Questions about Shahbagh

“The stain of genocide that still haunts Bangladesh can’t be erased with stains of revenge and show trials. Or by our refusal to acknowledge the ‘others’ amongst us, be it the adibashis or voices of dissent. We cannot challenge intolerance with intolerance, parochialism with more parochialism. We can and should do better.”


Questions about Shahbagh
by Parsa Sanjana Sajid

Recently during a conversation about Shahbagh, a friend had this to say: “be a part.” That particular conversation was about the merits (or as some would say, responsibility to) of joining the movement. There is a sense among the chattering class that one needs to join in solidarity. Or else, you are picking the wrong horse—“pokkho nile rokkha nai.” (If you take their side, you won’t be spared.)

Before I go any further, this is not about whether I support Jamaat-Shibir’s politics. I don’t. This is also not about whether the individuals responsible for atrocities in 1971 deserve punishment. They do.

Besides the actual atrocities, the social and political rehabilitation of these individuals, not to mention, the total lack of accountability and acknowledgement from those who committed them and who were responsible for rehabilitating them, has been a festering wound on the country’s collective psyche.

We have had to deal with these individuals in our midst, see them hold positions of power, instruct us on the value of a certain way of life, as if nothing happened.

And we can’t deal. We’ve had enough. To the extent Shahbagh is a reflection of that frustration, I understand.

But …

It’s about time we also raised some questions.

The gathering at Shahbagh has been taking place under the gaze of the state’s security apparatus. A temporary camp set up by the Dhaka Metropolitan Police is right next to the main circle. Many more officers in uniform mingle among the crowd. Having been part of numerous street protests, heavy police presence didn’t strike me as an anomaly. But what was unmistakable, and what set this apart from other protests and movements I’ve been part of, was that this became a state-sanctioned gathering.

No matter that the organizers had refused central stage to some of the ministers, the gathering itself has the blessing and tacit support of the government and the ruling party. At the very least, the state hasn’t taken any measures to impede the gathering (not that it should).

A question, then, is in order—where does the moral authority, figuratively speaking, lie for such a movement? Is en masse, spontaneous participation enough when the conditions on the ground have the moral support, if not full-scale facilitation, by the ruling elite?

To be clear, the claim here isn’t that the movement is orchestrated by the government (it isn’t), but that it has the backing of the government, whose record on ensuring some of the basic rights of its citizens has been embarrassing.

One of the first things I heard as I stepped into the crowd one night was a chant to liquidate Shibir activists. Sure the atmosphere was festive with music, film screenings, pop-up art exhibitions, but still it was an assembly gunning for blood, calling for revenge. There were no sticks and stones or da-boti, but there was a ‘fashir moncho’ and an abundance of nooses. Why is it that nobody took the time to think about the implication of fighting a politics of bloodletting with essentially messages, imagery and language of bloodletting? As if the only way to get redress for the injustices and atrocities of 1971 was to set aside any sense of justice and join in a celebration of putting a head on a stake, however symbolic it may have been.

Why is it that in the heady desire to just hang ’em all, nobody in the crowd, as far as I could tell or at least not prominently enough, bothered to question the judicial process that’s been marred by irregularities from the beginning? Why do we think the miscarriage of justice was that the bloody rajakar wasn’t hanged but not the actual trial proceedings, shoddy documentation and pre-trial preparations? Putting aside my stance against capital punishment and I have a very strong stance against it including in this case, and the culpability of Quader Molla for he is culpable, let’s turn to Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem

Justice demands that the accused be prosecuted, defended, and judged […] Justice insists on the importance of Adolf Eichmann […] On trial are his deeds, not the sufferings of Jews, not the German people or mankind, not even anti-Semitism and racism […] it was history that, as far as the prosecution was concerned, stood in the center of the trial. ‘It is not an individual that is in the dock at this historic trial, and not the Nazi regime alone, but anti-Semitism throughout history.’ […] It was bad history and cheap rhetoric […] (Emphasis added)

To the point of simplification, Arendt wasn’t arguing against the necessity of the trial. She didn’t question whether Eichmann was guilty. She wasn’t even opposed to the death penalty against him. What she objected to was the spectacle, to putting up a show in the name of a trial by expanding its scope to collective guilt. Whether one agrees with Arendt’s assessment or not, question is, what kind of justice are we demanding for the killers of 1971.

Finally, let me now come back to “pokkho nile rokkha nai,” that is sadly reminiscent of George W.’s infamous “you’re with us or against us” proclamation. If you take their side, you won’t be spared. A message that reeks of intolerance, that seeks to stem dissent, debate, and nuance. But more importantly, the ‘us’ here, the ‘right’ side so to speak, is Bengali-normative. In Shahbagh whether the mood was jubilant or somber (as it was after Rajib’s death), the only constant was the repeated reinforcement of the Bengali-ness of it all, in denial of the fact there are many adibashi communities in the country. In the rush to reclaim 1971 we are exhibiting a nationalistic narrow-mindedness that has plagued us since. Why is that?

