In 2013, Spring arrived a few days early in Bangladesh, and its advent was a raging bloom. On February 5, Bangladeshi bloggers and online activists fleetly occupied the Shahbag intersection, to protest against the mild sentence of life-imprisonment awarded to atrocious war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary-general of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islam party, who committed heinous crimes against humanity during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. On the afternoon of Tuesday February 5, this vile creature turned to the press waiting outside, smiled, and made a victory sign. An odd reaction for a man just sentenced to life in prison. Mollah smiled because for him, a war criminal convicted of beheading a poet, raping an 11-year-old girl and shooting 344 people during the Liberation War of 1971 – charges that had earned him the nickname the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ – the verdict was too light. The life sentence was derogatory to the victims of 1971 and certainly came as an unprecedented injustice to the pro-liberation people of Bangladesh. It should be noted that, on January 21, 2013 a fellow accused, Abul Kalam Azad, who is reputed to have fled to Pakistan, was sentenced to death in absentia. When Abdul Quader Mollah emerged from the courthouse, resentful online activists and bloggers assembled to protest against the verdict, demanding that Mollah, like Azad, be given the death sentence. Since then, the movement has swelled and Shahbag Mor, renamed the Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Roundabout), has been occupied by millions of Bangladeshis from all kinds of religious, ethnic, and ideological divides. The cry of ‘Joy Bangla’ pierced the air, the word ‘joy’ stretched out like a rubber band and ‘Bangla’ crashing on the seashore like a wave. Shahbag drafted six-point demands included the capital punishment for the war criminals, the banning of their political party Jamaat-e-Islam and their terrorist wing Islami Chatra Shibir, and a boycott of institutions supporting (or affiliated to) the party. Day in day out, no matter what the weather was like; it was time for the pro-liberation forces to herald the beginning of a new liberation war (a war of nerves) in their beloved motherland— Bangladesh with a view to reviving the secular democratic spirit of the Great Liberation War. According to the demand of Shahbag’s six-point demands, the Bangladeshi parliament amended a law paving the way for the state to seek harsher punishment for war criminals on appeal, on 17 February 2013. This amendment is noted as the direct success of Shahbag movement.
To many people, Shahbag movement is only for demanding the capital punishment of the war criminals. But it is a wrong way to characterize this movement. After an exhaustive study of Shahbag’s six-point demands, we can discern why this movement has become a salient chapter for today’s and tomorrow’s politics of Bangladesh. The birth of Bangladesh was soaked in blood and no doubt, the glorious Liberation War was a transformation of a seemingly forlorn dream into a bright shining reality. But since then the country has seen tumultuous times; hope and despair mark the past four decades of its existence. The key spirit of Shahbag movement is the proclamation of independence in 1971 that pledged a country which would deliver equality, human dignity and justice but soon these foundations were forgotten by the political class. After the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975, the issue of war crimes committed by Pakistanis and their Bengali accomplices took a back seat. The constitution promised to circumvent the explosive mix of religion and politics, a central feature of Pakistani politics from which the independent nation was expected to make a break. The hope of a secular state soon faded as war criminals were established in mainstream politics by Zia. Islam emerged as a political ideology, found a place in the constitution, was named state religion, and assumed a perceptible role in the public sphere. Those who were in power and those who wanted to be in power, including parties which once championed the separation between state and religion, adopted the religious rhetoric. Anti-liberation forces grabbed the idea of ‘religio-politiconomy’, which helped them to tune the religious peoples’ nerve to play the orchestra of Islamic militancy. So the fundamentalist, orthodox, militant even the common people’s mindset found their own way based on the religion, in the country which used to take pride in its syncretic tradition. To be honest, after the 42 years of independence, in 2013; we, the post-liberation generation experienced not the ‘People’s Republic of Bangladesh’ but the ‘Majority Muslim’s Republic of Bangladesh’. So it was not only an whirlwind reaction to a tribunal verdict but also had developed a strong aversion to the modes of contemporary politics, became a magnet for both the older and younger generations, and had also established the spirit of Liberation War as an essential criterion for the political parties in Bangladesh both in theory and practice. Shahbag would teach the political parties a crucial lesson that they should not make any compromise on the question of our dearly bought Independence, nor should they be on the side of the anti-liberation forces for electoral gain.
The Shahbag movement started and spread spontaneously. It is a fact that, no political party in Bangladesh holds the moral authority to trigger a spontaneous popular movement. But spontaneity is always political. That’s why people always identify Shahbag as a political force of ‘ordinary people’.
