How does the movement connect to the garment worker imprisoned in some factory not so far way? What’s its relation to the “informal sector worker” eking a living by shifting through garbage? What hope does the movement give to the farmer on the brink of losing his land and livelihood in some village? What message does the movement send to the Adibashi fighting for autonomy and dignity in Hill Tracts of Chittagong?
I don’t care for the demand of death penalty for a few war criminals; I do not care about revenge. But I do want with all my heart to establish and recognize the Truth about the genocide. I do not want to kill off a few Razakars or eliminate the Razakars, if by Razakars we only understand those who collaborated with Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War. But I do want to eliminate the Razakars, if by Razakar we understand those who continue to oppress and exploit the people of Bangladesh. I do not want to ban Jaamat as a political party. But I do want to resist and drown their politics. I do not want to live in Jaamat’s Bangladesh where fear and repression rule. I do want to live in a Bangladesh whose visions are being articulated in places like Shahbagh.
What’s the relationship of people at Shahbagh with Jaamat? What’s the fight? The fight is over the very soul and identity of Bangladesh. For Jaamat also has very particular idea about what should be identity and future of Bangladesh. Jaamat, to put it mildly, has a very authoritarian vision of what should Bangladesh and Bangladeshis look like. In Jaamat’s Bangladesh you would not be able to kiss your lover openly. But in Shahbagh you can kiss your lover openly and without shame. Jaamat represses love, sex, and freedom. Shahbagh inspires you.
This is Shahbagh!
by Humayun Kabir
I have been watching the tremendous and awesome outpouring of youthful energy at Shahbagh Chottor/More/Square (Projonmo Chottor) with a unsettling mix of conflicted emotions – pride, hope, joy, frustration, dismay, apathy, cynicism, and, above all, intrigue. I have been reading ceaselessly news reports, opinions, blogs, and, above all, Facebook status updates. All the while I have been trying to make sense of this Event and my relation, my stance to it. This is an Event that requires all of us to take a position – a political and moral stance.
What do the event of Shahbagh mean? What do the thousands of mostly young faces gathered at the square demand? Analyzing from the surface the most explicitly expressed demands one can argue that this is an expression of rage against a perceived unjust verdict in a court case; it is about demanding revenge for past national trauma. But I think that the event is more significant than that. Underneath the surface this is a struggle for defining the identity of the present and the future nation; this is about the young asserting their political agency to secure the kind of lives they want to live; this is about democracy. It would be foolish to argue that the undercurrent, the latent is the truer or more real than the explicitly expressed one. No, the perceptions of insulted national ego and deep historical trauma and the consequent angry demands of revenge are all too real. But the desire to live a free and at the same time culturally meaningful life is also there, as there is the desire to be proud member of a modern nation. The former makes me weary; the later gives me tremendous hope and joy. I hope that the later energy prevails and move forward and the former is cast aside like a crutch that we no longer need. In order to move towards that direction we need to first understand why and how both of these energies are intertwined in Shahbagh.
“Fanshi Chai! We Demand Death Sentence!” is the ubiquitous slogan in Shahbagh. But why do we want the death sentence? Quader Molla and his associates are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But those accusations refer to atrocities committed more than 40 years ago. Most of the people gathered in Shahbagh were not even born at that time. How do the past atrocities come to occupy the imagination of a later generation so powerfully to compel them to take to the street demanding retribution? The answer does not lie simply in the awareness of historical suffering. The answer also lays in the kind political threat that Quader Molla and his associates represent for the present and for the future. From my readings I gathered basically three answers to why demonstrators demand the death sentence for Quader Molla: because he committed mass murder and other atrocities, because he is a Razakar, and because he is a Jaamati. All three of these answers are significant and need to be analyzed.
The generations in post-independence Bangladesh grew up with a profoundly contradictory experience of the genocide that was carried out in Bangladesh in 1971. On the one hand, the genocide has been central to the nationalist narrative and identity. The sufferings and sacrifices have forged the narrative of a nation overcoming intolerable oppression; they have sanctified the birth the nation. The sense of trauma, pain, and injustice produced by the memory of the genocide provides the ground for national unity and identity. Yet on the other hand, we experienced systematic denial and erasure of the genocide. No account of the genocide has proved uncontestable, no party has been held responsible. No Pakistani military personnel or political leaders ever faced any consequence for the genocide they committed. Pakistani government does not even recognize, let alone apologize for, their crime. And, the world at large has mostly forgotten 1971 and what happened to the people of Bangladesh during that fateful year. The local collaborators and perpetrators of the genocide were not only let off the hook but also have been rehabilitated in Bangladeshi politics by various governments and political parties, including the Awami League, over the 40 years. The supposed perpetrators have secured for themselves positions among the political and economic elite of country. We don’t know how to make sense of this contradiction. And we don’t know the Truth about the genocide.
Many of us hoped that the war crimes trials would finally produce the truth about the genocide. Yet, that hope seems pre-mature. From the very beginning the special tribunal conducting the trials has been mired in controversy and lack of legitimacy; it has been perceived as being subjected to political manipulation. Its latest verdict validates the suspicion. While the tribunal found the accused guilty of mass murder, rape, and arson, it failed to pronounce the highest possible sentence. Why? Is it because there remain doubts about his guilt? Or, is it because the court has been instructed/influenced by political forces to pronounce a lenient sentence? Either way, the verdict and the trials have failed to produce the Truth that we seek. And I think this is the real cause of anger and frustration that have motivated hundreds of thousands to come to the streets. Though the explicit slogans demand death penalty, the real demand is the Truth. We are afraid that Quader Molla and associates will come out of Jail and re-establish themselves in the political and economic landscape with the next change in government. And, these trials will then mean nothing! We are afraid that these trials will accomplish nothing for establishing the truth, for moving us towards healing and coming to terms with the trauma that haunts us. That angers us. That takes us to the streets.
There is yet another powerful anger that motivates us to occupy the streets. And that anger is directed towards the Razakars. The most common slogan coming out of Shahbagh is “Tui Razakar” [you are Razakar] directed towards various political personalities, including but not limited to those who stand accused of war crimes. Historically, the term refers to the local collaborators, enablers, and perpetrators of the military offensive against the struggle for Bangladesh’s liberation. But symbolically, the term is used an archetype of the traitor – as Judas was for Jesus and Brutus was for Julius Caesar. The figure of “Razakar” occupies a significant place in Bangladeshi nationalist imagination. Bangladeshi nationalist discourse connects the Razakars to Mir Jafar – the one who betrayed Shiraj-uddoulah, “the last independent ruler of Bengal, and enabled British takeover of Bengal. The long history of foreign occupation and imperial domination is explained not as results of might of the imperial powers or the weakness of Bengali people but as results of trickeries, backstabbing, and betrayals by our own. Razakar is not merely a historical figure but a very contemporary figure. They continue to exist and operate even in post-independence Bangladesh. They conspire and plot against the “national interest;” they carryout the agenda of imperial powers in order to promote their own self-interest. The existence of Razakars – the traitors, the local foot soldiers of imperial powers – explains why Bangladesh remains poor, underdeveloped country mired in corruption, violence, and insecurity. The Razakar is then the figure from which “the society must be defended;” it is the figure that must be eliminated. The powerful movement of the 1990s that first brought the issue of war crimes to national political agenda of Bangladesh was aptly named “Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee” [the committee to eliminate killers and agents/collaborators].
A profound sense of anger and hate against the both historical and symbolical figure of Razakar is energizing the movement at Shahbagh. But who are these Razakars? Except for few notorious figures we really don’t know who the historical Razakars were. Most of them have since disavowed their actions and politics and/or have changed colors. Few of the known Razakars are being tried by the war crimes tribunal. Many are demanding death sentence for all on trial. But would killing a dozen or so men eliminate the Razakars from Bangladesh? Will the death sentences end the Razakar vs. Patriot narrative in Bangladesh? Some within the movement are acutely aware of the limitation of demanding death sentence for a handful of historical Razakars. They are broadening their demands and definitions to mount a movement against the Nobbo (neo/new) Razakars who are currently conspiring against the “national interest.” This reframing is important for it shifts the focus away from historical trauma to contemporary injustices. But even this is limited, for it supposes that while portions of the current ruling elite are Razakars, the others are nationalist and patriotic.
Can we say that owners of Tazreen Fashions – the site of the recent factory fire that killed hundreds of young garment workers – are Razakars? Can we say that people working for Asia Energy – the company intent upon opening an open-pit coal mine despite the fierce resistance from the local residents – are Razakars? Are executives of the P.R. company advising Asia Energy Razakars? Is a former minister of the current government accused by the World Bank for siphoning millions of dollars from development projects – a Razakar?
The framing of Razakar vs. Patriot currently legitimizes hegemonic nationalist politics and prevents the emergence of revolutionary class-consciousness. There are signs at Shahbagh that the definition of Razakar is widening. Will it widen enough to include the entirety of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ruling elite that serve as the “comprador class” of global capital? Will Razakar mean enemy of people? Will Razakar mean enemy of the poor? It’s too early to say. But if it doesn’t, then what would elimination of Razakar mean? What would elimination of Razakar accomplish?
