… indefinitely until unavoidable “real life” issues are sorted out.
Something curious has been happening in Bangladesh in the past 24 hours. After the jumma prayers yesterday, groups belonging to a dozen or so small Islamist parties took out processions against ‘atheists’ and ‘apostates’ of Shahbagh. Apparently these defenders of Islam were joined by Jamaat as well. There were scuffles with police. Shaheed Minar was attacked in Sylhet, and the national flag was burnt. And then there were some counterattacks against Jamaat-owned businesses. By nightfall, things were under control.
That’s what I get from the mainstream media (or the parts I can access – Prothom Alo and Daily Star aren’t safe for my iPad), and that’s not the curious thing. If that’s all there was to it, it would be hardly different from the occasional rampage some of the more ‘pious’ and excitable fellows get up to every time any government wants to give women equal rights of inheritance.
The curious thing is what I see in facebook and blogs. Judging by their account, Bangladesh stood on the brink of civil war. Religious fanatics had openly declared war on the country as it exists. On the other side, a large crowd had returned to Shahbagh in the evening, demanding that unless the government acts, there will be a revolution.
As explained earlier, on Shahbagh I’ve preferred to keep my mouth shut and eyes open. That remains my general approach. I have little factual understanding of what exactly is happening in Bangladesh. It may be that my facebook friends are an alarmist bunch (bloggers of all types in all countries are usually a hyperventilating lot — Andrew Sullivan felt suicidal when Obama did poorly in a debate!), and the mainstream media had it right: nothing of consequence happened yesterday. Or, it may be that there are complicated games at play — not being privy to any palace intrigues, I’ll leave conspiracy theorising to others.
If those scenarios happen, then what follows should be discarded. But as long as there is a non-trivial probability that the more alarmist version is right — that Bangladesh was/is close to civil war — then I believe it’s time for the grown ups to calm things down. (more…)
I had not been following the war crimes trial in much detail. Like many, I was surprised by the sentencing of the Abdul Quader Mollah. He was convicted, but not given the maximum penalty (death sentence) — what gives, I wondered. I saw some facebook chatters about a behind-the-scene understanding between Awami League and Jamaat-e-Islami – the alleged war criminals don’t hang, and Jamaat abandons BNP and participates in the coming election, the speculation went. I saw some facebook messages about a gathering in Shahbagh protesting the ‘farcical verdict’.
Here is a video of the gathering.*
I didn’t pay much attention. I was wrong. I was wrong not to pay attention. By the time I took notice, Shahbagh turned into a sea of people. I saw and heard and read of people of several generations going to Shahbagh. Some dismissed them as hujugey Bangali. But I think that’s insulting the sincerity and passion of large number of people from all walks of life. Clearly this was something we have not seen in Bangladesh for a long while. And having been wrong in my decision to not pay attention, I decided to keep my mouth shut, and eyes open.
In general, my reading of history and politics is that spontaneous, leaderless uprisings tend to eventually yield to organised forces. I didn’t expect much from the Occupy or Anna Hazare movements. Even in Egypt, I expected the much better organised Muslim Brotherhood to gain ahead of liberal forces. The initial surprise and the large crowd in Shahbagh notwithstanding, I see no reason to change my view of history and politics when it comes to Shahbagh. If Shahbagh changes Bangladesh, it will have to do so through the organised, mainstream politics of Awami League and BNP.
This is not to say Shahbagh has no impact. It clearly does. Awami League has already changed the law governing the trial process, while BNP has explicitly stated that it will continue the trial. Neither would have happened without Shahbagh. Even if the movement stopped tomorrow, these are already concrete achievements.
And there may well be further ramifications, including the AL capitalising on the nationalistic sentiment for its re-election campaigns. It’s just that whatever fundamental change we might be hoping for, I think the avenue for them is through organised politics. If Shahbagh is to replace AL and BNP, then it has to eventually create organisation(s). And by the same token, I don’t take seriously talks of fascism or fear of civil war. Fascism requires a fascist party. If AL is a fascist party, then it has been so without Shahbagh. And a few renegade Jamaati vandalism or terrorist act a civil war does not make.
That’s about as much as what I have got on Shahbagh’s big picture as it enters the third week. Over the fold, couple of specific issues that I’ve found interesting.
Thaba Baba, a nationalist and atheist blogger/facebook-er and a Shahbagh activist, has been brutally murdered last night. There is a good possibility that he was killed for his writing.
If the murder is political, then liberty is under assault in Bangladesh in a way not seen in recent years. We have seen the state gagging opposition media. But with that kind of assault, there is an eventual corrective counter assault — as political tide changes, those who applaud the closing of Ekushey TV eventually become the victim of the temporary ban of Amar Desh.
But that’s not what happened here. If Thaba Baba was indeed killed for his writing, then the killers are likely to be non-state actors. The Shahbagh movement has already claimed him as the movement’s first shaheed, pointing the finger at militant, fundamentalist cadres of Jamaat-e-Islami.
If they are right, then Thaba Baba will join a long list of Bangladeshis killed for their views by militants supposedly acting in the name of Islam.
