Legacies of Shahbag: challenges that the nation must tackle

By Prof. M. Adil Khan


While Shahbagis have successfully reminded us of the liberationist ideology and also the hurt of 1971 many also believe that in its wake the movement may have also left legacies that the nation must assess carefully and tackle maturely in the coming days.

In many ways, Shahbag has been a strange movement. Contrary to the tradition Shahbag movement might have been the only movement in the world where youth and a section of the civil society gathered together to agitate against opposition.

Most civil movements mobilize to protest wrong-doings of an incumbent government and demand accountability and indeed, if one is to go by the current record of wrong-doings of this government, the list is quite long – corruption, failing law and order, falling human rights standards etc. etc. and yet Shahbagi protesters had little or no zest for protest against any of these acts of malfeasance. Instead they chose to demand (some believe and with some justification, that they have been stage-managed from behind-the-scene by the government to do so), the death penalty for the under trial suspected war criminals most of whom belong to the opposition Jamat and BNP, providing the government the casus belli for  further marginalization if not elimination of their political opponents.

Without the due regard to the fact that by demanding death penalty for under trial war criminals these guys were not only tempering with the independence of the justice system but also were trashing the very liberation ideology for which they claimed they were fighting for – justice and fairness, government went full throttle with its support and encouraged them to get nasty by the day.

What is also sad for the nation is that apart from legal misdemeanour Shahbag may have also revealed another dark side of us as Bangladeshis. At the height of the Shahbag rally, little toddlers with bandana on their forehead crying death were a spectacle that Bangladesh rather not have and be proud of. An expatriate colleague who personally visited Shahbag during its peaks and followed the newspaper/TV reporting and the statements of a section of the civil society that demanded  death to suspected offenders of 1971, observed that “Bangladesh must be the only country in the world where people held candle light vigils baying for blood” and that “it must also be the only country in the world where the left-leaning intellectuals, the secular-liberationist (“Secu-lib”) academics and activists, and human rights defenders advocate collectively for death penalty and demand judicial processes to proceed selectively.” This is not an image that you would wish to project as, as a nation, to the outside world. Thanks to the Shahbagis, we did just that.

No one dispute that suspected war criminals must be tried and punished but everyone expects that the trial be fair and transparent. But the demands of Shahbagis and subsequent actions by the government that indicate that death penalty is almost a fait accompli for most under trial suspects have done little to raise the confidence of people in the justice system of Bangladesh. Instead it has dealt further blow to what is already a very controversial tribunal, promoting in the wake a notion that we as a nation favour lynch mob justice to address political differences.

In reference to the war tribunal’s current compromised state, death sentencing and the ensuing violence and counter-violence that gripped the nation, Ms. Shelina Zara Janmohamed, a columnist of Al-Jazeera had observed that “The past victims of the war are still far from justice and the number of those who are victims of injustice as a result of the ongoing conflict is also rapidly growing.”

Shabagis also demanded that Jamat, the Islamist right wing party be banned as a political party. While most agree that given their horrific record of collaboration with the marauding Pakistani junta in 1971 and given that they are yet to apologise for their war time wrong-doings and also that many of its collaborating leaders continue to lead the party even today, it is natural that people would question Jamat’s legitimacy especially its moral right to engage in independent Bangladesh’s political governance. Having said this one must not also forget that Jamat is a legal political entity and therefore, regardless of its bleak past it has every legal right to participate in the full spectrum of the political processes of the country. While their moral right is questionable their legal right is unalienable and we must also appreciate that moral lapse in one context does not automatically justify sanction in another. Furthermore, in a properly functioning democracy the way to oppose is not through outright banning of a party that we dislike but through expression of choices through unintimidated voting. In India, a secular democratic country, where religiously oriented or religious parties such as Bharat Janata Party, Jamat Islami Hind etc. are legitimate political entities that regularly participate in the electoral processes of the country.

Another dangerous legacy of Shahbag is that they quite vociferously have spawned a debate concerning our national identity – are we Islamic or are we secular? It is somewhat of a tragedy that this debate is raging after 40 years of our independence and sad that it is also dividing the nation right in the middle.

