Bangladesh is revolting, again

Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain photo mini

Anyone with a Bangladesh connection remains fixated on the two week occupation of Shahbag junction and the wider movement it has spawned. Shahbag, in case you missed it, is a mass movement protesting that Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah got off too lightly with a life sentence on February 5th for convictions that link him to mass murders and child rape during the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan; justice has long been delayed, and now most people think, it has been denied, too (as novelist Tahmima Anam explained last week . Even Mollah reckons he got off lightly: his infamous two-fingered gesture when leaving the courtroom will go down in history as the first hand gesture to launch a mass movement.

The need for justice for the genocide of 1971 is so glaring that most Bangladeshis choose to overlook the problems in the misleadingly-named International Crimes Tribunal (its mandate is domestic, not international; see As the party that won the war (but arguably not the peace) for Bangladesh, the Government was only too pleased to change the law yesterday, allowing it to appeal decisions of the Tribunal it disagreed with.

Shahbag is being feted as the return of the spirit of ’71, and it has many of the qualities of that wonderful tragic time: cross-class, secular, youthful, nationalistic, idealistic (bar the pro-hanging bit). It probably will mark a shift in Bangladeshi political culture, as middle class and elite young people are getting a crash course in street politics they won’t unlearn in a hurry. There is a lot of social media and good visuals, all of which matter a lot in 21st century protest. And at a time when the organized religious right has stolen popular revolutions across the Middle East, it is sheer joy to see Jamaat on the backfoot. This is partly catharsis postponed: the Pakistan ‘tilt’ in US foreign policy and other reasons best known to the international community meant they discouraged a process of transitional justice 40 years ago, when it would have made most sense. War-torn, aid-dependent and starving, Bangladesh was in no position to insist back then. So the injustices of the war and postwar period were institutionalized in some of our more unique political pathologies, the personalized animosity between The Two Begums included.

So all in, there is a lot to like about Shahbag. It feels like something fresh. In fact the only audible ambivalence – other than among the fundies and war criminals – is among the good governance / human rights types, who see patterns we don’t like. The pro-hanging stance is a source of some discomfort. Mollah’s crimes would test the softest-hearted liberal’s views on capital punishment, yet it is probably the main reason the international media found Shahbag hard to make sense of. Two robust yet telling arguments are made in support of hanging. One is that the argument against capital punishment is a separate debate: this argument is that the crimes of Mollah et al merit the highest punishment under the law, which happens to be hanging. A second is that in a country in which every aspect of life is party politicized, Mollah and his gang would only have to wait for the government to change (which it does regularly) to get their release. So they need to be hanged to ensure they get the punishment they have earned. This was a reasonable enough argument before the Government changed the law to allow appeals; now it has changed the law, it is surely watertight.

Both pro-hanging arguments tell us something important about why Shahbag has happened, and why all other forms of important progressive change, big and small, tend to involve such unruly politics in Bangladesh. Both are arguments about the importance of rules, and both say it is important to break rules precisely because they are so important. This is the powerful logic of Bangladeshi political culture: a schizophrenic desire for order that requires the overthrow of order. All relevant examples of progressive political change – starting with the struggle against the Raj – feature a powerful sense of exceptionalism (‘this time is different’) coupled with an equally powerful desire for rules that work. In Bangladeshi politics the ‘state of exception’ is the norm, so rules are routinely broken precisely with the aim of achieving a more ordered state. A series of genuine political and economic crises through our history coupled with a political DNA imprinted with the successes of unruly politics makes this a winning repertoire it will be very hard to unlearn.

It is too early to be discerning larger meanings from Shahbag, but here is my ten takas’ worth: Shahbag will matter partly because it will reinforce the message that it is only through breaking the political (and indeed judicial) rules that progressive change can be achieved. Once again, we learn that we need a mass movement, not due process; a huge upsurge of human emotion, not rational rules or agreed, adhered-to systems or laws, if we are ever to resolve our problems. So let us hope that this time it really is different.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:


18 Responses to Bangladesh is revolting, again

  1. fugstar says:

    Shahbag has its share of NGOised PR, but i think its a negative development, driving a lobotomised and maddening ethnonational master narrative into a generation of lost consumer youth..

    Cheerleading from the self describingly ‘progessive’ seculib intelligentsia has been quite disturbing.

    When the right to a fair trial, political organisation and business as well as the death penalty are at stake, its dissapointing to

    Shahbag cultivates hate and fear, young men die as folks pleasure themselves with visions of a secular utopic bangladesh, free from accused war criminals

    • idsppsc says:

      hi Fugstar, I have similar worries about as you so colourfully put it, the ethnonational master narrative, but I prefer the secular idealists over the religious right ANY time. Still, you have a point about the fair trial. Like your logo thing.


  2. MRAMAN says:

    Most ridiculous writing and twisted logic. Naomi promoting Mob justice, anarchy through this piece. Shabag protesters are bunch of young people having no clue that some die-hard leftist/aethiest political thugs are using their emotions to denegrade Islamic political party and it;s leaders.

    • idsppsc says:

      Are you sure you read the piece? Personally, I think Jamaat and its leadership have done a good job of setting themselves up for denigration without any help from anyone else. And their response to Shahbag has not helped so far as I can see.


      • MRAMAN says:

        Yes, Ms. Naomi I read your entire article with deep disgust. Not only me but anyone with tiny shred of respect for the rule of law will be appalled by your justification of mob justice. This so-called revolution is state sponsored, it is using the cheap sentiment of the youth who don’t have any clue about the true perpetrator of the 1971 crimes but was taught by this anti-Islamic groups that Jamaat leaders are criminal so chanting in their highest pitch “Rokto Chai” “Fashi Chai” – and people like you, who claimed to be educated intelligentsia are promoting Guillotine justice in their favor.

