'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.' –Margaret Mead
It has been a little over one hundred days that the protest in Shahbagh commenced and in the intervening, the movement has had its fair share of bouquets and brickbats, in fact more of the latter than the former. Shahbagh nonetheless represents a significant cultural statement in the history of Bangladesh and will be studied closely for times to come.
Despite all the partisan politics that has no doubt sullied the movement's image and made it lose its initial appeal and credibility, history will record the mass movement for its sheer uniqueness in encapsulating a civilian resistance strategy and non-violent uprising of the people.
What started out as an expression of collective contempt on the Qader Mollah verdict of 5th February 2013, became a phenomenon that morphed and gripped our imagination in ways we had not witnessed in our forty-two years as a nation.
It was the actors that made all the difference, and that in itself was a pleasant surprise. The young with no direct connections to 1971, and who were born years after the momentous period in our history, were among the first to cry foul, and took to the streets to demand that the War Criminals be given stiffer penalties, which by implication meant capital punishment or, the death penalty.
The leniency displayed by the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) verdict of a life sentence to Mollah, shocked not only the 'youthful' protestors, but also the nation as a whole. Divided as the nation may have been due to intense political polarisations of forty-two years, on this one i.e. War Crimes of 1971 and punishments, there was no visible crack evident in the unity and resolve of the citizenry, the majority.
However, whether or not, capital punishment was broadly acceptable was up for conjectures and debates.
The cultural call that the War Criminals had eluded us and lived within our midst for long, together with the haunting memories of martyrs meant; justice was not merely to be 'demanded', but guaranteed - and the only safeguard available was mass people's participation.
Therefore, post the verdict on February 5, the first frantic calls urging people to take to the streets were made aggressively on social networks and citizen's forum by vanguard activists, who constituted common denominators. This was also a very loud and clear signal that people had lost all their faith and trust on politicians.
For sceptics on the other hand, it appeared as another 'human chain' effort in the offing, which amounted to no more than a handful of protestors lining up for photo-opportunities outside the perimeters of Press Club, and ones we see almost regularly in newspapers every day!
However, the reaction to this particular call was awe inspiring and unprecedented for several reasons. Firstly, the call was not made by any political party or 'leaders' worth the salt. Secondly, the nation had suffered enough of destabilisations whenever it attempted with any sincerity to address the issue of the 'original sins' beguiling the nation. This was a breath of fresh air in a long time with hope and a potent ingredient.
Tough actions from the people themselves were therefore the only way to push aside sections of our corrupt politicians, greedy elite and vested interest – and pave the way for the will of the people to prevail and Shahbagh was born with citizens in thousands besieging it.
That 'will' in effect meant the movement had to by default, acquire an apolitical status of credibility, no easy bargain as subsequent events unfolding saw political parties and vested interest piggy-backing not to take the movement forward, but to dent and scuttle it from within – in the classic Bengali panache for treachery.
For those that suffered the horrors of 1971, there have been consistent demands for a rigid stand, which of course no political party had the temerity to express. People's hatred for the war criminals multiplied; many had been rehabilitated into society and some even went on to become powerful Government functionaries using many a cunning ruse, and exploiting our deep divide.
The unease and reluctance of politicians to try the war criminals had an overriding package of scare. The criminals belonged to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) party, and as in 1971, they used religion in their agenda whenever the 'vexed issue' appeared in the public domain. No political party aligned with secular ideals could in any way stand up to the bigots, who had the capacity to mould public opinion with blatant and deadly scare tactics.
When the centrist BNP meanwhile allied with the JeI and formed a Government in 2001, the divide was complete, with turfs of liberal and secular leaning parties, and those of the centrist and far right clearly delineated.
So, take it or leave it, it was the Awami League (AL) and its Leftist secular allies that has always been stridently vocal on the issue of War Crimes, even though their consistency and seriousness wobbled many a times, given political expediencies. A classic example of this is the AL/BNP and JeI were a joint alliance in the agitations that overthrew the military dictator General Ershad in 1990! And again, Al-Jamaat alliance against BNP government for securing Constitutional provision for non-party caretaker government in the early 1990s.
However, it was the promise by AL to try war criminals that led to its massive landslide victory in polls 2009. Riding on a crest of support, they snatched a 'brutal majority' and that was all because of active participation of young, first time voters, the likes of which are now besieging Shahbagh.
Shahbagh was therefore unique for the young had touched upon a very sensitive nerve of the nation at a particularly important juncture in our history. While the ICT was erected and got fully functional with one verdict already in its cap, the Qader Mollah verdict led to mass speculations that elements within the Awami League had sold out to the nemesis of 1971.
Those suspicions were not without reasons. That black money and muscles fuel politics in Bangladesh was no longer a 'secret'.
Shahbagh on the one hand was an anti-Government protest against a well-entrenched and publicised pro-Government agenda, yet on the other, it was an expression of resentment to the slipshod manner of the ICT's conduct, and the citizen's revolt therefore surprised not only the Awami League, but also the Opposition BNP and its allies JeI.
