March 29, 2013

#Shahbag- A personal view

Is Shahbag Bangladesh’s second Mukti Juddho?

Bangladesh was born in the first decade of my life. At three, my friends and I played at being Mukti Bahini against the villainous Pakistanis. Then came 1975 and the death of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman. Apart from those highpoints, Bangladesh remained a peripheral unless parochialism was a factor.

And then came Shahbag. Like most interesting issues nowadays, #Shahbag gained popularity via Twitter, from a Bangladeshi friend (@rezwan) followed by tweets, Facebook updates and YouTube videos. Two successive trips to London (where I visited Brick Lane to assess the mood in the largest Bangladeshi enclave outside the subcontinent) and interactions with a Bangladeshi friend (@shahanasiddiqui), who is a vocal critic of the ways of the Shahbag, I realised I was intrigued and at the same time confused.


It is tempting to look at the political scenario in Bangladesh and construct a conflict narrative around the secular Awami League and the Islamist BNP. Much has been written about this, mostly partisan. For a view of the situation, that takes into account the myriad complex strands, Nitin Pai says “Although the sight of massive crowds baying for blood is unsettling, the Shahbag protests are not merely about hanging murderers. Bangladesh is in a remarkable, and perhaps unprecedented, situation: large crowds have gathered in a Muslim-majority country protesting against Islamist politics. This is really a massive public rejection of parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami and a repudiation of their ideology”

There have been two camps online as there have been on ground. On the ground, Shahbag has been a movement that has seen children brought there by their parents. Online clashes between vocal Jamaat activists condemning the “immoral and atheist” Shahbag activists are rife. Do remember that anti-Islamist blogger, Rajib Haider was murdered, allegedly by the Jamaat. Did that ignite the interwebs?

It is tempting to look at Bangladesh’s religious composition of 90 percent Muslims and opine that it is the The Arab Spring, Bangladesh version is Shahbag. Bangladesh is a homogeneous country with a proud syncretic culture. Unlike Pakistan, which has all but obliterated its pre-Islamic history to create a distorted narrative, Bangladeshi pride in a 1000 year old culture that gave rise to Buddhism in Tibet and China, Vaishnavism and at least two Nobel laureates in Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen is palpable. A majority of Bangladeshis happen to be Muslim, but all of them are proud to be part of a distinct culture. This idea of pluralism that goes beyond the moment of birth of the Bangladeshi nation is vital to understand the drivers of #Shahbag.

On running a Google Trends analysis, the peak of the Shahbag searches almost rivalled the much more famous Arab Spring. While Rajib Haider’s death hit the headlines, it didn’t quite cause the expected stir on the internet. It is tempting to label it as yet another social media revolution. Part of this movement was driven in a successful attempt to involve the large Bangladeshi diaspora. A variety of channels are in use, one of them “was hosted and co-ordinated by 6 young people and the whole idea was implemented in 2-3 hours. And these people were roaming Shahbag whole day long carrying a web cam and a Laptop”.

Even more interesting is an analysis of how Twitter was used. Many new users joined Twitter for the purpose of amplifying the movement. Clever use of hashtags and tagging influential media channels helped to drive awareness and involvement.  Movements today are driven by the omni channel– Facebook marshals the faithful and the interested, YouTube and UStream magnify what is happening on-ground and Twitter amplifies the news.

My belief is that #Shahbag is the first tranche of Bangladesh’s demographic dividend. Discussions of the demographic dividend are driven by the outside world looking in rather than insiders charting their own destiny. If one switches to the inside-out, a very different picture emerges. Consider the median age of Bangladesh – at 23, one of the youngest. Consider the almost perfect population pyramid, (from this dated, but very consistent pattern. These are globally connected, digitally enabled people who are ambitious for themselves and their nation. Therein lies the key difference.

When you see it thus, this is the second Mukti Juddho. It is a war for freedom – freedom to soar leaving the past behind, not locked up, but resolved. It is a war for freedom – for religion to be an individual faith rather than pulpit driven Islamism. It is a war for the freedom of the soul, of hope and of being the foremost among the N-11.

Photo: Rajiv Ashrafi

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