Shahbagh: The forest of symbols

[Crossposted from]

There is a particular way of lensing mass movements, when we are observing from within immediate tactics. In a fast moving situation, with opponents and allies squared off, the first thing to shrink is the space for internal critique. Professor Azfar Hussain uses the term “critical solidarity” for his approach to Shahbagh. A critique that seeks to help the movement, but also a critique some are not ready to hear yet.

For the last sixteen days, Bangladesh has been in an intense new political phase. The ground has shifted and been recast by the scale of the Shahbagh movement. The flash point was the sentencing of the “Butcher of Mirpur” (a war criminal who collaborated with the Pakistan army in 1971). But, by now, the demands have expanded to a call for a ban on the main Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, or even Islamist politics altogether. Older leftist thinkers like Badruddin Umar are daring to ask questions of the hallowed place of “state religion” in the constitution. Younger bloggers are urging all to make it clear that the movement is about war criminals, not religion. But of course, with war criminals conflated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, and that party eager to present themselves as standing for “Islam,” category errors will happen.

Shahbagh is a “leaderless movement” but also has leaders, a mass movement that is developing hierarchies. The energy of Shahbagh derives from pent up frustrations over four decades of rehabilitation of the Bengalis who carried out war crimes during the 1971 war. The great game of party politics has led to a loss of faith in the Awami League that has frequently compromised on this issue. Meanwhile, the other main party, BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) has made partnership with the Jamaat a core electoral strategy. Standing in the shadows is city youth’s antipathy to the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party, with a significant number of top leaders accused of war crimes in 1971.

Some read into this moment a mass phenomenon parallel to Jahanara Imam’s gono adalot (people’s trials), which inspired an earlier generation. But that comparison reveals and obscures, because the metrics have shifted away. Jahanara Imam died of cancer when this generation of activists were still children. Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee was not a significant organization for them either. They neither saw the rise nor the fall of that movement. Their source of energy, organizing, and anger comes from a new place. Looking back, the struggle over war crimes was previously always quite lonely, the energy of large numbers was conspicuously missing. In 1992, when we organized a petition to Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) to cancel alleged war criminal Ghulam Azam’s speaking engagement in Ohio, there were eight Bangladeshi students from my college (Oberlin) and another twenty from Ohio State. Our miniscule size doomed us– ICNA rejected our petition. We had no idea, also, in those days, how to capture media attention.

Eleven years later, activist numbers were larger because of the internet. The 2003 online petition against war criminal Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury’s nomination to head the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) had a different scale. A chain letter drew signatories, and replicated. The OIC registered the problem and elected another candidate. Later, when a petition went around about Delwar H. Sayeedi’s speaking tour in London, the UK Home Office responded by denying his visa. Of course, post-2001 global politics were part of these equations, and that obscured the fact that activism was going on without any attention paid to gathering evidence. Actually, a willful disregard of objects in the field of “citations, page numbers, and footnotes” has plagued the evidence collection process since 1972. That is one reason why I insist that the energy of Shahbaghh should be channeled into the desire to do thorough historical research, digging out solid evidence that can result in fair trials that do not require government contortions and interventions. This cannot be a transformative movement if its demands are made only of the government, a government that has otherwise been anti-peoples in its policies in many other areas. It must make demands of itself.

I have been involved in one previous movement at Shahbagh (Murti Bachao/Save Statues andolon of 2008, which emanated from Dhaka University’s Charukala Art Institute). Although that was a popular movement, and there were others before and since, all that is dwarfed by the size of today’s phenomena. The closest analogue is actually the 1990 movement that toppled the Ershad military junta. The large numbers at Shahbagh gives the movement a continual velocity. But, worryingly, it also takes away the space to think, question, and change. While the organization, reach, and tactics of Shahbagh are admirable, it is in the area of demands that they are trapped inside a circular set of symbolisms. Beyond the cries of “fashi chai” (which I oppose because I am opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances), the movement has developed a series of visual, aural, and digital symbol sets that reduce to “annihilate them.” This is where the movement could become trapped in its own semiotics, blending the symbols (death, noose, blood, teeth, vampires) with an unprocessed call to action. Since the noose has become the universal symbol of Shahbagh, the demand is trapped inside “hang him.”

