We are a country inundated with political rallies. From my office window in Motijheel I’ve seen AL rallies, BNP rallies, Jamaat rallies, stock market investors’ protests, communist marches, and even a human chain attempted by the petrol pump owners association. The people of Dhaka are jaded. We accept hartals passively, staying home not as a sign of support of some spurious cause, but rather, to enjoy an extra holiday, or to avoid getting our car broken. When we watch thousands of people line up in front of our two ladies, we accept that these are political cadres bussed in from random places, or bodies hired to make up the head count.
Shahbagh, whatever it is, has smashed that apathy to bits. These people are not hired. This is not a staged event. Regardless of what detractors say, one only has to spend two minutes in Shahbagh Moar to understand that everything here is voluntary, raw, heartfelt. There are of course many other criticisms of this movement:
Even if they are not directly government stooges, they are being nurtured by the AL, cocooned by loving policemen, fed, watered and feted by ministers. What kind of protest is it, without tear gas and bullets?
What do you expect the government to do? Shoot at unarmed women and children? Slaughter college kids and shopkeepers? The demands of Shahbagh and the AL overlap to some extent. That is not surprising given the universal hatred for Razakars this country once felt in ‘71. The fact that politicians have since seen fit to worm these men back into power does not mean they were ever rehabilitated in the eyes of the common people. The fact that most people in the country hate Razakars, including the sitting government, should not really detract from the legitimacy of the cause.
A second criticism is that this cause is bloodthirsty, immoral, a mere baying for revenge. As others have pointed out, it doesn’t take 41 years to kill a handful of men. The chant in Shahbagh is fashi, a call for the hangman’s noose. Hanging is a specific kind of death. It spells out crime and punishment. It answers with explicit finality the question of Razakars, atrocities and guilt. These people want a result which cannot be retracted.
In any case, the significance of Shahbagh is that ordinary people have taken to the streets after a long, long time. This is not about legal arguments, or capital punishment morality, or political manoeuvring towards future elections. I believe deep inside, this is a visceral rejection of fundamentalism, and the end game which Jamaat brings to the table. On some level I think people realize that there is no room for us in the kind of world they want to build.
Our people are secular at heart. Our women work. We love music, and dancing. We care about literature, and language. Even with thousands in Shahbagh chanting for death, there is, inevitably, pockets of song and dance and plays, outbursts of the sentimentality which is our national character. We were never meant to be a fundamentalist state.
This Jamaat thing is alien, even when perpetrated on us by some of our own. Shahbagh is the silent majority rising up against the use of religion to bully, the issuing of bewildering fatwas, the adoption of Arab dress and Arab ways, the blatant distortion of the past, the peculiar assault on our culture.
Our politicians treat us like idiots. They say the most ridiculous, outrageous lies with the glib expectation that we are careless morons with no options. There are countless cases of corruption, hideous crime, and failed expectations which we have let slide. In a perfect world, the people would rise up against each injustice. That is clearly not so. But in this instant, in this one case, the long suffering majority have reacted, have for the first time said, no more: these crimes you committed must be paid for, history cannot be changed by force, and you, Jamaat-e-Islami, do not speak for us.
Saad Z Hossain is a businessman and an aspiring writer.