What brings me to Shahbag, what pulls me back from it


When the Shahbag protest started, the spirit of the movement and the unity with which people gathered made me feel something extraordinary. I personally do not support death penalty, but like many, I was disappointed when the Kader Mollah aka the Butcher of Mirpur did not get the supreme punishment according to the law – fasi (death sentence). Many human rights activists who have worked with international processes of human rights would not openly support the death penalty. Research studies have shown that the death penalty does not prove to be a deterrent to rape or murder. However, if Kader Mollah were to be hanged, I do not think the activists would start a movement against it.

We must recognize the other dimensions of the Shahbag movement, the dimension other than the demand of capital punishment. Although Shahbag is not the first protest I went to, it is in a way extraordinary. Because it is for the first time in the last four decades, a huge number of apolitical people have come together to challenge something that did not feel right. This gave immense hope to people for change, for ending the culture of impunity and demanding accountability from the bodies that are responsible for implementing our laws.

The first time I visited Shahbag, I was disturbed by a few slogans, such as, “Tumi key, ami key – Bangali, Bangali” (“Who are you, who am I – Bangali, Bangali”). I love the first part of the slogan “Tomar amar thikana, Padma Meghna Jamuna” (Your address and my address, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna – referring to the largest rivers of Bangladesh), but not being a Bengali, I am unable to chant the second half of the slogan. As an advocate of the rights of the indigenous (Adivasi) peoples of Bangladesh it is impossible not to be bothered by this slogan. When a Shahbag supporter put on this slogan on her Facebook status, I told her this slogan is not inclusive of Adivasis and it should instead say “Bangladeshi” or “Adivasi o Bangali”. Her justification was – Shahbag has ‘redefined’ the term “Bangali” which intends to include everyone, and that the movement consisted of mostly Bangalis so it is okay to chant it. I know for a fact this is precisely what the Adivasis do not want – to be recognized under the identity of Bengali. But the Adivasis wanted justice for the war crimes.

Therefore, a group of Adivasis and Bengalis that support Adivasi rights went to Shahbag to express their solidarity seeking justice for genocides in ’71 and later, chanted “Tumi key, ami key – Adivasi o Bangali”, “Tumi key, ami key – Chakma, Hajong, Bangali” Apart from a few comments from behind “Look the adivasi rajakars are here” or “Chakma, Chakma!”, the solidarity speech and slogans by Adivasis were well received by the Bengali dominated crowd – probably for the first time in the history. This reflects a positive shift in our national mindsets and for this I would go to Shahbag again. I believe we can only build a secular Bangladesh, if we become more tolerant towards our religious and ethnic minorities.

The most disturbing slogan probably was “Ekta duita shibir dhor, dhoira dhoira jobai kor” (catch one or two Shibir supporters, and slaughter them one by one). I loathe Jaamat/Shibir and can bet that if in power, their first targets would be the intellectuals (they have already published a target list of bloggers/leaders of the Shahbag protest) and the non-Muslim women. Still this slogan does not come from my heart. I do not wish to chant it.

I am a strong believer of justice for the war crimes of ‘71. My own grandfather, who served in the police at the time, fought for the liberation war. My father’s family had to leave home and flee to India during the wartime in order to survive. My cousin’s grandfather, Khagendra Lal Chakma, was a martyr whose body was never found. His wife still thinks he will come back some day. There are numerous stories of families like this. We, the Bangladeshis desperately want a closure for all the wrong doings of 1971 and move on.

Adivasis at Shahbagh, © Abul Kalam Azad
Adivasis at Shahbagh, © Abul Kalam Azad

Yet, the Shahbag environment did not inspire me to drop everything at hand and go there physically every day unlike some. At least a few women I personally know were harassed in the crowd. When one of them mentioned it on Facebook she was told to remain silent for ‘the sake of the nation’ and that she should look beyond this and focus on the greater good. The other one, who along with her two sisters were mass-groped at the rally, decided herself not to mention it in public, as word on the street said that Jamaat was spreading such rumours about Shahbag, and she did not want to prove that to be true. But she was devastated. Another one said she expected to be harassed in such a large crowd and did not dare go alone. As a feminist, I do not believe in remaining quiet about sexual harassment, be it for the sake of the family’s honour or to protect a movement. Hence, it made sense not to put myself in the situation of possibly being groped.