The ethos of the war crimes movement has become its own self-renewing symbol. Youth, internet, self-organized, non-party, men and women– everything is there for analysis, parsing, symbolism. The signifiers signal generational transition, others try to also speak of inclusiveness. Day and night we hear the slogans of “Ami ke, tumi ke?” (Who are you, Who Am I?), and thousands roar back “Bangali Bangali. Those of us aware of the chauvinistic side of that concept in post-1971 Chittagong Hill Tracts cannot be at peace with such ethnically singular determinism. Anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed reminds us, “By providing old answers, they re-draw the lines of ethnic exclusion, possibly forgivable in 1971 because Punjabi chauvinism had been countered by Bengali chauvinism, but now, forty-plus years later, after a recognition that ethnic minorities too had suffered and fought in the war of liberation, after the military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, after no peace being in sight despite a peace accord having been signed more than a decade and a half ago, and the everyday chauvinism suffered by all ethnic minorities, topped by the fifteenth amendment which un-recognises their distinct ethnic identities — it is absolutely unforgiveable.”Can Shahbagh start looking at what is actually required to hold a fair trial, and build toward that? What sort of evidence is needed, and how has the process fallen short? Why are the lawyers so weak, the process so slap-dash, the evidence presented so haphazard? Why are there government loyal functionaries at every level of this process, instead of the best lawyers in the country (in fact, many of the best lawyers are frozen out because they are not “loyal enough” to any party). A transformative movement would not be making demands only of the government within the existing playbook, they would try to change the system. Legal experts had warned as far back as 2008 that the 1973 War Crimes Act needed revisions to be brought to international standards (including myself and Jyoti Rahman in an  op-ed). Lawyers submitted detailed analysis of ways to improve the Act, all of which was ignored by the Law Ministry. “Whatever BangaBandhu set up is already perfect” went their logic, even though international war crimes trial processes for Bosnia and Rwanda were major legal innovations, done long after 1973.

Once the war crimes trials were underway, those who wanted the trials to succeed followed it meticulously and documented its problems in hopes of fixing it (of such boring minutiae are processes made, they do not make for slogans but they are essential). Journalist David Bergman reported honestly about the flaws of the trials, but instead of appreciating this, the court served him and his editor Nurul Kabir with a notice of contempt. Online, I saw some Shahbagh bloggers targeting David, demanding to know how “this foreigner” dared report on the trials.

This is when Shahbagh also worries me. The velocity and the size also instills an obliviousness to what came before. War crimes work did not start in 2013; there are many who have done quiet research along the way– and David is one of them. In 1994, when I was interviewing the sons of martyred intellectual Mufazzal Haider Chowdhury, I met this David, interviewing the same people. I was wary of this “interloper,” and was then appropriately humbled when David used those interviews to complete the first major documentary with solid evidence on 1971 war crimes, The War Crimes Files. The film’s premiere led to a UK Home Office investigation into three alleged war criminals who were now British citizens. That is the same film, by the way, that was screened on giant screens at Shahbagh, along with Muktir Gaan (made by another “foreigner” Catherine Masud, with Tareque Masud).

A similar flattening in the Shahbagh discourse happened with Lubna Marium as well. In a blog post, she had narrated the story of her brother Nadeem, who had fought in the war and never recovered from that trauma. The man who read Marx and Sartre could not handle brutality against a Pakistani soldier that he had witnessed, and eventually committed suicide. But, in the crucible of Shahbagh, there is little space for any complexity. To speak even slightly sympathetically about the torture of a Pakistani soldier was to be a “rajakar” (collaborator). As I read harsh comments directed against her online (including a brutal poem by an author I used to admire), I wondered if anyone remembered that the film playing in the background of Shahbagh’s giant screen was Muktir Gaan, and the two women in the singing troupe were Lubna Marium and her sister? History no longer belongs to those who lived it.

