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Dhaka Tribune

Shahbagh: Three months later

Update : 26 Apr 2013, 07:21 PM

Three months into the Shahbagh movement, we are in somewhat better position to perhaps ask - why all the fuss. The late night political commentators and non resident bloggers are out in full force analysing the strategic blunders committed by its leaders. I will leave it to them to write the premature obituaries. But let me ask if it was all worth it.

Much has been said about it’s tangible achievements - stopping a potential electoral year compromise, providing much needed public support for the movement and changing the law around the appeal process of the verdict.

However, it is the intangible achievements that got little attention from the armchair analysts. For two weeks, the nation was transfixed, focusing on a mass uprising trying to give sense to an inexplicable phenomenon. What made throngs of people go there during those heady days of February? Who are these people? Why were they doing this? Anthropologists will have a field day researching these in the coming weeks and months. But if my anecdotal interviews are any evidence, Shahbag has already done a lot more for generations than we are giving credit for.

During the heady days of February, one of my co-workers who spent most of his life mobilising for Udichi told me, “It seems like years of my work have not gone in vain. I go there every day and just sit there, sing and chant slogans.” Another junior university graduate who fixes my computer explained his daily ritual. He got out of work, went straight to Shahbagh and stayed the entire night before going home to have breakfast and head back to work.

He continued that for two weeks. I asked him why all this trouble. “My father and his four brothers are freedom fighters. I heard their stories growing up and I can’t be anywhere else,” he said. For an entire generation who were not part of the democracy movement in the 90s, this was the first big cause which was larger than their own selves and they loved being part of this bigger story.

There are many, many individual stories like these that have emerged which highlighted that Shahbagh worked as catharsis for a lot of people looking for closure. And what about those who couldn’t go to Shahbagh? Some arranged local gatherings and most were transfixed by the television. This was the first major event that was transmitted live on 24 hour news channels. Let’s not underestimate that power. The ratings of those channels went through the roof as almost every one was talking about Kader Mollah, Rajakars, 1971 and our role during that period.

The five year old asked her parents who Kader Mollah was and what was all the fuss about. The parents then told them the story of 1971. An entire new generation was taught through oral history about our proud heritage and the fighting history of saying no to injustice. For the first time ever all of these were done from a platform which was not related to Awami League or BNP. After 40 years, the shaky narrative of 1971 was firmly established through popular discourse beyond partisan politics.

So in essence, Shahbagh worked, dare I say it, as a national therapy session for a lot of us. It made sense and people felt vindicated. It made talking about politics relevant for young people.

Shahbagh played the role of a natural story teller for an entire new generation who learnt to be proud about a past which they thought only had partisan colours. Instead of partisan colours, they decorated Shahbagh with such beauty and vigour that that in itself became another story - Shahbagh and the artistic and poetic expression around the movement.

Was it an urban, middle-class phenomenon? Perhaps. But starting from the 90s movement going back all the way to the mass uprising of 69, which one didn’t start in the urban space? So three months down the road another question that is now being asked repeatedly: Can Shahbagh’s magic be recreated?

It will be very hard to recreate Shahbagh again with that same level of intensity. The innocence is now gone and mired with political cajoling and the strategic blunder of not stopping when it was due, the unanimity of Shahbag is perhaps now gone. But let’s not make any mistake. Shahbagh has done more than its fair share.

Those of us who projected our years of unfulfilled wishful thinking at Shahbagh are perhaps disappointed that it couldn’t be bigger than it was. I say that’s not Shahbagh’s problem, but yours. Shahbag was just proof of concept; it never wanted to be an alternative political force. It demonstrated a good preview of what’s possible in the future. It has given us hope that in this age of materialism, people are still willing to stick their necks out and stand up to be counted.

The pride, the joy that we saw among the younger generation at Shahbagh is something that is rarely visible in this country and there is a lot to be said about that.

So Shahbagh may not be recreated again but it has laid the ground of a much more organised political movement around real issues. As our citizens’ news consumption habit changes rapidly (there are more Facebook subscribers than newspaper subscribers in the country now), the level of political awareness is unprecedented. Contrary to popular belief, change will not happen in social media but it may happen through powerful combination of online mobilisation with a strong offline presence.

The arrest of the bloggers for short term political expediency is a crude reminder that there is no alternative to organised mobilisations outside the clutches of the parties. In that context, Shahbagh should be a tectonic shift in our political landscape.

Even though, in public, a mass disowning of Shahbagh is happening now, but in the private sphere, political parties ignore this voice to its peril. The slogans of Lucky, presence of hundreds and thousands of women in a peaceful movement, powerful visuals of thousands of candles, songs of freedom have left a lasting impression for an entire generation.

No matter how much counter narrative is pushed to discredit its leaders and the Shahbagh movement itself, it is a piece of history and memory that a lot of us will carry for the rest of our lives. If you ask me, it is a pretty tall order for a bunch of young kids who started blogging in Bangla as an afterthought. More importantly, it is so much more than what years of talk shops, round tables and scripted media presence have ever achieved in this country.

Asif Saleh is a development practitioner.  

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