Shahbag to Shapla Chattar — songs of water and fire
The blog went into a hiatus about year ago. The reasons for that extended absence are, unfortunately, still relevant. That’s why the blog has been far less frequent than was the case in the past. However, it is what it is. I am not sure when the blog can be fully operational again. For now, pieces will come infrequently, and the blog will often be an archive for material published elsewhere. Also, the comments section will be off —it is disrespectful to not respond to comments, but since I can sometime be offline for days, if not weeks, it’s better to have the comments off.
This means no direct interaction with the reader. But this also means the blog will become what blogs originally were — an online diary, a weblog, where one records one’s own thoughts and observations. I guess it’s somewhat fitting that the first post in the new format is on the set of events that rocked Bangladesh as the blog went into hiatus.
These events, according to the contemporaneous analyses, were going to change everything forever. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the contemporaneous analyses were mostly wrong. This is a for-the-record post summarising my evolving thoughts as the events unfolded between 5 Feb and 5 May 2013. It is important to note what this is not. This is not analysis — I am not trying to offer an explanation of what happened, nor provide any insight into what they mean for our past, present or future. This is not activism either — I am not arguing any particular case. Rather, this is an extremely self-indulgent post, the target here is really myself years down the track. If anyone else reads it, that’s just bonus.
Winter is coming
Like so much else, I first came across the Abdul Quader Molla verdict through facebook. Apparently, there was to be a protest against the sentence (incidentally, I was first notified of the gathering by AKM Wahiduzzaman and Faruq Wasif —hardly the kind of people one imagines as, well, Shahbagi). Since I have a pretty dim view of these so-called Occupy type events, I went to sleep on 5 February dismissing the whole thing.
In the following 48 hours, it appeared that my scepticism was ill-founded. At the very least, I grossly underestimated the size, composition, and intensity of the gathering. And having been wrong, I decided to abstain from pronouncing judgment. Instead, I decided to try to understand what exactly was going on.
What was there to understand, you ask?
Based on David Bergman’s coverage of the trial, and personal correspondence with my pseudonymous friend Tacit, I didn’t really understand what the fuss was about. In fact, I thought Molla was unlucky to not have been acquitted. But given the nature of the tribunal —remember, this was weeks after Skypegate (and I am not going to commentate on these trials here) —I was hardly surprised that he was found guilty.
Still, accepting the verdict but rejecting the sentence, or praising the tribunal as flawless and then protest some nefarious political wheeling and dealing —these, to me, seemed odd. Extremely odd. Surely no one would take this stuff seriously, I wondered.
But wasn’t that the point of the gathering at Shahbag? Wasn’t it about hanging the hated razakars, laws and courts be damned?
Was this just a lynch mob? A lynch mob prettied up by the paraphernalia of nationalism (not of the BNP kind, to be sure), but a lynch mob nonetheless. And yet, amazingly smart, enlightened, liberal people like Asif Saleh, Syeed Ahamed or Shubinoy Mustofi (to name a few) were involved. Surely these people would not sign up to something that was turning bichar mani, kintu taal gaach amar to an art form.
Meanwhile, anyone, like Naeem Mohaiemen, expressing any nuanced views about it was villified as an “out of touch aatel“. Naeem was lucky. Pias Karim was publicly denounced as a closet Jamaati (which was virtually the same thing as being a war criminal).
But then again, Naeem wasn’t there in Dhaka. Nor was I. Perhaps we were missing something from afar.
That had to be it. What seemed like a myopic, mindless, vulgar mob was perhaps something very different in reality. And one had to be there to get it.
Surely I was missing something. And until I figured out what I was missing, I decided to stay quiet.
The thing is, it was difficult to stay quiet. The western media initially ignored the whole thing, and then reported it as, well, a large mob that defied a court order and demanded the hanging of an opposition leader. Again, the western media coverage looked pretty straightforward to me. But Shahbagis (I forget whether the name was coined quite yet) didn’t see it that way. Apparently it was all the handiwork of the vast Jamaati conspiracy. And since I wrote in English (and was read by the interested westerners), I was expected to participate in the Shahbag Awakening. And my silence was not in line with the with-us-or-against-us mentality of Shahbag.