The binary of “with us or against us” is familiar and dangerous. In an environment of rising anger after the tragic murder of a Shahbagh blogger, another victim is the possibility of discourse within the movement. Now, anyone who opposes the death penalty in the context of war crimes is tagged by bloggers as chagu (slang for goat), the same term being used for those presumed to support the Jamaat. Any time a blogger tries to attempt a more complex analysis of events, he is dismissed as doing tyana pyachano (making things unnecessarily complicated). A movement built on slogans, without analysis of complexity, can become trapped in its own symbolism and outflanked by other forces– for example, the Awami League, that would like to appropriate this movement; or the Jamaat, that is fighting and lobbying overseas to sabotage the trials).

I was involved in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, where people hoped to transform the capitalist system. But, the movement had problems, including an absence of people of color in positions of responsibility, problematic positions on issues of gender, flat decision-making process that lead to process paralysis, etc. Every time we would want to discuss these problems, people would say, “for the sake of movement unity, now is not the time,” or “don’t post that on facebook, keep the positive moment going.” Those who wanted to discuss deeper problems were pilloried on blogs as “saboteurs.” In the end, Occupy’s bandaged “unity” weakened it fatally.

About the much debated “fashi chai,” I have always been against the death penalty. I want fair trials, free of political interference by Awami League, BNP, or Jamaat, and life imprisonment for those found guilty. My late colleague Jalal Alamgir wrote before his untimely death: “We should recognise honestly that after decades of complexities, secret deals, and depraved politics, justice, though necessary and urgent, will be limited. Such limited justice can be morally justified only by a long-term commitment to truth. To prioritise truth, we must de-prioritise capital punishment.

Shahbagh could transform its slogans into complex demands, ones that will require a lot of work on the part of those marching at Shahbagh. They could look closely at the constitution and complicate the question of the pheneomena of “state religion.” There are many complex questions that are not as emotive as “fashi chai,” but in the long run they can have much broader, foundational impact. The demands of the movement could transform into a demand for fair trials for officers of the Pakistan army as well (why does that never come up?). The focus could be on gathering and sharing the facts, the truth, and the record with the whole nation as part of the trial process. These discussions of expanded goals and refined tactics should happen now so as to make the movement stronger.

As Shahbagh activist Faruk Wasif has argued, simple binaries could also create a dangerous alienation of those who are religious. “We must keep the Shahbaghh movement outside of the fyasad of belief-vs-atheism. We have to keep it free of political parties. We have to convert the war cry of revenge into the awakening cry of resistance. We have to keep the door open for all people to join us. In front is a long and difficult path. Shaking the country for ten days is possible, but to change the country takes years.”

The energy at Shahbaghh is important, which we acknowledge and respect. It is waiting to be channeled and it is impatient to take its generational place. It should think of how it can save the War Crimes Trials process, not by forcing through a hanging, but by obtaining fair verdicts through a rigorous process that are at the highest international standards. There are many meanings of “spirit of Ekattoor,” and we must choose that of restorative justice.

(Naeem Mohaiemen is a writer, visual artist and Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Columbia University. He was a critic of Sarmila Bose’s revisionist history of 1971, Dead Reckoning.)

More on Shahbag and Bangladesh from Kafila archives:

2 thoughts on “Shahbagh: The forest of symbols

  1. The post speaks a lot of common sense – something that that is uncommon in the prevailing mobocracy ! Having said that, perhaps it is naive to believe that Shahbagh is a “leaderless” movement it is a “movement” with we’ll identified patrons.

    The pathetic wallowing in the less than proud past – a self- sustaining thesis of an identified group – seems to be a zero-some endeavour that is a deterrent to the dynamism for the future.

    A state is more than a nation. Nations emerge as a state when they consent to the Rule of Law – any retraction to this theme is a challenge to the State !

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