The Shahbag uprising in Bangladesh had been one of the most important developments that marked the country&’s socio-political scenario. The popular movement in Dhaka&’s Shahbag Square had started on 5 February 2013, demanding capital punishment for the war criminals of the 1971 struggle for liberation.  It began with considerable enthusiasm, reminiscent of the Arab Spring  in 2011. It was marked by significant popular participation and activism of a kind that the nation had never seen. Given the apparent similarities with the Jasmine Revolution or the  mass upsurge for the occupation of Wall Street in New York or for that matter  Anna Hazare&’s crusade against corruption, the mass protests at  Shahbag Square – the intersection in the capital city of Dhaka – stirred the democratic conscience of the people.

Regrettably, within a short span of time, the spirit of  the upheaval started to fade.  It would be no exaggeration to suggest that it is a ‘vanished movement’ in Bangladesh today. After a brief and spirited start, it seems to have been relegated to the footnotes and is unlikely to be revived as a  concerted,  well-sustained and prolonged upsurge – to identify the ‘means’ to reach a proper ‘end’. Those who spearheaded the movement did manage to provide some solace to the martyrs of the liberation war  by putting the war criminals on trial. However, the demand  for legal justice alone was not perhaps what the people of Bangladesh had wanted. The moral obligation of the Shahbag movement got stretched to address some of the dormant issues in the polity. It led the nation to deal with such issues as extreme political polarisation, scathing religious intolerance, and declining social cohesiveness which undermine the nation&’s democratic structure. The subsequent developments on the socio-political front, in the immediate aftermath of the Shahbag uprising, perhaps provide an explanation why the popular upheaval stopped short of becoming a ‘movement’ per se and met its eclipse  as a passionate ‘moment’. 

Did the significance of the Shahbag movement get undermined by its sheer momentousness? Or is it the momentousness which signifies the movement&’s importance? These questions call for reflection. The post-Shahbag period provides a clue to trace the movement&’s eventual stagnation. Politicisation or eventual political intervention was one of the major factors that had a negative influence on the movement.  Shahbag  started as a civilian protest with an  apolitical tenor. It did influence  the common people, the student community, the youth, the bloggers, a large number of women as well as noted personnel from the academic circuit, the media, the social sector and from other higher professional rungs. It could mobilise the  populace which was  by and large internally divided and less cohesive.  And the people were mobilised not only at the local and national levels, but at the international level as well.

The movement became a victim of  political inroads by the major  parties. The ruling Awami League and its main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) through their respective student wings tried to manoeuvre the popular will, in every possible way, to fulfil their own political agendas. For instance, the landmark decision of de-registering the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI) – the largest Islamist political party of Bangladesh – from the national electoral roll by the Bangladesh High Court on August 1, 2013 did not miss the cynic&’s ire. It was a calculated measure by the AL government to increase its political clout prior to the elections. Similarly, the BNP&’s open support for the fanatical Jamaat and Hefazat-e-Islam which had organised violence against the protesting masses, was evidently  interpreted as its strategy to retain its Islamist vote-bank in the upcoming general elections. Thus tacit political power-play, in the guise of allegations and counter-allegations by the propagators of two opposing camps, frustrated the common people. Furthermore, politicisation of the movement led to organised  violence with frequent clashes between the Jamaat Shibir, whose top leaders were among the prime accused of war crimes, and the state forces.

The worst sufferers of such political violence were none other than the common people as the country suffered severe political violence during  2013-14. According to the annual human rights reports of Odhikar, 506 people were killed and some 24,176 injured in 2013; while in 2014 an estimated 190 people were killed, 9429 injured, and 1321 arrested. All this indicates how the movement took an unfortunate turn, much different from what it had aspired for.

The second challenge was the movement&’s religious dimension. The six-point demands that were raised by the Shahbag protestors from the Gonojagaran Manch (‘Platform for Popular Uprising’) buttressed the need for something beyond mere trials. They wanted the separation of religion from politics and to strike at the roots of religious fundamentalism. Accordingly demands were made for systematic investigation into the activities of the organizations that finance the Jamaat-e-Islami; strict enforcement of law and order to root out terror hideouts; and publishing facts about the terror activities of the fundamentalists on national and international media. In essence, the movement tried to buttress the principles of secularism but stopped short of effectively realising the same. This is because it  failed to gauge the mindset of its people.  It was essentially city-centric and driven by the middle class.  It failed to influence the vast majority of the Bangladeshi populace who live on the outskirts of the urban centres, in rural areas and are religious by nature. For most of them ‘secularism’ – a complicated term  with multiple connotations – was at odds.

One  could interpret the gruesome murders of the bloggers (Ahmed Rajiv Haider, Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Neel and Faisal Arefin Dipan) to the attempted imposition of secularism in the name of democracy, for which the nation is not perhaps prepared quite yet.  Have all the efforts gone to waste?  Perhaps not. Its significance lies in its momentary intensity.  Despite the shortcomings, it could highlight the  gaps that still exist in the polity such as polarisation along strict party lines and religious intolerance. It energised a stagnant democracy which was repeatedly stumbling  amidst a bitter  power struggle. It successfully brought to the fore the assertive voice of the ‘people’, and that too, over their chosen political representatives. The spirit of a true democracy was reinforced when the united voice of the people was accorded precedence and necessary recognition, however temporarily.  Above all, it  charted a viable alternative to realise democracy… not merely through conventional means such as elections but also through ‘popular social movements’.   The upheaval  was indeed a significant flashpoint in the history of social movements in Bangladesh. Its significance, nevertheless, lay in its momentousness, as it could successfully indicate the country&’s forward march towards democracy.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta.