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 http://bangladeshwarcrimes.blogspot.co.uk/). 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.
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