Shahbag’s shrinking middle ground

Photo: Mehdi Hassan
Photo: Mehdi Hassan

A few days back, after I returned from Dhaka, we tried to get in touch with some intellectuals and academicians in Bangladesh to write a piece for us to look into the psychology of the Shahbag protesters. We were still inquisitive as to why a democratic movement would be governed by undemocratic demands like death sentence and banning a political party. Almost everybody I knew in the media, in academic circles or among bloggers told me that it would be difficult to find a person who can give a non-biased assessment. “In Bangladesh, either you are pro-liberation or you are anti. There is no middle ground,” a blogger said on the phone. With the entire leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami behind bars, the only vocal naysayers are Khalida Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The rest are dubbed as Awami League supporters. And that’s where the problem lies.

One of the few public intellectuals critical of the way the movement has progressed is professor of international relations at Dhaka University and writer Amina Mohsin. “Political parties have tried to force people to take either one position or other. I have always maintained from the very beginning that this is a national issue, not an issue of any political party,” she says. Mohsin explains how the whole movement began as a protest against the establishment. The fear among the protesters after the sentencing of Kadar Mullah, confirmed by members of the Bloggers and Online Activists Networks to me, was that the government has entered into some kind of an understanding with Jamaat-e-Islami. “When Shahbag started off, it was a total rejection of mainstream politics in Bangladesh,” she says. From being a total rejection of mainstream political parties to being co-opted into mainstream is perhaps what has made many in Bangladesh uncomfortable.

While Jamaat-e-Islami has called the International Crime Tribunal (ICT) as an instrument of Awami League’s vendetta, questions have been raised about the ruling party’s role in the Shahbag protests. And some of them are quite valid. On the last day before flying back to Kolkata, I had lunch with the Chairman of Awami Jubo League, the youth wing of Sheikh Hasina’s party. Chatting on various issues, I came to know that the youth wing has been approached to participate at a protest being held in another part of Dhaka by Shahbag protesters. Their only request was that no party flag or banner would be allowed. Yes, it is true that the leadership of the movement has tried to stay apolitical, but the fact lies bare that such huge protests in the heart of Dhaka cannot be sustained over nearly a month without direct or indirect support from a major political party. In fact, on 21 February, the mother language day, when nearly a million had gathered at Shahbag, at one look, it is difficult to find out if any political activists are present in the crowd or not. But late into the night as the crowd thinned, it was easy to find the president of Awami Chhattra League and a bunch of Communists, who were the first political party to support the movement present there.

And then ofcourse there are allegations of political vendetta surrounding war trials. If Sheikh Hasina had promised trial of war criminals in her manifesto, why did she take so long? Elections are less than a year to go. Why is only the Jamaat-e-Islami being targeted when there are alleged war criminals in the ruling party too? Mohammad Omar Faroque Chowdhury, head of the ruling party’s youth wing tried to convince me by saying such things take time. “Sheikh Hasina took time to prepare ground and build opinion among people before setting up the war tribunal,” he says. Freedom fighter and academician Anwar Hossain accepts there was a delay. “Perhaps she could have done it earlier,” he says. Mohsin is much more candid. She says the Awami League government is using Shahbag and war crime trials to hide its own follies like corruption, demand for a caretaker government and non-fulfillment of other election promises. “We need a trial of war criminals and perhaps the demand to ban Jamaat may be considered. But the question is does Awami League have the moral authority to ban Jamaat, especially when it has hobnobbed with it in past?” she says.

Whether Shahbag sustains or not, as the election session begins, the politics around the war tribunal is only expected to get bloodier and uglier.

Source: Tehelka blog


  1. Or can the middle ground expand? Aren’t there major issues of higher politics of nation building & national interests, beyond narrow and petty party politics of our bi-partisan system? Mix & match of everything, i.e. Awami support, BNP & JP oscillation & now opposition, Jamat’s issue of Islam / anti-Islam / violence, the election equation & the issues of ‘Political Crimes” of over 4 decades, “Shahbag Awareness” as a phenomena” knowingly or unknowingly, is creating a huge middle ground. We need to see if this middle ground can really organise as a political force to help initiate a great change Bangladesh needs. The down side is,— if such a development fails, misery will compound manifold. If we, the people and the likely change-makers cannot be fooled all the time, & if 4 decades are a long enough time, we can hope that Shahbag can be seen or made as a catalyst. Making change & managing change is of course not the cup of tea of run-of-the-mill politicians of Bangladesh, as we know them. This is also not the cup of tea of the military-bureaucratic-business complex. The dire need of the hour is to proceed energetically to help create a truly national pro-people political force. Can Shahbag develop to such a higher national platform, beyond just slogan-mongering? If there is honesty, integrity, commitment & right vision / mission – I like to believe, such a transition is possible. More people with greater understanding & such ideas need to join to enrich the movement .


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