Understanding #Shahbagh

Posted on April 20, 2013


Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been watching the political upheavals that are taking place in Bangladesh with close attention. After living in Dhaka, I can remember only too well how easily political instability could send daily life into chaos – closed markets, closed businesses, school exams cancelled and all entry and exit from Dhaka put to a halt for an unknown length of time.


The latest movement has come to be known as Shahbagh, named after the area where the protests first started, and has sparked some of the biggest demonstrations the country has known since its independence. The above picture captures Shahbagh, at the the centre of Dhaka, earlier this year.

The movement began on February 5, when Bangladeshi group the Bloggers and Online Activists Network made a call to occupy Shahbagh and demand capital punishment for Abdul Quader Mollah, a Jamaat-e-Islami political leader who was given a life sentence by the nation’s war crimes tribunal, on counts of mass murder and rape during Bangladesh’s 1971 civil war. The civil war divided the nation between those who wanted to remain part of Pakistan (Bangladesh was East Pakistan after the partition of India) and those who wanted to create an independent state. Tens of thousand of pro-liberation Bengalis were killed during the war, and many fled over the border to India.

Following the initial callout from bloggers, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis – many of them young people – took to the streets in protest. Some of them were calling for capital punishment for war criminals, others were calling for justice more generally.

Weeks later, Bangladesh’s parliament responded to the protests by amending a law that would allow the state to appeal against the life sentence, meaning that Abdul Quader Mollah could still be punished with execution.

Despite the decision, many still remain committed to their public demonstrations. Supporters of Abdul Quader Mollah have also taken to the streets in opposition to the original Shahbagh protesters.

Months from its start, the Shahbagh movement has fractured and protestor’s demands – on both sides – have become more extreme. One protestor – blogger Rajib Haider – was shot dead. More recently, four bloggers were arrested.

Outside of Bangladesh, there is a dearth of news or analysis explaining what is happening and what it means for Bangladesh and outside onlookers. Confused, I asked one of the most eloquent and thoughtful young Bangladeshis I know to answer some of my questions. A blogger herself, she has requested that her responses be kept anonymous. My questions are in italics, and her answers are in green. She stresses that she speaks with just one voice, and that many people would offer different views and explanations to her. But her voice calls for peace, and it’s one I think we should listen to.

What is the Shahbagh movement all about?

The Shahbagh movement started out as a protest demanding proper justice for war criminals. Although the father of the nation, Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, declared general amnesty to all war criminals, the Shahbagh protesters ignored that and were driven by an adrenaline rush to gather together, demanding capital punishment.

What initially appeared to be a united gathering of people around the country demanding ‘justice’, irrespective of social status and religious views, the Shahbagh movement took an unexpected turn with the murder of a protesting blogger Rajib Haider.

The Prime Minister labelled Rajib a Shaheed (martyr of religious/freedom war), but it soon emerged that Rajib had kept a regular blog with words written against Allah and Muhammed PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him). Many argue that the blog was fake and that his murderers created it, but there is not sufficient evidence to determine whether the words Rajib wrote were faux or not.

At this point, the Shagbagh movement clearly broke into two parts – one opposing and the other supporting the movement. In a country like ours, where the literacy rate is low, people tend to be governed by their emotions. Just as thousands supported the bloggers’ call for the Shahbagh movement, likewise, thousands opposed it too.

Given the Prime Minister’s alignment with the cause, the movement also divided into the supporters of her ruling party and the supporters of the opposition, the first supporting and the latter opposing the movement.

Days passed and the Shahbagh gathering turned permanent, making the already traffic-filled life of Dhaka uncontrollable. Rumour has it that a number of poor people are paid to go to Shahbagh everyday. Others say it is all patriotism. I am still undecided!

Everyday earning workers say that the Shahbagh movement is blocking roads and making everyday life miserable – the opposition parties are announcing continuous strikes and then the Shahbagh protesters announce an antidote protest to oppose that.

Really, the people most affected are the poor, students and the sick people. They are suffering a lot, since there are three major hospitals and medical college located right in Shahbagh. They said that had the PM been cautious, she’d have stopped this movement and not encouraged it.

Right now, with the country divided, it is very hard to judge the position of Shahbagh movement.

Why has it attracted so many young people?

We live in a global world. We are all global citizens and in our lives today, the internet plays a vital role. The Shahbagh protest was first called on by a group of online bloggers and activists. They made use of the most popular social networking site in Bangladesh, Facebook, in order to bring in so many young people from around the city, and eventually the country.

