On Wednesday, faced by nationwide protests by students and unemployed youth against quotas for government jobs, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina begrudgingly announced that the system would be repealed. Though her government is presenting the episode as a victory, the administration was actually forced into a complete reversal after strong-armed police tactics had failed to suppress the protests.

At the heart of the protests is the failure of Hasina’s Awami League government to deliver on its promise to create at least two million new jobs annually. The expansion of the workforce has outpaced job growth, leaving Bangladesh a youth unemployment rate of 10.3%, higher than the South Asian average of 9.4%. Well over a third of the unemployed are young school and university graduates.

As in the rest of South Asia, many young Bangladeshis believe that a government job will provide a secure, reasonably paid future. Like in India, Bangladesh also reserved government jobs to candidates from specific backgrounds: across the border, affirmative action quotas account for 56% of the civil service positions.

The largest portion of the quotas – 30% – was reserved for the families of freedom fighters. Jobs were also reserved for women (10%), for candidates from indigenous communities (5%), for the disabled (1%), and for people from disadvantaged districts (10%), although the last category is vague and caused confusion regarding its implementation.

Each year, about 250,000 candidates take the annual three-stage Bangladesh Civil Service examination, competing to fill approximately 3,000 positions. The intense competition for places is exacerbated by preferential treatment based on political affiliation, favours extracted by political superiors, and the pervasive culture of bribery. Jobs outside the ambit of the Bangladesh Civil Service, especially those in the public sector, also have a tendency to adhere to the formal quotas.

Compounding the unemployment situation is the government’s decision in 2010 to leave jobs vacant if it was unable to find candidates who qualified under the freedom fighters’ quota.

Quota reforms

Reforming the quota system has long been identified as a necessity, with the government receiving recommendations to that effect as recently as February. However, the political benefits of nepotism and cronyism have resulted governments over the years evading the hard task of carrying out reforms. The quota system has remained in place despite more than 350,000 vacancies in the public sector, over 6,000 vacancies in Bangladesh Civil Service posts after the latest round of examinations, and experts agreeing that the quota system is a drag on the country’s economy.

Over the years, political expediency had prompted the Awami League to extend the quota for freedom fighters to their children and grandchildren, first in 1997, then reaffirmed in 2010. This has been the most contentious of the quotas due to its disproportionately large size. The Awami League has sought to monopolise the Liberation War of 1971, using it to mask its deficiencies.

The protests have been building since February but intensified on the afternoon of April 8, when students of the University of Dhaka, joined by frustrated jobseekers, gathered in Dhaka’s Shahbag intersection. The last time a public protest took place at this location was in 2013, during the violent prelude to the January 2014 general election. As it grew dark, the Chhatra League – the Awami League’s student wing – and the police were unleashed on the protesters.

Over the next few days, spurred by the government’s severe response, the protests spread to all major public universities across the country, and even to some of the largest private universities. Protestors at some of these institutions too also faced attacks.

Toxic reasoning

The state-backed violence was complemented by rhetoric that defined the protests as a conspiracy against the state and the government. Government supporters attempted to paint the protestors as traitors to the nation, claiming that their criticism of the quotas for freedom fighters’ families insulted the liberation movement. This rhetoric ignored the fact that the families of freedom fighters do not necessarily constitute a disadvantaged, discriminated against group – as women, indigenous peoples and religious minorities do. Moreover,certificates necessary to identify freedom fighters can easily be purchased.

As Hasina faces the electorate this year, serious questions need to be asked about why the police and Chhatra League wreaked such violence, and why Awami League’s senior members and distinguished supporters were fanning the nationalistic flames, knowing full well the toxic effects of labelling the protestors as anti-state and anti-liberation.