An Adivasi speaks: What brings me to Shahbag, what pulls me back from it

Adivasis at Shahbagh, © Zakir Kibria
Adivasis at Shahbagh, © Zakir Kibria

The first time I visited Shahbag, I was disturbed by a few slogans, such as, “Tumi key, ami key – Bangali, Bangali” (“Who are you, who am I – Bangali, Bangali”).  I love the first part of the slogan “Tomar amar thikana, Padma Meghna Jamuna” (Your address and my address, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna – referring to the largest rivers of Bangladesh), but not being a Bengali, I am unable to chant the second half of the slogan.  As an advocate of the rights of the indigenous (Adivasi) peoples of Bangladesh it is impossible not to be bothered by this slogan. When a Shahbag supporter put on this slogan on her Facebook status, I told her this slogan is not inclusive of Adivasis and it should instead say “Bangladeshi” or “Adivasi o Bangali”.

What brings me to Shahbag, what pulls me back from it
Guest Post by Pahari Promiti

When the Shahbag protest started, the spirit of the movement and the unity with which people gathered made me feel something extraordinary. I personally do not support death penalty, but like many, I was disappointed when the Kader Mollah aka the Butcher of Mirpur did not get the supreme punishment according to the law – fasi (death sentence). Many human rights activists who have worked with international processes of human rights would not openly support the death penalty. Research studies have shown that the death penalty does not prove to be a deterrent to rape or murder. However, if Kader Mollah were to be hanged, I do not think the activists would start a movement against it.

We must recognize the other dimensions of the Shahbag movement, the dimension other than the demand of capital punishment. Although Shahbag is not the first protest I went to, it is in a way extraordinary. Because it is for the first time in the last four decades, a huge number of apolitical people have come together to challenge something that did not feel right. This gave immense hope to people for change, for ending the culture of impunity and demanding accountability from the bodies that are responsible for implementing our laws.

The first time I visited Shahbag, I was disturbed by a few slogans, such as, “Tumi key, ami key – Bangali, Bangali” (“Who are you, who am I – Bangali, Bangali”).  I love the first part of the slogan “Tomar amar thikana, Padma Meghna Jamuna” (Your address and my address, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna – referring to the largest rivers of Bangladesh), but not being a Bengali, I am unable to chant the second half of the slogan.  As an advocate of the rights of the indigenous (Adivasi) peoples of Bangladesh it is impossible not to be bothered by this slogan. When a Shahbag supporter put on this slogan on her Facebook status, I told her this slogan is not inclusive of Adivasis and it should instead say “Bangladeshi” or “Adivasi o Bangali”. Her justification was – Shahbag has ‘redefined’ the term “Bangali” which intends to include everyone, and that the movement consisted of mostly Bangalis so it is okay to chant it. I know for a fact this is precisely what the Adivasis do not want – to be recognized under the identity of Bengali. But the Adivasis wanted justice for the war crimes.

Therefore, a group of Adivasis and Bengalis that support Adivasi rights went to Shahbag to express their solidarity seeking justice for genocides in ’71 and later, chanted “Tumi key, ami key – Adivasi o Bangali”, “Tumi key, ami key – Chakma, Hajong,  Bangali” Apart from a few comments from behind “Look the adivasi rajakars are here” or “Chakma, Chakma!”, the solidarity speech and slogans by Adivasis were well received by the Bengali dominated crowd – probably for the first time in the history. This reflects a positive shift in our national mindsets and for this I would go to Shahbag again. I believe we can only build a secular Bangladesh, if we become more tolerant towards our religious and ethnic minorities.

The most disturbing slogan probably was “Ekta duita shibir dhor, dhoira dhoira jobai kor” (catch one or two Shibir supporters, and slaughter them one by one). I loathe Jaamat/Shibir and can bet that if in power, their first targets would be the intellectuals (they have already published a target list of bloggers/leaders of the Shahbag protest) and the non-Muslim women.  Still this slogan does not come from my heart. I do not wish to chant it.

I am a strong believer of justice for the war crimes of ‘71. My own grandfather, who served in the police at the time, fought for the liberation war. My father’s family had to leave home and flee to India during the wartime in order to survive. My cousin’s grandfather, Khagendra Lal Chakma, was a martyr whose body was never found. His wife still thinks he will come back some day. There are numerous stories of families like this. We, the Bangladeshis desperately want a closure for all the wrong doings of 1971 and move on.

Yet, the Shahbag environment did not inspire me to drop everything at hand and go there physically every day unlike some. At least a few women I personally know were harassed in the crowd. When one of them mentioned it on Facebook she was told to remain silent for ‘the sake of the nation’ and that she should look beyond this and focus on the greater good. The other one, who along with her two sisters were mass-groped at the rally, decided herself not to mention it in public, as word on the street said that Jamaat was spreading such rumours about Shahbag, and she did not want to prove that to be true. But she was devastated. Another one said she expected to be harassed in such a large crowd and did not dare go alone. As a feminist, I do not believe in remaining quiet about sexual harassment, be it for the sake of the family’s honour or to protect a movement. Hence, it made sense not to put myself in the situation of possibly being groped.

Meanwhile, I have been monitoring the cyber space closely from where all this started, including the Facebook, Twitter and blogs of the bloggers who are leading this movement. What concerns me is that people seem to be dividing up into several groups based on their ethical, political and religious beliefs. A large number of the Shahbag supporters have been quite intolerant to anyone who voiced any opinions – whether about the legitimacy of capital punishment, or the banning of Jamaat, or about including other issues in the demands. Many of these opinions are not necessarily undermining this movement; rather they could pave ways for larger participation and unity. These beliefs come from their own fundamentals and their vision of nation that they want.

I do not know a single person in my network who would discourage anyone to go to Shahbag, yet Facebook/Twitter is suddenly littered with derogatory terms like “chagu” (goat – usually refers to the Jammat/Shibir supporters) or “rajakers” (traitor) aimed at anyone who does not blindly follow the Shahbag opinion as if this is a competition for showing one’s patriotism for the country. This attitude is alienating a large group people who are possibly on the same side. What people seem to be forgetting is, voicing opinions is our democratic right, but calling people names and silencing people’s voices for glorifying a movement is insensitive and reflects lack of tolerance and ability to unite people. In many ways, it seems contradictory to what the Shahbag movement claims to be fighting for – a secular, tolerant, open-minded new Bangladesh.

In the last few weeks, the focus of the movement has shifted from death penalty of Rajakars to justice for war crimes to secularism (the 15th amendment of the constitution of Bangladesh in 2011 that declared Islam as the state religion, contradicting the notion of secularism) and recently banning Jamaat-e-Islami (a religious political party). It is possible that there are people who agree to all of these, agree to some or agree to none. But most people, and almost anyone who has supported and/or criticized this movement, are compatriots in this movement. I have seen this movement give hope for a better Bangladesh to people who have been saying they hated this country and wanted to move elsewhere and/or people who have never bothered to vote. Anyone against religious fundamentalism would never want to see this momentum slowly fade away but rather, want to see this pave ways for a new direction for uniting people.

It is great that so many people have come out on the streets, and I wholeheartedly salute the spirit of the people who are protesting at Shahbag day after day. In order to get greater momentum from this movement and to inspire more people to join it, the goals need to be set towards issues that affect the majority of the population more directly. Not issues that will further divide up the people. We need Shahbag to be the space it claims to be – where anyone and everyone is allowed to voice their opinions, be it about religion, or ethnicity, or the laws of our state. I know of quite a few supporters of Shahbag, who went there everyday during the first week, came home energized and inspired its possibilities. By the second week, they stopped believing in it. Do we not want to know why?

Shahbag has immense possibilities. It needs to rise and take into consideration people’s thoughts, hopes, and opinions and convince them to build a unified movement. Disrespecting or undermining people for not agreeing to everything is not going to strengthen it.

We should also note that our history since 1971 has been severely distorted by our political parties, and we need to be careful of not giving into the political propagandas. The youth of today has not seen military oppression (apart from the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts), and Shahbag movement has been a fairly comfortable protest compared to some other protests we have seen, where instead of providing protection, our security forces have thrown tear-gas, pepper-spray and charged batons at the public for protesting. We must not undermine those smaller movements but rather take lessons from them.

Last Thursday, after looking for almost an hour, I finally found a CNG that agreed to go to Shahbag with double the price. As I was heading there, I asked the CNG driver why one of them wanted to drive to Shahbag. He said the traffic created by blocking Shahbag in the area reduced his daily income. He thought Shahbag crowd did not have to worry about food, that’s why they can sit there day after day, demanding death penalty. Unlike them, he had to struggle to survive. He said, “Afa, traffic jam niya, goriber obostha niya apnera kisu bolenna keno, khali bolen fasi chai, fasi chai”.  (Madam, why don’t you say something about the traffic jam problem or the status of the poor people, all you ask for is death penalty.)

