After several weeks of existence, the divide between pro and anti-Shahbagh forces are finally being solidified. Troops are trenching in, battle lines are being clearly drawn. Rightly or wrongly, in the views of a section of Bangladeshi citizens, Shahbagh is turning into a “black-n-white” battle between the secular and religious elements within the country.
This particular crystallisation of Shahbagh as a fight between “Chetona” (Spirit of Liberation) vs. “Dhormo” (Islam) is now going way beyond Jamaat-e-Islami or war criminals, which was the original intent of the Movement.
It is undoubted that the ardent Shahbagh activists will not fully agree with the characterisation of their Movement as stated above. That is understandable. However, like most movements in history, it is not always the supporters who succeed in defining what their movement is all about. Rivals often also have a say in it. And it’s no surprise that the rivals are not always “fair” in their interpretations.
Unfortunately for Shahbagh, the nature of its central command structure is murky. At best Shahbagh is a leaderless Movement, or at worst it has too many leaders. Confusion in leadership structure made effective messaging difficult. Vilifying everyone asking hard questions was the norm for the revolutionaries, which stymied healthy democratic evolution of the Movement. This may have also contributed to the failure to prevent Shahbagh being defined as a fight between pro and anti-Islam forces.
Cultural activists, media personnel, journalists, and musicians overwhelmingly supported Shahbagh. Some of these activists unequivocally stated that they have nothing against Islam. There were also a section of pro-Shahbagh religious leaders who appeared alongside the protesters defining the original intent of the Movement, which was not, in their views, against religion.
However, from the beginning, the presence of a few extreme-secular media personnel worried Shahbagh’s opponents. Presence of several bloggers and internet activists whose rise to stardom followed Taslima Nasrin’s recipe only fuelled that worry.
Very sadly, several of the “nastik” (atheist) bloggers were attacked and one of them killed, by attackers reported by police as Jamaat activists.
Blogger Rajib Haider’s killing and another blogger Asif Mohiuddin’s attack was “owned” by Shahbagh’s leadership. Rajib Haider was termed as the “First Martyr” of the “Second Liberation War” by his fans. However, the third blogger, “Nastik Nobi” a.k.a Shaniur Rahman was “disowned” by the central figures of Shahbagh, apparently due to public relations issues. Nastik Nobi has a website, published books against Jamaat and religion, and was present in Shahbagh since its beginning. He was also luckily alive to give TV interviews confirming the above after the attack. But he was still disowned.
Such ownership of Rajib Haider and disowning of Nastik Nobi sent a message of confusion to the rank and file activists. By that time, the opponents of Shahbagh have found enough ammunition to define the Movement as being run by “nastiks”.
Then came a turning point, when Shahbagh’s leadership failed to continue their march towards Chittagong facing threats from “Hefajat-e-Islami Bangladesh”, an organization barely visible in the mainstream in the past. Hefajat folks clearly laid out their opposition against the Shahbagh activists in pure theological terms. Once they contained Shahbagh activists from entering Chittagong, Hefajat-e-Islami’s “victorious” narrative of the Shahbagh Movement gained ground. The rest of their pro-Islam allies jumped to grab this as a “winning formula”.
Hefajat-e-Islami is now scheduled to march towards Dhaka on April 6th demanding punishment for those who they believe are the “atheist” bloggers in Shahbagh. The Pir of Charmonai, a quirky character in Bangladeshi politics, also staged a huge rally last Friday in Dhaka. This was covered by London’s The Daily Mail newspaper in great length. The Pir Sahib of Charmonai, after laying out his dissent against Jamaat-e-Islami, declared his plans to lay siege the Prime Minister’s office, demanding punishment for what he termed as “atheist” bloggers.
No effective counter argument is yet visible from Shahbagh’s leadership against a rising tide of activism coming from the pro-Islam block.
Inclusiveness was temporary
To succeed as a mass movement, by design Shahbagh needed to be inclusive. And it was indeed inclusive at the beginning of the Movement. However, the inclusiveness eventually became dubious as the Movement aligned itself more and more with the pro-government elements of the society.
As time went by, writings and speeches from Shahbagh started to disseminate an ultra “orthodox” view of the Awami League’s core political beliefs. It became clear that the central figures of Shahbagh started to claim that they care more about 1971 than Awami League, they admire the Father of the Nation more than the Awami League, they are the true gatekeepers of the slogan “Joy Bangla”, and they are the most genuine of all the folks asking “justice for the war criminals”.
Such views were so purist, that these most probably scared the Awami ruling elite. And for the opponents, it sounded as if the Shahbagh folks are the “Brahmins” within the Awami League, with their self declared superior beliefs and principles.
Such “Awami Brahminism” left limited scope for the non-Awami League supporters to be excited about Shahbagh. Since, the Awami League continues to maintain a secular political stance in Bangladesh, such “Awami orthodoxy” was an easy tool for Shahbagh’s opponents to label the entire Movement as “secular extremism”. Sidelined was the issue of war crimes. As stated above, the opponents are barely fair, if ever.
The inconvenient turns
Within just a few weeks of time, there were some dramatic twists and turns that the Movement had taken. During the first week of the Movement, the organisers of Shahbagh demanded that the editor of Daily Amar Desh should be jailed for expressing his “unfair” views against the Movement. That demand, coming from bloggers and net-activists who are themselves beneficiaries of “freedom-of-speech”, was unfathomable to neutral observers.
Now with a twist of fate, Shahbagh activists are in the receiving-end of governmental intervention. Under pressure from pro-religious elements, Bangladesh telecommunication regulatory authorities are sending letters to bloggers and website managers to take down defamatory content from their websites. The Government is also asking blog owners to provide names and identity of authors offending Islam.
This specific turn of events must have made it harder for the Shahbagh activists to keep a straight face, as they try to deny the government’s request. Their own previous demand for gagging another newspaper editor’s rights to free speech came back to haunt them just within a few weeks!
No end game
Shahbagh activists staged a siege on a busy street for weeks demanding a “specific verdict” on a matter under court proceedings. If the Hefajat-e-Islami and Charmonai Pir’s followers are allowed to demonstrate freely in April, the Shahbagh folks will be witnessing another type of people setting up “manchas” (stages) and demanding “specific verdicts” against bloggers and net activists. Freedom of speech and expression will face yet another challenge from the warring parties.
In a country of 170 million, both sides have tens of millions of excitable people on their sides. Only time can tell who will ultimately win this fight. But it is certain that Bangladesh, as a country, is not winning.
Shafquat Rabbee is a freelance contributor
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