4 Things Shahbagh Did to Bangladesh

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.

One: Liberals

Security forces raided and closed the press of the pro-opposition Daily Amar Desh, which was one of the demands made at the Shahbagh movement. Photo: RTNN

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

Active participation of the outspoken anti-Islamic bloggers and dramatic unearthing of their viciously obscene comments against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his family members triggered countrywide protests including the photographed one by Hefazat-e-Islam, which eventually saw a unprecedentedly bloody end in face of a deadly government crackdown. Photo: Reuters

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.

Three: Media

The country’s mainstream media supported and covered the events of the Shahbagh movement in a previously unseen extensive and equivocal fashion. Photo: AP

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.

Four: Villages

The effectiveness of village-oriented activism was rather displayed amid the reaction of Jamaat, the ‘archrival of Shahbagh’, after its spiritual leader Delwar Hossain Sayedi was sentenced to death. With localised support bases or ‘pockets’, and no support from the grassroots of BNP, Jamaat’s late-February and early-March protests nearly shook the government though the party only secures a roughly higher single digit percentage of votes. Photo: Focus Bangla

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.

One thought on “4 Things Shahbagh Did to Bangladesh

  1. This was a great post – firstly because you refrained from taking sides.

    Conservative practices of self-labeled liberals and a hopelessly partisan media have truly been exposed. However, Islam vs. secular nationalism seems more deep-rooted and perhaps just resurfaced with Shahbag. Lastly, your most powerful insight is the ‘exclusive’ nature of Shahbag …not in a physical sense, but through its ideological posturing, forceful agenda-setting and leadership selection. I had argued the same thing in Feb-2013 http://adnanramin.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/shahbag-the-mire-of-past-present-and-future/

    I especially thought quite highly of your example in how villages were freed first in 1971. Villages are still our real bastion. Very nicely done.

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