Friday, June 14, 2013

The cultural dimensions to Shahbag – Part 3


Maqsoodul Haque

“When nothing goes right, you have to face forward and take it on head first.” Kyo Shirodaira

Culturally the onset of winter until the last chilly days of the season has always been ideal times for protest in Bangladesh. The dates that immediately activate many a patriotic feelings among Bengalis such as 21st February 1952, 25th March and 16th December 1971 are just a few to remember, and for the Shahbag protestors the month of February was therefore a blessing in disguise. The timing of the Qader Mollah verdict i.e. 5th February 2013 was significant in that it provided the perfect stimuli for millions to besiege Shahbag – and helped in many ways for the weather was ‘just right’!

Initial skepticisms about the fate of Shahbag were marked and many doubted that it would not last beyond a few days. The large crowd participation was thought to be because of the omnipresent February, a month that ushered in the great Bengali language renaissance in 1952. The month sees millions visiting the suburb of Dhaka for the Ekushey Book Fair, the Shaheed Minar and Shahbag transforms itself into the hub of ‘cultural Bangladesh’ and the many showcases it has to offer. 

Shahbag has always excited passions of secular, liberal and progressive Bengalis because the Dhaka University, the Academy of Fine Arts and many a historical edifice  sits in its midst. There are hundreds of artist and artwork, sculptors and make shift stages where musicians perform, and overall there is always an air of calm yet ebullient festivity present, all year round. 

Not to overlook, it has always been considered a safe and sanitized sanctuary for ‘arty types’ of all kind, and generally Shahbag protest of the past have never been taken seriously  as ‘activism’ stayed limited to within few hundred yards of the venue.  

Despite its dubious reputation, Shahbag has also been the focal point of most student led political movements, and the very area where thousands were killed from the 50s until the new millennium. Whenever the nation needed blood, the first to shed it was Shahbag or its immediate vicinity. Shahbag has ironically represented both gory and glory. 

However, much as topography or cultural fair weather has contributed to Shahbag, the success or failure of any mass movement in Bangladesh has always depended on two crucial aspects. Firstly effective communication/s and secondly a responsible leader or a leadership that is transparent, accountable and importantly has the charisma, unbridled talent and capacity to take major decisions which interprets itself as voice of the movement. 

Bangladesh’s political culture has become so very predictable, that it does not take long for anybody to figure out the eventual outcome of any movement. General anathema or outright disgust for politics of the like we have been witness to, in no way encourages anyone to be hopeful or even positive.

However, globalization and the ills it represents may not be the coolest number among the idealist young in Bangladesh, yet global ideals, for change, for non-violent resistance/revolution have never been rejected either. Shahbag in 2013 other than War Crimes Trial, acquired an aura that had global implications of the marginalized – the 99 percent. 

It had all exponential ingredients of the anti-capitalist Occupy Movements of North America, Europe or elsewhere in the West, at its foci, and a very rare opportunity presented itself to be replicated in Bangladesh. 

For instance, no one can quite remember one singular movement in Bangladesh that was launched spontaneously and resulted in people not only taking to the street – but staunchly occupying and squatting overnight at a particular place, and specifically without women dispersing within ‘decent hours’ or feeling ashamed or insecure to be in the company of known and unknown male numbers. 

Clearly, a ‘midnight curfew’ of the sort that the 60s or 70s generation grew up with, was in no way going to deter women from staying out from the comforts of their homes or dormitories, when the issue was the Liberation War and the Trial of War Criminals of 1971. 

This in itself represented changed times that sent cultural shockwaves down the spines of Bangladesh society. It was a confirmation that despite the misuse of the bizarre coinages such as ‘moderate Muslim’ or ‘conservative Bengali’, the Bengali middle class has moved miles away from what these heady constructs which in essence was no more, than tools for exploitation by the status quo had meant for decades.  

The permissiveness of the millennium young, the open display of affection among sexes and liberated values, where men and women sat together, held hands and marched side-by-side and chanted slogans was in no way a  ‘fashion statement’, but a shift in social  dynamics that could simply not be gauged. 

