By. Mohammad Shahid Ullah

Shahbagh movement is a new concept and milestone in the political history of Bangladesh that began on February 4, 2013. It’s a people’s movement organized by the Bangladesh Online Activist Network (BOAN)-a loose and informal network of youth bloggers, demanding capital punishment of war criminals of 1971, ban Bangladesh Jamat-e-Islami-JI (a communal fundamentalist party) for their collaborative role with Pakistan army in 1971, and also to boycott and ban the economic and media establishments of fundamentalist forces in a view to establishing secular democratic Bangladesh based on Muktijuddher Chetona (spirit liberation war of Bangladesh). They organized biggest rallies in Bangladesh for at least two decades. Every day thousands of new faces are joining those present there and packing the area to its full capacity. Shahbagh has now turned into a national symbol of resistance against evil forces of the past.

The movement–centered around Shahbagh, some renamed as Projonmo Chattar (New Generation Roundabout) is a major intersection in Dhaka city near Dhaka University– the center of the national movement in the history of Bangladesh and very close to Aziz Super Market famous for book shops, T-shirt and meeting point of young intellectuals and artist of Bangladesh.

What caused Shahbagh movement?

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Image courtesy: bdnews.com

The Muktijuddho (Independence Movement) of 1971 is the greatest achievement of Bengali nation till yet. The emotions and aspirations of the common people are centered with Muktijuddho. The freedom fighters and the mass people can’t accept deviation with the spirit of Muktijuddho. The trial of war criminals who collaborated with Pakistani and killed 3 million Bengali and raped 2 lakh women in 1971 was one of the election promises of the present Awami league government. Accordingly, government formed International Crimes tribunal on March 2010 and the first trial began on July 2011. After the war crime trials started in 2010, nine of top leaders of JI were detained on war crimes.

The opposition BNP not only denied the tribunal but strategically raised questions about its transparency and standard; demanded that tribunal should be of international standard and criticizing as politically motivated to save their chief ally JI. On the other hand, JI continued its legal fight and started violent activities in the street; they burned vehicles and carried out sudden attacks on police. They also imposed hartal /bandh (Strike). The violent activities of JI ignited the pro-liberation forces, but they had been waiting peacefully for the trail and court verdict. There was continuous violent confrontation between police and Jamat-Shibir (student wing of JI) activist.

In January 21, 2013 the absconding Abul Kalam Azad alias Bcchu Razakar was given death sentence for six charges related to crimes against humanity and one for genocide, who is reputed to have fled to Pakistan. And thus, the people who had become frustrated by now had been waiting for the verdict on Abdul Qader Mollah. But Mollah was given life imprisonment on 4 Feb. despite having more crime than Bcchu Razakar. It frustrated and ignited the people. People are asking how Bcchu Razakar fled to Pakistan despite having close patrol of law enforcing agencies. There is allegation that it has  happened due to big economic and political deal between Awami league and JI. Mollah showed a V-sign and smiled when he came out of the Court after being handed out the life sentence. His gesture spoke a million words. It was not possible for the youth activist to control their anger. The day was hartal declared by JI. The young people gathered at Shahbagh under the banner of BOAN. The news spread immediately to Dhaka University Halls and left students organizations joined with them. They started agitation, chanted slogan Qader Mollar Fashi Chai (Hang Qader Mollah!) and decided to stay the entire night in Shahbagh square. The news and photos of agitation spread with Face-book through out the world. From the early morning of 5 February thousand of people gather at Shahbagh. It reached its peak on Friday 8 Feb. when 300,000 to 500,000 people gathered at Shahbagh. The people’s gathering was spontaneous from children to aged people. The 90% of protesters are young aged between 20 to 30 years. The freedom fighters, members of martyr of independence movement 1971, artist, poets, media activist, writers, young intellectuals and political activist joined the movement from all over the country.

Reviving the spirit of Liberation war 1971 is the core issue of the movement

For the last couple of years these young online activists are fighting against fundamentalist and communal forces through blog, facebook and twitter. They have frustration about the history, tradition and future of Bangladesh; they are fighting through online for punishment of war criminals and establishment of non-communal democratic Bangladesh.

It is evident from the repeated slogan from Gana Jagaran Mancha ‘Tui Rzakar, Tui Razakar’ targeting the war criminals and also from ‘Tumi Ke Ami Ke –Bangali, Bangali’ against the communal politics based on Hindu and Muslim. They are divided among themselves as liberal and left ideological background. These youth are secular and progressive, imbued with the spirit patriotism, critical, and matured in their position. They are vocal against US imperialism and Indian hegemony and domination, evident in their writings and actions, in the last couple of years. They said repeatedly “We want to purify our past, our history, our society and our state”. They popularized the historic slogan “Joy Bangla”. It was slogan of the country’s independence and the liberation war. But unfortunately, this historic slogan has been made victim of party politics. The Awamileague has been using this slogan as its own property. Protesters have freed the Joy Bangla slogan from narrow politicization.