If they are right, will the Shahbagh movement remain non-violent?
This post is titled ‘not really on Shahbagh’. That’s because I am still not sure I understand well enough what’s going on to say anything particularly interesting. Never mind interesting, my own thoughts are in a state of such flux that even jotting them down just for the record is difficult. For example, I see a lot of comments like ‘this is a new revolution, Bangladesh will never be the same again’ interspersed with a few ‘dawn of fascism’. What I don’t see is an analysis of how a dozen or so people turned into a hundred thousand or more overnight. Until I understand what’s happening — and it may well have ended before I feel I understand remotely enough — I will leave the commentary to others.
Instead, let me return to Thaba Baba. This blog’s fundamental principle is liberty. If a Bangladeshi blogger is killed for his opinions (whatever the opinions may be), then all bloggers have been put on notice.
That cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
While I was involved with student magazines, it was only during grad school that I started toying with the idea of long form writing. The first idea was a Clancy-style Desi thriller — a Muhajir general in Pakistan army trying to affect the ground realities in Kashmir, setting off a nuclear crisis, which is defused by a daring Indian Muslim academic with the help of a Bollywood heart throb with a secret past… It was good six months before the Kargil War, which (along with the pressures of school) put paid to that story.
The next idea was a bit more serious — a group of Desi boys and girls growing up in a Sydney-like city, with its sun and surf, but also the ethnic suburbs, you know, the angst and the agony of the whole ABCD existenz. Zadie Smith had just written a book on that theme, but hey, while she dedicated White Teeth to Jimmy Rahman, I was Jimmy Rahman. That story was to end with a spectacular explosion in some iconic location. The story was conceived prior to 9/11, and needless to say, it died on that day.
That story upset many of my closest friends because, well, I didn’t portray them in charitable fashion. I tried to redress it a few years later. With my brother, I wrote about 70 pages of this. This would have been the biggest, baddest Bollywood movie ever. Sadly, life got in the way.
Blogs are much easier to write. Couple of hours maximum for a long piece, half an hour for shorter ones. Write about whatever you fancy. Don’t need to continue on the same subject. That was the idea behind A-A-A.
As Bangladesh was sleepwalking into 1/11, I started following UV, where a blogger named Rumi caught my attention with his political analysis. While everyone was convinced that Iajuddin Ahmed was going to rig the January 2007 election for BNP, Rumi Ahmed argued that in the ‘digital age’, it’s very difficult for an unpopular incumbent (like BNP was at that time) to pull off a rigged election against a determined opposition (like the Awami League could have been). I agreed with Rumi bhai’s analysis, while he felt strongly enough about Ziaur Rahman to write to me personally about this post.
Correspondence continued after 1/11, with analysis of what happened and what was to come. By April 2007, I was blogging in UV. That was also when DWC started. By then, UV had decided to oppose the regime, and DWC heavily pushed the anti-1/11 agenda.
While I contributed regularly to UV/DWC, I needed a space to post personal thoughts/ideas/ramblings, most of which were too half-baked for broader association. A-A-A wasn’t really the place for it, not the least because the other bloggers there had little interest in Bangla politics. So, five years ago this week, this blog was born.
Deyalpotrika has compiled recent New York Times articles on labour unrest in the Bangladeshi garments sector. She provocatively asks whether ‘Made in Bangladesh’ will become a scarlett letter. In the comments section, Naeem Mohaiemen claims:
If you don’t think this is the coming crisis that will destroy Bangladesh’s economy, you’re too busy with other tamasha …. Look at the NYT reader comments and you can see the contours of the coming Bangladeshi goods boycott.
Now, I enjoy a tamasha as the next person. But I enjoy thinking about economics even more, and definitely lot more than the next person. So I’ve thought about the issue. Are we really likely to see a boycott of Bangladeshi goods? No, I doubt we will.
A number of things have happened in the past few months that would be worthy of Naeem Mustafa and Col Rumi. But I haven’t posted about rumbles in the cantonment, gruesome double murders, or about corruption scandals forcing ministerial resignations. And a few readers have asked why.
The answer is two-fold. First, thanks to the vagaries of time zones, “real life” commitments, and software issues, I am usually pretty late to these stories myself. This rules out ‘breaking’ any news.
However, I could analyse some of these events, and their consequences. And that’s where the second factor comes in. I don’t think my analysis of current events are particularly good. This is particularly true of matters political. For example, I have little to say about the fallout of the Suranjit saga that one can’t get from many other sources.
Of course, I may have little of interest to say about border killing or minority persecution — and that hasn’t stopped me from posting about them. But then again, on both issues, the posts came when I felt like writng about them.
So, the news junkies are very likely to be disappointed with this blog. But there is, potentially, some good news for them. Some new bloggers, and a few old hands, have started what could be a very exciting site. (Some of my pieces will be cross-posted there time-to-time).
The founders of Alal-o-Dulal prefer to be low key for now. I hope their wish doesn’t come true, and the blog becomes a huge hit.