Friday, April 12, 2013

What went wrong with the Shahabag Movement?

Friday April 5th 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The government’s decision to arrest 3 Shahabag bloggers to appease Islamist forces who are planning a march to Dhaka on April 6th, forces that the government had called as a front of the Jamat, leaves no one in doubt that the Shahabag Movement (SM) has finally ended unsuccessfully. Dr. Irman Sarkar, the leader of the Shahabag Movement who had the power to ask and get anything from the government just a few weeks ago, condemned the government strongly and demanded their release.  The government, under threat from Islamists that the SM has awakened, is in no mood to even bother to listen to Dr. Imran Sarker because he and the SM have become victims of politics of the ruling party.  Dr. Imran Sarker and his Shahabag comrades would do themselves good if they woke up to reality plus and went back to what they have been doing before Shahabag. Many of them will and perhaps Imran Sarker too but  if they have some of the qualities that those who supported them have said they have when the going was good for them, they should look back and find out why their movement failed after raising so much hope.

The drama surrounding the SM changed so abruptly that one has to scratch one’s head to be convinced about the end of a movement that just two months ago was being championed by the ruling party, a section of the secularists/intellectuals with links to the ruling party and a media heavily favouring the ruling party as the harbinger of a  new dawn, a force that would rekindle the dying “spirit of 1971” that had unified a nation to fight and win freedom and finally bring home the fruits of our glorious war of liberation of 1971. The ruling party was one of the first to champion the SM because it saw in it the potential to turn the difficult predicament into which it found itself with the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny and the share market and general failure in governance, to its advantage.

Initially, the ruling party succeeded in turning a movement that should have been directed against the government to its fullest advantage. The issue that had brought the youth together was the failure of the ICT to hang Qader Mollah. The ICT and all aspects of the trials of the alleged war criminals were the responsibilities of the Government. The government/ruling party had spent the last 4 years dismissing the claims of the opposition that the trials were politically motivated and the ICT was not properly constituted to hold the trials. They had assured the people that justice would be done and the accused in the war crimes trials would be punished in the present term of the ruling party government.  Therefore the youth should have gathered at Shahabag and expressed their anger at the Government. They did not or could not as the government/ruling party cleverly took control of the movement through some known cultural activists of the ruling party and the secular/intellectual forces with links to the ruling party backing them.

In fact, the cultural activists of the ruling party who represents the secular/intellectual forces very cleverly manipulated the SM and delivered it completely into the laps of the ruling party after their initial opposition to allow ruling party Ministers and leaders the chance to address the nation from their forum that had raised hopes that the youth were non-political. The government then provided the movement with all the logistics it required as well as security lest Jamat and its activists caused its members physical harm.  The government did not want such a heaven sent opportunity to push the opposition into the corner to be wasted. All seemed to be working in favour of the ruling party and the SM was soon carrying out the political agenda of the ruling party against the opposition.

Had the anti-Islam postings in the blogs of some of the Shahabag activists not been revealed, the SM  and the ruling party together would have made the ambitions of the opposition in the context of the politics of the country history, if not permanently at least in the context of the next elections in the country. Instead, the ruling party finds the tables turned on its head on the issue of Islam and caught with a new political liability that may eventually prove to be more damaging to it than all the damages that many thought that  the Padma Bridge, the Hallmark and Destiny and fraud in the share market would do to the chances of the ruling party returning to power for another term.

The ruling party is now taking steps to correct the mistakes they made with Shahabag, like arresting the bloggers. They have also assured the Islamic forces planning to march on Dhaka to demand that those amongst the Shahabag bloggers who insulted the Prophet (pbuh) be hanged, that they will not allow anyone in the country to do so.  Ministers were sent to these extremist Islamists to assure them that the offenders who attacked Islam would be punished. Instructions have been sent to dismantle the SM in an u-turn that is embarrassing and could be politically disastrous to the ruling party.   Only the future will tell whether the ruling party has missed the bus in its attempt to correct the mistakes it made with the SM. For the sake of the country, one would like to expect that it succeeds in cooling down the Islamic sentiments that the SM has rubbed the wrong way.  If it does not, the country would suffer in a very serious way. Nevertheless, there is a price that it must pay for encouraging a force without checking its credentials and it may not find the way to retrieve the harm that Shahabag has done it politically, that easily. Supporting the SM in retrospect may have been a major political blunder of the ruling party.