This movement is distinct in character and different from all the previous movement. These are:

  •  Cause of the movement is structural: The demand of the movement is not to change the regime but to challenge the structure. The cause of the movement is related with structure; the protestors denying the existing political structure and leadership and demanding accountability to state, government and court, challenging the existing party leadership and demanding their accountability. They are challenging not only the one party, questioning existing political system, they are upholding the spirit and values of liberation war, secularism, democratic just society; resisting fundamentalist forces and challenging the political forces those denying and playing game with the spirit of liberation war 1971. They are challenging both ruling and opposition party.
  • Youth in the driving seat of the movement and laptop is their weapon: The 90% of the protestors are youth aged between 20-30 years, identifying themselves as new generation freedom fighters grown up since 1990. They are well educated both in Bengali and English medium; unlike the previous generation who were subject to biased propaganda, this generation had more access to information and freedom to share it and to ascertain the facts from the different points of view. This was misunderstood by the old generation as they blame the new generation as computer and face book addicted. Secular Bangladesh is in their heart; they hate fundamentalism and communalism. The weapons of the 1st generation freedom fighters were Rifle, Pistol and Stan-gun. Laptop and modem is the weapon of this new generation freedom fighters. They criticize others, debate among themselves through posting and comments. They are exercising creative and intellectual activities.
  • Non-party platform and political party leaders are denied to speak: Organized protests and movements, common in Dhaka, are often coordinated and organized by political parties. But the Shahbagh movement was organized by the youth bloggers and has attracted poets, artists, social activists, media activist and people from all the professional groups. The organizers have refused to allow political leaders to take stage and speak in the Gana Jagaran Mancha, leaders can only express solidarity. The top leaders of the ruling party Awami league were denied to speak and the opposition party leaders (aligned with fundamentalist forces) are confused what to do; expressing contradictory views about Shahbagh Youth Spring. They left parties supporting and facilitating the movement continuously as required.
  • Decentralized and Participatory Process: There is no central stage or control on how to express resistance. From the Gana Jagaran Manach, organizers of BOAN are leading slogans and notices. Beyond these, individuals and organizations are performing according to their own plan. Beyond the Gana Jagaran Mancha, individuals, group, organizations singing, shouting, showing posters making different circles. The circles are live, performing or shouting slogans continuously. There are hundreds of institutions, organizations, professional groups, trade union bodies, school and college students are performing according to their own plan and design.  The movement spread all over the world and all over the country, district and upazila and there is no central coordination and direction. The Shahbagh movement has no formal leadership structure. There is no central body that dictates daily schedules and programmes or gives out policy directions. They informally discuss what requires to be done to bring the message to the people at large. They coordinate their thoughts and ideas among themselves and before the end of the day reach consensus about what should follow tomorrow.
  • Non-violence means: The protesters are using creative non-violent means. These are: Oath taking, 3-minute silence to remember the 3 million martyred, which brought the whole country to a halt, candle lighting which illuminated cities and villages around the country.The food and water served to this huge crowd are donations given voluntarily by individuals and organizations. The corrupt business houses, land grabbers also took opportunity and distributed food and water.
  • Women participation: Another important thing is the prevalence and visibility of women, from the girl child to expectant mothers, from college graduates to professionals, no one seems to be missing out. They frequently take the microphone and leading slogans, the name of Lucky Akhter has been reported in the news paper as Agni Konna for her leading role in the movement. They are Shouting slogans, listening to speeches, singing and dramatizing history of that time they have kept the focus of the world on Shahbagh.

 What is next?

It is too early and risky to assess the movement. The movement achieved its primary objectives. It gave clear message to the ruling party that people will not accept any political game regarding the punishment of war criminals, and also gave moral support to government in order to avoid international pressure against the trail. Government capitalized the movement and started campaign aligned with the Shahbagh movement. Following the movement, the parliament on 17 Feb. brought an amendment to the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) law empowering the war crimes tribunals to try and punish any organizations, including Jamaat-e-Islami, for committing crimes during country’s liberation war of 1971. Undoubtedly this is a significance achievement of the movement. The significant amendment was brought during the passage of the much-talked-about bill which also brought some other changes to International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 to allow the government and informants and complaints to appeal against any verdict of the war crimes tribunals.

Opposition party, BNP is in crisis, the leaders of BNP providing contradictory and confusing statements about the movement as war criminals are their ally. Strategically they welcomed the movement as huge number of voters are youth, they can’t avoid it. Due to movement, opposition party changed its strategy, have declared program independently without JI, but blaming the government for capitalizing the Shahbagh movement. The fundamentalist force, JI are in pressure, people resisting them and boycotting their media in some areas. The left party continuously supported and facilitated the movement; it’s a great lesson for the left parties, have to chalk out how to bridge with the online activist. For substantive achievement, the protesters have to strengthen their organizational capacity and rational strategic planning.

What is next? What is the road map of the movement?

Ruling Awamileague supported this movement as it gave them breathing space against the ongoing campaign of opposition alliance on different issues including price hike, Padma bridge corruption, share market corruption and hallmark corruption. This is final year of government; have to arrange election within this year. Opposition party is doing movement for fair election under caretaker government, government firmly denying this demand. This issue is unsettled and common people are in fear about the future of democracy in Bangladesh. Government will tolerate the Shahbagh movement at that level when it will not go against their interest. The organizers say it is people’s movement and people will decide about the roadmap. The contesting political parties will take position considering the next election. Undoubtedly the movement will have positive effect on democratic development of Bangladesh.

(NOTE: The editor of this article is independent researcher and political analyst based in Bangladesh. All the opinions and conclusions drawn in the article are the personal views of the author. For any clarifications, you can write to the admin of this site, who thereon shall pass it on to the author of this article.)