Placing the Voices of Shahbag in Modern Narratives of Transnational Youth Protest – Part 1
If trolling through history reveals involvement of youth in political or socioeconomic upheavals, in case of Bangladesh their raison d’etre has been simple and straightforward: to bring about (political) change. So it is not surprising that youth were the prime propulsion behind the Shahbag movement of 2013, which not only elicited emotional energy from an otherwise shushed urban middle class, but also ignited a chain reaction through the machinery of the country. It was the event that would unfold a series of inconvenient twists and turns, eventually setting up a face-off between the political actors.
Yet, perhaps the most fascinating parts of the movement – the speed at which it spread, the resourcefulness of the protesters who found ways to access multiple sources of information, and the (perceived) freedom to share ideas – were not unique to Shahbag. A number of similar movements, such as Tahrir and Jasmine, had similar characteristics: the “people” were pushing “people” to confront and re-examine its values, politics, legislation, laws, and collective memory; the protests stemming from a one-point demand for justice for war crimes started to resemble a movement for social justice.
A year since the event, Parker Ziegler an undergraduate student at Middlebury College, looks back at the movement in his two-part series.
Placing the Voices of Shahbag in Modern Narratives of Transnational Youth Protest – Part 1
by Parker Ziegler for Alalodulal
When protests at Dhaka’s Projonmo Chottor rocked the capital just one year ago, Bangladesh’s young people found themselves engaged in a struggle against coercion, corruption, and justice deferred. Yet in wake of fizzling demonstrations and the hanging of Abdul Quader Mollah, the question arises: What did Shahbag really mean for the victims of ’71, for Bangladesh’s youth, and for a global climate ripe for revolution?
Many of us are familiar with the labels that were stamped on the Shahbag protests and its protestors during the height of its power and its controversy. Apolitical. Secular. Atheist. Spoilt. Revolutionary. But the word that arose in perhaps more media reports, blog entries, op-eds, Facebook posts, tweets, and international pieces on Shahbag than any other was Youth. Whether supportive of the protestors or malicious towards them, whether biased or objective, nearly every description seeking to categorize those who had flocked to the “Square of the Generation” used the same identifier—Youth.
Even in spite of the talk of the diversity of Shahbag supporters—professors, performers, musicians, artists, Muslims, Hindus, liberals, even the members of popular cricket squad Duronto Rajshahi—a single label united the mass protests in the eyes of the media—Youth. When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Hefazat-e-Islam sought an enemy at Shahbag, they picked out a single group—“atheist,” “spoilt youth”. Just as every label applied to Shahbag held layers of meaning, connotation, and historical significance, so too did its ‘Youth’ image.
For Shahbag, the youth portrayal brought with it a certain degree of support and optimism. It’s all possible if youths come forward. And today, they have, one onlooker remarked days after the Blogger and Online Activist Network had brought together tens of thousands of protestors in the nation’s capital. Comparisons to the freedom fighters of ’71, and even to the student activists of the ’52 Language Movement, were abundant and heartfelt. Indeed, a genuine feeling existed at Shahbag that Bangladesh’s young people had come to heal the national trauma that the escape of the razakars had engendered in three generations of weary Bangladeshis.
But perhaps more than that, the youth personified a public desire for redress of the political systems that had made such an escape possible. Yes, the protestors at Shahbag were waging a renewed struggle against Jamaat-e-Islami and its war criminals; however, they were also (perhaps unknowingly) calling for an inquisition into 42 years of political ineptitude and corruption. In this sense, Shahbag was perhaps less apolitical than it was “anti-political,” in that its agenda could not be divorced from a deep sense of blame and distrust of a political system that had failed the “ordinary people.”
Comparisons between Shahbag and other, similar youth protests since the Arab Spring in 2011 (read: Tahrir Square, the “Jasmine Revolution”) have thus far met skepticism. Perhaps rightly so, for Shahbag’s struggle was uniquely emplaced in the narrative of victimization that has coursed through the country’s veins since its birth in the Liberation War of 1971. However, the riots did give indication of Bangladeshi participation in a growing ethos of transnational youth activism. They did point to a ripening Bangladeshi belief in the power of youth to affect change through a combination of traditional and technological protest methods, a confidence inspired by the youth of the Arab Spring.
What, then, are today’s “global youth” (of which Shahbag’s youth are a part) fighting? In fact, they’re fighting a very similar set of enemies—entrenched regimes, corrupt politicians, and the rigid, oppressive “old guard.” Whether it is the politics of the trial of war-criminals in Bangladesh; Mubarak’s dictatorship in Egypt; the Assad family in Syria; or any other dysfunctional political system, today’s global youth are fighting those resistant to progressive change.