    • saad says:

      i think most people in Bangladesh know exactly what happened in 71.

  3. Fayyaz says:

    Fugstar, I dont think you have grasped the whole picture from wherever you are…..

  4. Rose says:

    Hiya From my observations Bangladeshi secularists seem to want to be secular without being liberal, without respect for the rule of law and for human rights. Without these, its possible to have secular dictatorships – many of which have cruelly oppressed religious groups (such as Saddam Hussain, Mubarak etc). What exactly does secularism mean in Bd where nationalistic sentiment is in reality now being misused politically (rather more than religion misused as JI has only about 7% of vote) to bring in draconian media laws, and govt intervention in the judiciary. What say you to any mob now protesting until they get what they want in the courts? Why cannot Muslims express their beliefs politically…?

    • idsppsc says:

      Rose, you make some useful distinctions. My reading of Bangladesh’s pol history is that mob rule has had an important role in progressive politics in Bangladesh, mainly because of colonial and authoritarian oppression. But we need to start carving out a new political culture that does, as you put it, express beliefs politically. We need a new political imaginary, I think. I don’t know where that is going to come from, but I don’t think the Arab Spring should be our sole inspiration.

  5. Sorry4thelevity says:

    Can’t help wondering if some of the Shahbag protestors are thinking that Mollah had taken advice from this viz inspired tweet

    MURDERERS. Bring a touch of levity to the courtroom by quipping ‘you get more for being married!’ as the judge passes sentence.

    Jan 18 Twop Twips ‏@TwopTwips

  6. Ali Ishtiaq says:

    Wow! The most thoughtful, coherent cogent article I have read so far about the Shahbagh movement I must say that I agree with this analysis and would add another phenomenon which is worth further thought. In the past, almost everywhere in the world mass upsurges have taken place against the government in power (though it could take a different color when a country is at war). This is not surprising since governments represent the status quo and uprisings are targeting the norms. In the case of Shahbagh, however, the party in power (almost megalomanically so) is in line with the usurpers and the opposition is in the ironical position of having to soft pedal their way around it and against it.

    One way to make sense of it would be if we posit that while the dominant power lies with the ruling coterie, the religious right (i.e. Jamaat) had made their presence felt more in everyday life and had curtailed the freedom of the population in general and women in particular. The country has veered towards an interpretation of fundamentalist Islam more than it was even twenty years ago, let alone forty years ago when secularism was the call of the day. This is specially true among the economically disadvantaged population where Saudi style Wahabism has taken a stronger hold over the last three decades, even though sections of the wealthy elite exhibit accoutrements of Islamic religiosity. Consider the vast number of madrasa students and graduates who are overwhelmingly represented by poor people. In the rural areas and among the urban poor religion offers a reprieve from the sense of powerlessness and impotency of trying to live well in an unjust economic and political order. If you can’t do well now, follow the Islamic way of life and you can earn a better future for eternity. This is a convenient route to channel the simmering anger against the economic injustice of today, an anger that can be used by the fundamentalists to gain ascendancy or use when threatened, as they are now.

    From that perspective if this mass upsurge represents a catharctic reaction to Jamaat for their infamous role in the sufferings caused during the liberation war, it can also be viewed as a middle class attempt to wrest back the freedom that have been eroded away through the fundamentalist’s influence and coercion. To the extent that the fundies have made strong inroads among the poor and traditional working class people, I think the Shahbagh anti-fundamentalist movement encompasses elements of a class struggle, except that the struggle is not being initiated by the poor. In that sense also, the Shahbagh movement turns on its head the traditional concept of mass upsurges which are against the rulers and/or elites.

  7. idsppsc says:

    dear Ali: these are really interesting thoughts, and you take the analysis much further than I had. You’re right – it is an unusual instance of unruly politics in that the protestors are backed by the powerful ruling party. But you are also right that state power has not been matched by sociocultural power over everyday life, which is what Jamaat has had. How can we assess whether Shahbag changes that or how it influences it? And – on this historic day of Ekushey February – it is interesting to see how this movement has once again galvanised middle class and even elite support, when so little else has interested them, politically and ideologically, in the past few decades. Will we see a new generation of young people from these classes engage in politics, not because they inherited their constituency from a father or mother or uncle, but because they have a vision about how Bangladesh can be and the capacity to act on it? I really hope so.

  8. Masum says:

    To know the update about Shahabag movement Visit

  9. […] were attacked and inevitably, someone died. This is with the secular-Islamic clash surrounding the Shahbag movement for justice for war crimes still bubbling in the background. There is a domestic politics angle to Rana Plaza, including the […]

  10. Rosario León says:

    Naomi, Disfrute mucho este texto, por tu valentía en el planteamiento y las luces para la reflexión acerca de los cambios políticos y sus expresiones y metáforas. Me pregunto cuanto los indisciplinados tendrán la aprobación de las grandes agencias del desarrollo para derrocar ordenes sustentadoras de in equidad?
    El tránsito hacia cambios profundos en los sistemas de justicia y Leyes establecidos también en Bolivia requiere del diseño de posibilidades de existencia y reconocimiento internacional para la “justicia Transicional”.
    En Bolivia el sistema de justicia se cae a pedazos pero su poder trasciende a sus harapos. La violencia ciudadana, que llaman inseguridad ciudadana es incontrolable. La iniquidad crece, pero alguna gente cree que con cifras estadísticas puede convencernos de lo contrario.
    Tu artículo me hizo pensar mucho.
    Gracias por compartir un momento doloroso de la historia de tu país

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