February marks the coming of spring in Bangladesh. Shahbag’s revellers and their media backers were talking about a Bangla spring, and Shahbag-er mor became a square. But whether in Prague or Cairo, political springs have a history of being followed not by summer of liberty but by winter of repression and discontent.
Was a winter coming to Dhaka?
The wolf and the lion
By the second week, I started thinking perhaps being away from Dhaka made things easier rather than harder. It allowed me to approach different people with different values and information set. And it seemed to me that other than the most clueless of Shahbag revellers, pretty much everyone was taken aback by the scale and intensity of the first 48 hours. The entire political class was scrambling to figure out what to make of the whole thing. It seemed to me that the two editors sharing the same initials and ambition to remake the country’s politics (and nothing else, certainly not politically) moved ahead of anyone else.
It seemed to me that in Shahbag, Matiur Rahman (and comrades) found the opportunity to emulate the Indian urban protests against corruption or sexual harassment. Think about it. The Karwan Bazar media complex has been trying to fashion a third force of urban educated classes for a long while. During Mrs Zia’s last government, they tried the shot o joggo prarthi movement. During the 1/11 regime, they backed Prof Yunus’s bid. Even after 2009, they tried to get something in Narayanganj against the Osmans or after the tragic death of Tareque Masud. It is, of course, hard for Mati sahib and pals to be against Awami League — the last thing they want is to empower BNP and its ally Jamaat! To these bhadraloks, Shahbag must have seen as a great opportunity. Kon antanter ey rai, janagan jaantey chai — what could have been better to hit AL hard and at the same time put BNP in the back foot?
I observed with great fascination how the so-called pro-1971 media struggled to portray Shahbag — to the Karwan Bazar group, it was not just pro-1971 but also a protest movement, while the more outright Awami stables kept harping on about the rediscovered spirit of 1971.
Meanwhile, the fissures on the ground were becoming harder to manage (google ‘Lucky Akhter attack’ to see what I mean). I should note hear of the people like Zia Hasan, ATM Gulam Kibria, Navine Murshed and Zain M Syed who were trying to analyse or influence the situation in a nuanced way.
Sadly, in my experience, these people were very much the exception. More common were typical Sachalayatan or Amarblog types. Taking their history lessons from Omi Rahman Pial, I wondered if they had any idea that their fanaticism was a farcical replay of the early 1970s tragedy?
Take the whole kerfufle about Joy Bangla, for example. To some of the Shahbagis, reclaiming the slogan from the Awami League was an achievement — it was once again a national slogan. But to the Awamis, League was the nation. Not only did they have a monopoly over the slogan, it had to be followed by Joy Bangabandhu — otherwise the slogan was incomplete, and if anyone said anything else (like Joy Projonmo), they were surely chhupa chhagu! Did any of these Shahbagis know how the slogan became partisanised in the early 1970s? Did they know about the split in Chhatra League and Mujib Bahini into Mujibist and JSD factions, and the bitter arguments about the ownership of the slogan and use of the honorific Bangabandhu?
At least the pro-1971 types were doing something. The jatiyatabadis appeared to me to be paralysed. Sadeq Hossain Khoka claimed to respect the youth of Shahbag. But was he speaking for himself? Apparently Shahid Uddin Chowdhury Anny wanted to join Shahbag — why didn’t he?
One person in that side of politics who didn’t equivocate was Mahmudur Rahman. This Mr Rahman seemed to know that whatever Shahbag stood for, or whoever ended up owning it, it would be everything his politics is not. And he seemed to tackle Shahbag head on. First there was an infamous leaked conversation where he claimed the whole thing was photoshopped. Then he editorialised that Shahbag was the first step to fascism. And then came his killer punch.
What is dead may never die
I am a reasonably early riser, so I woke up to the news of the murder and posted this. My reaction was visceral. Here was a blogger who was as vulgar, obnoxious and unpleasant as they came. And it seemed likely that he was killed by Islamists for his writing. For all the fire and brimstone coming out of Shahbag, who drew the first blood?
This is what I said then:
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.
I still stand by it. But even at the time, I was queasy about the narrative coming out of Shahbag. Was my initial dismissal of Shahbag was right after all?
Allow me explain.
