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Shahbagh: Populism and Liberalism in Bangladesh


Shahbagh: The Set Up (Part 1 in a 3 Part Series about the Shahbagh Movement, its Politics and its Moral Content)

Since this past February 5, now for the past month and more, the “youth” of Bangladesh have ebbed and flowed in the hundreds of thousands from the neighborhood of Shahbagh, in Dhaka. An occupying protests begun by bloggers, the Shahbagh Movement quickly consolidated around the populist demand that rajakars (local intelligence for, and collaborators with, the Pakistan army’s genocidal turn against Bengalis in 1971) aligned with the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami must face the death penalty for their crimes against humanity as adjudicated by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).

These protest, tagged the Shahbagh Movement, have rocked Bangladesh’s politics and there might well be more rocked trouble to come.  Some say this is Bangladesh’s account of a Tahrir-like Arab Spring. Some, that the movement is Dhaka’s own occupy movement: a popular call to open wide the public discussion about contemporary politics and welcome turn to revisit history.  Or that’s the way the story goes.

In this three-part analysis I will argue that that view is not entirely right. That Shahbagh, though a populist movement (though not quite a popular one) backed by the young and the middle class — with a strong political voice has much to commend it — with its political associations and stances against democratic — though hardly liberal — political parties and its support of the government crackdown on right-leaning protesters make for a turn that should issue concern from many quarters.

To see this, it may help to turn to a conventional account of  “1971” history in Bangladesh and trace a path from then and there to now: In 1971 and into early 1972, in order to disempower a burgeoning separationist-nationalist movement and to choke off and kill out liberationist political moves in then-East Pakistan, the Pakistan military with the help of Bengali collaborators (rajakars) went on a genocidal killing spree that many say mounted to three million casualties, with millions of women raped, and the country and her cities purged of a generation of intellectuals, engineers and organizers.

The first post-liberation Awami League government promised to prosecute alleged rajakars but a series of compromises both pragmatic and ameliorative and the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the so-called founding father of Bangladesh, and the following rise of the Rightist BNP spared the alleged rajakars their likely impending death by hanging. In time, some of those collaborators became leaders of the lslamist Jamaat-e-Islami and of the more moderate BNP.  (It is a hush-hush secret, but it’s not unlikely that some rajakars have also taken up with the AL, but more on that later.)

That genocidal turn from within marks off  “1971” as something beyond a simple and clean liberation, unmooring from her imperial, colonial yolk. Bengalis aligned against other Bengalis for different and differing political ends and the trauma of those differing goals seems to have partitioned Bangladesh into those who see prosecuting the rajakars as a political goal that supersedes all other political goals; they see it as the foundation of a moral doctrine of Bangladeshi-ness. Others view the prosecution of rajakars as a desirable goal that must consist in the proper course of justice due them.

Indeed, liberals are now split on what Shahbagh means: Some, mostly those in Bangladesh and those who lived in the midst of and, or, were weaned on the stories of 1971 see the calls for capital punishment as just deserts. After all the rajakars were not friends of the liberal lot; instead, they persecuted the liberals and sought to devastate the land of the Bengalis via the destruction of liberalism. Moreover, Jamaat isn’t friendly to the liberal cause either. Theirs is a view of some global umma of Islam that has more political ends than the sociological ones that have lone sustained Islam and every other flourishing, religion.

Those who seem to have some distance from the goings on there believe that a coherent liberalism requires a hard stance against capital punishment, and that, moreover, it commits one to the demand that there be a fair trial procedure that ensures that one judged guilty is done so through the transparency required of a burden so heavy that it requires a state to put one of its own citizens to death, a burden so heavy that the proper adjudication of it, leads a man to his own end. After all, though rajakars are guilty, they are not guilty by association with the term. Moreover they deserve to have their rights observed, as would any individual who wishes to promote the democratic and liberal values that sustain the constitution of Bangladesh. Finally, those liberals insist that not all rajakars are Jamaat, nor are all Jamaatis rajakars.

Now, over the decades, the nationalist—let’s say liberationist–Awami League has laid down its political fortunes on finally prosecuting the rajakars. In 2010 and later, in 2012, it moved against the rajakars and sought to bring an end to the narrative of justice deferred.  However, so far, it has prosecuted the alleged rajakars against widespread condemnation of the fairness of the trials brought against them under the auspices of the International Criminal Tribunal. It has not gone unnoticed that by aligning the so-called rajakars with the leadership of Jamaat (for good reasons and bad) the AL’s prosecution also has the politically salutary effect of seemingly destroying Jamaat as a credible political party able to convey its preferences through domestic and international politics.

Finally, at the beginning of the year, the tribunal sentenced three individuals for high crime against humanity, two to death, one to life imprisonment.  That life sentence of one Abdul Qader Mollah, a leader of the Islamist and in 1971 anti-liberation, pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami has been widely viewed as the trigger for the Shahbagh Movement.

The conventional and anecdotal account suggests Qader Mollah committed high crimes against the Bengali people. But barring the 40-year evidentiary record to support beyond reasonable doubt the charges and the strengths and weaknesses of such a record, the evidence of the proceedings of his trial itself suggests that his defense was not given the opportunity to support his side of the story. The street-level view of the case however holds that the government colluded to let Qader Mollah go and that there’s some deal in the works to allow Mollah back in, some deal to let Jamaat rise ascendant again.

So, the Shahbagh movement ostensibly started out and grew as a protest against that narrative of collusion and corruption, the story that now, for once, the government will be held, must be held, to its own platforms and its own commitments. That (most galling) the sentence handed out was not sufficiently serious for the conviction on record. That punishment for crimes against humanity is consistent only with capital punishment. However, quite beside the morally disgusting insistence on the death penalty as the sole purveyor of justice, Shahbagh is sidling up with the ruling party’s political incentives. The government wants to destroy Jamaat and its leadership and it would welcome a movement that holds it own feet to the fire. The government wants to look responsive to its people, and so far, this is precisely what seems to have happened, and it seems there is no end to this happening.

More recently, as the government publicly endorsed the Shahbagh Movement’s aims Shahbagh seemed ready to be complicit in the Awami League government’s move to shut down its opposition. It has endorsed banning Jamaat and, at least on this issue (there are many others), it seems hard to determine the line that separates the government from the movement.

Consider finally that though Jamaat activists came out on the streets on the heels of the AL’s moves against them and promoted strikes and turned violent, the government with its monopoly on the military cracked down on the Right in such a way that many liberals have taken to equate the police interventions to extrajudicial killings, Indeed, many protesters have died, on both sides; civilians and police. The Movement has yet to condemn the government’s brutal crackdown on the Right. This is a two-turn problem: whether the government is in the right or no, to abolish Jamaat, it isn’t allowed to roll over the Right, knocking out their communications, their voice.  By not condemning the government’s moves the Shahbagh Movement has aligned itself with the governments turns against its opposition. No doubt, then, that if the AL government comes back into power, they will have done so with the Youth movement pushing and pulling right behind.

Part two of this series to be published early next week will examine the political incentives for the Awami Leagues moves against Jamaat and whether or not Shahbagh’s alignment withholds its claim to (moral) independence

Part three of this series to be published on the latter end of next week will seek to examine the moral dimensions of the protests and whether liberals can consistently stand with Shahbagh while Shahbagh crows about capital punishment.  I will also offer some considerations on the implications of Shahbagh’s demands and some views of the things that might, better, come off them.

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Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link: