What went wrong with Shahbag movement?

M. Serajul Islam

The government’s decision to arrest 3 Shahabag bloggers to appease Islamist forces who are planning a march to Dhaka on April 6, which the government had called as a front of the Jamaat, leaves no one in doubt that the Shahabag Movement (SM) has finally ended unsuccessfully. Dr. Irman Sarkar, the leader of the Shahabag Movement who had the power to ask and get anything from the government just a few weeks ago, condemned the government strongly and demanded their release.
The government, under threat from Islamists that the SM has awakened, is in no mood to even bother to listen to Dr. Imran Sarker because he and the SM have become victims of politics of the ruling party. Dr. Imran Sarker and his Shahabag comrades would do themselves good if they woke up to reality and went back to what they have been doing before Shahabag. Many of them will and perhaps Imran Sarker too, but if they have some of the qualities that those who supported them have said that they have when the going was good for them, they should look back and find out why their movement failed after raising so much hope.
The drama surrounding the SM changed so abruptly that one has to scratch one’s head to be convinced about the end of a movement that just two months ago was being championed by the ruling party, a section of the secularists and intellectuals with links to the ruling party and a media heavily favouring the ruling party as the harbinger of a new dawn, a force that would rekindle the dying “spirit of 1971” that had unified a nation to fight and win freedom and finally bring home the fruits of our glorious war of liberation of 1971. The ruling party was one of the first to champion the SM because it saw in it the potential to turn the difficult predicament into which it found itself with the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny and the share market and general failure in governance, to its advantage. Initially, the ruling party succeeded in turning a movement that should have been directed against the government to its fullest advantage. The issue that had brought the youth together was the failure of the International Crime Tribunal (ICT) to hang Qader Mollah. The ICT and all aspects of the trials of the alleged war criminals were the responsibilities of the Government. The government/ruling party had spent the last 4 years dismissing the claims of the opposition that the trials were politically motivated and the ICT was not properly constituted to hold the trials. They had assured the people that justice would be done and the accused in the war crimes trials would be punished in the present term of the ruling party government. Therefore the youth should have gathered at Shahabag and expressed their anger at the Government. They did not or could not as the government/ruling party cleverly took control of the movement through some known cultural activists of the ruling party and the secular/intellectual forces with links to the ruling party backing them.
In fact, the cultural activists of the ruling party who represents the secular/intellectual forces very cleverly manipulated the SM and delivered it completely into the laps of the ruling party after their initial opposition to allow ruling party Ministers and leaders the chance to address the nation from their forum that had raised hopes that the youth were non-political. The government then provided the movement with all the logistics it required as well as security lest Jamaat and its activists caused its members physical harm. The government did not want such a heaven sent opportunity to push the opposition into the corner to be wasted. All seemed to be working in favour of the ruling party and the SM was soon carrying out the political agenda of the ruling party against the opposition.
Had the anti-Islam postings in the blogs of some of the Shahabag activists not been revealed, the SM and the ruling party together would have made the ambitions of the opposition in the context of the politics of the country history, if not permanently at least in the context of the next elections in the country. Instead, the ruling party finds the tables turned on its head on the issue of Islam and caught with a new political liability that may eventually prove to be more damaging to it than all the damages that many thought that the Padma Bridge, the Hallmark and Destiny and fraud in the share market would do to the chances of the ruling party returning to power for another term.
The ruling party is now taking steps to correct the mistakes they made with Shahabag, like arresting the bloggers. They have also assured the Islamic forces planning to march on Dhaka to demand that those amongst the Shahabag bloggers who insulted the Prophet (pbuh) be hanged, that they will not allow anyone in the country to do so. Ministers were sent to these extremist Islamists to assure them that the offenders who attacked Islam would be punished. Instructions have been sent to dismantle the SM in a u-turn that is embarrassing and could be politically disastrous to the ruling party. Only the future will tell whether the ruling party has missed the bus in its attempt to correct the mistakes it made with the SM. For the sake of the country, one would like to expect that it succeeds in cooling down the Islamic sentiments that the SM has rubbed the wrong way. If it does not, the country would suffer in a very serious way. Nevertheless, there is a price that it must pay for encouraging a force without checking its credentials and it may not find the way to retrieve the harm that Shahabag has done it politically that easily. Supporting the SM in retrospect may have been a major political blunder of the ruling party.
When political parties make mistakes, they pay the price. It is the role of the secularist intellectuals with links to the ruling party and the media in the Shahabag movement that must be subjected to some serious scrutiny because they would not be called to pay any price for their role although they also contributed to SM’s ignominious end that has pushed the country towards a civil war. The youth had undoubtedly attracted the attention of the nation when they appeared initially with their message, their enthusiasm. They could have been guided to achieve the ideals that they sought to achieve. They could have united the nation and revived the spirit of 1971. Instead, these secularists/intellectuals went to Shahabag without checking the background of the youth and straightaway, termed their movement as the “Liberation war of Projonmo” when they saw in the movement potentials for helping the ruling party politically and furthering their own agenda on secularism minus Islam.
In urging the movement to fight a new war, a war they believed was not finished in 1971; they pushed the youth into the conflict ridden politics of the country. In fact, they did more. They pushed it to achieve their political agenda. They used SM to ban Jamaat and remove the Islamic provisions in the Constitution so that the state principle of secularism would not be tarnished by Islam!
Shahabag’s lessons will sink for better or for worse for the country depending on what lessons the actors of the Shahabag drama as parties/groups/individuals take from it. It is still early to conclude on all the lessons from Shahabag. This notwithstanding, it may not be off the mark to suggest one major lesson from Shahabag. No matter what the Constitution says about the state principles, democracy, nationalism, socialism or secularism, all must find a way to blend with Islam. It should not be difficult because Islam has blended with the most important of these state principles for the Shahabag movement/and the section of the secularists/intellectuals that supported Shahabag, namely secularism, for centuries without any problem. Whether Islam and secularism would remain the way it has blended for centuries would depend to a great extent on the secular forces and what stand they take on Islam in future.
They should consider the planned march of the Islamists towards Dhaka on April 6. This could be the most dangerous development out of Shahabag so far. By its insensitivity, the Shahabag movement has awakened this danger for the country in which their contribution has been significant; the prospect of what was never a possibility for the country; the prospect of fundamentalist Islamic forces becoming strong to challenge for political power. One has to pray for the country so that the government does not make any more mistakes with this Islamist forces under the influence of the secular forces within it folds. It is time for the government/ruling party to draw a line as it has with Shahabag with the secular forces for its own sake and the country so that both Islam and secularism can find their own space in society as it has for many centuries,
The writer is a retired career Ambassador
Source: Weekly Holiday


