Foreign Policy Blogs

Shahbagh: Justice as Politics Against Truth


This is the third in a 3-part series on Shahbagh, its history, its politics and the normative views it captures (and fails to capture).

What recommends the Shahbagh movement for any praise whatsoever? Mainly that it registers in form the demands for justice for those killed during the Liberation War against Pakistan in `1971; justice for the murdered and raped. Even if, like me, you think the Shahbagh movement really calls for a re-examination of justice for crimes committed and seemingly gone long ago, this turn toward the publicity of, for, justice is a good turn; maybe, the only good turn in the gathering storm to come later this year. Its consequences remain to be examined. So here we are.

Proponents have tagged Shahbagh as something as a return to Zion moment for secularism and nationalism (of the proper kind, the kind that won Independence in 1971) in Bangladesh.  That Shahbagh is a peoples’ movement, a demand that the people, united in some non-trivial sense, finally be heard. Indeed, not only is Shahbagh tagged as all this, it is seen as a particular manifestation of the deferred desires and political interests for secularism and what I’ll call “liberal’ nationalism in Bangladesh.  That it is seen as a manifestation of all this is precisely the problem: Shahbagh is at best a promise of a range of desirable values; it is a not a manifestation of those values.

I propose that Bangladeshi nationalism is best defined as a liberal nationalism because it was constructed as a foil against colonial and later neo-imperial tyranny. It functioned and grew through the call to unity under the aegis of freedom and liberty for all within the borders of the demanded Bengali nation-state. (That the same Bengali nation state has turned minority populations into the neglected–and often persecuted– Other is only one of the problems that confronts those who try to reconcile Bengali, Bangladeshi values with Bangladeshi political action.)  Bangladeshi nationalism was devised as a rather egalitarian liberal enterprise that sought independence from Pakistan and devised a range of schemes to construct a community to that end. The content of that enterprise broadly mirrored the American Revolution: a people were being governed without their outright consent; then-East Bengal was a majority population that was denied majority leadership of Pakistan in the 1970 election.  The moral victory of that enterprise lay precisely in the fact that it was a broadly liberal concern that allowed different groups to fit their interests into the overarching cause of liberation from West Bengal.

The Shahbagh crowd and their mantra  now demands the dismemberment of Jamaat’s voice from the vox populi. Now, Shahbagh points out that the alleged rajakars (collaborators with the Pakistan military in 1971) eventually became the leaders of Jamaat in Bangladesh and, moreover, that, Jamaat initially led the counter-independence strategy against Bengali nationalism, as I’ve defined. That all accepted, at most, justice is served only when the alleged collaborators are brought to justice and their crimes read off and assessed against given procedures by which verdicts can be announced and then sentences given.  Shahbagh’s demands go well past that: it demands a wholesale destruction of Jamaat as a political vehicle for the political interests of millions of people. Like it or not  (and I don’t like it; I am a secularist, agnostic liberal who nevertheless is deeply disturbed by Shahbagh’s demands) those millions of people do not deserve to be silenced. To that end, Shahbagh’s demands are not morally legitimate.

More immediately, Shahbagh demands the death of any and all convicted as rajakars (again, collaborators). This is tantamount to the demand that the court deliver a sentence along with the verdict for the crimes in question. That is the sign and deliverance, sealed, of tyranny. For it assumes that one’s punishment for a crime simply is tantamount to being guilty of that crime. To be deemed an adulterer is then (automatically) to be stoned to death. And, here, we might do well to think whether legal doctrine has superseded Biblical narratives of justice. And there’s the simple argument that Bangladeshi nationalism was cut from a liberal cloth and liberalism is not consistent with the death penalty. No matter how agog we are that tens of thousands demand the penalty in one ringing, clear voice.

And, anyway, we know that the International Criminal Tribunal is, was, beset with such malfeasance that the whole process is tainted with the fishy smell of parliamentary politics in Bangladesh.

To the view that Shahbagh embodies “people power” and that, as these things must be, is an unalloyed good, let’s not forget that lynchmobs in small towns and large cities are also the manifestation of people power. The “peoples” swaying moves in unison doesn’t imply that the body politic is moving in the right direction.

The best that Shahbagh can do, the promise that it’s strength in numbers is a value, is to demand that justice be done for the raped and killed. And more than 40 years out that can only mean a truth and reconciliation commission. Let the story of the past be told and let judgment be made. Let’s not run justice and politics together to get death and only death.

I wonder: Is it the case that the youth of Bangladesh want a country where you just kill off your political enemies, no matter the judgment dealt by– yes, yes, corrupt– state institutions? For that’s what, finally, their demands sound like. . At best, if you give the different youth(s) groups their due, it seems what they want will wind up with something like a perpetual “1971” memorial. Now, that’s not a bad thing but it seems odd that a future oriented movement should be so enraptured by the past. At worst this is a public mob bent on death.

(Photo credit: Zahidul Salim, Copyright: Demotix)



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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