When political parties make mistakes, they pay the price. It is the role of the secularists intellectuals with links to the ruling party and the media in the Shahabag movement that must be subjected to some serious scrutiny because they would not be called to pay any price for their role although they also contributed to SM’s ignominious end that has pushed the country towards a civil war.  The youth had undoubtedly attracted the attention of the nation when they appeared initially with their message, their enthusiasm. They could have been guided to achieve the ideals that they sought to achieve. They could have united the nation and revived the spirit of 1971. Instead, these secularists/intellectuals went to Shahabag without checking the background of the youth and straightaway, termed their movement as the “Liberation war of Projonmo”  when they saw in the movement potentials for helping the ruling party politically and furthering their own agenda on secularism minus Islam. In urging the movement to fight a new war, a war they believed was not finished in 1971; they pushed the youth into the conflict ridden politics of the country. In fact, they did more. They pushed it to achieve their political agenda. They  used SM to ban Jamat and remove the Islamic provisions in the Constitution so that the state principle of secularism would not be tarnished by Islam!

When the youth demanded capital punishment for the accused in the war crimes, they had the nation enthralled and expectant because except the Jamat, there was consensus for such a demand.  If they had been allowed to pursue this line after the government changed the ICT laws so that the government could plead once an accused was given punishment less than a capital one, they would have been on course to ensuring that the accused before the ICT would not get reprieve as Qader Mollah did. In fact, they had even ensured that Qader Mollah would again be brought to trial and given capital punishment. Then influenced by the secular forces, they demanded the banning of Jamat. Thereafter, the partisan nature of the country’s politics became as clear as day light in the Shahabag Movement. The ruling party through the secular forces planted in the movement its political agenda one after another.  The secularists planted in the movement their agenda of reviving secularism minus Islam. Together they pampered the Shahabag youth in such glowing terms that it made the leaders of the Shahabag Movement think of themselves larger than life. It was with their encouragement that Dr. Imran Sarker made that audacious statement that the Shahabag Movement was stronger than the government.

The secular forces linked to the ruling party and the government with the media as an ally worked hand in glove for the ruling party’s political agenda. It was however the secular forces who worked as the conduit for the government with the Shahabag leaders and supported all their demands without caring for their legality. In fact, they did not just bother to care for legality; they also set aside issues of human dignity and propriety. Thus when Shahabag demanded that the government must change laws so that Qader Mollah could be brought to trials again and hanged, the whole heartedly backed them. They should have cautioned the Shahabag youth that their demand conflicted directly with the principles of law and jurisprudence and that sensible people abroad would immediately dismiss the movement on this demand alone. They should have also cautioned them that after such changes in the ICT laws by the government under demand made by them, death sentences on the accused would be suspect by simple application of common sense to the outside world that was not happy with the way the Government was conducting the trials. They watched and supported young children as young as five/six years old crying hoarse demanding the hanging of the alleged criminals! It is sad that not one of them saw the sadistic nature of such a demand when young kids were brought to do such acts!

They forgot that we have in the country a legal, elected government. They listened to the Shahabag youth like it was the government and followed them obediently. They thus urged people all over the country to answer the call of the Shahabag youth and come to a standstill for 3 minutes.  Their urging was so successful that the Governor of Bangladesh Bank proudly led his staff out and stood in 3 minutes silence to show their obedience to the Shahabag Movement. The Bank made sure that the picture of the Governor and his staff obediently listening to the dictates of the Shahabag youth was prominently displayed in the newspapers. In fact, ministers did the same thing that the Governor did with his staff.  When these youth leaders in a state of surreal sense of authority that these secular forces had put in their heads demanded that flags be hoisted as a time determined by them, the secular forces saw nothing wrong in such a demand although they knew that there are prescribed rules governing the hoisting of the national flag and no private individual or group has any right to interfere with such rules!

The movement of the youth took a critical part of Dhaka’s unbelievably weak traffic system to create their space. Across were two major hospitals of the country, PG and BIRDEM. Had the movement been for a day or two, it would have been bad enough. The movement carried for days, weeks, months. It does not need common sense to suggest that the Shahabag movement caused massive damages/dislocations/losses to the traffic system of Dhaka, to patients trying to get treatment in the two major hospitals and to businesses on the Elephant Road. Yet the secular forces that guided the Shahabag Movement remained silent to such gross interference in the lives of the people. In fact, the secular/intellectual forces who guided and supported the SM took leave of their senses and backed all demands made by the SM so that their own agenda on secularism, Jamat and Islam would be fulfilled.

