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Shahbagh: Politics and Demagoguery in Bangladesh


My previous attempt to get ahold of Shahbagh, its recent history and its politics has left many questions answered, many issues untouched.

In this present attempt to gather some understanding of the currents in Shahbagh, I’ll address the political resonances of the protests begun February 5th, 2013, on the heels of Abdul Qader Mollah life imprisonment sentence. I’ll also parse the ways the Awami League (AL) has used Shahbagh and the ways we can separate out Shahbagh from the AL.

As before, the Shahbagh movement got its quick start after Abdul Qader Mollah a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party, convicted of crimes against humanity, was spared the death penalty and was, instead, sentenced to life imprisonment. Thousands of Bangladesh’s “youths”, led initially by a small group of bloggers who’d been actively pushing death for the ’71 rajakars demanded the death penalty for Qader Mollah despite the High Court’s judgment. This, because they viewed the pronouncement of life in prison as only a signal that a deal had been made between Jamaat and the Awami League; alternatively, that the sentence was a signal that when the opposition rightist BNP coalition returned to power, Qader Mollah would be freed.  The number of protestors demanding death for Qader Mollah grew into the high hundreds of thousands and, sure enough, the government responded to the peoples’ demands, urgently, swayed by the peoples’ democratic voice.

Proponents claim the Shahbagh movement is a “peoples’ movement”, that it is a political and moral awakening. Now, no doubt there’s much to recommend it: any movement that helps people throw off the apathy that blankets their lives will have done good, so it will be deemed good.  But this is only a formal good; the substantial value of that good resides in what is done with that form of public awakening, with the form of protest in which Shahbagh is now cloaked. For now, in substance, Shahbagh seems to track the Awami Leagues political platform and that, without substantial changes to its demands, amounts to nothing but a call for blood.

Consider: the Awami League leadership promised, on their electoral platform, that they would finally bring the 1971 rajakars (collaborators) to justice. It was well understood that justice meant the death penalty and that sort of token justice would be colored in political hues. So, the populist call that rajakars be brought to justice and that justice is nothing but death for rajakars fits well into the Awami Leagues political calculus for the coming election. To have delivered on a promise, and that in spades, and now to be aggressively responsive to populist demands for deferred justice can only look good for a party’s attempt to win its first ever second term in office.

Further, that the opposition BNP will not be able to put up a challenger governing coalition without a strong turnout in Jamaat’s favor in the coming election can’t fail to play into the ruling party’s moves against Jamaat’s leadership.  Knowing this and apparently seeing the writing on the wall, the BNP has endorsed the Shahbagh movement as a strong display of national voice, while denouncing the ruling Awami Leagues moves against Jamaat and its leadership. It is clear that the BNP does not want to be strongly associated with the “collaborator narrative” whatever its strong anchored history of political collaboration with Jamaat. That’d be political poison.

So, the politics of Shahbagh strongly endorse a positive response to those demands by the Awami League. Indeed, the AL moved to push new rules that speak to those demands and moved to retroactively render insufficiently just “inadequate sentences” open to government appeal. It’s not hard to think that the AL has all but appropriated the Shahbagh Youth movement. The news and spin on the disappearance of a defense witness suggests the AL’s hand. Indeed, Amnesty International has called on the regime to make transparent its moves to find this particular “disappeared” man. So, far, to no avail.  However, the fact that this disappeared man’s disappearance runs with Shahbagh’s demands does not offer enough reason for Shahbagh’s silence.

All this means that whatever the positive case for the Shahbagh movement, and, again, there is much to that, (on that, later) one cannot discount entirely the political factors underlying and perhaps underwriting the popular moves on the ground. Certainly Jamaat and its student organization Shibir thinks Shahbagh mirrors the governments move to throttle out whatever passes for the political mainstream Islamist voice. And that view has led to unnecessary bloodshed, on both sides.

Consider also that Jamaat mobilized it’s base in cities all around the country; armed with homemade weapons and explosives they got out on the street to protest the governments moves against their (party) leaders. The police and government sanctioned paramilitary intervened brutally and in the melee, over the course of the last weeks hundreds and more people have died.  A young pro-Shahbagh activist-blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was found murdered, his throat slit a scarf wrapped around the fatal wound. Some sources reported that he was found dismembered.  Many think Jamaat and Shibir activists were behind the crime. Haider’s murder has only further inflamed the Shahbagh movement.

Tit for tat moves against killings on both sides will not end up well. This movement, burgeoning according to some reports near the high hundreds of thousands, could well spin out into massive factional violence. A year out before the next election, both leading parties can’t want that. In fact, the BNP’s weak embrace of Shahbagh for fear of contagion and taint strongly suggests that though it is glad to blame the AL for all its troubles, it too is wary of prolonged bouts of nation-wide civil strife.

Finally, the popular view that Shahbagh is helping—forcing, really—the Awami League turn more secular has been undercut by recent news that the AL put together a standing committee to monitor and move against objectionable comments made about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad on social networking sites. This move cannot jibe with Shahbagh’s call for secularism and indeed, falls within the broad scope of Evangelical Islam that the AL has supported from time to time.  Shahbagh needs to separate itself out from the AL. Its first moves on those terms must be to denounce the Awami League’s reprehensibly repressive moves against Jamaat. It must show itself capable of making its demands on judicial treatment of the rajakars without insisting that all of Jamaat are rajakars.

International forums have been broadly silent on Shahbagh as has been the United States, though it has been watching the politics of Shahbagh unfold. The United States’ silence on Shahbagh may have more to do with the fact that it favors an Awami League government, in league with India’s Congress Party. That the United States still has the death penalty in its books and that as a federal matter it has not abolished capital punishment save the occasions and circumstances where the United States Supreme Court has deemed capital punishment cruel and unusual under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, I submit that the U.S. still has the political and moral weight to argue against Shahbagh’s blood cry. For Gregg v. Georgia showed that the death penalty does not come up against cruel and unusual punishment as long as the verdict of the case at issue and capital sentence are ascertained on different terms. In other words, a guilty verdict need not automatically trigger a sentence death. Of course Shahbagh’s major demand (and perhaps the only one) is that a rajakars’s guilt be allayed only by his death. This division points out not only the ways in which the U.S. can intercede even though it supports capital punishment but also the ways in which Shahbagh has gone wrong.

You don’t need to be a rajakar sympathizer nor a Rightist BNP’er—much less Jamaat—to think that the contents behind Shahbagh’s protests are deeply troubling, though their form might well be admirable. All you need to be is a liberal who tries as consistently as she can to maintain whole sum values that entail the liberty tinged commitments that make up the main meat of freedom and equality under the law. Hold those values tight and you must find that Shahbagh to have started wayward and have gone that way, however much we glow over and sing praises to its form.

The third and final part of this story will be published soon. It will deal with the moral implications of Shahbagh’s demands and will endeavor to put forth some ways that Shahbagh’s energy could be used for more useful, better, ends.





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:

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