Elimination of Razakars, as they are understood currently, would mean elimination of a certain poisonous kind of politics from Bangladesh. And, here we on the left have to learn how to differentiate between various political tendencies ideologies that constitute the heterogeneous landscape of contemporary politics. Not all “ruling-class” parties are the same. Some may be more “progressive” than others. I think at the end of the day movement of Shahbagh is motivated by a desire to resist the kind of politics represented by Jaamat. Quader Mollah and most who stand accused of war crimes are not only “Razakars” but also are leaders of Jaamat. Jaamat was openly against Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and its leaders and members populated various paramilitary groups like the Razakar. It’s an insult to our nationalist pride that a party like Jaamat was allowed to come back to Bangladeshi politics. And it’s an intolerable affront that it has gained so much following and power and that its leaders have become fabulously wealthy. It’s hard to stomach. But the anger against Jaamat is not caused only by its history. The current politics of Jaamat also creates profound anger, as well as fear. This anger and fear motivated many to flock to Shahbagh over the last week. It is evident from how quickly the demand for banning Jaamat politics was added to the demand for death sentence for the war criminals.
The youths who largely populate the occupied Shahbagh grew up with the Internet, cell-phones, and satellite television. Their desires and subjectivities are shaped by globalized consumer culture and cosmopolitan identities. They want to enjoy the freedoms and luxuries enjoyed by their counterparts elsewhere in the world, particularly in the so-called First world countries. These freedoms and luxuries are clearly visible via all the modern means of communication. Yet, they are placed at insurmountable distance by material, social, and political conditions. They must negotiate this contradiction in constructing their subjectivities and identities. They must also negotiate the global desires and cosmopolitan identities with their very local position in Bangladesh and their Bangladeshi identity. They must be able to enter the cosmopolitan space as Bangladeshi subjects. Thus, Bangladeshi subjectivity itself must be admissible to the cosmopolitan. Thus, their efforts to construct their own personal subjectivities are inexorably linked to struggles over the construction of Bangladeshi identity. To put it simply, they must be able to claim themselves to be modern and Bangladeshi at the same time; they must be able to say that Bangladesh is modern. The efforts to construct and articulate such an identity and subjectivity have produced in Bangladesh over the last two decades a vibrant and dynamic culture. Shahbagh has been a center of this new culture more than any other place in Bangladesh. And it follows that demonstrators chose to occupy Shahbagh and not another place.
What’s the relationship of people at Shahbagh with Jaamat? What’s the fight? The fight is over the very soul and identity of Bangladesh. For Jaamat also has very particular idea about what should be identity and future of Bangladesh. Jaamat, to put it mildly, has a very authoritarian vision of what should Bangladesh and Bangladeshis look like. In Jaamat’s Bangladesh you would not be able to kiss your lover openly. But in Shahbagh you can kiss your lover openly and without shame. Jaamat represses love, sex, and freedom. Shahbagh inspires you. If we were to draw historical parallel: what’s happening in occupied Shahbagh compares to Woodstock 69 in the US more than to Tharir Square. Shahbagh is an example of that youthful energy, which yearning to be free stands up to conservative, repressive, nay saying forces. But Shahbagh cannot simply be Woodstock, for it is burdened with demanding the Truth about crimes and it is burdened with a desire to eliminate the Razakars.
After writing such a long reflection, I am still not certain about my stance towards the movement at Projonmo Chottor. I don’t care for the demand of death penalty for a few war criminals; I do not care about revenge. But I do want with all my heart to establish and recognize the Truth about the genocide. I do not want to kill off a few Razakars or eliminate the Razakars, if by Razakars we only understand those who collaborated with Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War. But I do want to eliminate the Razakars, if by Razakar we understand those who continue to oppress and exploit the people of Bangladesh. I do not want to ban Jaamat as a political party. But I do want to resist and drown their politics. I do not want to live in Jaamat’s Bangladesh where fear and repression rule. I do want to live in a Bangladesh whose visions are being articulated in places like Shahbagh.
The explicit demands of the Shahbagh are not very agreeable. The shadow of Awami League lurking behind the movement raises questions about the spontaneity and motive of the movement. Despite the claiming support of mass people, Shahbagh is occupied mostly by young, educated, urbanites. How does the movement connect to the garment worker imprisoned in some factory not so far way? What’s its relation to the “informal sector worker” eking a living by shifting through garbage? What hope does the movement give to the farmer on the brink of loosing his land and livelihood in some village? What message does the movement send to the Adibashi fighting for autonomy and dignity in Hill Tracts of Chittagong? So many questions swirl in my head preventing me from being hopeful about the movement.
But can I simply sit idly writing this “reflection” while so much energy and excitement converge in Shahbagh? Can I afford to be a bystander while history marches on? No! I must join. I must join because of the all the energies I imagine to be underneath the vulgar, explicit demands. I must join because I want to live in a Bangladesh where I can be with my lover openly and without shame.
Humayun Kabir is a Ph.D. candidate at City University of New York, Graduate Center, and a member of South Asia Solidarity Initiative.