Shahbagh- Revolution and Counter-revolution

by Shafiqur Rahman

C. Wright Mills, an American academic and sociologist, famously said that, “Every revolution has its counterrevolution – that is a sign the revolution is for real”. It is now nearly two months since few young men and women gathered in Shahbagh immediately after the verdict was announced at noon hours of Februahbagry 5. It’s yet too soon to conclude whether the Shahbagh movement has fundamentally changed the course of politics in Bangladesh but that Shahbagh has been a revolution by its own right is amply evidenced by the reaction. I believe that a counter-revolution to Shahbagh is in full-swing in Bangladesh now. The dynamics of the revolution and counter-revolution will shape the macro-evolution of politics in the coming days. But before going into the battle of the revolutions, I would first like to briefly lay out some of my personal impressions on the general course of Shahbagh movement. 

First of all, Shahbagh started as a genuine and spontaneous popular movement. Powerful forces may have co-opted Shahbagh after a few days but it did not plan Shahbagh. No party in Bangladesh has the moral authority to bring tens of thousands of middle class youths in the city center and persuade them to stay there day after day. The establishment was as confused as anyone by the scale of popular rejection of the verdict. None of the celebrity bloggers who are known for their zeal were among those who initially gathered in Shahbagh. In fact they were very dismissive of the people who gathered in Shahbagh in the first couple of days. No one orchestrated a worldwide campaign whereby thousands of students and expatriates all over the world gathered to express their solidarity with Shahbagh. The Shahbagh movement brought into surface the genuinely deep and widespread revulsion of certrain forces held by the middle class of Bangladeshis. Call it Bangladeshi or Bengali nationalism, the middle class loves the country with passion and is still not ready to forgive and forget fellow countrymen who betrayed the motherland at it creation.

It must also be said that even at the high tide of Shahbagh euphoria, the movement was but restricted to a very small part of the nation. The poor and working class was conspicuous in their absence at Shahbagh. Gatherings outside Dhaka were paltry affairs of handful of people. Even the worldwide gatherings of Bangladeshis mostly consisted of few enthusiastic students. Although termed as a mass movement, there is yet any sign that the movement has stirred people outside of the few hundred thousand of the most politically active segments of the people. Then again, it must also be mentioned that in our country this small but active part of the population has traditionally and repeatedly initiated change in the course of history through popular movements. Whatever it sprang from, the Shahbagh movement was quickly co-opted. 

No effective power center would allow a freewheeling popular movement to grow unchecked in the heart of the country. Thus power showed superb political acumen in assimilating the movement and extracting every ounce of political capital out of it, the same cannot be said of the thousands of youth who gathered in Shahbagh with a dream in their eyes. They are now on the way of getting a lifetime lesson in cynical politics. One of the most edifying lessons of Shahbagh came from monitoring the responses to Shahbagh movement in the mainstream media. As the movement was quickly igniting the imagination of the middle class, ecstatic coverage by the media was also rising to feverish pitch. It is understandable that corporate mainstream media will do whatever it can to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon when something becomes such wildly popular among its customer base, the middle class. 

But it was not easy to internalize the full throated endorsement of Bengali nationalistic chauvinism from some quarters of the media. Ironically, media personalities from the minority community, who have been chafing under the imposed Muslim nationalism for 

such a long time, did not hesitate a bit before inflicting the identity of ethnic nationalism upon the protesting non-Bengali participants of the movement. It was also not comforting to see the media never discuss in detail the legal ramifications of delivering verdict under popular pressure and changing the course of law in midst of due process. It seemed that a pall of intimidation was hanging over the entire media-scape and most commentators were afraid to stand out from the consensus. In the US, the progressive media has been torturing itself in the last few years to atone for the enthusiastic support of the jingoistic government in the aftermath of 9-11 and for becoming willing enablers of that most unjust of war, the Iraq Invasion. I also feel that in the couple of months of the Shahbagh movement the journalistic community has not covered itself with glory of journalistic integrity. But there is little hope that our media will ever task itself to the kind of navel-gazing that the progressive media in US has embarked upon.

