Revisiting Shahbagh’s spirit
For a second, cast your mind back to the moment when a convicted war criminal showed the "V" sign in a country that was born from the sacrifices of three million lives –sacrifices that were orchestrated in large part by war criminals like him. He showed that sign because he had escaped, temporarily, the highest punishment for the atrocities he had committed during the Liberation War in 1971. Would it be right to stay indifferent then? What could the youth of Bangladesh have done, on February 5 a decade ago, if not gather at Shahbagh, if not chant slogans against war criminals, if not exhibit outrage?
My mind was flooded with words and memories as I sat down to write about the Shahbagh Movement after such a long time. But along with my thoughts, I think some retrospection may also be useful for today's discussion.
Did anyone anticipate the overwhelming upsurge following the events of February 5, 2013? At least I did not. But I feel blessed that I, along with my comrades, was able to communicate with that massive crowd through slogans. Before Shahbagh, I had never found slogans to be such a powerful medium of communication. There was an exuberance of innovation in producing slogans. Could the crowd cry with utmost outrage had "Ka te Quader Molla, Tui Rajakar, Tui Rajakar" not been rhymed at Shahbagh on the very first evening of the protests? It could hardly be delivered without the historical momentum the crowd brought about at Shahbagh Square.
Hasan Tarek, Hossain Ahmed Tafsir (who passed away just a couple of weeks ago), Tanvir Rusmat, Bappaditya Basu, and Samsul Islam Sumon led a small procession on the DU campus as an immediate response to the verdict of war crimes trial on February 5, 2013. These student leaders belonged to several left-leaning organisations, including the ones affiliated with the parties allied with the Awami League. In the afternoon, there was a protest at Shahbagh Square by the Blogger and Online Activist Network (BOAN), an organisation by a group of bloggers. But I wonder what would have been the course of the movement if the torch procession had not halted at Shahbagh. It had been en route to Paltan starting from Raju Memorial (TSC, Dhaka University), via Nilkhet, then Hotel Sheraton roundabout, and finally the Shahbagh intersection where people were occupying the street by then. This procession had been initiated by Bangladesh Chhatra Union, but was joined by hundreds of people from all walks of life. Anticipating a spectrum of participation, the Chhatra Union leaders opted not to put the organisation's name on the procession banner.
People were ready to walk shoulder to shoulder with fellow protesters from different political ideologies to fight the one ideology that had denied our liberation. Shahbagh was able to host a colourful attendance. It rejuvenated several symbolic slogans from the time of our liberation struggle. But the ones like "Tumi ke, ami ke, Bangalee, Bangalee" (Your identity, my identity, Bangalee, Bangalee) was changed to "Tumi ke, ami ke, Adivasi-Bangalee" (Your identity, my identity, Indigenous and Bangalee) for inclusiveness, which was Shahbagh's core value. The presence of children and teens was unprecedented. Women came in huge numbers. And it was women activists who took the most slots in leading the slogans. Jahanara Imam, commonly addressed as Amma (mother) by the Shahbagh activists, was the only name Shahbagh adopted as its lighthouse.
The escape of convicted war criminal Abul Kalam Azad, also known as Bachchu Rajakar, triggered a deep suspicion among the masses, and with Quader Molla's "V" sign, that suspicion turned into an outrage, calling into question the government's commitment to the trial. What could make a war criminal feel victorious even after being sentenced to life imprisonment? Wasn't it the relief of escaping capital punishment that he was supposed to get? There has been a widespread discussion in the intellectual sphere since then: was the Shahbagh Movement in favour of capital punishment? As far as I know, capital punishment has never been protested by any political party in Bangladesh. The Shahbagh movement demanded this punishment for Quader Molla because the highest punishment in Bangladesh is death penalty. Did Quader Molla, as a convicted war criminal, not deserve the highest degree of punishment inscribed in our constitution for his proven crimes in 1971?
The Shahbagh Movement can hardly be attributed to a protest that began in just 2013. Gonojagoron Moncho was not merely all about an online call. It bears the legacy of Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee's movement in 1992, led by Jahanara Imam. But if we talk about the youth upsurge of 2013, we should acknowledge the role of blog sphere activism against war criminals, which had been on the rise for a couple of years before Shahbagh. There were instances of bloggers organising events and running offline campaigns to amass support in favour of the war crimes trial. These initiatives paved, at least to some extent, the way for the readiness of urban youth for a movement like Shahbagh.
However, if anybody tried to label this movement as an apolitical one, that would not be appropriate at all. A deep-rooted political culture of protest pushed the people to a spontaneous protest throughout the country, and the Bangalee diaspora replicated that too. I think 2013 was a transitional point that forced our youth to give a serious thought to politics again.
The Shahbagh Movement, which took place in the last year of a parliamentary tenure, created a range of new equations and dynamics in Bangladesh's politics. What else has influenced the BNP to visibly distance itself from Jamaat-e-Islami in recent years? What would have been the scenario if BNP, the leading opposition party at that time, had opted to stand for the pro-liberation sentiment of a huge segment of their supporters over electoral mathematics associated with Jamaat? How beneficial was it for the opposition party to label Shahbagh as Nastik Chattar (Atheist Square)? Did it not leave the leading opposition party's activists with no option but to normalise machetes on people for mere opinions? Did the government officials' statements that were made in response to the machete killings not leave the next victims vulnerable to be killed likewise? Did the government not take the chance to employ rigorous acts like the Digital Security Act to suppress any dissenting voice against the power in return for crucifying the so-called "blasphemous" bloggers and writers?
The "deadliest" weapon that Gonojagoron Moncho introduced was nothing but slogans. But the responses to that were death threats, gender bullying, misinformation, propagation of doctored images of female activists, character assassination of them by a famous writer, and, obviously, the machete of killers.
How many Shahbaghs, whether they praise or scold, do different camps talk about? For haters, only one Shahbagh is good. But I can acknowledge and identify multiple waves there. And the spectrum of "Shahbaghis" (Shahbagh activists) would admit that "all the Shahbaghs" belong to one entity: the matriarchy of Jahanara Imam. Do they still envy her?
Lucky Akter is a member of the CPB central committee and an organiser of the Shahbagh Movement.