The name Shahbag will not evoke much recognition from the Indian pretenders to ‘global citizenship’. Dhaka is the city many Indians believe that ‘they’ liberated in 1971. Shahbag is one of the main street intersections of Dhaka where the events taking place as I write may have historic consequences. If you walk from the Science Lab intersection in Dhaka and hear passionate slogans from the young and old shaking the ground beneath your feet, you are at Shahbag.
After the 1971 Liberation war of Bangladesh, the governments of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh reached a tripartite agreement. One of the despicable results of this was the granting of clemency to some of the worst perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the last millennium. Some Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan forces indulged in mass-murders and rapes that have few parallels in recent memory. They have never faced the judicial process, until now.
The International War Crimes tribunal in Bangladesh has been pursuing some of the biggest leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Razakar, Al-Shams and Al-Badr militia — a process that has stupendous public support. One of the most hated of these characters, Kader Mollah, has been handed a life sentence and not a death sentence. This resulted in a protest assembly started by a bloggers and online activist network that was quickly joined by progressive and left-wing student organisations.
The result has been an unprecedented mass assembly that has been going on almost continuously since February 5 with people from all walks of life joining in. If the Anna protests in Delhi were a stove-flame, Shahbag is a veritable volcano. It was briefly called off after February 21 only to start again a day later.
As I stand in Shahbag, soaking in this immense human energy, I cannot help compare this to another such urban assembly I was recently witness to, where too, calls for hanging (something I am personallyopposed to, under any circumstance) were the primary chant. These were the India Gate protests after the Delhi rape and murder case. At India Gate, Kavita Krishnan and others tried their best to inject sanity into the folks demands for death and castration. There the political was trying to reason with the expressly ‘apolitical’. Here in Shahbag, from the very outset, it was very political. However, it was not partisan. The difference showed. In Shahbag, the politicised students and youth mood that bordered on uber-nationalism was blood-lust was interrogated, at the square itself, by mass chants, that challenged simplistic understandings of nation, nationalism and revenge.
The slogan Tumi ke, ami ke, Bangali, Bangali (Who are you, who am I? Bengali, Bengali) was often changed to Chakma, Marma, Bangali to include other ethnicities in the state of Bangladesh. The former two ethnic groups were involved in a long-armed insurrection with the government. This is not easy, especially in a nation-state formed primarily on the basis of an exclusivist ethno-linguistic nationalism.
Imagine saying the K-word or the N-word as different from ‘Indian’ in the Delhi chants. But Dhaka could, and they could precisely because Shahbag is political. The media covers Shahbag, it does not dictate it. It does not repeat the word ‘apolitical’ like a ghost-busting mantra as those in Delhi studios did as soon as the ‘Damini’ protests started. In Shahbag, it was demanded that whole organisations that were involved in rapes and murders be banned. In the Indian Union, can we even dare to name the organisations and agencies to which the highest numbers of alleged rapists are affiliated?
The amateur flash-in-the-pan nature of Delhi protests showed when it was all but broken but a Lathi-charge. The brutal murder of one of the organisers of the Shahbag protests, blogger Rajeeb Haidar, only strengthened the resolve of the square. In Shahbag, the government is trying hard to appropriate the movement for justice.
At the India Gate, the Delhi Police meted out instant justice of another kind. Shahbag is also a call for a different political direction — the youth wanting to resolve issues that happened before their birth. This bursts the myth that today’s young only react when things affect them directly. The hip metro youth of India, are still sadly, in a state of political infancy in this regard.
I stood mesmerised by the slogan-chanting figure of Bangladesh Chhatro Union’s Lucky Akhtar, who has now been nicknamed ‘slogankanya’ by Shahbag itself. Lucky has been hospitalised multiple times, once after being pushed by ruling party operatives keen to capture the stage.
Whenever Lucky led the sloganeering, it was hard to separate the aesthetic from the political. And why should one? In this assembly for justice against crimes that also includes innumerable rapes, there were thousands who were there not as somebody’s mother, daughter or sister, but as politically inspired women. And it matters. And that showed.