The stain of genocide that still haunts Bangladesh can’t be erased with stains of revenge and show trials. Or by our refusal to acknowledge the ‘others’ amongst us, be it the adibashis or voices of dissent. We cannot challenge intolerance with intolerance, parochialism with more parochialism. We can and should do better.

 Parsa Sanjana Sajid is an activist who divides her time between Dhaka and New York. She’s not on Facebook.

10 thoughts on “Questions about Shahbagh

  1. Thank you for being so sensible and objective.

    The peer and social pressure to blindly support the ‘pha(N)shi’ / hanging demand is very strong. There are strong deterrents in widespread, indiscriminate labeling as rajakar / Jamat or Shibir if you have your own view on what Shahbag could mean and/or achieve. Someone recently called it ‘secular extremism’.

    The thought-leaders (as opposed to Imran Sarker) running the show are hardliners and will hear of no dissent. Calling Rajib an atheist makes one Jamat, as does questioning the qualification of prosecution lawyers. If you think the Mahmudur Rahman craze is premature or out of place at Shahbag – you are Shibir.

    I undeniably feel alienated by a movement that I had attended and served almost religiously.

    1. Thanks for writing this Parsa S. Sajid and Sleepless in Shahbag. We were all starting to wonder if we were mad in our solitary O-gape at this bewildering wonderland, but history won’t keep us guessing too long, unfortunately.

  2. Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, the Indian Foreign Minister and the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh have publicly and consistently supported the Shahbagh “Movement”. Hindustan Times has acknowledged on record that that India has been “supporting” the Shahbagh carnival.
    Without being paranoid about India, one cannot be but curious about India’s enthusiasm over an issue which is strictly an internal haemorrhage of Bangladesh. The experiences -of Sri Lanka, Nepal and of late the Maldives- of the suffocating embrace of Indian affections, are less than assuring.
    Thank you for giving vent to rationalism overcoming the thrill of being part of yet another “history” !

    1. Wait, I am confused. On the one hand, we are very upset that western media is not covering Shahbagh (see earlier post by someone else). Why do we want media coverage? Surely so that “the west” (whatever that means) can support us in this matter, by not condemning us, etc etc. But when Indian government says they are “supportive” now it is “internal haemorrhage”?

      a) “Support” does not mean they are funding for god’s sake. It just means they are saying, “this is good, we don’t like JI either.” So what, that’s not a surprise.
      b) Please give our youth a little more agency. They did this spontaneously. You really think they need to be paid in Indian rupees to come down to Shahbagh??
      c) I am not a fan of Indian big brothering, but at least let’s be consistent. If you don’t want India to pay attention to our internal affairs, then don’t cry when rest of the world does either.

    2. Thanks for reminidng us about Indian’s enthusiasm, some people want to deny this fact. Real patriot must think why they are so enthusiast about this. I know some people will call ‘Rajakar’ for revealing this aspect. No shame, who didn’t even born in ’71, call now the Bangabeer Kader Siddiquee a Rajakar. Think about this -. Thanks to Parsa A Sajid, for your bold and eye opening wrtiing. I wish the youth would have good sense like this rather than mongering hates and disobedience to the legal system.

  3. Glad to know as well that no-one in Bangladesh – the government, the opposition, the media, individual citizens etc – has any opinion on any event in any part of the world outside the borders of Bangladesh, ever, because to express it would be so audaciously out of place …

  4. It’s completely untrue that no one is talking about the lack of transparency in setting up of the ICT. I’m sorry Parsa Sanjana, you are not the only one with crystal clear lens. That said, I agree that the lack of transparency makes the trials seem ‘set up’, and at the end of the day does a disservice to us, the people. Had the system been transparent, we could point to Jamaat supporters and say: see for yourselves who you are supporting. The lack of transparency disallows us that chance, while it propagates the myth that these war criminals are NOT war criminals, it allows Jamaat supporters to continue to believe in the lies that they have been brainwashed into believing.

  5. At the end of the day, other than a pseudo-humanism, quoting an Arendt here and a Chattor slogan there, I don’t know what you are saying. We all know about the business of the “other” [Fanon, Foucault et al], and if you are suggesting to find the humanity of the other, you should say that first to the Jamaati activists. You should not burden the Chattor with such ethics, at least, now. Your apprehension about the government is also funny. It is this government, and no other (even if sections of the trial has been wobbly) that had the gall to bring this group of people to trial. There is a natural ideological affinity between the government and the Chattor. Where is the problem?

  6. Thanks to Parsa A Sajid, for your bold and eye opening wrtiing. I wish the youth would have good sense like this rather than mongering hates and disobedience to the legal system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s