Bangladesh is a country that lost over three million people in order to bring freedom to the country. We are emotional and we still cry remembering the freedom war of 1971. The Shahbagh movement was initially called the Freedom War of 2013 of the youth against the war criminals. Thousands joined in this protest in the spirit of the freedom war. To many, the environment, the music, and the slogans – everything seemed to have brought back the days of the ’71 war. Calling it a modern day war encouraged the youth more than anybody else to join in, protest and celebrate the one-ness of being proud Bangladeshis.

The media also brought the protest under the limelight and that acted as an encouragement to gather more and more people.

I don’t support anybody – not the ruling party, not the opposition, not Jamaat-e-Islami. I am taking the time to observe, study and then judge the entire situation in the country instead of going with my emotions. To support myself, I say I am a Bangladeshi Muslim who demands peace more than anything else!

Many supporters of the Shahbagh movement rejoiced with the verdict of a death penalty for Abdul Quader Mollah’s ally and fellow Jamaat-e-Islami party member Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. But we have seen the protests continue. Why is this?

What most people thought was that after Sayeedi’s death verdict, the Shahbagh movement would come to an end. However, it continued further with people asking to ban his political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, among other things. I seriously doubt that in a country with almost 95% Muslims, banning every Islamic organization will ever be possible. People from some communities even started viewing at it as an attempt to banish the religion Islam as a whole from the country.

As for the Shahbagh movement continuing, some say it is still going on since the PM wants to abolish the Jamaat-e-Islami party and is supporting the protesters. On the other side, another organisation – Hefazat-e-Islam  – has emerged and their recent protests have seen five times as many people as Shahbagh did. Hefazat-e-Islam is demanding 13 things, including a request that an Islamic political system be restored to the country. Shahbagh protesters have now made this the reason to continue their protest.

I wonder, though, how a gathering of people demanding justice for war criminals turned into this. It is surprising how one young person can turn a whole country upside-down while a government is still ruling.

Are the accusations that the arrested bloggers are ‘atheists’ true?

A person who is anti-Islam is not necessarily an atheist. Meanwhile, an atheist isn’t necessarily anti-Islam. Those are two different things, even though they are being used as the same accusation at the moment in Bangladesh.

So you can’t certify the bloggers are atheists. We need a different term to define them.

What do you think will happen to the arrested bloggers?

It depends on what the judicial system decides. If all the allegations are proven to be true, then according to the Bangladeshi Penal Code, they shall be punished for talking ill of a religion and its people. If the allegations are not proved, they shall be freed.

What comes next in the Shahbagh movement?

Looking at the current status, I feel that this movement could continue until Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamic organizations are banned from the country. As of today, I think their next curriculum will involve standing up against the 13 demands of Hefazat-e-Islam.

How do these events impact the lives of everyday Bangladeshi people?

The dwellers of Dhaka city are miserable, and those who have to travel for work purposes everyday are in a worse position. Roads are blocked, traffic congestion is terrible and the entire country seems to be in a state of disorder. Dhaka, being the capital city, has all the best educational institutions, financial headquarters including the Central Bank, and the government secretariat located there. So directly or indirectly, each and every person in the country are affected. The strikes and those opposing them are turning the place into havoc. The economy is being affected, so are people’s lives. Some say it is almost a civil war situation in the country. Prices of everyday commodities are sky-high, and with people unable to attend work, income is at an all-time low. The entire outbreak of irregularities has made life miserable for people here in Bangladesh.

Why should the rest of the world be paying attention to what is happening in Bangladesh?

The rest of the world should credit Bangladesh and its people for their courage to continue living after the many drawbacks arising in our everyday lives. We fought and won freedom in 1971, and many suggest that we are now fighting to get rid of war criminals. The movement have successfully demanded that the highest law-makers in the country to change a legal verdict.

Since the government is not taking the necessary initiatives to ensure widespread safety and stability, I think it’s high time that other higher authorities across the globe step in and do something to protect the general people at large. You simply can’t let a country be divided into so many different parts just because it’s too small to identify in the world map! The Shahbagh movement proved that the country has many people who are passionate about working for something better; they just need to be guided with proper approaches. We need people – from here and elsewhere – to step in and help to restore the system and peace in the country.

Posted in: Politics, Writing