The Opposition BNP prematurely questioning the phenomenon as  ‘degenerated morality of youth in Shahbag’  is indicative of its cultural myopia and inadequacies – or for that matter Hefazat demanding a ban on ‘free mixing of sexes’ in the subsequent days was only an extension of the initial culture shock. 

In both cases, the last vestige of conservatives had been bruised, and more affronts and counterattacks were thus imminent. Ironically, what was not bargained for is the reaction of so-called liberal and AL backed secular behemoths, who have for long been considered the ‘think-tanks’ or ‘voice of conscience’ of the anti-War Criminal Movement. 

In April 2013, none less than the famed Hasnat Abul Hye’s, fictional short story in a ‘progressive’ vernacular daily, stoked a flame that surprised many. It is yet unknown what prompted the writer to humiliate the Shahbag slogan leader Lucky Akhter in his story, but the innuendoes and insinuations hinted at, were not only shocking, the mentality of the much respected writer was exposed as ‘gross’ vulgar and patriarchal’. 

The daily under pressure from women rights group pulled out the story from its online version and offered an apology, yet the damage was done, and mistrust of the establishment and its various front were brutalized in subsequent protest.

The time had arrived to confirm that the young of Bangladesh were in no way different to those – anywhere in the world. This was to be the affirmation of a penultimate political statement and one our political or cultural elite on both side of the fence, were most unprepared to cope with mentally. This was a solid and glaring indicator that a quiet revolution as far as sexuality was concerned has already happened, without the status quo or the political establishment even realizing it. 

The alienation of our political leaders and disgusting ‘moral policing’ on the pulse of the young, the throbs of the youth heartbeat had never been more glaring and acute, then now. No longer was ‘women’s right’ going to be a charade played up on select days of the year, nor was it going to be a patronization of the many NGOs ‘road map’ that wishes to chart and determine the fate and future of women in Bangladesh. 

Women were in 2013 leading the bull charge of the movement in Shahbag and overnight the likes of the slogan leader Lucky Akhter became the most photographed face of the movement. After Hefazat attacked Shahbag on 5th April, images of menacing stick wielding women in procession with males, was a clear signal of the radicalization of the Bangladesh women in general. 

However, communication became the biggest adversary of Shahbag in this era of connectivity. Within two weeks of the movement going viral and its outreach, overflowing to nooks and corners of Bangladesh as well as globally, trouble was brewing. 

From the historical three minutes of silence in remembrance of the martyrs of 1971 or the flag hoisting and patriotic song programs at schools and other educational institutions as requested by Shahbag that was lapped up with great fervor, the days following the death of the Blogger Rajib Haider would bring the movement at loggerheads in massive communication failures after the other.

By Language Martyrs Day, the 21st of February, Shahbag in the general perception was being viewed as an ‘Awami League drama’ and all positive attributes of the movement had been wasted. The shameless and open infiltration and later penetration of the AL ‘culture vultures’ the Sammilito Sansgkritik Jote (Combined Cultural Front, SSJ) and several self proclaimed ‘cultural activists’ who are AL Members of the Parliament – did not in any way contribute to increase the profile of Shahbag activists. 

‘Culture’ as defined by SSJ has always bordered on the parochial and fascist as well as the organization well known reputation as ‘assets’ of a regional intelligence service have always made them suspect in the public eye. The usurpation by SSJ therefore made it only obvious for the Shahbag leadership to abide by its diktats, and this in turn created further downslides in the movements credibility and provided enough ammo for the Jamaat e Islami (JeI ) to increase and further consolidate its attacks. 

Shahbag by the time was hit either by intent or default, of acquiring the language of the ruling AL and whether they be in the political rhetoric’s of the leadership or the impertinent and arrogant (read rude) statements by many of the Bloggers, started leaving a rather sour taste in everybody’s mouth and they were not without reasons. 

