Sunday, April 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

How Shahbagh lost the plot

Update : 22 Apr 2013, 07:05 AM

A week is a long time in politics. In light of this, three months on, it should not be too early to push emotions aside and do a critical analysis of the Shahbagh Gonojagoron Mancha, more casually referred to as “Shahbagh.”

Shahbagh started during early February 2013, following the sentence issued by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of life imprisonment to QuaderMollah. Instant reactions, without any legal analysis of the merits of the judgment, were provided to live television cameras claiming that the judgment was too lenient.

Views were expressed and allegations were made that the ICT had, in some way, taken into account the threats of civil war issued by some Islamist groups opposed to the trials. To add fuel to the fire, certain leftist politicians started alluding to the judgment as being the result of collusion between the ruling Awami League and the Jamaat-e-Islam, two parties which, in actuality, are ideological arch-enemies.

When a small group of young bloggers and activists started gathering at Shahbag, it was portrayed by the media as being a remarkable reawakening of the people of Bangladesh. These were young people who knew the real history of Bangladesh, and not just the revisionist history fed by successive military and quasi-military regimes. These young patriots had a very simple demand that struck a chord with a vast majority of the nation: the maximum penalty for a person who had been convicted.

Thanks to the television channels, press, and social media, the size of the gathering increased from a handful to literally everyone with a conscience who could manage to get to the intersection. Even the honourable prime minister declared on the floor of the parliament that her heart lay with the movement.

Three months on, with their immense support fizzling out, we are forced to ask how Shahbagh lost the plot. Despite the initial euphoria, as time went on, citizens started getting annoyed with the traffic congestion that was being caused by blocking one of the main conduits of an already overcrowded city.

People started to complain about the insensitivity of holding 24-hour vigils complete with chanting right next to some major hospitals. The movement as a whole was oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of the international community was, in principle, opposed to the death penalty, which constituted their only demand at one point in time. They failed to appreciate the sensitivities of the non-Bengali tribal people by chanting Bengali nationalistic slogans.

They may have been naïve to think they would not provide ammunition to those who wished to portray them as anti-Muslim by sitting around flower decorations with candle lights in a manner strikingly similar to some Hindu rituals. The support showed by the Indian government and media did not help either.

What started as a simple call for justice turned out to become a more complex demand for banning the fourth largest political party in Bangladesh.

Within weeks, the illusion of grandeur got to the leaders at Shahbagh, and they claimed that they were more powerful than the government, because, apparently, the movement truly represented the people. This was a bold contention made by a non-political gathering, whose members had never tested their popularity by running for public office.

Shahbagh got overconfident. Its biggest failure was its inability to respect the power, organisation, financial clout, and ability of its key opponents, the Islamist extremists. They failed to counter the propaganda against them orchestrated by these groups. This, other than any other factor, led to its decline and alienation. All good things must come to an end.

Unfortunately for Shahbagh, it did not have and still does not have an end game plan.

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