Delwar Hossain Sayedee, an Islamic preacher and a senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the country’s largest Islam-pasand party, was sentenced to death on 28 February for war crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War. Within hours, Jamaat cadres and activists clashed violently with police and law enforcement agencies. Scores have been killed in some of the worst political violence the country has experienced in recent years.
Five other senior Jamaat leaders, including its current and former chiefs, are being prosecuted for war crimes committed in 1971. Another leader was sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 February. That sentence triggered what has come to be called the Shahbag Awakening—a month of largely peaceful gathering of tens of thousands of people in the middle of Dhaka. A key demand of the largely government-supported Awakening is to ban Jamaat.
Will the Jamaat be banned? The ruling Awami League has a three-fourths majority in parliament, while the Jamaat is a key ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. A general election is expected before the year is over. So there are complex political calculations involved. Meanwhile, even if the party survives, how will it perform if its top leaders are convicted (and possibly executed) for war crimes?
I argued in the last post that Bangladesh is back to politics-as-usual. Whereas I was surprised by the Shahbag Awakening*, needing a reassessment of a lot of my priors, nothing like that is needed to analyse politics-as-usual. I can use my mental model of politics — including the key players and their objectives, incentives and strategies — to analyse the situation. That doesn’t, of course, mean the analysis will be necessarily correct. But even when I get things wrong, I can update my views with the latest infromation as long as the basic framework of my analysis is intact.
An analysis of unfolding events since Friday makes for some rather uncomfortable conclusions for me. And yet, there are times when one ought to make a stand, even if it means taking a side. I believe now is such a time. Over the fold is why this blog rejects tomorrow’s hartal.
In pre-modern Europe, no one had ever seen a black swan. So they had a Latin expression — rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno — meaning ”a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan”. Then they discovered Australia, where black swans are a-plenty. A Bangla equivalent of the whole thing perhaps would be white crow. In South Asia, crows are black. But Australia is home to the white crow.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularised the term in his 2007 book The Black Swan. His own pithy summary of the thesis is thus:
What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Are we seeing a black swan / white crow event in Bangladesh? Let’s think about it systematically.
Fellow blogger Dhaka Shohor was the first person to inform me about it — bhai, what’s happening in Pilkhana (or something to that effect). It was slightly before the midday on 25 February 2009. Within the next hour I had received phone calls, texts and facebook messages. By 2pm Dhaka time, I was in front of a computer. Unheard Voice was live almost incessantly for the next couple of days, with bloggers from three continents continuously updating information as they came in from Dhaka. In nearly a decade of blogging, I have never experienced something more stressfull or taxing on the emotions.
Whether it is two children fighting, or there is a communal riot, or armed men are holding a plane full of passengers hostage, or two countries are amassing tanks on the border, the first thing to do in a crisis situation is to diffuse the tension — that’s what I said in the last post about today’s Bangladesh. This was even more true four years ago. Whoever was at fault on 25 February, whatever was the grievances or failures, whether there was a conspiracy or not, the first and foremost task facing the government was to diffuse the situation.
As I understood the facts about who could reasonably have known what in the real time, I believed the government did a good job in diffusing the situation. Let me explain that in some detail.
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.