Monday, March 25, 2013

What should Shahabag do now?

The Independent
Saturday, 23rd, March, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The initial successes of the Shahabag Gonojagoron Mancha (SGM) were indeed enthralling. The well led and peaceful movement attracted huge crowds from all sections of the society. A pliant government eagerly accepted all its demands although curiously it was its failure with the trial of the accused of war crimes that led to the youth to go to Shahabag. Then the movement started to lose its momentum when the unbelievably nasty anti-Islamic postings on some of the blogs of the Shahabag youth were revealed. People also started to withdraw from Shahabag when it became evident that the movement had gone to the hands of the ruling party. To shore up their decline, the leaders of the Shahabag tried to take their movement to Chittagong. There they met a formidable foe not in Jamat but the Hefazatul Islam (HI), a group not too well known to the people.

The HI just not stopped the SGM from entering Chittagong; it also promised to meet the SGM in the other districts of the country head on with its network of 700 Kwami Madrassahs spread across the country. It called the SGM a movement of atheist to defame Islam and its Prophet (pbuh) and urged its adherents to drive the supporters of the SGM from their districts. At first, the SGM threatened to take on HI in Chittagong. When HI flexed its muscles, the SGM called off its event in Chittagong; its first public admission of failure. It then sent a delegation to Chittagong to meet with the HI leaders to explain to them that their movement is not against Islam. HI snubbed the offer and the government stopped a delegation from Shahabag going to Chittagong at Feni apprehending serious trouble. Many wondered why the secular, progressive youth movement from Shahabag would want to sit down with Islamic fundamentalists such as the HI.

After failing in Chittagong, the SGM attempted to show its strength at Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka. It could gather a mere few thousand people, mostly activists of the ruling party and that too after the government provided armed police to protect   it from HI that had threatened to bring down the gathering! It also failed to spread the movement across the country as it had promised. Instead, the death sentence passed to Delwar Hossain Saydee after they demanded for it has pushed the country towards violence that the country has not seen since 1971 that has drawn people’s attention away from Shahabag to grater concerns about the stability and viability of the country.  Thus to recapture their lost momentum, the SGM leaders have called upon the youth to come together on April 21st at Shahabag. Quite evidently, the SGM is in serious trouble.

The chances of Shahabag regaining its lost glory seem remote. It must rue the mistakes that it made in the initial days of the movement. Its first big mistake was to allow known activists of the ruling party’s cultural front to be a part of the movement.  Although they successfully resisted the ruling party leaders from speaking from its platform, it did not take the latter too long to take control of the movement. Soon ministers/party leaders were making regular visits to Shahabag as if the movement was its own and the security agencies of the government were giving the movement protection like it was a political platform of the ruling party. As a result, the youth who had the nation behind it with its main demand of capital punishment for the accused in the war crimes trials, were soon making demands that fitted the political agenda of the ruling party. As opposition parties went against Shahabag, the youth went after them and then their speeches, slogans and demands were no different from those of the ruling party and reflected the realities of the bipartisan politics of the country.

The second major mistake of the SGM, in retrospect its major one, was its failure to react to the anti-Islam bloggers amongst them. These anti-Islam bloggers were well known to the Shahabag leaders for they had been reprimanded in a Dhaka Court not too long ago for their anti-Islam postings. Rajiv Haider who posted in his blogs the most offensive comments on Islam and the Prophet (pbuh) was made a martyr when he was killed in the early days of the movement.  His Janaza was held in Shahabag but in a manner that showed Shahabag’s scant respect for or understanding of Islam. In Islam, Janaza prayers are performed in 4 Takbirs with the coffin placed before those who gather for the prayer. Rajiv Haider’s Janaza was held in 3 Takbirs, where his coffin was placed at the centre and people from all religion gathered around it in circles! The SGM thus insensitively turned the Janaza of Rajiv Haider into an inter-faith event that many found offensive.

Initially, the movement blamed the offensive postings on Jamat. That did not sink with the public. The movement then tried to disassociate with those who posted the offensive blogs but by then the Islamic sentiments of the people had been aroused. Former President Ershad was quick to ascertain the political potentials of the anti-Islamic messages to harm the ruling party that supported the SGM like its own. He called the SGM a movement of Murtads (infidels who fight to destroy Islam) and by inference pointed the finger also at the ruling party. Jamat tried to capitalize from the anti-Islamic postings but the people did not come behind Jamat.

When Shahabag started, the BNP was caught totally unaware.  It gave qualified support to Shahabag worried that the youth were going to captivate the imagination and support of the people across the political divide. It watched, bewildered, the ruling party take ownership of the SGM and with it take a stranglehold on the politics of the country. The BNP  feared that  the failures of the AL, in particular issues like the share market scam, Hallmark, Destiny and the corruption over Padma Bridge  as well as its demand for the caretaker government would be forgotten and  SGM would deliver the ruling party another five years in power. Politics would indeed have gone that way had the HI and little known fundamentalist groups not gotten together to stand against the SGM and exposed the anti-Islamic messages that came out of a section of the youth at Shahabag.

The anti-Islamic postings of some of SMG bloggers came to the BNP as divine intervention.  It has turned politics around and the ruling party has been left bearing the responsibility for its failure to deal effectively with the anti-Islamic postings that has hurt the Islamic sentiments of the people very deeply. The BNP has seen in all these its chance to use the card of Islam not just to regain the ground it though it had lost when Shahabag raged but also to push the ruling party on the defensive because the SGM has established, although completely unintentionally, that the importance of Islam and respect for Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) are non-negotiable to the Muslims of Bangladesh and all else including capital punishment of the accused of war crimes that they otherwise want, secondary. The ruling party has thus landed on the wrong side with Islam by backing and owning the Shahabag youth that the BNP is going to utilize to its fullest advantage. The presence of secularists of the ruling party who have lobbied publicly for deleting the Islamic elements from the Bangladesh Constitution in Shahabag is not going to help the ruling party’s case to soothe the hurt feelings of the people.

The Shahabag  Movement has become involved in the zero-sum politics of the two mainstream parties but in a partisan way on the side of the ruling party. It is difficult to perceive that it will regain its lost glory. Nevertheless, the leaders of the SGM have a responsibility to try and do something for the country because their mistakes have pushed it to the edge of the precipice. They must immediately come out of the wings of the ruling party and assert strongly and convincingly that their movement is not against Islam. They must also demand that they will not go home until the two political parties find a way to hold the next elections by participation of all political parties because without it there may not be a country where the war crimes trials can be held to punish the accused. Most of all they must realize their mistake of pushing secularism into conflict with Islam in a country where the two have coexisted peacefully over many centuries to make forces such as Jamat politically insignificant.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

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