Thaba Baba wasn’t exactly a superstar of the Bangla cyberspace. But nor was he a complete stranger. He did live behind a long trail of writing. To give a self-proclaimed atheist the honour of martyr is odd. (A philosophical aside: what is the proper way to farewell an atheist who hasn’t left behind a will?) In this case, we had an individual whose claim to infamy was his writing that purported to show the Prophet of Islam as a sex maniac. To give this guy a state funeral of a shaheed — what the hell were they thinking in Shahbag and Prime Minister’s Office?
Why did Shahbag need a khotna?
Remember, Shahbag appeared to be running out of steam by the end of second week. Behind the scene, many AL-ers were pressuring for a wind down. Meanwhile, if his project of Bangla Spring was to succeed, Matiur Rahman and company had to provide a statement on what Shahbag stood for beyond being a lynch mob. That discussion led to talks of secularism and banning religion-based politics.
The murder gave the movement an adrenaline shot. But did it also allow Awami League to emphasise its Islamic credential?
Whatever the reasons were, the funeral was a blunder. Mahmudur Rahman used the opportunity to demonstrate quite clearly that Shahbag harboured godless atheists. If the intention was to stress Shahbag’s Musolmani, it ended up doing exactly the opposite.
Does Mahmudur Rahman deserve blame for the violence that followed? It is very much a blogger’s right to post whatever he feels like, no matter how offensive or obnoxious. Is it not an editor’s right to point out those obnoxious posts and label the bloggers accurately?
Meanwhile, back to Thaba Baba. Shahbagis claimed that he was killed by Jamaat. Soon it would transpire that he was indeed killed for his writing, but not by Jamaat. Islamist students of North South University plotted his murder well before Shahbag. Islam calls on the believers to put their faith on no one but Allah, but Muslims tend to behave like a cult of Muhammad — atheism who cares, but insult the Prophet and you must suffer the consequences. Shahbagis (like many Bangladeshi so-called secular-progressives) forget that Islam-based sociopolitical activism took many forms other than Jamaat. They would soon be reminded of that, in a very rude way.
The old gods and the new
The murder notwithstanding, my views of Shahbag were firming up by the last third of February. Yes, the crowd was much larger. Yes, they were undoubtedly sincere. But this wasn’t the beginning of anything new. Second Liberation War? Please!
This is what I wrote on 20 February:
If Shahbagh changes Bangladesh, it will have to do so through the organised, mainstream politics of Awami League and BNP. ….
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.
In the long run, this is probably correct. It definitely has been so thus far. But in the days after this piece was written, violence worsened around the country. By now, I had a clearer view of things. I wanted the Shahbagis and mullahs to go home. Let me quote my 23 February post at length.
… over the past week, Daily Amar Desh has printed excerpts of Bangla blogs that appear to be extremely critical of Islam or its Prophet; it’s hardly a secret that some Muslims tend to take the Prophet’s honour very seriously — just ask Salman Rushdie; during the Friday prayer, these faithfuls were incited to react violently; Jamaat chimed in — anything that creates chaos today is good for it. ….
the first thing to do in a crisis situation is to diffuse the tension. That’s Governance 101.
…the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition must act…. because it’s in their best interest to do so.
Take the Prime Minister first. If there is a genuine civil disturbance, she has the most to lose. Her government will fall, and depending on what follows, she may well have to live the rest of her days in retirement. This cannot be a good prospect. Far better that she makes a categorical promise to Shahbagh that their demands will be met. There is nothing in their demand that is inconsistent with the Awami League politics. Most crucially, it seems that the demand regarding Jamaat – With a view to banning politics of Jamaat-Shibir, bring war crimes charges against Jamaat-e-Islami under the amended law [The International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973] and start the legal process by March 26 — is both eminently achievable and is beneficial for AL.
If she can make the Shahbagh movement go home, the sting will be taken out of the mullah agitation. Once the tension subsides, politics can resume as usual.
As for the Leader of the Opposition, if she believes that she can benefit from a chaotic exit of her rival, she is living in a fool’s paradise. Any extra constitutional change in power will mean she will meet the same fate as the Prime Minister. So for her own survival, and the chance to fight another day and actually win, she should do her part to calm things down.
