by Mac Haque
“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” Che Guevara
If there is a cultural malaise that has afflicted the Bengali race historically it is ‘hujoog’ or whims, and quite freakishly this sets the tone for whatever we do whenever something excites us, or makes us passionate. Before we know it we jump headlong or copy, just about anything that anybody else around is doing. Call it parochial behavior, or call it replication – we love to be in the middle of a ‘scene’ that everybody else around us is acting out whether rightly or wrongly is not considered important, until the chips are woefully down.
To many this seems like the egregious ‘go-getting Bengali spirit’, yet when we assess the damages, such behaviors do to us as a people, as a nation, the net losses outweighs the gains that we may have thought was well within our ready reach. And so it was in the case of the Shahbag movement.
Between February and March of 2013, everyone without exception turned into ‘born again freedom fighters’ and those that chose not to identify with the aspirations of Shahbag, became neo-Razakars or ‘traitors/collaborators’. Like bee to honey, people of all shades of opinion and social stature thronged to Shahbag, the new Mecca of patriotism, hope, freedom, independence – of the good times on the horizon, aspirations blah blah blah.
However, by 5th of April when Hefazot staked a claim to the confusion by adding in the much vexed ‘atheist’ masala, undeniably there was an avalanche of support for them as well. Everybody became ‘born again Muslims’ – almost overnight, with emphasis of how ‘important’ Islam is for our national survival, and debates on how ‘insensitive’ we have always been to the Qoumi Madrasa system or the plight of Huzurs in general!
Yet in another stark seesaw of fortunes, by 6th of May, when Hefazot was on the receiving end of the Government stick and its vested money agenda direly exposed – the shift of sides veered between the ‘pro-liberation diehards’ thumbs up approval to the tough crackdowns or the ‘jihadist wannabes’ cornered to a dazed, shocked and confused state of inaction.
In between the general mass, the aam jonota or ‘mango people’, were least pushed, for neither patriotism nor religion could ever guarantee them a square meal a day at the least. This is a reality check we haven’t even half considered. The national limbo had started in right earnest. Our identity crisis was taxed and brutalized beyond its known and well-charted orbit.
Whatever may have been the gains of Shahbag, quickly turned very sour as and when the real overt and covert political actions maneuvering commenced and as a result directly affected the thrust of the movement. Weeks of non-stop sloganeering festivities (read party time) was evidently coming to an end, and the movement by default had acquired some trappings of 1971 that by consensus did not go down well with the general citizenry. They exposed deadly fault lines.
The first one was the time warp mentality that evidently demonstrated the Shahbag leadership alienation from the people and the throbbing pulse of the ‘now generation’. On the flip side, for those in the mid-forties generation these were reminiscent of times post 16th December 1971.
There was an abundance of laptops and android devices beaming in tributes to the movement, but a real shortage of critiques/criticism or any real voice of affirmative dissent or wisdom in sight. Shahbag made no efforts in fomenting a democratic debate culture from within, and the leadership remained hostages to ‘statements’ which on examination, never always projected the mandate of the people, but was plain authoritarian (read dictatorial) in many respect.
Much the same, as the Shahbag leadership jockeyed for its own space in the national limelight, elements within the movement set out on demolition derby’s which chose blatant personal attacks on just about anybody they felt weren’t kosher enough for the rigors of the Gonojagoron Moncho.
Tirades were launched through Blogs, Facebook and Twitter on individuals, with language bordering on profane and ridiculous. A chaos of unimaginable magnitude was triggered, and Shahbag became just about anybody’s overheated imaginations call. These may have looked like expressions of free speech, but tragically, it also belied the extremely perverse and narrow-minded nature of many within the closest circles of the Shahbag leadership. Sure enough, it soon boomeranged and whittled down to attacks against many in the leadership itself, and the downward spiral to Shahbag which was taking a mean beating anyway, soon became pronounced with bells of division sounding loud. The enemy was therefore quick to capitalize on the same.
The Rana Plaza tragedy in Savar on 24th April was a blessing in disguise for Shahbag as there was a conspicuous yet distinct split within the leadership and Blogs and Facebook slanders in name were percolating with rapidity. Everything from corruption, to character assassination was at its peak. That apart, Shahbag was beginning to be the victim of its own success. Savar in fact put a stop to it.
If Blogs or Bloggers at all ‘led’ the movement, as time wore on, subsequent writings in Blogs, press interviews or even TV talks shows did not make the leadership look any prettier. Ego and arrogance in combi appeared to be the undertone of Shahbag in the public perception.
On the other hand, observance of special days bears a huge significance in the cultural and political space of Bangladesh. Therefore, when the Language Martyrs Day was observed on 21st February 2013, one had hoped that Shahbag would also pay tribute to the martyrs of the BDR Mutiny of 2009.
Yet 25th February passed by Shahbag without even a mention – and the silence either from the crowd assembled or its leadership was deafening. To imagine that the martyrdom of 57 patriotic men in uniform could be deliberately ignored sent disturbing signals to the Cantonments that Shahbag was a suspect movement and therefore untrustworthy. Thus, any possibilities of the armed forces offering its support or understanding to Shahbag was scuttled.
Shahbag continued to shift away from its initial priorities, that of a national movement to a highly politicized AL backed shenanigan. Clearly, anything that embarrasses the Government of the day was ignored and this in turn created more dissensions not only among citizens, but also within the rank and files of Shahbag.
From the revolutionaries that they were, to their official or unofficial calls to ‘boycott’ or declare ‘unwanted’ from Shahbag individuals whose only crime may have been criticism or critique of the movement- sent across fear signals that was quite unnecessary. The movement was beginning to show signs of a new trait in its conduct in public; bellicosity.
