Can anyone say whether the Shahbagh movement was a success or a failure? Its answer certainly needs many other questions answered, like- what Shahbagh was set to achieve? Who funded it and what ‘they’ wanted to achieve?
Just like the movement itself, its success or failure can be great debates too. The supporters would possibly say, the movement demanded punishment of the 1971 war criminals, and the process is underway quite well, so it’s a success! Its denouncers would say the movement failed because it didn’t speak about the accused criminals within the government party, it didn’t address the discrepancies at the tribunal in subject, it didn’t address the leaks, the scandals and the controversies, etc.
But did Shahbagh fundamentally change anything in a Bangladeshi society? Did it have any articulation from political or social perspectives? I have made an attempt to outline, quite subjectively, at least four things those I believe the Shahbagh movement has articulately done.
The Shahbagh movement forced a certain socio-political community of the country, wishing to be called ‘the liberals’, to openly advocate closure of newspapers, TV stations, websites and Facebook pages, and arrest of editors and journalists. Its distinctiveness is that the common belief that no matter how intense the political or ideological opposition is, liberals would always stand for the freedom of speech, was unprecedentedly marred. The liberals, principally made of elements from the country’s leftist and centre-left political and social organisations, became known as just another group of political ideologues who would like to see their opposition crushed by deadly force and anyone speaking against them brutally bullied or even put behind bars if possible.
Two: Religion and Politics
The Shahbagh movement highlighted the position of religion in the Bangladeshi socio-political arena in a manner unseen in decades. As the movement matured, its supporters were claiming that it is the narrowness of the denouncers that they failed to uphold a national demand beyond ideological differences regarding anti-Islamic bloggers, and the denouncers were saying that it is the viciously anti-Islamic bloggers and activists positioned at the centre of the movement who were ideologically compromising the whole momentum. Putting aside who were right and who were wrong, the issue was religion- Islam. Its obscene antagonism by some of the central figures of Shahbagh not only eroded the movement’s popularity and socio-political acceptability, but also implicitly triggered a landslide defeat of the government party Awami League, an influential patron of the movement, in a series of city corporation elections that followed.
The Shahbagh movement accentuated the strategic lack of credibility of the country’s mainstream media. Considering the political consequences the government party Awami League, the principal patron of the Shahbagh movement, faced afterward, it should be a debate no more that Shahbagh was subject to a very vicious division between the Bangladeshi societies regarding political beliefs and, well, history to some extent. But the country’s media supported the movement in a previously unseen equivocal manner. As the ideological opposition of Shahbagh grew, the political bias in the media’s support became more visible. Eventually the opposition’s landslide victory in the city corporation elections, where the media had dramatically waged publicity campaigns against the pro-opposition candidates, underlined the fact that the media was suffering from a lack of credibility. The unhealthy absence of the pro-opposition media, suppressed by the government by arrests of an editor and closures of presses and TV stations following the Shahbagh movement, even intensified that lack credibility.
The ‘Shahbagh’ movement has played the role of a potent show of how the exclusion of the villages in a country like Bangladesh can effectively fail a movement carrying a national demand. I always personally believe that an influential fact about our 1971 Liberation War was that it was fought from the villages rather than the cities, and accordingly the cities were the last to be liberated whereas the villages were the first. When someone asks how come the media overwhelmingly supports a certain political camp but that camp keeps losing elections, the answer is- the media fails to reach the population living in the villages. Similarly, when someone asks how come a movement based on a demand of such overwhelming national endorsement fails to spread across the country, the answer is the same- its patrons did not pay attention in spreading it in the villages.