This makes me think – ’71 has been the emotional trigger to bring together Bangladesh today, but is it enough to sustain the Shahbag movement? Will hanging the Rajakars or banning a political party change our lives today? Should we not demand for a new direction, question our decades of dysfunctional political system so we can indeed become a truly independent nation?

22 thoughts on “An Adivasi speaks: What brings me to Shahbag, what pulls me back from it

  1. Thank you for speaking out as a non-Bengali Bangladeshi.
    Historically, Bengal never extended south of the Meghna river. That is precisely why the Bengali lyrics are limited to Padms, Meghna and Jamuna.
    The victims of the Shahbagh hysteria are the unfortunate souls of our society who are in search of a national identity. Failing to find the colonial Brits, Pakis or Indians to blame for their identity crisis, they have chosen the hangman’s slogan screaming against some decrepit old men whose primary guilt was to have taken a an ideological position in 1971 – a position which lost out to the clamour for independent Bangladesh.
    Statehood is a civilised concept for organised nations. Nations are a product of history. If Bangladesh is to survive, we have to recognise that there are other national entities in Bangladesh – other than Bengalis. Sylhetis and Chittagonians are insulted by being referred as Bengalis – they are certainly not Bengalis by any definition. These Adhibasis are screaming for recognition outside the suffocating Bengali nationalism propounded by some.
    A mature and rational identity for an independent Bangladesh has to integrate the various nationalities inhabiting the territory of Bangladesh. There are too many centrifugal forces at work in our immediate neighbourhood, that are potential threats.

    1. I’m very glad that someone had the courage to talk about an elephant in the room that I have been wondering about for a long time. In your blog you mention:
      “Does a Chakma or Bihari citizen of Bangladesh have to be as pro-liberation as everyone else,
      given the discrimination and internal colonialism that these people have been subjected to?”

      This issue came up after the death of Raja Tridiv Roy, who is seen as a ‘collaborator’ in 1971. The West Pakistanis were of course very clever and thought they could get the Paharis to join forces with the military to prevent cessation of East Pakistan. Although RTR continued to work for the Pakistan government in hopes that they would recognize the sovereignty of CHT he could not convince Paharis to support him, as they overwhelmingly took part in the struggle for the independence of Bangladesh. However, what did happen as a result? The Bangladesh government was quick to take a chauvinist stand against Paharis, the same stand that West Pakistan took over the East. RTR’s body was not even allowed to be brought to Bangladesh for his friends and relatives to see and Bengalis in Rangamati carried out a horrible arson attack on Paharis, beat people up in anticipation that his body would be brought here. Bengalis attacked Biharis after the independence of the country and they are still treated as second-class citizens, and are called ‘malu’ and ‘mawra’. If we are going to talk about heinous crimes by the Pakistani army over us, why are we going to hide the heinous crimes by the Bangladeshi military on Paharis? Massacres and mass rapes also took place there.

      If we Bengalis are going to talk about justice, we should start talking about justice for all people.

  2. I have been following the posts on this blog closely since the beginning ofthe Shahbhag movement but, out of respect and acknowledging that I am distanced by being a bideshi, I have made no comments. I felt I had to today with this post merely to say I think this is the most excellent post so far. Well written and objectively stating both the pros and the cons of the movement and the various directions it may go in the future. Well done.

  3. “When a Shahbag supporter put on this slogan on her Facebook status, I told her this slogan is not inclusive of Adivasis and it should instead say “Bangladeshi” or “Adivasi o Bangali””
    What would be the problem if our slogan instead were:
    Tumi ke ami ke Bangladeshi Bangladeshi
    Would someone please explain the problem to me. I have asking this around for decades. Please, Please be kind to this poor soul. (admin: if you absolutely have to delete this post as before , be kind to send me an explanation why. I would highly appreciate it)

  4. Shun the ploitics of Awami & BNP. Say no to thier politics. Bring leader like Prof Younus , Abdullah Abu Sayeed, Mahfuz Anam to limelight. We need their guidance along with the youth courage.

