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Bangladesh’s New Generation Awakens in Protest

February 20, 2013

This year, spring arrived a few days early in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, and its advent was a raging bloom. On February 5, a few Bangladeshi blogger-activists occupied the Shahbag intersection to protest against the mild sentence of life-imprisonment awarded to war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah, who committed heinous crimes during the violent 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. Since then, the movement has swelled and Shahbag Mor, renamed the Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Roundabout), has been occupied by millions of young Bangladeshis from all kinds of religious, ethnic, and ideological divides. The protestors reversed a decision to scale back demonstrations on February 15 after Rajib Haider, a well-known blogger and key organizer of the movement, was killed outside of his home.

Protests in Dhaka

Since the movement started, it has swelled and Shahbag Mor, renamed the Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Roundabout), has been occupied by millions of young Bangladeshis.

It’s being said that the spirit of the protest is reminiscent of ’71, and the manner most unique: there is no central leadership, but an emergence of myriad groups forming their own circles and protesting peacefully in different ways: some are singing, others are reading poetry, sloganeering, holding candlelight vigils, creating flower mosaics, painting murals, drawing cartoons, enacting street theater, and playing patriotic movies on big screens. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this movement has been the emergence and participation of women, from school students to young mothers, and the iconic face of this feature has been the feisty Lucky Akhter, dubbed Ogni Konnya (Daughter of Fire), who has held center stage belting out slogans non-stop. While from afar the movement might look like an enormous celebration, the movement could potentially result in something much larger and long-lasting: an awakening of Bangladesh’s youth.

While at the core of the Shahbag movement is the demand that the war criminals currently under trial by the International Crimes Tribunal receive the highest punishment, it has also opened up space for discussions on subjects that until now were either considered taboo or avoided altogether. These include: fundamentalist forces in politics; secularism; the reigning political structure of divisiveness, unaccountability, and vote banks; inclusiveness and equality of all Bangladeshis irrespective of religion and ethnicity; unification of the often divergent, conflicting and contradictory historical narratives; boycotting establishments run by the war criminals; and most importantly, reviving the spirit of the ’71 Liberation War.

The most fascinating phenomenon of this movement has been the role of the young protesters armed with their laptops and handhelds. Though Bangladesh’s internet penetration is still quite low (approximately 0.4 percent in 2011), the nation ranks 11th worldwide in the number of mobile phone subscriptions as of July 2012. With exposure to multiple sources of information and the freedom to share ideas with blinding speed, the protesters are pushing society to confront and re-examine its values, politics, legislation, laws, and collective memory.

Naturally, questions have arisen about the goals of this movement, where it will ultimately lead the nation, and what it will be able to achieve. There is no crystal-gazing prophecy to answer that and it is probably too early to predict the full impact of the movement. But one thing is for sure: the “Shahbag spirit” has rekindled and enshrined the values of democracy, justice, and secularism on which this nation was founded in the majority of young hearts. The effects of this early spring will be felt for a long time to come.

Guest writer Awrup Sanyal is chief creative officer for Bitopi Advertising Ltd., a Leo Burnett affiliate, in Dhaka. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

2 comments on this post:

  1. Awrup Sanyal:

    Nagesh, thank you so much. I was much impressed and inspired by your and Navine’s analyses in “Lessons from Delhi and Dhaka” in kafila.org.

    Whatever’s happening in Dhaka today was bound to happen sooner or later; and it is definitely transformative in more ways than one. For example, I find myself being forced to reexamine my own views and beliefs about many things that I had taken for granted; the cracks and crevices between theory and praxis, I guess. As you rightly say, it is an ongoing process.

    Any movement that is organic, comes with its chinks. They are initially a profound emotional response to a crisis, and then it, the movement, is forced to look at itself, now humongous, and recalibrate its visons, because it realises that it has eclipsed the initial short term agenda, and the expectations around it has grown, from the people and from within itself.

    I guess that is what this movement is going through too right now. Everyone, especially from outside, armchair observers like me, expects it to be functioning with clockwork precision with all possible angles and tangents thought of; it’s too idealistic, and not really possible on-ground. Because, at the core of the movement is still an atavistic emotional response – that’s the heart of it, so to speak, and now the it needs the head to start participating, and together it can move on to bring about a few changes, never all, till the next ‘revolution’.

    Thank you, once again.

  2. Great piece, Awrup! No doubt, those who participated, and many others, will remember these couple of weeks as a transformative experience. I do agree that there is crystal ball to tell which way things will progress in the coming weeks and months, but it’s clear that there is a process of mass action underway.

    While no one can predict the future, I think that the questions that the movement finds itself grappling with now are as important as they are fascinating (and vexing, too).

    The struggle (and the discussions) continue!

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