The reaction among the usual talking heads of the media was also a sight to behold. As expected, the commentators went deliriously gaga but even the usually contrarian commentators were caught wrong-footed and tied themselves in knots. The regular pundits of the media, who are so set in their ways of repeating old clichés ad infinitum, became easy targets of ridicule when they faced crisp languages of the new generation of bloggers and online commentators. I did not feel that the bloggers were well armed with reason and well-thought out ideas but most of their words were to the point and this was a refreshing change from the regular fare. The national media portrayal of Shahbagh movement cannot be in sharper contrast to its representation in the world media. Even the most ardent supporter of Shahbagh movement can deny that the movement got, at the best, mixed recognition from the establishment of global media. It became deeply confusing to most of the supporters, giving rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories. This confusion is mostly due to failure to see that how the developing Shahbagh storyline got registered in the disinterested outside perspective. An ‘international’ war crimes court, whose proceedings have been questioned, convicts a wartime criminal and gives him life behind bars, urban youths in the capital city gather in the city center demanding death by hanging, government hastily change review and appeal process of an ongoing case, under tremendous pressure of street movement another accused war-criminal is awarded death by hanging. To most western observers, this is not a very uplifting story. The main consumer base of global media (NY Times, WSJ, Economist, Financial Times, BBC, CNN-I ,AL-Jazeera English etc) is the liberal, cosmopolitan section of demography in every country. To them, however you may dice it, a crowd demandingn execution is not an inspiring sight but a troubling one. 

There is little doubt that a counter-revolution against the Shahbagh movement is now surging across the political landscape. By counter-revolution I do not mean the furious agitation that erupted when the Sayedee verdict was read out. That kind of ferocious response to a hanging verdict was always on the cards and probably would have happened even if 

Shahbagh never took place. I think the main thrust of the ongoing counter revolution is the triumphant reassertion of Islamic nationalism in the national arena. One may find it richly ironical that bloggers and online-activists started the Shahbagh movement demanding that the court award capital punishment for war-criminals and the government ban Jamaat-e-Islami and its affiliates. Today the state is going through the deshi blogging community with a fine comb to weed out all the ‘dangerous’ ones and preparing all sorts of bans on the virtual media to clip the wings online activists. The bloggers who were ecstatically declaring their Bengali identity in the early weeks of Shahbagh are now avowing their pious, religious credentials in chorus. A few astute commentators foresaw this development from early on. This is what happens when naïve idealism meets obdurate reality. The most worrying thing is that while the Shahbagh revolution may have already peaked and ebbed, the counter-revolution may be yet gathering strength. Bending both the government and the civil society to its will may just have whetted its appetite. In this election year the counter-revolutionaries will not hesitate to press home every advantage it gains. 

Theories about national identities can never hope to be precise and conclusive like a science but without becoming too esoteric, I think we can now see three distinct strands of nationalism animating the Bangladeshi polity. These are Bengali, Bangladeshi and Islamic nationalism. There is considerable overlap among the three strands and in fact a substantial portion of the politically conscious citizens have internalized ideals of all three brands of nationalism. But at its core, the three nationalisms are different. Bengali nationalism draws its inspiration from a thousand year old ethnic identity and the war of liberation in 1971. Bangladeshi nationalism seeks to internalize the distinct geopolitical entity called Bangladesh, post-1971. Islamic nationalism builds on the inescapable fact that Bangladeshis are an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. 

Of the three strands of nationalism, Islamic nationalism has made the deepest inroads and the widest gains among Bangladeshis in the last twenty years. This is not a national phenomenon; rise of Islamic nationalism in Muslim countries all over the world is one of the broad currents of present world history. The secular middle class takes immense pride in its global connectivity and modernity. But the religiously conservatives have their own connection to the global community of Islamic nationalism too. They have been reinforced by political developments in almost every Muslim country. In Bangladesh, political failure of Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism to lead the country has only thickened the ranks of Islamic nationalism. I think the current state of political loyalty was clearly captured by a recent speech by Ershad. Addressing the criticism of constitutionally declaring Bangladesh an Islamic Country, he boastfully asserted that if people are at all troubled by Bangladesh being an Islamic country, why don’t they arrange a national referendum on the question and see what happens? 

In Bangladesh almost all political players are conscious of this ground reality, except perhaps the usual suspects in the intelligentsia and some bloggers, online activists. Even the Shahbagh people were perhaps initially dimly aware of strength of religious sentiment in the common people but buoyed by the hysteria of the unprecedented spontaneous gathering and the lionization of the media, they went for the jugular. From death penalty for convicted war criminals their demand expanded to banning of Jamaat and then to banning of religion-based politics. In the heady success of early blitzkrieg, they forgot one of the oldest maxims of strategy, never corner your enemy to a place from where there is no escape. For, “–whence 

there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve (Sun Tzu, 11:23). Enemies of Shahbagh hit back with everything they could, murder, propaganda, violent agitation etc. 

