Accepted paper:

What is in a name? Contestations around the naming of students halls in Sylhet, Bangladesh


Mascha Schulz (University of Zurich )

Paper short abstract:

This paper looks at competing narratives around the movement against the naming of the student halls at the university in Sylhet. It shows how local politics are entangled with national discourses and might allow us to question transnational presumptions about the secular-religious dichotomy.

Paper long abstract:

This paper looks at competing narratives around the movements against certain names for the student halls at the university in Sylhet around the year 2000. The consequent conflict and protests, which resulted in prolonged closure of the university and profoundly impacted national electoral politics, have widely been interpreted as a conflict between 'secularist' and 'religious' or 'fundamentalist' groups. Other narratives, however, show that these movements were part of the power struggles of local politics in the context of highly factionalist party politics and interpersonal conflicts. Rather than assuming these aspects as alternative and mutually exclusive interpretations of the movement, this paper argues that these aspects are co-constitutive. The arguments are based on interview data, vernacular local newspapers and long-term fieldwork between 2015-2018, connecting this history to more recent incidents. Contestations around 'secularism', 'Islam' and 'religion' are highly entangled with party politics and partially function as signifiers of party belonging. The wider contestations about the names of students halls were thus at the same time about (non-)religious sentiments, struggles about the hegemonies of different parties, and a result of local politics and their embeddedness in patron-client relationships. Detailed ethnographic perspectives on politics in provincial cities might thus allow us to rethink not only the role of 'secularism' as a national contentious issue but also academic debates about the secular-religious dichotomy. The particular case presented also shows that local, national and transnational levels are interlinked without being mere reproductions of the same contentious configurations.

panel A01
Provincial challenges: making sense of political cultures in towns and trading centres