Different from the Shahbagh movement of 2013, which was only concerned about historical reconciliation, the new movements of today are speaking of current problems, like tuition fees, quota reservations, and road safety. This is an excerpt from the book Not All Springs End Winter
Growing up in the country of slogans and marches, I was always fascinated by the power of movements in changing the course of history. Reading the history of the nation, I often could not but interpret our history as one that has been built on the back of social movements. The 1952 movement for language gave birth to the sense of cultural pride, which gave birth to the cause of autonomy and freedom, that culminated into the ousting of Ayub Khan through the mass uprising in 1969 and created the ground for the Awami League’s landslide victory in the 1970 elections, an event that was pivotal for the birth of Bangladesh through the sanguinary War of 1971.
The movement for democracy in 1990 helped us return to democracy, at least in its electoral form, after decades of dictatorial governance.
Being born after the 1990 movement, I was deprived of participating in or observing any of the historical movements that somewhat contributed to creating a greater space for democracy and justice. The first movement that I got the fortune of encountering was the Shahbagh movement of 2013 that arose from the demands of hanging the war criminals of 1971.
When the Shahbagh movement first emerged in the landscape of Bangladeshi history, I was a mere teenager -- 15 years of age. And like most of my classmates, I was taking my Secondary School Certificate examinations.
This meant that my television privileges were limited and I was not allowed to go out of the home much, even less so to join a movement. But being a precocious politico, I sneaked out of home one day and went to the Jamal Khan square in Chittagong, which was the de facto Shahbagh square of my hometown. The whole street was blocked from end-to-end and on the streets were boys and girls, many my own age, chanting slogans at the top of their lungs.
Quickly, I picked up some of the slogans and started chanting with the groups. I bought a Bangladeshi flag, being sold on the street by opportunistic vendors, and tied it on my forehead to get into the uniform of those I believed to be the new freedom fighters.
In unison with my comrades, I chanted: “Phashi, phashi, phashi chai, rajakarer phashi chai.” I never knew, at that age, of the ethical dilemma surrounding the death penalty or the problems of defining justice into one specific punishment, and neither did many of the participants -- nor did they care.
I also remember chanting this catchy slogan: “Who are you, who am I? Bangali, Bangali. Hindu, or Muslim? Bangali, Bangali. Buddhist, or Christian? Bangali, Bangali.”
Little did I notice or care that these slogans had dangerous majoritarian undertones. In fact, many of the students gathered on the streets were often not Bangali, they were paharis. Even though the slogan was later amended to accommodate paharis, the majoritarian tone had been set and non-linguistic identities were already excluded.
Many, like some of my closest friends, more closely identified with their religious affiliation than their ethnic identity. However, in the spur of the moment and in the spirit of killing the public enemies, we chanted the problematic slogans without even giving a second thought to the wish for a death penalty or the exclusion of those who do not exactly fit the cultural narrative of the perceived majority. That was my first experience of losing my voice in the crowd, as Le Bon claimed.
I still don’t know if I was a part of a mob or a revolution on that specific day. I still don’t know what my crowd would have done with Quader Mullah -- the war criminal whose non-capital punishment inspired the movement in the first place -- if he was indeed brought to the Shahbagh Square or the Jamal Khan turnaround for a quick tea, as some of the protesters mockingly demanded.
Would my own crowd jump in to beat that man to death? Would I have taken part in that extra-judicial killing? I do not know. Maybe the joke was simply a joke, and maybe it wasn’t. I truly do not know. I just know that I felt invincible and dangerously powerful in that space, chanting those slogans.
I knew that Shahbagh, in its origin at least, was born out of the frustration with the establishment and with the hope of creating a new sort of politics. Many of my own generations joined the movement with the hopes of change. The movement drew upon the independents the most -- as the surveys and interviews for my book reveal -- both the religious and the secular.
But it did not become so. It boiled down to a single issue, demanding negotiation. It fell prey to faulty framing, broke itself from the traditions and methods of youth movements in the country, and lost public support due to a perceived co-optation. A counter-movement arose from the Islamist civil society, taking advantage of the faulty framings, and branded Shahbagh as anti-Islam.
The Islamist civil society, through the counter-movement, reestablished itself as a strong lobbying force and diminished the influence of the secularist civil society on the regime.
Because of the new model of youth movements introduced by Shahbagh, one that is specifically different from the earlier movements in terms of language and attitude, the new movements had a tendency of boiling down to single-issue demand negotiations and appeasement of the regime, in opposition to being at direct loggerheads with it.
However, some of these trends are reversing and new organizations and unions are rising, giving hope to the idea of a new third force that can establish justice, liberty, rights, and reform in the country. A third force for justice, liberty, rights, and reform is rising from the leadership and the participants of the new movements: No VAT on education, quota reform movement, and the road safety movement.
The No VAT movement, the quota reformation movement, and the safe streets movement have all been somewhat successful in achieving their single-issue demand. The no VAT movement unequivocally achieved their demand by the repealing of the VAT on private university tuitions. A very strong movement that took shape in a very short period, the No VAT movement did not get a chance to morph into demands other than its original single-issue, but the attackers on the protests were never brought to justice.
The quota reformation movement was partially successful. The demand for reforming the quota was not met, the quota was abolished altogether. The movement reached such a point of coordination and consolidated resistance that it was impossible to quash or co-opt, so the regime decided to meet its demand in a way that would portray it as a majoritarian patriarchal uneducated illiberal group, a project that was aided to by the pro-regime intellectuals, media personalities, and activists.
However, the organization behind the movement, the Parishad, was strong on their point that their demand was never abolition. They maintained that some reservation was necessary.