She should categorically condemn mullah violence and those who incite such violence. She has already moved the party away from hardline anti-Indian rhetoric. Tough gesture against religious fanaticism will do her well for the real fight — the one for a free election.
Of course, nothing like that happened. The violence worsened significantly. I’ll cover this below. For now, let me note how lonely was this call for calm (Faham Abdus Salam being a notable exception who persistently called for reconciliation throughout those weeks and months).
All men must die
February ended with the death sentence of Delwar Hossain Sayedee. The sentence was followed by one of the most violent days in our blood-soaked political history. As the violence was unfolding, I saw two sides benefitting from it. As I wrote on 1 March:
Violence, intability, anarchy, leading to the government being toppled — that seems to be a very attractive option to Jamaat. …. They have tried all possible avenues — legal battles, international lobbying, pressuring its ally BNP into going into tough street agitation, backdoor negotiation with the AL. Nothing seems to have worked. So violence seems to be their way out.
…. Awami League benefits a lot, both direcetly and indirectly, from a certain amount of violence. Directly, because it can use the violence as a pretext to take draconian measures….
More important, and consequential, are the benefit AL gets indirectly from the violence. The violence is widely blamed on Jamaat (even if most of the victims are its cadres). It puts the BNP in a very difficult position….
Politics being a zero sum game, whatever is bad for BNP is good for AL. The ruling party stands to gain a lot from the opposition’s discomfort. Can it gain enough to ride the Shahbagh wave to re-election? Now, were that to happen, that would truly make Shahbagh Awakening a black swan / white crow event.
So I would not at all be surprised if the violence will be rapidly suppressed soon after the political benefits are realised.
I will write about BNP’s political twists and turns in 2013 at some other time. For now, suffice it to say that in the first half of 2013, I didn’t see BNP at all gaining from instability and violence. But instead of being the peacemaker that was in its interest (and arguably only it could successfully be), it seemed that BNP was joining the fight — a decision I found extremely irresponsible.
Of course, there was nothing I could do to affect politics directly. I could, however, write. I have always found the analysis of Jamaat — among both the pro-1971 Shahbagis as well as non-Shahbagi jatiyatabadis — to be rather shallow. So I wrote this, which got picked up quite widely.
The bear and the maiden fair
Things started moving rather unpleasantly in my personal life for me to follow the events in the subsequent weeks. But the following things I do recall thinking about.
The gathering at Shapla Chattar in early April was much, much bigger than the ones at Shahbag. Of course, the pro-1971 media chose to downplay it, while the Amar Desh / Diganta alliance stressed it endlessly. But what did the size of crowd really mean? The youth that gathered in Shahbag went on their own volition. Misguided, myopic, sure. But these folks were sincere. So were the ones who flocked to Shapla Chattar. And there were more of the latter. So far, so good. But it’s also incomplete if we ended here. A lot of the madrassa kids didn’t really have much choice about attending — did they?
Meanwhile, it was curious to see the wild numbers and words being thrown around in those weeks. Did 250,000 people gather in Bogra to protest Sayedee’s death? Really? In a town of 350,000 people? Were there several million people in Shapla Chattar? Really?
The laws of gods and men
Were thousands killed in Shapla Chattar on 5 May? Was it a genocide? Rivalling 25 March 1971?
Wild numbers. Wild words.
And wild reactions too. People who bristle at mere mention of doubts about the cherished 3 million also demand the exact identity of everyone who may have been killed by the state law enforcement agencies and AL goons in 2013.
Instead of harping on about our collective double standard, let me end with Mahmudur Rahman and BNP. He singlehandedly broke Shahbag, it seemed to me. And my sense then was that he was crucial in pushing BNP towards confrontation (again, BNP is not the subject here).
In the days leading to 5 May, it seemed that he was winning hands down. Shahbagis had gone home. The Prime Minister was touting the Medina Charter. And Hefazot-e-Islam was gearing up to lead an Islamic revolution.
So it seemed to many. Not to me. The same logic that made me dismiss Shahbag on 5 February also made me scoff at the wild fantasies of Mahmud sahib and his fans.
Dozens are dead because of his folly. But at least he is serving a prison sentence. The same cannot be said about those who ordered the troops. Not yet, anyhow.
(Inspired by Zia Hasan).