Shahbagh slides into old identity dichotomy
When a demand is de-contextualised from the power forces at play, it risks this occupation by those forces. Now the ultimate effect of Shahbagh has been dividing the nation even more dangerously, rather than uniting us or showing us a path forward — for at the end of the day they did not risk enough to go against the state as well as Shibir, and thus, fell into an old identity dichotomy rather than creating a new synthesis for a new identity, writes Seema Amin
GENERATION 13 claims that a structural shift in the mindset of the general populace may well be the most positive outcome of the Shahbagh movement. The long-term impact of the Shahbagh movement can only be predicted by the political position in which it ultimately found itself. When the ‘spontaneous’ movement began, the present government’s popularity seemed to be drowning in corruption scandals, mysterious murders, fanatical overuse of the police on everyone from teachers to the left. Until Shahbagh, almost every serious protest in the country was contained or violently attacked, except for a few Jamaat protests that occurred just weeks before the sentencing of the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’.
As the Shahbagh movement gained steam, the protestors spoke with the national rhetoric of liberation, recycling old slogans and creating a few new ones, which the Awami League had until then almost claimed as their own property. Shahbagh claims they have allowed everyone to claim liberation, not just the Awami League. Strangely, within a few weeks, Lucky Akter was hit by an AL strongman and silenced soon after. Today she stands with her arms closed while pro-government civil society and cadres alternate slogans and the stage. Why is she not the leader of Shahbagh, instead of Imran H Sarkar?
Those who were critical of the government’s four years of rule have moved into the background, willingly, and the movement can barely be distinguished from what is being said in parliament. What seemed like a great mirroring act by Shahbagh (showing that the emperor is naked) turned out to be an even greater imitation act by the government. But beyond all this, the movement shows the lack of political acumen, courage and historical knowledge on the part of protesters. They seemed unable to understand with what language a country of so many Muslim believers, living in a global moment of political Islam and oppression of that phenomenon could be identified.
Seeming to lack any understanding of dealing with Shibir, they moved into a full-scale attack, mirroring their violence in words. Seeming to lack any understanding of the class and pulse of this largely rural country that had also watched four years of misrule camouflaged in this same rhetoric, they began an onslaught that will have fatal consequences for this poor, tragic country. The question is: could the movement have gone another way?
Knowing the narrow cultural identity and limited political generosity (I make this statement knowing that they would not have come out in these numbers to protest eviction of the poor, the killing of hundreds in garments fires or border killings and bilateral treaties that negotiate away our ecological rights) of the middle classes who ran to Shahbagh, I can say that without any leader in sight — young or old — who would push this movement that way, it was inevitable that this movement would hand over the energy of youth to the contenders of state domination and possibly, enough violence for a ‘third force’ to come in with the excuse of keeping order.
One can ask the question: what else could they have done as a response to such a sentence and compromise that was a negation of the government’s electoral pledge? They could have spoken in a different language, danced in a different form, reminded us of a longer history of collective consciousness stretching to class consciousness and reaching toward every political crime committed by successive governments and their choice of domination and greed. Would this have diluted the demand? It would have prevented the movement from denigrating into a demand for a hanging — something that at best would assuage the ghosts of victims of crimes against humanity.
When a demand is de-contextualised from the power forces at play, it risks this occupation by those forces. Now the ultimate effect of Shahbagh has been dividing the nation even more dangerously, rather than uniting us or showing us a path forward — for at the end of the day they did not risk enough to go against the state as well as Shibir, and thus, fell into an old identity dichotomy rather than creating a new synthesis for a new identity.
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