  1. Thanks to the writer for his erudite writing. But the govt’s overweening and arrogant but imprudent attitude has thrown the nation into another very deep crisis by betraying with the Hefazat-e-Islam. Granting permission to assemble at Shapla Chattar on the one hand and putting all kinds of barriers to stop the Hefazat supporters to come to Dhaka, besides standing the SM apostates and their degenerated patrons against them, they are really playing with fire that might engulf the whole nation and destroy whatever achievement we have been able to make so far. Now we common people are very much apprehensive of experiencing another Somalia or Sudan or worse than that.

  2. Isn’t it time for Bangladesh to move on to more important things rather than digging up the past and create divisions in its polity?

    • No. It’s time bring the criminals of the 71 massacres to book and unmask those in the power who are shielding them. It’s time to speak the truth that, the guiding principle of Bangladesh is the Bengali national identity and not theocracy. It’s time to reject the fundamentalists who wanna change Bangladesh into an Talibani Afghanistan. And of course it’s time to thwart the effort of those who wants to avoid such responsibilities in the name of ‘moving on to more important things’. Two lakhs of daughters of Bengal were raped and slaughtered; we need justice.

  3. A Hindu couple has been forced to get off a rickshaw in Chittagong and asked to produce proof of marriage, and was nearly beaten up for moving ‘be pardah’. Please speak out against this kind of religious madness and stop Talibanization of Bangladesh.

  4. Deepak:

    You are full of crap. You are hateful person. You cannot be a Bangladeshi. Because you hate Bangladesh. If you are Bangladeshi, I would like to give you a safe passage to leave for India. Would you?????

  5. Your allegiance is to Pakistan and you hate the diversity of Bangladesh so you go into denial. Why don’t you join your Taliban brothers in Swat? Despite destroying 400 Hindu temples in the past few weeks you have no remorse or conscience. In 1971 they lifted lungis to look for Hindus, and now they look for Kabinamas from Hindu couples. Shame!

  6. Deepak:

    You hate Bangladesh. Why don’t you say so. Most Bangladeshis are Muslims. It was the Hindu Zaminders that screwed the Muslimd peasants for centuries. Then these Hindus cooperated with the British and subjugated the Bengali muslims for decades. We had to be with Pakistan because Hindus were worst. I am sure you are Hindu and that is why you hate Muslims. That is why you call Bangladeshis as Taliban. Please leave my country and go to India and join your brothers. I hate you.

  7. Vast majority of Bangladeshis are secular nice moderate human beings. You are not representative of Bangladesh at all. It is quite clear you hate the Secular spirit of Bangladesh and want to turn it into a primitive theocracy where they will demand to see marriage certificates, ban music and sculptures, and torture people by accusing them of being atheists, and cut off hands or heads, just like your Hifazat buddies are demanding now.

    Bangladesh is not your family fiefdom. This is the land of my ancestors even before you were converted. So don’t talk nonsense. You probably hate not just Hindus, but every one else, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and all kafirs. So you sit here and make religious references of how bad everyone is.

    Hindu zamindars were as many as you had Khan Bahadur Muslim zamindars and they did not exactly pat your back. Before that, it were Afghans and Turks, and then you loved been screwed by Pakistanis who killed 3 million of Bengalis and raped women, but you shamelessly do hujur hujur still !

    You ancestors probably couldn’t pay the Jizya and was charged with blasphemy, so they had to keep their heads intact and converted. Don’t go on bad mouthing and blaming Hindus, because your forefathers were Hindus. You probably went to Braj Mohan College or Harganga College, Tolaram or Jagannath College, all built by Hindus. The Khan sahibs only built were madrassas which made you fanatical and intolerant.

    Fanaticism is not patriotism, it may be for the remnants of Pakistan collaborators Rajakars, who went from door to door looking for Hindus. The peer sahib of Sarsuna gave a sermon that raping Hindu women are ok. This is the kind of respect you have for fellow human beings and you claim to be some Teesmar Khan??? and yet your type of people demand full rights when in democracies of US & Europe, and cry foul when security in airports touch you. You hate your fellow Bengali Hindu citizens and want them to leave for India so you can take over their property, right???


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here