In the days immediately after Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology student Abrar Fahad’s brutal murder on October 7, the campus in Dhaka bubbled with anger like a burning cauldron. Now, a week after his death, the campus looks as if an art camp is underway.
A walk around the complex reveals signs of a protest against the university authorities: a painting of Fahad’s dead body here, a slogan there, a poster on a police barricade, streamers hanging between buildings and trees. These are all testimonies to the anger that some of the students feel against the authorities and against the government.
Amidst Bangladesh’s shrinking space for freedom of expression, students at BUET students and neighboring Dhaka University students have been painting murals and slogans on the walls of their institutions to articulate their concerns about the culture of ragging let loose by the student wing of the ruling Awami League in the university and residential halls.
Fahad, a second-year undergraduate BUET student, was brutally beaten to death by alleged activists of the Awami League’s student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League. The assailants were said to have been angered by Fahad’s Facebook posts criticising the Bangladesh-India agreements struck during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India early in October.
His murder has turned the peaceful abode of would-be engineers and technologists into a fulcrum of countrywide agitations against violent student politics.
Fahad’s death has also opened up a vociferous discussion about ragging and torture in universities across Bangladesh. Like the #MeToo movement, students have started opening up about the abuse they face under the guise of ragging. They also shared their experiences of how ruling party’s student wings had been calling the shots in the university dorms and have created a culture of fear.
“This graffiti is our way of protesting this gruesome culture of ragging and torture inflicted by the activists of BCL [Bangladesh Chhatra League] in the residential halls of BUET,” said Faizah Rafsan, an architecture student. “If Abrar hadn’t died, this brutal and unwanted culture might not come into the limelight.”
Rafsan was among about 20 students from the department of architecture of BUET who had been designing and painting these murals on campus for the past six days. “We let our emotions talk through graffiti,” said Rafsan.
Mashruba Islam, another architecture student, said that people across the world have often used walls as canvases for graffiti, and sometimes used art to express slogans they could not shout publicly for fear of incurring the wrath of the authorities.
“We are very angry now and we have found painting graffiti as a way of letting out our anger,” said Islam who had pained a mural showing a dead body with a morgue tag. The tag had the number 1706098, Fahad’s student ID number. “We are angry at the university authorities that they didn’t do much to stop this culture of ragging inside the universities ,” said Islam.
On a wall outside Sher-e-Bangla Hall, the student dormitory in where Fahad was murdered, Tasrifa Binte Farazi, a first-year architecture student was writing a slogan “Hok Protibad” (let there be protest). “Had we not raised our voices in unison, silence would have prevailed,” she said. “Things would have remained the same.”
Next to her, a few walls apart, another mural was being painted of a blindfolded person facing a pistol. “Nirapod Achhis,” said the slogan. You are safe. Mumu Chakma was filling in the colours. “It’s a satire of a situation we are in,” Chakma said. “We are left at the mercy of the gun.”
Meanwhile, inside the neighboring Dhaka University campus, students of Institute of Fine Arts had also been at work voicing their support for the campaign to secure justice for Fahad. They also painted wall art about Dhaka University students Abu Bakr and Ehsan who were victims of the Chhatra League.
Graffiti and slogan saying, “Boidha seat amar odhikar” (Hall seat is my right), “Rukho Sontrash” (Protest the terrorism) and “No one killed Abu Bakr” were visible.
“We want DU to be a bastion of free knowledge practice in where students can live with their dignity,” said Armanul Haque, one of the organisers of the Dhaka University graffiti campaign. “These graffiti symbolise the oppression and torture general students have to face by the political parties who use their muscle power to control universities.”
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka based journalist. Additional reporting by Rifat Islam.