Meanwhile, I have been monitoring the cyber space closely from where all this started, including the Facebook, Twitter and blogs of the bloggers who are leading this movement. What concerns me is that people seem to be dividing up into several groups based on their ethical, political and religious beliefs. A large number of the Shahbag supporters have been quite intolerant to anyone who voiced any opinions – whether about the legitimacy of capital punishment, or the banning of Jamaat, or about including other issues in the demands. Many of these opinions are not necessarily undermining this movement; rather they could pave ways for larger participation and unity. These beliefs come from their own fundamentals and their vision of nation that they want.

I do not know a single person in my network who would discourage anyone to go to Shahbag, yet Facebook/Twitter is suddenly littered with derogatory terms like “chagu” (goat – usually refers to the Jammat/Shibir supporters) or “rajakers” (traitor) aimed at anyone who does not blindly follow the Shahbag opinion as if this is a competition for showing one’s patriotism for the country. This attitude is alienating a large group people who are possibly on the same side. What people seem to be forgetting is, voicing opinions is our democratic right, but calling people names and silencing people’s voices for glorifying a movement is insensitive and reflects lack of tolerance and ability to unite people. In many ways, it seems contradictory to what the Shahbag movement claims to be fighting for – a secular, tolerant, open-minded new Bangladesh.

In the last few weeks, the focus of the movement has shifted from death penalty of Rajakars to justice for war crimes to secularism (the 15th amendment of the constitution of Bangladesh in 2011 that declared Islam as the state religion, contradicting the notion of secularism) and recently banning Jamaat-e-Islami (a religious political party). It is possible that there are people who agree to all of these, agree to some or agree to none. But most people, and almost anyone who has supported and/or criticized this movement, are compatriots in this movement. I have seen this movement give hope for a better Bangladesh to people who have been saying they hated this country and wanted to move elsewhere and/or people who have never bothered to vote. Anyone against religious fundamentalism would never want to see this momentum slowly fade away but rather, want to see this pave ways for a new direction for uniting people.

It is great that so many people have come out on the streets, and I wholeheartedly salute the spirit of the people who are protesting at Shahbag day after day. In order to get greater momentum from this movement and to inspire more people to join it, the goals need to be set towards issues that affect the majority of the population more directly. Not issues that will further divide up the people. We need Shahbag to be the space it claims to be – where anyone and everyone is allowed to voice their opinions, be it about religion, or ethnicity, or the laws of our state. I know of quite a few supporters of Shahbag, who went there everyday during the first week, came home energized and inspired its possibilities. By the second week, they stopped believing in it. Do we not want to know why?

Shahbag has immense possibilities. It needs to rise and take into consideration people’s thoughts, hopes, and opinions and convince them to build a unified movement. Disrespecting or undermining people for not agreeing to everything is not going to strengthen it.

We should also note that our history since 1971 has been severely distorted by our political parties, and we need to be careful of not giving into the political propagandas. The youth of today has not seen military oppression (apart from the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts), and Shahbag movement has been a fairly comfortable protest compared to some other protests we have seen, where instead of providing protection, our security forces have thrown tear-gas, pepper-spray and charged batons at the public for protesting. We must not undermine those smaller movements but rather take lessons from them.

Last Thursday, after looking for almost an hour, I finally found a CNG that agreed to go to Shahbag with double the price. As I was heading there, I asked the CNG driver why one of them wanted to drive to Shahbag. He said the traffic created by blocking Shahbag in the area reduced his daily income. He thought Shahbag crowd did not have to worry about food, that’s why they can sit there day after day, demanding death penalty. Unlike them, he had to struggle to survive. He said, “Afa, traffic jam niya, goriber obostha niya apnera kisu bolenna keno, khali bolen fasi chai, fasi chai”. (Madam, why don’t you say something about the traffic jam problem or the status of the poor people, all you ask for is death penalty.)

This makes me think – ’71 has been the emotional trigger to bring together Bangladesh today, but is it enough to sustain the Shahbag movement? Will hanging the Rajakars or banning a political party change our lives today? Should we not demand for a new direction, question our decades of dysfunctional political system so we can indeed become a truly independent nation?

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