It was obvious that it was no longer the Bloggers, but the SSJ supremo’s who were obviously in charge and command, and given the heat of the moment, the Shahbag leadership were reduced to measly fronts that mouthed the highly politicized messages of SSJ and its beneficiary the AL. The ‘boro bhai’ (elder brother) cult of freedom fighters within SSJ, had a field day projecting itself as ‘covert leaders’ of a movement, which they did nothing to activate in the first place.

In the meantime, all that the anti-AL left leaning student organizations could do was watch in disbelief, for while being in full support they had maintained a discreet and stoic distance from Shahbag as they did not want to pollute its neutral pro-people characteristic.  Yet here was AL’s ‘culture vultures’ that had not only seized a perfectly pro-peoples movement, but had scuttled it from within and were now scavenging it to its bare bones. 

Shahbag was both paralyzed to resist these onslaughts and were naïve to even think that the people, the mass, who were the catalyst to the mass movement will either accept, appreciate or even ‘understand’ the SSJ’s inroads.  The decline of Shahbag had commenced in earnest.

Other than demanding punishment of War Criminals and a ban on the communal and extremist politics of Jamaate-E-Islami (JeI) – Shahbag at the prodding of SSJ enlarged upon their demands, which included banning many organizations and institutions supported by JeI. Clearly newer battle lines were drawn and ones Shahbag had neither the capacity, nor the resources to confront. When big money interest such as the Islami Bank went on the receiving ends of Shahbag’s onslaught, the reprisal was deadly. 

Very little was known up until that point, as to the financial clout and influence of the bank, and/or its penetration into political, social or cultural life of Bangladesh. Confusing also was the spectacle of an advertisement moguls dilly-dallying and interfering in Shahbag, when essentially the gentleman is well known as the advertising and marketing agent for the Islami Bank! 

Shahbag had by the time become the victim of institutionalized hypocrisy of SSJ and the blatantly unpatriotic interest they serve. When it comes to easy money, that many a ‘patriot’ had sold out their soul to the devil years ago, was an uneasy but fatal wakeup call for Shahbag. 

By March 2013, when hit hard by JeI’s ‘atheist’ propaganda and numbers of protestors dwindled in Shahbag from hundred to only dozens, SSJ had firmly overtaken the movement and activism was limited to mass demonstrations in places such as Mirpur, Uttara or Ashulia. 

When Shahbag activists proposed sit-in at Chittagong was openly resisted by Hefazot with a bomb attack a day before the rally, the Governments cancellation of the program and police later stopping and turning away the entire Shahbag leadership from Comilla dealt a decisive blow to the movement. 

The chances of Shahbag Gonojagoron Movement going national was thwarted and tragically never took off.

Cultural components as dictated from Shahbag however did not in any indicate progress or the buoyancy that has evolved in Bangladesh since the late 90s. Projections of the Shahbag ‘mul moncho’ (centre stage) limited to only days and night of slogan mongering with a single hand held crude megaphone (a relics of the 50s) began to bore and tire participants and activist alike. 

Antics of some organizers and so-called Bloggers with some having no record of ever writing a single Blog entry meant, a sense of exclusivist elitism had demonstrably permeated Shahbag.  

When over forty rocks bands volunteered to join Shahbag to make a stand and in turn bring back the crowd, the proposal was brutally shot down. Clearly the parochial SSJ leadership wanted no demonstrable influence of progressive youth power that rock music and its millions of fan base in Bangladesh represents. 

SSJ’s vulnerability was exposed as that in effect would have created an avenue for enlarging the movement that was diametrically opposed to the fossilized and crude mentality of the SSJ and make it difficult to contain apolitical anti-establishment thought processes; that is the hallmark of rock music in Bangladesh. 

With or without the help of other cultural components, the death knell for Shahbag was not pounded upon by the enemy, but by so-called patriots and big headed former ‘freedom fighters’ of the SSJ. The adage ‘patriotism is the last vestige of scoundrels’ was never, ever so apparent.

to be continued…………… 

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