  5. I am for ” We all Bangladeshi ” . Please do not stay away from this great platform . There will be few people in great large movement like this who will do or say some thing wrong by not knowing the vision . There will be some wrong people who might do ( groping) some nasty stuff , we need to kick them out, slogan like ” ekta ekta shibir dhoro , dhoira dhoira jobai kor ” this type of slogan comes from an anger of 41 years frustration maybe, yes we should discard this type of slogan but u need to see what the leaders of this movement are saying like Dr.Imran ” we will bring our innocent shibir brothers back by loving & giving them our deshattobodh”. Talented people like u need to be a part of this great movement . We want to build our Bangladesh as a great country . We all love our Bangladesh , Lets work together .
    Thanks . Ejaz.

    1. Dear Ejaj, young educated bright leaders like you give me hope for a better Bangladesh (I am aware of your work). People like me are still searching for a space in Shahbag for contributing to bringing a positive change in our political culture. I know that nonpartisan people who initially came forward to support Shahbag did not come simply for fasi or slaughtering Shibirs. This is not what is pulling people out.

      Some people who are analyzing Shahbag are doing so because they are not apolitical about this and it is their way of expressing their frustration. My disappointment with Shahbag is not the people, but rather the nonpartisan leaders who have let space to be created for Dr. Imran (not an inspirational figure for nonpartisan people) or the political leaders whose hands are still stained with Biswajit’s blood. And the Shahbag gatekeepers are still in a denial mode.

      I understand protecting this movement has been really difficult, given that people were not prepared for this. Negotiations and compromises with unwanted groups were probably impossible to avoid. I feel defeated by the tactics played by our opportunist politicians (who are probably more skilled at this than the nonpartisan people anyway). However, the awakening of the nonpartisan people has been a paradigm shift in our culture. Participation of our young women in this movement has also been most noteworthy. We have much lessons to take away from this and be better prepared in the future. People like me are already part of this, otherwise I would not be writing this article.

  6. An excellent analysis I must say. If we only have excitement and anger without a vision, any ‘movement’ is bound to come to a stand still. And the amount of neglect and ignorance for religious and ethnic minorities that we inherently possess for years is a huge hindrance to any sort of emancipation. As a Bangali Bangladeshi, I feel extremely ashamed that we conveniently ignored our Adibashi brothers (and sisters) and chanted “this land is only Bangalis”! I won’t take refuge to the excuse that the exclusion wasn’t a conscious one. Thanks for raising the issue. Please keep on doing so.

  7. Dear all,
    After a long frustration, your sensible writings really give me some hopes. I’m frustrated to see how some youths in Shahbag are spreading hates rather than voices for justice, peace and development. Slogans like “Ekta duita shibir dhor, dhoira dhoira jobai kor” would not bring anything good to our society. How a number of people continuously defy the legal system and put pressure on it to see the verdict as they wish so? How the youth will learn from this? Is this goes, do anyone think that other side would remain silent? as not only them, others also raise questions about the transparency? This only could bring a social chaos and we are afraid, seriously concerned, now what’s coming up next? We should think before stepping into any such move, what is the motive behind of the players? How many country men’s blood we need to realize this? Don’t we think nearly 60 lives and thousands of wounds are good enough?

    A concerned citizen

  8. A wonderful piece of writing, very well argued, capturing unique perspectives – usually sidelined in dominant discourses – which must be brought center stage by all those wishing to use Shahbagh as a truly transformational platform.

  9. Dear Pahari Promiti,
    I am a Bangali Bangladeshi. I fully share your critique, and your vision of Bangladesh and a secular Bangladeshi society free from all fundamentalist bigotry– religious, ethnic, or linguistic. You have given a clear expression to what, I believe, the great majority of the courageous young generation of Shahbag, if not already, will be eventually struggling to achieve!

    Farhad Faisal

  10. This is an excellent write up . I don’t the writers name , but we would like to interview her for an Intl 24 News Channel , would like to know if we can somehow contact her for short interview for a short package story . Thank you Tanvir Ahmed. E mail

  11. It sad that even in this article which is a remarkacle piece of writing , I see some very important missing points.Did we prove that the “kader kosshai ” is Kader Mollah.
    It is impossible for a imposter who is known to kill a famous poet and slaughtered so many Bangalis during the 71 lib war could survive without any punishment and study in the Dhaka Univ for 4 yrs and come out with a meritorious achievement.
    The misidentity is also happening in the case of Sayeedi ,the reason many innocent lives are lost.Please realize the fact that as a human being we cannot punish an innocent person with our blind emotions be it a alleged Pakistani Rajaker or an Indian Rajaker.

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