Ultimately, Shahbag, beyond being a nationalist movement, a religious struggle, and a war of name-calling, labeling, and demagoguery, was an assertion by Bangladesh’s youth of the end of corrupt politics, the end of political neglect of the “ordinary people”, and the end of the 42-year trauma left by the escape of razakars. However, on a global scale, Shahbag was also a manifestation of a growing transnational fervor for generational struggle, in which today’s global youth are using new technologies to oppose and overcome the outdated political systems that have long kept the peoples of their nations voiceless.
Dissecting Shahbag’s “Youth” Moniker
From the beginning, reports seeking to categorize the protestors at Shahbag latched onto the youth label that came with the movement’s founding organization, the Blogger and Online Activist Network. Emphasis was placed on these demonstrators as young, liberal, tech-savvy Bangladeshis, a far cry from the older intellectuals and politicians that have dominated the contentious political system in the post-‘71 era.
The presence of students, many from local Dhaka universities, further ingrained the youth tag. Media outlets began to refer to the protestors as the “young students” of Shahbag, going so far as to call the movement a student movement. The implications of these early labels were significant. Even as Shahbag attempted to diversify its image by citing its apolitical character, its secular convictions, and its role as the champion of the “ordinary people,” growing affiliations with atheism, anti-Islamic sentiments, and Western influence began to plague the riots. The most incendiary remark came in early March, when BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia termed the protestors at Shahbag “atheists and spoilt people” (The Daily Star, “Khaleda slams Shahbag youths”).
Other implications, of a more positive connotation, also followed the young activists. Reports regularly drew connections between the youth at Shahbag and the freedom fighters of ’71, despite the fact that many protestors had been born after the Liberation War. These youth had not grown up with Mujib, Rahman or “Joy Bangla”, but rather under the Ershad’s suffocating regime, during which “celebrations of liberation had been driven deep underground” (Mohaiemen, “Prisoners of Shothik Itihash (correct history)”).
Still their identification with the struggle of ’71 was deeply rooted and powerful; as 24-year-old Sadia Swatee, a young Bangladeshi film producer and Shahbag participant, said in the early days of the protests, “It is the moment I was waiting for. I wasn’t born then [‘71], but my family suffered at the hands of traitors” (Daily Mail UK, “Shahbag Square cheers for change”). Similar motivations were palpable among the rioters at Shahbag. Young Bangladeshis saw in the protests an opportunity to recontextualize their parents’ and grandparents’ struggle for independence some 42 years earlier in a youthful, cyber-based discourse of their own.
This discourse relied heavily on the youth image as a means of gaining legitimacy. The renaming of Shahbag Chottor to “Projonmo Chottor” (“Square of the Generation” or “Young Generation Square”) emphasized the preeminent role that youth played in inspiring, organizing, and reinvigorating the movement.
Furthermore, the focus on social media and cyber activism introduced a new forum for protest that made the movement uniquely accessible and participatory for tech-savvy youth. The “cyber war” that took place between protestors and Jamaat-Shibir counter-protestors—in which youths armed with laptops engaged in competitive citizen journalism—involved a chaotic struggle for international support both on and offline.
The decision to employ creative, nonviolent disobedience strategies demonstrated that Shahbag’s youths sought to learn from the successes of previous youth-led movements of the 20th century. Hunger strikes, protest songs (see the Songs from Shahbag album), and the release of balloons with letters to the martyrs of ’71 were but a few of the methods Shahbag used to identify itself with the righteous youth protestors of bygone generations.
Bangladeshis saw something positive and energizing in the youth label that came to define Shahbag. Despite the other identifiers that would bring controversy to the protests—“atheist bloggers” being the most egregious—the youth label more or less retained a favorable connotation throughout. This reflects the sacrosanct place that the concept of youth holds in the Bangladeshi consciousness. It also explains why Shahbag’s supporters continued to use the label even in the face of backlash.
Youth as a Concept in the Bangladeshi Consciousness
Historically, youth have served an important symbolic purpose in Bangladesh’s national identity—as a capable, spirited source of change; as enemies of injustice, corruption, and “politics as usual;” and as visionaries for a victimized public. For Shahbag, the successes of the ’52 Language Movement and the ’71 Liberation War stood out as important testaments to the tangible influence Bangladeshi youth could have on the nation when they were mobilized and unified. It is for this reason that media reports indicating the delight of ’71 freedom fighters in watching the “kindred spirits” at Shahbag carried such weight. Many of these former revolutionaries commented that they saw in Shahbag’s youth the same passion that had driven them to seek independence with such purpose and determination.
Indeed, media reports, blog postings, and tweets supporting Shahbag were tinged with a palpable optimism, a sense of assurance that these youths, like those before them, were inevitably on the road to success. As Bangladesh Samajtantrik Chhatra Front General Secretary Mehedi Hasa Tomal exclaimed at Projonmo Chottor in March, “The time has come to resist them [Jamaat]. The youth will go forward by removing all obstacles” (bdnews24.com, “ ‘Form anti-Jamaat brigades everywhere’”).