Shrewdly manipulated by the politicians this sharp and sometime acrimonious ideological divide that exists between the so-called Secular/liberationists (Secu-libs) led by the ruling Awami League and the Islamist/Nationalists led by the BNP/Jamat has already costed the nation dearly and also reveals that as a nation we are yet to come to terms with our identity – to be or not to be seems to be the question. Furthermore, in recent times in their efforts to marginalize and tarnish the image of Jamat by spewing hatred against Islam several Shahbagi bloggers spewed hatred against Islam that seemed to have complicated the discourse even more, reviving in the wake sectarian feelings.

Initially government remained somewhat indifferent to these anti-Islamic tirades thinking that they could extract some political gains out of these. But it backfired. Ordinary god fearing Bangladeshis got the notion that this government is not merely against Jamat/BNP (the Islamist/Nationalist protagonists) but against Islam itself. Their suspicions got further entrenched when they saw that in pursuit of agitating Jamat police entered mosques in several places and killed praying Muslims. It is true that the government has since realized its mistakes and  tried to retract its position by arresting some of the anti-Islamic bloggers, but things might have gone little too far already to restore credibility.

Now coming back to the debate concerning our national identity that has since been a source of many acrimonious exchanges if not bloody conflicts we must ask how relevant this debate is for we must know that national identity can or should never be defined from the top. Pakistanis tried this on us and we know the result. National identity evolves and takes shape from within over a long period of time where among other factors religion, all religion and in case of Bangladesh where 90% of its population are Muslims, Islam, not the Wahhabi fundamentalist Islam but the moderate inclusive Islam, ought to play an important role and thus would define, direct and shape our social and cultural identity, indeed, within the parameters of secularism.

Romila Tharpar suggests that there is no contradiction between secular governance and religion, the challenge for a secular society is to keep social concerns excluded from divine interventions – she argues, “Policies relating to the entitlements of the citizen – social welfare, education, health, distributive and social justice and the rule of law can be, and should be, the constituents and primary concerns of a secular society. However, these have to be integrated as a process of governance, since they can also be abused by those in power. Ensuring the just practice of law becomes a necessity. These are aspects of the secularizing of society”.

Therefore, what is needed by the nation of Bangladesh is an ideology that respects all religions as well as ethnicities as equals and embeds in its governance principles of human rights and pursues these principles with utmost and fare application of rule of law.   This is the path that we must follow. The moment we deviate or let vested interest take control we invite conflict and cause disunity among us.

Finally, if there is one thing that the Shabagis ought to be credited with, it would be the revelation that time and again that we as a nation has remained largely stooges of our feuding and predatory political leaderships those that have brought the country to the abyss of doom that we all have fallen into now. Over the years we have allowed them to distort our history, loot and plunder our treasury, indulge in blood-soaked political bickering and degrade our moral tapestry. Instead of demanding accountability, a normal practice in any democracy we have allowed our leaders to manipulate us and even prostituted our intellectual prowess to provide legitimacy to their evil acts.

All these have culminated into what we are witnessing these days – the worst of political militancy and cruellest of police violence are confronting us, costing us hundreds of lives where bloodletting has become an order of the day. These conflicts have also entailed a collateral damage in attacks on Hindus.

Change, a wholesale change is what we need. We must change the way we think, behave and interact in the society. We must change things that have shattered us, degraded us, diminished us and shamed us.

Leadership for change thus must come from us, the citizens as Barack Obama reminds us, “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.”

And this is precisely what the people of Bangladesh had done in the past. They rose against all odds and forced change when it was needed most desperately.

History reveals that every time politicians especially their leaderships faltered or were slow to act to advance an agenda of collective good, it is the young – not the very divisive and partisan Shahbagi types – that took upon themselves apolitically, the mantle of change and pushed for it selflessly, relentlessly and inclusively, with success.

In 1970 it is the 11 point agenda (“Egaro Dofa”) of the Dhaka University Students’ Union (DACSU) that set the tone for change that ultimately culminated into creation of independent Bangladesh. Again in 1990 it is the All Party Student Action Committee’s initiative that brought the feuding parties and their leaders under one platform to fight dictatorship and establish democracy in the country.

Time may have come now for the youth to bury their differences, mobilize and rise to the occasion  and recreate a Bangladesh that they fought and we  aspired for but lost – a Bangladesh that is truly democratic, corruption-free, accountable, just, religiously inclusive and vibrant and most importantly, a  Bangladesh that is decent.

Young have done it the before, they can do it again.

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Prof. M. Adil Khan is a former UN official


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