One of the most important notes about Shahbag movement is its concept of plurality and expression of its distaste for the country’s corrupt political culture. This movement consisted of heterogeneous groups with many layers of plurality and political dynamics. It was inspired by one of the slogans of liberation war period— Tumi ke ami ke, Bangali, Bangali (Who are you, who am I, Bangali, Bangali) but later this slogan became more inclusive by including the other indigenous identities— Tumi ke ami ke, Chakma, Marma, Bangali (Who are you, who am I, Chakma, Marma, Bangali). Same thing happened in case of another slogan— Amader dhomonite Shohider rokto (The blood of the Martyrs is in our vein). Shahbag added another stanza in the slogan as— Amader dhomonite Birangoner rokto (The blood of the war heroines is in our vein) to complete the circuit from the feminist point of view.
World famous sociologist C. Wright Mills precisely observed that “Every revolution has its counterrevolution – that is a sign the revolution is for real”. The Shahbag movement is always a threat to the existence of Jamaat. To fight back, they resorted to old strategies of creating communal frenzy and violence. But Shahbag is concerned about the socio-political structure of Bangladesh. Shahbag noticed that Bangladesh demonstrates a ‘paradox’ of being both ‘more modern’ and ‘more Islamic’ at the same time. So, the Shahbag Movement underlines the need for human rights such as the freedom of expression. Soon after Shahbag raised these demands, a militant Islamic force under the banner of Hefazat-e-Islam popped up with the blessings of BNP and Jamaat; and now it has become the handkerchief of ruling party Awami League. So Shahbag followed the gruesome murders of its fellows— Ahmed Rajib Haider, Arif Raihan Dip, Jogotjoti Talukdar, Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Neel, Faisal Arefin Dipan and many others. No doubt, after the killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider, Shahbag at first experienced the joint-venture game of politics and Islam. Ruling party grabbed Islam to cover up their corruption and so-called Islamic wings grabbed Awami League to complete their Pro-Pakistan agenda. In this circumstance, Shahbag movement brings to light the constraints of religion and the dilemmas of articulating identity in the socio-political context of Bangladesh. Shahbag shed light on the memories of the Liberation War of 1971 as reference points of articulating an identity neutral to religious beliefs but based on cultural conceptions. That’s why Shahbag has become a space for practicing the cultural activities of the Bauls and Sufis. In this sense, the Shahbag movement encompasses a variety of cultural and political activities both online and offline.
Five years later, while discussing the Shahbag movement, I can recall the four stages of a social movement as mentioned by Jonanthan Christiansen which include emergency, mass popularity, formalization and decline (Theories of Social Movements, Jonathan Christiansen, Salem Press, 2016). Shahbag reached first three stages very successfully. The participants of the Shahbag movement were linked by informal networks and shared a collective identity. It entered the second stage when mass people came to join the movement and made it more organized and strategic in its outlook. The continuation of the movement through arranging programs gave it a formal look. After the death of Rajib Haider, the state’s response was ‘double standard’ and the pro-government wings did a remarkable volte-face. Thus Shahbag had to face a lot of dirty politics not only from the anti-liberation forces but also from some ne’er-do-well liberation-spirit businessmen. Shahbag realized that either the government would accept their six-point demands and take necessary steps to fulfill it, including banning of Jamaat-Shibir politics, which will make the movement a success, or the government would use measures (sometimes violent) to control or stifle the movement. Finally, state power took the second way and the movement declined through repression by the brinkmanship of the ruling party, even though Shahbag is committed to continuing the movement until their demands are met. Now, this movement exists in between repression and success— it is, perhaps, the sine qua non to evaluate the current situation of Shahbag.
What made the emergence of Bangladesh possible? A comment by the eminent professor Abdur Razzak holds the best answer. He remarked, “Collective will of Bangladeshi people to liberate themselves and establish their nation-state.” A movement is an expression of collective will. Every time when the nation is in a crisis, its people have to assert their collective will. It happened in 1952, 1969, 1971, 1990 and finally in 2013.
Shahbag is the power behind new generation’s protest and without any obvious party leadership or support, it worked miracles. This is the outcome of the politics of common people. It is the politics of passion, not politicking, which our parties are used to doing to drum up support for themselves only to win an election. It is the politics of one’s love of their motherland and the feeling of sharing the travails of her birth. It is the politics of selfless service to one’s own country and people. Opposed to the parochialism of the anti-liberation communal politics, this inclusive Shahbag politics was emotionally and cerebrally oriented towards the country’s real well-being – not towards any personal aggrandizement. Shahbag may not have come to power, but it empowered the spirit of Liberation War in the state nation.
Maruf Rosul, Blogger & Writer, www.marufrosul.com