It was therefore predictable that the BNP/JeI combined would go ballistic in their accusation that Shahbagh was an 'AL drama' to influence and pressurise the ICT. Those hiccups were inevitable because demands for War Crimes Trials in so many years have always been shunted to the sidelines with political polemics that have come and gone with 'changed times' and/or prerogatives of those who have been in or out of power.
Therefore, even as the many student fronts of the AL and leftist political parties marched upon Shahbagh on February 5, they realised in no time that the demography of the 'new protestors' were unique, and one hitherto unseen.
Good senses prevailed, and with all political banners quickly folded, the movement went 'pro-people' and viral. Common people, and that did not mean only students who have traditionally been at front lines of any socio-political movement in Bangladesh, but the cross section of the citizenry thronged Shahbagh to chant slogans and stayed there until they were heard.
The subsequent days were rapturous with TV channels beaming non-stop happenings at the hastily erected Gonojagoron Mancha (mass awakening stage) as much as print media went overdrive in eulogising the young, the inspired, and the intelligent who have taken a defiant stand on the status quo of the day, with the seriousness it deserved.
The days following February 5, seemed a déjà vu and the return of 1971 in 2013. Together with outpouring of support from the Bengali diaspora mainly in Europe, North America and Australia, it was only a matter of time that Shahbagh went global.
The nation for far too long had suffered the pangs and tribulations of 1971, yet the popular culture never gave up, repeating the message of the Liberation War over and over again.
The archive for materials on 1971 is stupendous. Books, movies, documentaries, poems, songs and music as also reflections in folkloric, Mukti Juddher Chetona or 'spirit of the liberation war' is a phenomenon that was always represented in the popular culture and captured faithfully.
Images of Mukti Bahini guerrillas, their heroic exploits as much as stories of those that suffered, the martyrs and their families, the maimed warriors, the Birangana's or war heroines i.e. women who were raped by the Pakistan Army were constantly beamed to the nation's conscience.
There were also enough dosages of repugnant AL partisan propaganda materials on 1971, as also the War Criminals themselves kept up a constant barrage of blatant lies so that by the time 2013 came, the generation besieging Shahbagh has no dearth of ready reference materials, on opposing, and contradictory views.
They learnt the difference between black and white, and knew what to accept or reject in their 'grey' faculties and that was helped by the advent of the internet and its availability on fingertips. It further complimented the protestor's efforts, as they did not have to go looking for versions dished out by retrograde intellectuals living in ivory towers to come to their respective conclusions or make their own judgments.
By sieving information from the disinformation maze, and beating the trail of facts versus fictions they took on centre stage of the popular imagination with alacrity, and the knowledge that cultural conflicts of the past had taken an overtly partisan colour and contributed hugely to political polarisation.
It wasn't as if Shahbagh was unaware to past events. Quite on the contrary, among the young for many years, allegiance to any mainstream politics had already become 'unfashionable'. They were conscious that those polarisations were deliberately employed to drive a wedge and confuse people, post 1990, when electoral system returned to Bangladesh after years of military dictatorship.
Aside, they were keenly aware that the records of the Awami League Government post the liberation war was in no way free of blemishes. Months before the assassination of the country's founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his attempts at installing a one party Government on the Soviet mould, backfired and is thought to be one among many reasons that led to his murder.
Therefore, from 1972 to 1990, eighteen years is what Bangladesh lost in its strides and autocracy in all its forms made an appearance. Cultural aspirations meanwhile took a severe beating, and over time, resurgent Islamism reminiscent of 1971, now laced with Taliban ideals that Bangladesh was not ready to deal with, made a menacing comeback.
Back to 2013; it is not as if the Shahbagh protesters were unaware of the challenges they have taken on hand, yet in their first push to make a grand stand on War Criminals of 1971 and their 'millennium twin ally' - bigotry and Islamic fanaticism, was not only a resounding success, they had also managed to bring the spirit of the liberation war to the front stage of popular debate.
It was only a matter of time that sections of our corrupt power elite would be bruised badly, and launch a vicious counter attack. Those attacks were eminently forthcoming for the Shahbagh protestors may have been loaded with emotions and the 'spirit of liberation', however when it came to actual leadership, they had none.
In what was the most suicidal aspect of the Shahbagh movement, very little thought was given to the hastily assembled leadership, which was then passed on as a move by 'Bloggers and Online Activist's'.
There was potent trouble brewing and coming their way, and given the exuberance of the moment, the composition of the leadership was up for a challenges and scrutiny that neither the activists, nor the people of Bangladesh had any mental preparation to cope with.
After years of struggle between liberal secularist and Islamic bigots, with fortunes dipping and rising in the process many a time, Shahbagh in 2013 revealed a completely new battle line, one between Muslims and so-called 'atheist'.
This in turn shifted the entire focus away from the War Crimes Trial, to that of theology, with damning consequences. The first spoke was shoved into the wheels of the Shahbagh movement, and all we could do was wait and debate.