Shahbag: the Mire of Past, Present and Future

What’s happening in Shahbag is the most profound phenomenon our generation has experienced. For this post ’71 generation, it is the definitive event that has renewed patriotism and reignited pragmatism. Many have suggested that its ramifications may transcend that of the anti-Ershad movement of 1990 in that it has evolved to take on a broader, more abstract issue: political culture and voice of the people (or lack thereof). Shahbag has also brought about a critical reexamination of our national identity – an examination that goes beyond mere nomenclature and addresses its core beliefs and values.


Projonmo Chottor promises to be story we will reminisce and recount to our children: the days when everything changed. I must recognize that there is a danger in narrating the ‘History of the Present’ in that it only finds true meaning in consummation and Shahbag is far from over.


The Shahbag Movement draws its strength from two key factors: 1) the mass appeal of the capital punishment demand and 2) the overwhelming buy-in of diverse attendees. Firstly, the basic ‘pha(N)shi’ or ‘hanging’ demand, alternatively interpreted as maximum punishment, has widespread appeal as it stems from a national, historical context. The rationality of maximum punishment is unquestioned and appeals to all of us. This is a key, though not highest, common denominator for this movement.

ImageThe second source of power comes from the millions of apolitical, even apathetic, protesters who have been to Shahbag or a version of the Gonojagoron Moncho. These people, along with those who have avidly followed developments online or through traditional news media, have come to feel a sense of ownership or kinship. National media, talkshows, blogosphere, cafeterias and tea-stalls have been abuzz with talks of this true citizen’s movement. This rare feeling of national-unity and solidarity has reinforced people’s endorsement of the movement and its demands. This is, without doubt, Shahbag’s most precious capital.


Over a period of three weeks or so, the nature of Shahbag’s demands have gone from ‘tactical’ to ‘political’ to ‘socio-economic’. This could pose a challenge in finding a common denominator. To illustrate, Shahbag started out with a demand for capital punishment for a war-criminal. It was a focused, one-track and dogged demand that turned into incessant chants and slogans. Despite a suspicious few calling it a ‘call for blood’, it was a plea to rectify historical wrongs and millions could easily identify with the sentiment if not the ‘pha(N)shi’ demand itself. Those first days, there was an inherent humanistic appeal, a rallying cry for a wronged people. There was concerted effort to ensure the demand didn’t become diluted by the introduction of other peripheral issues – and in 4 or 5 days, the objectives of the Shahbag Movement had become shared knowledge across most walks of life.

The demand then evolved to concern itself with a more contemporary issue ‘Jamat-E-Islami’ (JI). A distinct shift from the earlier resolve to not budge from the capital punishment demand, this had clear and present political implications. Regardless of their role in ’71, JI has been bedfellows to both mainstream political parties. Just like their 4% votes can further a coalition – it can also steal votes from, and thereby weaken, an opponent – making this paltry figure quite significant in the mathematics of votes. The new, expanded demand thus had an impact on the current state of affairs. Thus, in the face of a greater demand with immediate consequences, the first Shahbag cynics surfaced. At the same time, there were widespread allegations that the movement had been co-opted by the ruling party. Given that the two main political parties command their own support-bases across Bangladesh, unquestioned public support was bound to suffer when electoral devices were challenged.

In what I will call a third stage of evolution – most recently, the Shahbag Movement sought to ban all religion-based politics. This was a completely new space that, in common perception, had little connection to war-crimes and criminals. Banning religion-based politics is a move that concerns the long-term future of the country. It has multiple complex layers – the least of which has to do with the intensely religious and God-fearing people of the subcontinent. Notwithstanding the importance of the state & religion relationship, the perfect balance between the two has not been reached till this day. While an established state-religion can marginalize minorities, the lack of one has been said to create what is called an amoral state i.e. a state that has no moral mandate. Either way, this ancient debate was never Shahbag’s to solve.

Latter days of the Shahbag Movement have become mired in somewhat whimsical discussions about pros and cons of atheism/religion, last rites for the atheist, boycotting JI affiliated businesses, exposing pseudo-Rajakars, arresting Mahmudur Rahman and addressing every single accusation coming their way. The main demand of ‘maximum punishment for war-criminals’ now seems lost. The thing about mass psychology is that it suffers from Attention Deficiency Disorder. Even if all the issues are valid, opening up all these fronts at the same time could prove a dismal strategy for the movement.


For a short while, Shahbag’s audience was urban youth. But within days, it went viral. I don’t think any other contemporary movement had such a rapid, physical build-up. Soon educated, urban and semi-urban populations had physically attended Shahbag or regional versions of the movement. With the massive, positive online and media-coverage, the movement has now reached global proportions with symbolic protests held in some 17 countries.

As a voice that speaks to so massive an audience, Shahbag has inherited certain responsibilities and requires cautious planning. But the apparent lack of a consistent strategy is slowly raising questions. These questions are about religion vs. patriotism, merits of blogging, JI-BNP, Amar Desh, Islam, secularism, underground extremism, astro-turfing and a host of other topics that have nothing to do with punishment of war-criminals.

This evolution of demand has been interpreted as maturity and direction in leadership; some saw it as frivolous indecisiveness of youth; some claim it’s the gradual politicization of the movement and some say it is the doing of foreign agents. Key contributors to this unwanted confusion are the powerful JI-Shibir propaganda machinery and Shahbag’s 89.5% Muslim audience. Now, for example, when the typical God-fearing layman asks ‘why does Shahbag oppose Islam?’ or ‘if 50% of votes can elect the government, why can’t 90% of the population choose their state religion?’ – it derails our renewed public discourse. And we cannot afford to ignore public perceptions any longer.


As stated earlier, Shahbag is vastly reinforced by its audience: people who could not be there but are at one with the cause. A vast rural population, when reached with the message, is likely to find association and meaning in the demand too. They comprise a vital hinterland of support even if their voices are not heard on social media. There will be increasingly diverse and divergent views as the movement radiates outwards and Shahbag needs a common denominator to rally and unify them.

When undertaking mammoth ventures, the concept of ‘quick-wins’ is quite common. The idea is to set small goals and quickly achieve them. This results in momentum and self-confidence. That, in turn, sets up the stage for spreading the movement and working to completely uproot anti-Liberation elements from our country. Since the Shahbag Movement was started mainly by the urban, educated population – reigning in the remaining silent masses may not be always easy. It would serve the Shahbag leadership well to refocus on the core demand that was picked up by the citizenry in the first place. It would also keep meddlesome politicians away till such time when Shahbag is strong and stable enough to resist political incentives and deterrents.

Shahbag is a social, political and personal movement at the same time. We, who have fallen in love with it, cannot afford to bully our way to the goals. There can be no ‘my way or the highway’ in this movement. This struggle will not be won through force, fear or violence because, in essence, it is a fight against public apathy. And people need to be won over through reason, compassion and tolerance for diversity. We must not forget that, under the surface of immediate demands, the ultimate goal is a change in the way people perceive, regard and interact with the state and its political institutions.


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