Friday, May 31, 2013

The Cultural Dimensions to Shahbagh – Part 2

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by Maqsoodul Haque – Mac

'Capital punishment is society's final assertion that it will not forgive.' Martin Luther King

The volatile and demeaning 'atheist' debate was one that no one protesting against the war criminals of 1971 at Shahbagh were mentally prepared to encounter, and thus when vile insinuations were made, it led to shock and an overall sense of panic. Never ever in the innumerable cultural struggles of Bangladesh has one word, one term ever been used with the sort of 'effective viciousness' than what we witnessed in 2013. 

More so, it was done unabashedly on a wide brushed premise, meaning not only those that were leading the movement, but anyone seen anywhere near the venue of the protest, or ones that had made their public or remotely private allegiance to Shahbagh was condemned 'atheist'. This was a morass that would prove hard for Shahbagh to wriggle out of easily. 

The notion that an unsubstantiated word or its mere usage in public could deter anyone away from the Shahbagh movement is flawed, yet the Jamaat-E-Islami (JeI) devilishly upped the ante by adding more spice by demanding 'death sentence' for 'atheist bloggers'. That was not all; its ally the mainstream opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) trumpeted and provoked this further, by declaring Shahbagh activists as 'atheist and young people with questionable moral character'. 

Predictably, the JeI/BNP combine had made up its mind to destroy Shahbagh with means fair and foul, and the opening salvos were not limited to verbosities, but were unrolled with deadly intent. The killing of blogger Rajib Haider on February 15, 2013 by Islamic bigots and the subsequent open support of the BNP to JeI's propaganda reaffirming the deceased supposed 'atheist' credentials, and later hartals, led to several developments that had far reaching consequences. 

It revealed for the first time that the BNP had veered away from its known centrist political positioning and moved callously to the extreme far right. The political lines of division were hemmed-in and culturally, citizens again got bogged down on uncertain turfs of 'sensitivity'. Siding with Shahbagh would mean being branded 'atheist', while agreeing with JeI/BNP would not make anyone look any more 'Muslim' then they already are. The hackneyed and debilitating 'politics of identity' once again took centre stage. For the Shahbagh movement these developments were bound to have far-reaching consequences, and ones that will no doubt, go on to shape the national cultural thought process in the years to come. 

To the nuts and bolts: by criminalizing the word 'atheist' and then interjecting that the Bloggers had 'insulted Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and denigrated the Qu'ran' and demanding the capital punishment likewise, the JeI scored a superlative propaganda victory. Strategically the JeI duo entendre equated 'crimes' of the bloggers, as 'no less', than those of the criminals involved in the genocides of 1971. This meant that the Liberation War and the emergence of Bangladesh as a nation was treacherously trivialized and sidelined with fecund falsities, albeit with a slight difference. 

In 1971 the enemy was 'Hindus', in 2013, geopolitical realities somehow made it necessary for the JeI not to excite or bin the minority community, for the 'powerful neighbour' India would have none of it, and so the term 'atheist' conveniently fitted the bill. For a nation reeling on dosages of both secular and Islamist 'fundamentalist' propaganda for 42 years, the term 'atheist' thus was an unexpected bolt from the blue, leaving many discomfited. When a vernacular daily culled, select yet very disturbing articles, passages and quips from some of the blogs in question, hatred for Shahbagh spread like wildfire. 

The damage was done, and allegiance to Shahbagh became a hazardous proposition and one that had a huge risk factor; that of losing limbs or life. Shahbagh was certainly stymied, but never ever moved out of the public debate domains.

However, the ill thought out reactions by Shahbagh to the 'atheist' propaganda was pathetically quixotic and potently embarrassing. It was a public relation disaster of Himalayan proportions, and if 'damage control' was the intent, it completely backfired. Overnight, all events at Shahbagh began with recitations from the Qu'ran and other religious text, and the leadership finding itself in a quandary, went all out soliciting 'public support' from Alems, Ulemas, Mashayekhs  and Maulanas (including one who leads an Eid congregation prayer of over 100,000 Muslims).

These dubious efforts at sweet talking the clergy and attempts at kosherisation of the movement, led to endless satire and barbs from JeI in social Media.  Questioning the Iman (resolve/faith in Allah) the Shahbagh protestors earned a new sobriquet - 'Shah-Bagh'! 

The unrestrained and calculated opposition to Shahbagh led to further erosion of its popularity and credibility, and the crowd turnout every evening started thinning in an unprecedented manner. From a cultural movement with political undertones demanding capital punishment, it moved sharply to that of a theological conflict of dangerous proportions, with the 1971 slogan of 'Islam is in danger' making an ominous comeback. 

The seesaw of Shahbagh's fortune saw its first casualty with the AL Government which piggybacked on the movement because it served its partisan agenda, imminently distancing itself. The pro-Government medias, reduced their presence from 24/7 coverage to occasional reporting's. Men in Che Guevara T-Shirt and beret, and women with heavy makeovers posing for Facebook profile pictures, or the medias probing cameras were nowhere to be seen. Shahbagh overnight became a 'un-cool' venue for elitist revolutionary wannabes! Shahbagh activists were beginning to look like abandoned orphans, than the rebels who had challenged the status quo weeks ago, heralding a much-desired change in the peoples mindsets.