The extent of surprise and confusion of Shahbagh supporters at the ferocity of counterattack showed that they were more or less naively expecting the opposition to just roll over and die. In Bangladesh politics there is a perennial question on the divide between Jamaat and non-Jamaati Islamic socio-political entities. This question has been partially answered. When the stake rises to issues of existence, the religious organizations will close ranks. This was again foreseeable; with a supposedly pro-secular party in power, there was always little chance that religious parties would align themselves with the ruling party or remain in the sidelines. One can never underestimate the extent of anti-incumbency feeling among the people, especially in a country where democratic institutions are weak and ruling party enjoys autocratic power. 

While their opponents seem to have unified in opposition, organizers and supporters of the Shahbagh movement now seem to be in total disarray. Now the old fissures between establishment and the Left have also come into surface. The confused infighting and backbiting reminds us once again that “The revolution devours its children”, (Danton, a leader of the French Revolution and eventual victim). This state of affairs may be bewildering to the millions of supporters of Shahbagh worldwide but I believe this was inevitable. Seeds of disintegration were unwillingly sown right at the inception. This falling apart was not precipitated by the ruthless opposition of Islamist politics, a powerful enemy more often than not leads to strengthening of ranks. I believe the crumbling of the Shahbagh coalition once again showed the weakening hold of Bengali Nationalism on the middle class. 

Shahbagh began with the simple demand of death penalty. This was a demand that unified the broad section of the middle class. 42 years after 1971 there is widespread yearning among Bangladeshis to get some kind of closure for the horrible war-crimes that remained unaddressed for all these decades. They want some kind of justice, be it retributive or restorative. I don’t think most people even particularly care that the mechanism to justice delivery be completely free, fair and uncontroversial. That is why most people could relate and support a punishment that has the potential to draw a firm line under the deep divisions that fracture the whole nation. I believe this is why the Shahbagh movement became such wildly popular in such a short time. 

But within a few days, the movement started to morph from a simple demand for justice to a celebration of Bengali nationalism. Slogans like ‘Joy Bangla’ and ‘We are all Bengali’ were instituted as the official stamp of the movement. “Joy Bangla’ is a slogan that has the most illustrative history. This was the slogan with which Bengali people of East Pakistan united for sovereignty, fought and died in the Liberation war. But history never remains static at a point in time, more than forty years of history have traversed before our eyes since the war.‘Joy Bangla’ and Bengali nationalism is completely peripheral to deliverance of justice for ’71 war-crimes but their central role in the Shahbagh movement foreshadowed the eventual meld of the movement with the state. Why did many of the bloggers and online-activists, who have been tirelessly fighting for years online to bring war-criminals to justice, mishandled the unprecedented unity of people from all part of political spectrum by helping shift the movement from its judicial roots to a cultural revolution? I

Every action become self-evident when viewed with the prism of power politics. Everything is motivated by the goal of retaining state-power or capturing state-power at others expense. The hardcore supporters and in-house intelligentsia are still salivating on the prospect of imminent political demise of the arch-enemy While supporters and intellectual cheer-leaders view nearly every domestic political development with cosmic significance, twenty years of bitter political battles have made leaders more grounded to reality. They are acutely aware of the inexorable tide of religious nationalism; therefore a full-fledged counter revolution haunts them night and day. 

They are aware that a controversial trial process capped by hanging of nationally known Islamic leaders will provide the Islamists with invaluable iconography. AL leaders know that peoples’ desire for justice for ’71 war crimes is still one of its electoral mainstays but the well spring of support is not inexhaustible.There is little disagreement among the chattering class that we entered the election year few months ago facing considerable headwind. All calculations have been upended with the Shahbagh movement and the subsequent blowback. In short, politics has become very uncertain and very high stake. The consequences of this Shahbagh revolution and counter revolution will reverberate for a long time. This may be the beginning of the time when we finally get a measure of closure for the ghosts of ’71. This could also be the time when Islamic nationalism start its triumphant march in the political landscape and dismantle the entire establishment political order. 


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