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© Arif Hafiz

© Arif Hafiz

I had not been following the war crimes trial in much detail.  Like many, I was surprised by the sentencing of the Abdul Quader Mollah.  He was convicted, but not given the maximum penalty (death sentence) — what gives, I wondered.

I saw some facebook chatters about a behind-the-scene understanding between Awami League and Jamaat-e-Islami – the alleged war criminals don’t hang, and Jamaat abandons BNP and participates in the coming election, the speculation went.  I saw some facebook messages about a gathering in Shahbagh protesting the ‘farcical verdict’.

Here is a video of the gathering.*

I didn’t pay much attention.  I was wrong.  I was wrong not to pay attention. By the time I took notice, Shahbagh turned into a sea of people. I saw and heard and read of people of several generations going to Shahbagh. Some dismissed them as hujugey Bangali. But I think that’s insulting the sincerity and passion of large number of people from all walks of life. Clearly this was something we have not seen in Bangladesh for a long while.  And having been wrong in my decision to not pay attention, I decided to keep my mouth shut, and eyes open.

In general, my reading of history and politics is that spontaneous, leaderless uprisings tend to eventually yield to organised forces.  I didn’t expect much from the Occupy or Anna Hazare movements.  Even in Egypt, I expected the much better organised Muslim Brotherhood to gain ahead of liberal forces.  The initial surprise and the large crowd in Shahbagh notwithstanding, I see no reason to change my view of history and politics when it comes to Shahbagh.  If Shahbagh changes Bangladesh, it will have to do so through the organised, mainstream politics of Awami League and BNP.

This is not to say Shahbagh has no impact.  It clearly does.  Awami League has already changed the law governing the trial process, while BNP has explicitly stated that it will continue the trial.  Neither would have happened without Shahbagh.  Even if the movement stopped tomorrow, these are already concrete achievements.

And there may well be further ramifications, including the AL capitalising on the nationalistic sentiment for its re-election campaigns.  It’s just that whatever fundamental change we might be hoping for, I think the avenue for them is through organised politics.  If Shahbagh is to replace AL and BNP, then it has to eventually create organisation(s).  And by the same token, I don’t take seriously talks of fascism or fear of civil war.  Fascism requires a fascist party.  If AL is a fascist party, then it has been so without Shahbagh.  And a few renegade Jamaati vandalism or terrorist act a civil war does not make.

That’s about as much as what I have got on Shahbagh’s big picture as it enters the third week.  Couple of specific issues that I’ve found interesting follows.

1. I have been intrigued by the economics of Shahbagh organisation.  Anyone who has ever organised any event — student union cricket match, a Bangladeshi wedding, an NGO seminar, a political rally — will know how challenging it is to put together tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands in the weekends) for two weeks and counting.  This is hard enough in the west, where things usually work.  In the functional anarchy of the east, it is very impressive.  This has produced grass roots organisers and natural leaders who will do well in the later stages of their lives, and the society will be better off for it.  I have heard some condescending comments about how the older generations, facing police brutality, had more ‘real’ street presence.  Well, facing tear gas might be more glamorous than passing around boxes of khichuri, but making sure that the latter happens on time for two weeks in a row require a skill set that is fundamentally better for the society.

2. I’ve heard some comments about the foreign media’s apathy (if not hostility by the human rights or good governance types) about Shahbagh.  Some see western conspiracy.  Others see Jamaat’s propaganda in action.  But to me, it is yet another case of the rest of the world caring little about Bangladesh.  We really are not a country others particularly care about.  Our problems are mostly our own, and we need to solve them by and large ourselves.  What does it matter if the western media is covering Shahbagh or not?

The reader will see that I have not taken a pro or anti Shahbagh position.  This is because I am not emotionally attached to Shahbagh’s core demand: I am not fussed about whether Quader Mollah gets death penalty or not.  I am not opposed to death penalty, and will post on that some time in future (no promises on timing).  I haven’t followed the trial.  David Bergman tells me that the trial is far short of fair.  I accept that, the way I accept so many other injustices in Bangladesh.  One has to prioritise what one feels strongly about.  A potential ban on Jamaat will have interesting political consequences — that’s something I will write about soon.

*Not sure how to embed from facebook to wordpress. Hope it works. If not, search গণজাগরণের সূচনা in facebook.

(First posted in Mukti)