Soon anti-Shahbagh public debates raged leaving the protestors continuously cornered. JeI used all capacities at its disposal to tire out the protestors. The activist's defense rarely made national news, and was limited to slinging profanity filled 'battles' on Facebook and other social medias, which rages on as I write.  

There are however specific issues here which went unaddressed:

There is no denying that many among the Shahbagh leaders were atheist, and the movements faced its first crisis specifically through 'guilt by association', as well as explicit denials of the allegations by activists. This primarily belied their honesty and sincerity of purpose, leaving them open to scrutiny of supporters and sympathizers. 

Together, their extremely weak defense, inadequate knowledge of grass root culture, religion, theology or political Islam made the Shahbagh leadership look like amateurs in the public eye. The proverbial 'heat' was on and there was to be no respite. With the government choosing to ignore their sets of demands – including a ban on JeI, the disappointment, dissensions and conflict within Shahbagh surfaced and escalated with a faction going on fast unto death strike.

The core point here is the erosion of support to Shahbagh amply demonstrates that while our culture is liberal and has a wide degree of tolerance to many belief systems in its midst; it never had a huge appetite for atheism. Thus, when the 'atheist' label was wholesale tagged to Shahbagh, the blowback was predictably inevitable. Complicating the equation, Shahbagh made no efforts at distancing itself from a handful of atheist in their midst, giving the movement a bad name, and one that was unnecessary. 

That said, whether Bangladesh has the space for agnostics or atheist in its populace is a debate for a later date. However if disbelief in God constitutes 'atheism', in Buddhism (thought to be the oldest religion in Bangladesh), where the concept of 'God' as understood by theist or monotheist is non-existent, the word 'atheism' needs to be defined by authorities, and its criminal abuse prevented as forcefully as possible. Anything short of that, will lead to a cultural catastrophe in Bangladesh and Shahbagh was an indicator, as how close we were to it.

When it comes to 'hurting religious sentiments'  it wasn't the bloggers in question that were responsible, but the planned provocation by a couple of vernacular dailies funded by vested interest, who lifted materials off these blogs and made them public, that prompted bloody riots in the streets. The dailies were not sued by anyone, not even by the government for spreading incendiary hate. 

Considerable political capital had to be made through confusion, and by distracting the public's intense concentration away from war crimes trial on part of the JeI/BNP on the one hand, on the other, paving an opportunity for the government of the day to undertake draconian measures on law enforcement matters was successfully completed. Those measures were initiated not just to punish JeI/BNP – but in effect jackknife and compromise public liberty space, with the façade of 'democracy' remaining on track, and on course!

Part of the misunderstood legacy of Shahbagh and the criticisms/opposition it faced other than those explained above, is the movement was conceived on a huge paradox. While it called itself a 'non-violent movement', its demands for the capital punishment to War Criminals of 1971 did not gel well with its implied pacifist agenda.  For Shahbagh activists in Europe and North America it was a hard sell proposition. That the western media completely ignored a peoples uprising no less significant than Tahrir Square in Cairo, was because demands for capital punishment could never be explained to anybody's satisfaction.

However, Shahbagh simply had no other options available than taking a hard line, given the political establishments role in the last 42 years to delay and derail the War Crimes Trial process. The crimes of 1971 had to remain focused and in the public eye at all times, and demands for capital punishment was the only weapon available within purview of existing laws, to ensure that justice was delivered. Demanding the death penalty is after all legitimate in Bangladesh.

As far as transparency and code of conduct of the International War Crimes Tribunal is concerned, it was never free of controversy in as much as any other court set up anywhere in the world for similar crimes. Yet, regardless of critics and conspiracy theories abounding in Bangladesh, it is no secret that JeI has any dearth of funding, and for long sought counsel of expensive criminal lawyers in the UK and the US. 

Hence, big money and dangerous power play would no doubt lead to a protracted trial process with stakeholders of different shades within and outside the government, as well as shady vested interest having a fair run of the mill – is not unexpected, as newer developments will indicate. 

The uniqueness of Shahbagh weighed heavily, as it was cultural motivation of the young, with relentless days and nights spent sloganeering, that created a bulwark of popular passion and a resistance that opened up a pandora box of surprises!

Deceptive elements of 42 years were unmasked at a scale hitherto unseen. From politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, cultural activist, clergy, government functionaries, freedom fighters etc the list is long and continues to grow. The Shahbagh movement saw a bewildering array of characters previously hiding behind one façade or the other, being exposed and chastised as 'national enemies'.

As days wore on, more confirmations came in as evidence, as these elements unable to fathom the cultural dimensions to Shahbagh started losing their credibility every time they opened their mouth in public.  

Our political Mafia for long had never looked at any opposition worthy of being taken seriously. Our political culture had embraced the 'strange bedfellows' proposition to the extent that any initiative to hold war crimes trials have been marked with buffoonery that has been disgraceful to the victims of 1971, as well as to their families.

For far too long the young of Bangladesh have been ignored, and grey haired intellectuals or fossilsed politicians have relentlessly lied and cheated on issues of national aspirations. Shahbagh is just not a cultural movement. It is a generational revolt that commenced on 5th February 2013, and one unlikely to end in the short run. On the long run, any efforts at scuttling the movement by any quarter will lead on to an explosion, like of which we are unprepared as a nation to cope with. 

to be continued

New Age, Shock & Awe Talk
Friday, 31st May 2013

To read Part 1 of this essay click on this link

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