSU later asked: "These private universities have been a target for some years as some people consider them elitist. Now that a few terror links have come out, everyone is attacking us. What if some of the terrorists were from prestigious public universities?"

An NSU education does come at a price: the cost is not less than 1 lakh takas (Rs 86,000) per semester, compared with a few hundred takas at public universities.

Still, the demand keeps growing for seats at the university, which boasts air-conditioned classrooms fitted with overhead projectors, a library with over 50,000 books and a repository of online resources, and spacious auditoriums.

Into the middle of such settings descend the charges levelled by security officials. "Terrorist ideology was being passed on there using the mentorship model, with teachers or senior students brainwashing young minds and radicalising them. So, we have told the university authorities to be careful," said Monirul Islam, the counter-terrorism cell's head.

Monirul Islam added that "jihadi books" had been spotted in NSU's library. The official said he had information that operatives of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned radical outfit with a global network, were active on the campus to "brainwash students".

Such allegations are not uncommon on the subcontinent, India or elsewhere, when security wings turn the screws on entities and individuals under the scanner.

But the university is finding it difficult to portray the association of a few of its students with the Dhaka attack as an exception because of the alleged actions of some other students that preceded the café carnage.

The young men arrested for hacking to death Rajib Haider, an activist of the Ganajagaran Mancha - an apolitical forum demanding death sentences for Bangladesh's 1971 war criminals - in 2013 were all NSU students.

Qazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, who tried to blow up the New York Federal Reserve Bank in 2012, was also from the university, reports have indicated.

Citing such examples, Monirul Islam, the anti-terror official, asked: "There have been instances of terror links in the past too - what have the university authorities done about them?"

Not that NSU is sitting idle. University sources said a senior library official and a senior administrator had been suspended after NSU came under the governments' glare.

"There were complaints against some officials and teachers - we are probing all of them. We are holding meetings with students and even their parents. We want to ensure that such incidents do not recur," a university official said, asking not to be named.

After investigations revealed that some NSU students with suspected terror links had been missing for months, the university has - under government prodding - framed a new rule expelling any student absent for the duration of a semester.

Teachers have been asked to ring any student who has been absent for three consecutive days. The list of new rules for students and teachers is getting longer, with checks on outsider visits and monitoring of student activities on the campus.

"We don't like being frisked while entering our university, but do we have a choice?" said a business administration student, who did not want to be named, as he stepped out of the campus last week.

"Today is July 20 - everyone knows there is the threat of a terror attack today. I'm going home early," the young man added before hopping onto a cycle rickshaw.

His hurry to return home captured the anxiety that has gripped young and old, rich and poor in Bangladesh since the Dhaka and Kishorganj attacks.

Such is the sense of foreboding that whispers - not supported by any evidence so far - are swirling in Dhaka about NSU being possibly closed down.

The revelation that educated boys from well-off families are taking to terror has kicked off a fresh debate on the reasons behind radicalisation and the ways of tackling it.

"They (private university students) are detached from Bangladeshi culture and are not even exposed to the country's history," said Sufi Faruq Ibne Abubaker, a young politician from the ruling Awami League.

"Private universities have ensured de-politicisation of the campuses - now all student activities are based on clubs. Some of these clubs act as radicalisation hubs."

He suggested that private universities should hold regular student elections, perhaps to encourage an involvement with mainstream democratic politics.

Several senior Awami League ministers too think that competitive student politics at private universities, where students now have to undertake not to engage in politics on the campus, may discourage radicalisation.

Though Awami League leaders want competitive student politics in private universities, student elections are not held in public universities for years.

Since government universities have often witnessed violence between the student arms of the ruling and Opposition parties, some academics and parents are not happy with the idea.

"I'm against radicalisation but I don't believe that competitive student politics is the most effective deterrent," a professor at a private university said.

Some view the emphasis on ensuring campus politics at private universities as an attempt by the Awami League to settle scores with the Opposition alliance, which exercises an indirect control over these institutions as their boards are packed with its loyalists.

Amid the debate, the students are suffering, said a worried parent.

"I don't know whether the law-enforcing agencies are right or the university authorities, but I'm worried about my son's future," a father said, asking not to be named. "He wants to study in the US. A terror tag on his university won't help him."