Yet the generational connection between the youthful freedom fighters of ’71 and the youth at Shahbag ran deeper than mutual admiration. More than possessing the same spirit as their forefathers, the youth at Shahbag were also fighting the same enemy. The common adversary not only of Jamaat-e-Islami but also of Mollah, Sayeedi, and Azam, the very same razakars that had escaped in ‘71, inspired a kinship between the generations of unique intensity.
In many ways, Shahbag came to be seen as a movement for avengement, in which today’s youth were seeking redress of the suffering and trauma felt by the youths who had won the nation’s independence. They sought to assuage what Nadine Murshid calls a national feeling of “(un)forgiveness” (Murshid, “The Shahbag Uprising: War Crimes and Forgiveness”).
Murshid’s “(un)forgiveness” is an important concept for understanding Shahbag as a generational struggle. The most obvious source of this “(un)forgiveness” was the national trauma and suffering left by Jamaat and the razakars in ’71, a feeling successively seared into the collective memory of the younger generations. Yet “(un)forgiveness” also relates to public perspectives on the events that transpired after ’71. Corruption, distortion, and debates over the “Shothik Itihash” (“correct history”) of the ’71 narrative worked to blur the emotional unity of the nation in favor of political divisiveness.
This transformation took place through the actions of several key individuals and political bodies: the decision not to try the razakars, the destruction of documents and rewriting of history and the continued corruption, coercion, and cooption that have created a vengeful political system in Bangladesh.
The youth at Shahbag were driven not only by an “(un)forgiveness” towards Jamaat, but also an inability to forgive an embedded political system that had failed to bring the justice generations of Bangladeshis had deserved. In seeking full reconciliation of the grievances of their parents, grandparents, and themselves, these young people were standing up to the system, standing up to an archaic authority that had perpetually dismissed the “ordinary people.”
It is in this last point that we begin to see Shahbag as a manifestation of a growing ethos of transnational youth activism and generational conflict. With youth as the driving spirit—equipped with laptop, Facebook, and video camera—this wave of modern protest is committed to taking down the “old”: the entrenched regime, the broken political system, the “old guard.” Furthermore, this struggle is being waged in a way never before seen—by involving youth from across the nation, the diaspora, and the globe.
To be concluded in Part 2
Parker Ziegler is an undergraduate student at Middlebury College pursuing degrees in Arabic Linguistic Studies and Geography. He conducted research on the 2013 Shahbag riots with Amherst College professor Nusrat Chowdhury over the summer of 2014. His academic research focuses have included Middle Eastern and South Asia youth cultures, transnational youth protest, and South Asian youth diaspora.
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Mohaiemen, Naeem. “Understanding Shahbag, CUNY: Naeem Mohaiemen.” City University of New York. New York, NY. 2 May 2013. Panel Address. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRzh_j8eCkY&list=PLib64KehQ4xc0hpeAm2woK-1BIFB_OqV0.
Murshid, Nadine. “The Shahbag Uprising: War Crimes and Forgiveness.” Economic and Political Weekly 48.10 (2013): 13-15. Print.
Qayum, Nayma. “Is Bangladesh’s Shahbag the next Tahrir Square?” World Policy Blog. 21 February 2013. Accessed 2 January 2013. Web. URL: http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2013/02/21/bangladesh%E2%80%99s-shahbag-next-tahrir-square.
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Qayum, Nayma. “Understanding Shahbag, CUNY: Nayma Qayum.” City University of New York. New York, NY. 2 May 2013. Panel Address. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E71jV-uelD4&list=PLib64KehQ4xc0hpeAm2woK-1BIFB_OqV0.
Shukla, Saurabh. “Shahbag Square cheers for change: Dhaka’s young protestors demand ban on extremism and death of war criminals.” Daily Mail UK Online, India. 28 February 2013.
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In Text Citations:
(The Daily Star, March 16, 2013, “Khaleda slams Shahbag youths.”)
(Mohaiemen, Scrubd, March 31, 2013, “Prisoners of Shothik Itihash (correct history).”)
(Daily Mail UK, February 28, 2013, “Shahbag Square cheers for change.”)
(See the Songs from Shahbag album, http://www.songsfromshahbag.org/)
(bdnews24.com, March 5, 2013, http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2013/03/05/form-anti-jamaat-brigades-everywhere, “ ‘Form anti-Jamaat brigades everywhere.’”)
(Public Broadcasting Service, Frontline, February 22, 2011, “April 6 Youth Movement.”)
(Public Broadcasting Service, Frontline, February 22, 2011, “April 6 Youth Movement.”)