From a peaceful movement it went on to create newer enemies, when it could have done well to consolidate on its gains and reach out to those that have as a matter of political principal opposed anything to do with the Awami League, or its version of Liberation War 1971.
Greatly affected too was the worldview of Shahbag. Pakistan that was the enemy in 1971 remained as much in 2013 as the post-war propaganda had insinuated and there was nothing new to be learnt. The Shahbag warriors for instance were completely unaware of the civil society movements within Pakistan especially amongst its youth and intelligentsia whose demands for their own Army’s trial for genocide, or an unconditional apology be offered to Bangladesh for events of 1971.
Thus, when support to Shahbag came from Pakistan, legacy issues opened up like a can of worms. Shahbag displayed no sagacity towards the old enemy, yet were perfectly comfortable with India and never ever in the course of the movement did anyone hear one anti-Indian slogan. There were also no questions raised as to India’s merciless killing of innocent Bangladeshi civilians in the border areas, nor was its role post 1971 to swamp our culture or its meddling in many a domestic matter ever came up for scrutiny or criticisms.
Indian hegemony or talks of it surprisingly made one a ‘razakar’, and this in turn led Shahbag to be typically identified as one among many Indian external intelligence service RAW sponsored ‘movement’ that Bangladesh had witnessed in 42 years.
It was also noticeable how much Shahbag steered clear out of being vocally anti-US or for that matter anti-West. Craftily hinged into the movement was an understanding that as long as the nemesis of 1971 i.e. real or imagined razakars, collaborators, traitors and Pakistan or ‘Pakistani minded’ were the target of attacks, things would be alright.
As unipolar as the world maybe in 2013, that it was global bipolarity in 1971 which was the ultimate catalyst for the birth of Bangladesh had not quite rubbed into the psyche of Shahbag. Making things worse was the parochialism up on display, and as days wore on Shahbag was beginning to take on the aura of the mean village headman’s mentality.
As much as I have being arguing about the pros and cons of Shahbag in the previous three series of this essay, a reality check nonetheless gleans in the following:
Whether it is Shahbag Gonojagoron Mancha or Hefazot, let us be clear that while both movements have been diametrically opposed or pitted as a reaction to the other, the overemphasizing reality is they started out as defiance to the established order of the day.
Bad governance, bad politics, corruption, nepotism and importantly a betrayal of trust of the people by political oligarchs propped by stooges and in recent times conmen - has been the perpetual bones of contentions in Bangladesh.
In between the justice delivery system has been compromised and up for scrutiny, and the grossly interfering omnipotent politicians, a fallback to the myopic mindset of the sixties in millennium context has blunted every possibility of the will of the people to prevail. Shahbag despite all its shortfalls, failures and immaturity, did have successes that were significant.
Firstly, the people’s war cry ‘Joy Bangla’ or ‘victory to Bengal’ in 1971 that was usurped by the Awami League post independence for political expediency has once again been reclaimed by the people of Bangladesh. The AL’s feeble attempts to reintroduce ‘Joy Bangabandhu’ at Shahbag was challenged as other than a handful, the vast majority refused to scream back the glory of the founding father in unison!
Likewise ‘Mukti Juddher Chetona’ or the ‘spirit of Liberation War’ thus far the ‘prime property’ of the AL, its sycophants and culture vultures was also reclaimed by the people. In fact, Shahbag showed the way and had it not been for the upsurge of 5th February 2013, it is very unlikely that we would have seen many of the convictions in recent times from the War Crimes Tribunal.
Contrary to what has been insinuated for long, Shahbag in no way pressurized the ICT. Indeed, in a roundabout way it strengthened and empowered it to the extent that politicians or vested interests could neither interfere, pressurize or decide upon the fate of the war criminals of 1971.
The bogey of ‘razakar’ that AL had propagated in 42 years were blown to smithereens. It became all the obvious that it was the politicians that has kept the issue alive to thrive on chaos. Shahbag exposed for the first time that collaborators from 1971 within the AL and society had taken centre stage in 2013, with money and political influences of unbelievable proportions. It pointed out and laid bare the reality that the existing political order has to go. The death knell for deeply partisan politics had been sounded.
What then is the future of Gonojagoron Moncho Shahbag? It is hard to say if this will be limited to a movement against war criminals. Assuming the possibilities that all of them will face capital punishment– while some may be even set free - recent public contact drive by the leadership of Shahbag makes it’s obviously ripe for it to form a political party.
That said, Shahbag as a movement of the youth, for the youth and by the youth of Bangladesh, who had in no way been participants or witness to the Liberation War of 1971 is in itself a potent force that history will not in any way pass itself by. Like a phoenix, Shahbag is destined to rise again for it is not in any token a ‘spent force’.
However for those that have unnecessarily belittled Shahbag, let this be known, that Shahbag represents changed times and underlines the establishments growing distance with the youth force of Bangladesh. Our political establishment has been loath to the power of the youth. Shahbag in a final estimation is the last ray of hope of changes that is bound to happen, sooner than later.
When push comes to shove as it surely will be, the shape, character and mandate of Shahbag will no longer be ‘peaceful’ or pacifist. Since a war has been declared on the nation by evil forces and vested interest in 2013, when Shahbag reawakens it will be armed to the teeth.
The change it will usher in will see the demise of most of our opportunistic political forces, and lead to a Bangladesh for which millions laid down their lives.
New Age Xtra - Friday 28th June 2013