Monday, March 25, 2013

The Shahabag Movement and the media

The Independent
16 March, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

In the initial phase, the Shahabag youth movement or the Gonojagoron Mancha (GM) had caught the imagination of perhaps the largest number of the people in any movement since 1971. The first few days of the movement also established the fact that the crimes committed in 1971 by the local collaborators of the Pakistani army had not been forgotten. People across the political divide wanted capital punishment for those who had been brought before the ICT. The movement promised to bring the nation together in the same spirit as it was united in 1971 under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; a unity that was the major reason that helped Bangladesh to become independent in 1971. There were great expectations that the GM would show the way to the nation out of its tryst with evil in the country.

Unfortunately, the GM belied its initial promises. It is now petering out into another manifestation of the partisan politics of the country. In fact, if it stopped at that, the country would no better no worse.  Shahabag has very sadly divided the nation in a manner that the partisan nature of politics was not able to do. The BNP vacillated initially about the GM, then gave it qualified support but later withdrew it completely. The Jatiya Party called for a Jihad against the Shahabag movement for its alleged anti-Islamic stance. The AL’s patronage of the GM and the actions it took to appease the youth injected into the partisan politics an element of conflict that has, in the words of HM Ershad, pushed the country to the brink of a civil war. Thus for all practical purpose the Shahabag movement that had promised to unite the nation has left it dangerously divided.

The media became the voice of the GM. It concluded that those not with Shahabag movement were anti-liberation forces and called it the second liberation war!  The media did not inquire why the Shahabag movement did not express any anger on the government; on the ICT or the prosecution team that failed to send Qader Mollah to the gallows. The ICTs have been established by the Government. It claimed that these Tribunals are of world standard. The prosecution team has also been selected by the government that ministers and party leaders repeatedly defended as qualified to deal with the cases before the Tribunals.  Therefore, the GM should have attacked the government for the failure to hang Qader Mollah. Instead, it attacked first the Jamat and subsequently the BNP and the Jatiya Party as if they were responsible why Qader Mollah was not hanged. The media made no effort to reveal the reasons for the pro-government and anti-opposition nature of the Shahabag movement that an objective media would have.

The media also ignored the presence of well known AL activists from its cultural front in the midst of the Shahabag youth leaders. It also ignored the regular visits of AL leaders and government Ministers to Shahabag.  It made no attempts to explain why the government had installed the temporary toilets in Shahabag and extended to the Shahabag youth all the other facilitates they needed to carry on with their movement unhindered.  When the GM moved to other sites in Dhaka, the government ensured all facilities so that the youth could carry on their movement without any hindrance. Even when it had become palpably evident that the government had hijacked the Shahabag movement and was using it for furthering its political agenda, the media insisted that the youth were acting independent of any political influence. When the BNP and the Jatiya Party took clear stands against the Shahabag movement, it reacted just as the ruling party would. The media also set aside this palpably hand in glove relationship between the GM and the government.  

When it was revealed in Amar Desh, one of the very few newspapers trying to explain the GM differently; that some of the Shahabag bloggers had been posting in their blogs against Islam and Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), the media quickly defended the bloggers and accused the Jamat for such sacrilegious postings. The media did not bother to check facts that would have revealed that Rajiv Haider and some of his fellow Shahabag bloggers were reprimanded in a Dhaka court for anti-Islamic posting on their blogs much before the Shahabag movement started. The media figured that people would believe that Jamat had indeed posted those horrendous and dangerous anti-Islamic postings and no questions would be asked and Jamat would be condemned and hated even more. In fact, whenever Shahabag faulted, the media covered their failure as if it was their own like.  They thus overlooked the presence of one  who has been accused for the murder of Biswajit among the organizers of Shahabag.

Unfortunately the Shahabag movement did not evolve the way the media expected. The anti-Islamic postings on blogs deeply affected the sentiments of a much wider section of the people and even among many who initially supported Shahabag whole heartedly. The media overlooked the change in people’s spontaneous support of Shahabag after the anti-Islamic blogs became public knowledge.  It also overlooked the fact that after the initial spontaneity, the Shahabag crowd was largely a sponsored one where the ruling party brought the crowd, particularly the students from Dhaka’s schools and colleges. While it was common knowledge that the ruling party had entrusted their leaders in Dhaka’s 40 odd wards to bring people to Shahabag, there was not a word about this in the media.  A few TV stations with links to the ruling party covered the Shahabag movement round the clock to give the impression that the movement was exploding where in reality it was going in the opposite direction.

The exposure of the anti-Islamic postings was no doubt a watershed in the decline of the Shahabag movement. People also started to ask a few pertinent questions of their own as they began to see an eerie similarity in the agenda of the Shahabag youth and that of the ruling party like for instance the demand for banning the Jamat and the pointing of fingers at the BNP, instances that the partisan media just pushed under the carpet.  In fact, as soon as the BNP withdrew its support for Shahabag, claiming it was a ruling party sponsored movement  to deflect public attention from its failures with issues of governance, Shahabag literally became a front for the ruling party against its political opponents the BNP and the Jamat.

As the influence of the government over Shahabag became evident, people felt sorry for the Shahabag youth because they  could have done their movement and the country immense good if they had cared to speak on the larger malaise in the society instead of in the end pursuing the political agenda of the ruling party. In pursuing their partisan political agenda, the youth did so with a spirit of vengeance where 5/6 years olds were seen chanting death to Razakars that many thought did not give the GM the sort of positive vibe that there was in the initial days of the movement. As people saw these changes in Shahabag, they also realized that they had forced the government to change the laws so that the Tribunals would have no power except to hand the accused death sentences! They felt the government had undermined the rule of law by changing the laws to appease the Shahabag youth.

The dust over Shahabag is not going to settle soon.  The danger of the movement leading to the sort of catastrophe that HM Ershad predicted cannot be ruled out. The country never saw so many deaths in the hands of the law enforcing agencies as in the aftermath of the death sentence imposed by the ICT on Delwar Hossain Saydee. The media blamed the Jamat for the deaths! It did not see anything wrong in the police action that caused the deaths.  The media’s partisan coverage of the deaths and the Shahabag movement contributed to push the country to the edge of the precipice.  The way out of where Shahabag has pushed the nation is dialogue and negotiations among the political parties. It is time for the media to tell the Shahabag youth that they had their moments of glory but they have failed to capture the people’s imagination because they too fell into the grips of the country’s partisan politics and have played with religious sentiments dangerously. The ruling party said it is ready to meet the BNP in any place for talks. It is the only silver lining in the dark sky of Bangladesh.  The media should now shun the partisanship it has shown in covering Shahabag and give the possibility of a negotiated settlement to end the crisis facing the country, its fullest support by stopping  playing politics with the country’s youth and its future.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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