In the belief that the movement would lead Bangladesh to glory by reviving the spirit of 1971, these intellectuals asked no questions who these young men and women were. They did not ask that although the demand to give the maximum punishment to the war criminals was a great one and that the youth had to be welcomed for making the demand, why they were silent about more serious problems in society, like for instance, issues of corruption, Hallmark, Destiny, sharemarket.etc. The last four years under this government have been particularly a bad one for the youth. The educations institutions of the country have been subjected to criminalization that the country did not witness in the past and the ruling party’s student wing was using these institutions as their fiefdom.  These issues together with many more, like eves teasing in educational institutions that have become such a menace that regularly girls are omitting suicide, should have been the core concerns of any youth movement in the country. Yet at Shahabag, the movement was silent about these issues. Why did the secularists/intellectuals who saw the omissions not speak out? What was the reason behind their silence?

When the anti-Islam blogs became public knowledge, these secularists/intellectuals failed to see the dangers or alert the leaders of the SM. In fact, they misled them by trying to deflect the responsibility for these postings on the Jamat and Shibir. On behalf of the youth, they expressed anger on those who exposed these blogs. They demanded one particular newspaper be closed and its editor arrested for exposing the bogs’ anti Islamic postings.  As a consequence of their ill- motivated  support  for the Shahabag movement, they were greatly instrumental in the expected way the movement has ended; a movement, largely partisan in favour of the ruling party and totally insensitive to the real issues of concern in the society and totally oblivious to the importance of Islam in the country.

Unfortunately, there is no way to hold these secularists/intellectuals responsible for their role in the Shahabag Movement although their support and encouragement has  to a great extent brought the country face to face with the greatest dangers the country has faced in the last 42 years of its existence. The aftermaths of the Shahabag Movement are still unfolding although the movement has more or less ended with the ruling party now having drawn the line with the arrest of the three bloggers. But at this stage, it may be safely said that as much as a vast majority of the nation supported maximum punishment for the alleged war criminals, they want much more that no one should dare disrespect Islam and Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

The Shahabag movement has also revealed the force of the media in present Bangladesh, albeit negatively. It has shown what the media can do if it gets together for a thoughtless cause and ends owning it. Instead of being objective of the Shahabag movement, it became partisan; in fact, it acted as the media of the movement.  It represented the voice of the youth and the secular/ intellectuals as the voice of the nation without caring to find the truth; that between Shahabag/ intellectuals and the nation, there was the overwhelming majority of the people whose opinion on Shahabag they assumed to be positive even after the anti-Islamic blogs became public. If it had acted as a responsible media and pointed the mistakes that the SM did, it could have done itself, the youth movement and the nation great credit instead of pushing the country to the brink of a civil war. In the end, it gave a small section of the country’s youth a national forum and tried to launch them to national leadership. It also gave a section of the country’s secularist/intellectuals a forum to carry forward their agenda of secularism through Shahabag. On both counts, the media failed to do what it intended to do because it assumed things and events without and did not seek truth and reality. To make amends, even though partially, the media should now pursue the secular/intellectual forces and tell the public what they would do now that the government has dropped SM as a hot potato.

Shahabag’s lessons will sink for better or for worse for the country depending on what lessons the actors of the Shahabag drama as parties/groups/individuals take from it. It is still early to conclude on all the lessons from Shahabag. This notwithstanding, it may not be off the mark to suggest one major lesson from Shahabag. No matter what the Constitution says about the state principles, democracy, nationalism, socialism or secularism, all must find a way to blend with Islam. It should not be difficult because Islam has blended with the most important of these state principles for the Shahabag movement/and the section of the secularists/intellectuals that supported Shahabag, namely secularism, for centuries without any problem. Whether Islam and secularism would remain the way it has blended for centuries would depend to a great extent on the secular forces and what stand they take on Islam in future.

They should consider the planned march of the Islamists towards Dhaka on April 6. This could be the most dangerous development out of Shahabag so far. By its insensitivity, the Shahabag movement has awakened this danger for the country in which their contribution has been significant; the prospect of what was never a possibility for the country; the prospect of fundamentalist Islamic forces becoming strong to challenge for political power. One has to pray for the country so that the government does not make any more mistakes with this Islamist forces under the influence of the secular forces within it folds.   It is time for the government/ruling party to draw a line as it has with Shahabag with the secular forces for its own sake and the country so that both Islam and secularism can find their own space in society as it has for many centuries,

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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