The road safety movement achieved most of its initial demands if we accept the nine points published in the papers as its official set of demands. The owner of the bus line that was responsible for the death of the initial victims was arrested on August 1, 2018, and was put on a seven-day remand for questioning. The drivers and assistants of the buses involved were also arrested and some were eventually given punishments of life imprisonment recently, although the students demanded capital punishment. However, Shahdat Hossain, an owner of the Jabal-e-Noor bus line, responsible for the deaths, was acquitted. The law was later amended to include the provision of capital punishment for special cases, and fines and punishments for other violations have also been sharply raised.
The Minister Shahjahan Khan, who made the comment which enraged the students, later apologized and was removed from the cabinet long after the movement was over, even though this was never specified as the cause. The protesters initially wanted an immediate resignation, but he was removed peacefully with honour, without cause, silently, and was later restored in the Awami League’s central committee.
Some reforms to the roads systems were made, some speed breakers and over bridges were built, but they were not enough. Also, the attackers of the students were never prosecuted, even though the attackers were specifically identified as members of the BCL by major news sources.
It would be difficult to declare the success or the failure of new movements, as not much time has passed since the movements reached their peaks, and the results are still unfolding. One could argue that the movements are still ongoing as the organizations of the quota reform movement, the Parishad, are still quite formidable, working on the core spirit of the quota reform movement, the crisis of unemployment, and the exasperation of the youth with the economy and an overall frustration with the state of the country.
Private University Student Association of Bangladesh (PUSAB) and other independent student organizations spurred from the No VAT movement, still seem to have some influence in the private university sphere.
Many of the leaders of the No VAT, quota movement, and road safety movement either got absorbed in leftist student organizations or erected independent student organizations, like the Swatantra Jote, all of which are working for the welfare of the students and the society from various aspects and various methods, some more effectively than the others.
From these new organizations, a new coalition, however reluctant, may be forming for a coordinated movement against terror, if not anything else. But would this loose coalition hold?
One of the greatest hindrances towards that reality is the division among the young activists. There has always been a left and right divide between the youth political organizations of Bangladesh.
The Shahbagh narrative has widened the gap between the left and the right by condemning the right-wing as a force against the liberation. By demanding the ban on religion-based politics, they have alienated much of the religious politicos from the liberal movement, who have, in response, declared liberals as “immoral” and “deplorable.”
This is a gap that has existed for a long time in Bangladesh and the seeming irreconcilability of the progressives and the Islamists has been a problem since independence. However, I would argue that Shahbagh had something to do with making the problem worse, especially among the youth.
This new third force probably sees the world differently than the old independents of Shahbagh. Because most of them matured when Shahbagh happened, and felt betrayed by it -- or took it as a successful reconciliation of the past, and continuously saw the tropes of razakar and spirit of the Liberation War being used as tools of repression -- they became increasingly disillusioned from the whole politics of the narrative of pro and anti-liberation forces.
Rather, the new movements focused on the concerns of today, and that is exactly why they are becoming successful and drawing people from both the left and the right. These new movements are not swayed by the claims that they are anti-liberation or controlled by nefarious forces. These movements centre around basic constructive claims of justice, liberty, rights, and reform.
This is very dangerous for the ruling regime. This is why they have formed a smear campaign for those who join these rights-based movements. They are “Bamati,” an amalgam of the left and Jamaat. However, this model is exactly the AL’s worst nightmare. If truly the left and the right come together against injustice and builds up a coordinated movement (forget the radicals. Most centrists would not make the fringe group an ally, and they don’t have to), in just a centre-right-centre-left coalition, it would be very hard for the regime to continue its reign.
There is a continuous threat from the regime apologists to spook people who try and form a coalition by the spectre of BNP-Jamaat. At the same time, there are people from BNP-Jamaat who actually want to use this opportunity to increase their popularity or co-opt the movements.
The new movement leaders are, at the same time, often tempted by the ruling regime. So there is a continuous concerted effort to subvert or co-opt the new third force that is on the rise. At the same time, the movements are, by nature, popular and therefore, they have to use populist rhetoric to hold their popular support.
However, this populist rhetoric can be liberal or illiberal. Their rhetoric so far has been somewhat liberal from the leadership level, but there are always some caveats. There are always individual activists of the movements who don’t exactly hold liberal values. Maybe, they consciously make illiberal statements to hold the popularity of the less liberal sections of the society, or maybe they are just not aware of their own illiberalism. However, this is not an irreconcilable problem.
The activists are being purified through the struggle. They are being influenced from within and out by various liberal groups. A lot of different organizations are coming together and influencing each other. As no specific structural design has yet emerged, even though the groups have been trying to publish a constitution and structure for a while now, it is possible that this influence will still move to an illiberal direction, but it may move to a liberal direction as well.
The more the liberal forces join into the newly forming coalition, the more chances there are for the force of the future to be liberal.
That whether a liberal force awakes and forms a coalition like the historical movements and fights against injustice and oppression under a multi-party confederacy, union or alliance, is what the country waits to see. That whether structural demands of justice, liberty, rights, and reform, raised by the powerful new movements, remain at the forefront is a question for history.
But some of us should not just wait for history to pan out. Some of us must also act.
And if we do, effectively, forcefully, emphatically, and most importantly, methodically, there is no doubt that better days await us.
Sunrise is inevitable.
Anupam Debashis Roy is an editor and organizer of Muktiforum. His book Not All Springs End Winter is available both in English and Bangla at the Boi Mela (Adarsha, stall 421), Rokomari, and Amazon Kindle (English only).