An end-of-the-week Friday morning did not start as gaily as usual, for me. The green tea, in my Calgary office, turned unsavoury, tasting more like an extract of green grass clippings from the mowed lawn. Outside in the lawn, the usually playful rabbits looked languid, lying under a row of pine trees, using the grey tree trunks as a camouflage. On the pine trees, the usually territorial magpies, black with white underbelly, stopped chirruping and chasing other birds away. Inside, the usually attentive I was sitting at my desk, staring blankly at two side-by-side monitors, while my mind had flown away to a far-away place. A place I had never been to, but two incidents from where I read about that morning. The reading was that unsettling!
Outlines of two young females, standing on a corridor outside a teachers' room, kept crossing my mind. They were outside, because no seats were allotted to them inside, where senior teachers were seated. On their way in and out of the room, the teachers ignored their young colleagues, days after days. The department head had ignored their existence by not assigning any courses to teach, two years in a row. What anguish! What ignominy!
I did not know the two. Why did then their anguish become my anguish? Their ignominy became my ignominy, ever since I had read 'A university, a department head and two young teachers' in The Daily Observer (TDO), 26 June, 2015. The university is Khulna University (KU) in Bangladesh. The accused department head had resigned. The two young teachers are Shilpi Roy and Lopa Yasmeen.
Characterizing the two incidents as acts of discrimination, the TDO reporter ended the piece stating: 'Teaching has no place for pettiness or personal prejudices.'
It should not have, in theory. But, in reality, it had; it still has, as corroborated by the KU cases; and it will have in any university in Bangladesh, unless something is done.
The incidents at KU are all the more baffling. The victims are two females at a time in the country when a female is the prime minister; a second female is the opposition leader in Bangladesh Parliament; a third female is the speaker of the parliament; a fourth female, a former prime minister, is leading another major political party; and in academia, a fifth female has been appointed the first female VC of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).
Academically the best in the country, admitting the top students through a corruption-free process and producing many world-class engineers and architects, BUET is not immune to occasional incidents of unfair actions by teachers. While writing an article 'A brighter BUET in 2014 and beyond' for the Association of BUET Alumni reunion magazine in 2014, I was disconcerted to discover that infractions at my beloved alma mater were worse than what I had initially thought. Even the best and the brightest had fallen victims to pettiness, prejudices, or vindictiveness of a teacher or a department head.
Sadly, these infractions had continued, with impunity, for decades, spanning pre- and post-liberation periods of the country. Intolerance of political bent, religion, sect, or strong likes and dislikes, for instance, some teachers not finding the students or young teachers obsequious enough, are the reasons --- albeit abominable and indefensible --- for the infractions or discriminations.
Nomination for external scholarships and hiring new teachers are the two most vulnerable areas, in which department heads have had discretionary power and, for the latter, rooms for manipulation in creating vacancies and timing advertisements for new
Every teacher, active or retired, I talked to, directly or indirectly, acknowledged the existence of the problem. Some even went further, expressing concerns over a relatively new trend, in which political affiliation was becoming a determinant in a department's decisions. Those acknowledgements and concerns notwithstanding, the same teachers showed reluctance to lend support to an initiative to solve the problem. Even the victims, who had struggled for many years to cope with the injustices, shied away. For them, there was nothing to gain, personally, except to feel the long-forgotten pain again. 'Forget and move on' was what they practised. Pusillanimity could be another reason for not getting involved. Appearing curmudgeonly to others could be yet another.
So the status quo continues, not only at BUET, but at all universities in Bangladesh. More Tina and Titu suffer in silence for not getting undergraduate scholarships they deserve the most. More Fatima and Farid are devastated for losing their hard-earned class standings. More Arfina and Arafat shed tears in silence for not being hired as young teachers, despite placing first and second with honours. More Tina and Titu are disheartened for being overlooked for sought-after post-graduate scholarships, despite having better credentials than their colleagues. More Lopa and Shilpi wait in corridors without allotted seats to sit in teachers' rooms and without assigned courses to teach in classes. More pains continue to be inflicted on voiceless, vulnerable victims, with no support from others. The senior teachers, as in the KU cases, either remain silent or tend to side with the perpetrators.
Not realized by non-victims is the fact that victims of university discrimination live with debilitating traumas of being wronged by some they trusted in a sacred place of learning. Shattered are their self-esteem and trust in people in positions of power. They tend to overreact when they or their children face similar situations later in life, elsewhere. Although a few, through sheer determination, find a way to be successful in their lives, receiving awards and accolades from admirers, all victims still carry with them deep scars, the pains from which resurface when stoked with the slightest stimulus.
The same way mine did after reading the shocking TDO article that morning.
Pettiness or personal prejudices or vindictiveness, paradoxically, are prevalent more in universities in Bangladesh --- in seats of higher education, staffed by teachers with post-graduate degrees and superior training from home and abroad --- than in elementary schools, high schools, or colleges. This article's title 'A school, a headmaster, and two teachable incidents' vis-a-vis that of the TDO article 'A university, a department head, and two young teachers' accentuates this
disparity. (The next instalment of this article will appear next week.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada