A young man on the edge of Shahbagh circle looked straight at me and yelled out “Revolution!” with the same vigour and sentimentality of a young Che on a motorbike. I was not too bothered by the proclamation. Far younger men and children in Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Myanmar have waved their guns and machetes at me and yelled out the same word. The languages have changed over the years, guns have changed models (although a rusted AK-47 is still the most fashionable gear for the lonely warrior), but the emotion remains identical both in intensity and expression.
The spontaneous gathering at Shahbagh circle (now being called Projonmo Chottor or Generation Square) poses some important questions for our nation, questions that have not been asked in a long time. The few times we have dared to ask the state to address the general culture of impunity and the ownership rights of Mujib, Zia, or the army, it has collapsed into chaos, state sanctioned tomfoolery, and/or outright hostility toward any dissent.
This country’s history is not littered with dead revolutionaries like Spain or Argentina, it is littered with broken revolutionaries who bothered to ask a few questions instead of joining the hordes of zombies who put on a Mujib moustache and Zia swagger to blend into the ridiculousness of a country run by two families, both of which have doled out free license to war criminals, unfettered access to corruption as political currency.
So questions are dangerous things.
Questions need to be asked this time too. The gathering at Shahbagh comes out of a feeling that this country’s political elites are disconnected from the realities of the new Bangladesh. However, what needs to happen now is a transformation from youthful exhilaration to a real movement with actual long-term goals, not some “let us occupy and hope Wall Street changes” sort of movement. Singing, dancing, and long speeches are great, but in a world full of rapists, murderers… and ministers of distortion, they do not go far.
Before we get on to the hypothetical/counter-factual wagon that has been circling many minds about the potential of this movement, let us first dissect what exactly the Shahbagh movement demands. First and foremost, the spontaneous reaction of the urban youth was a product of astonishment and dismay toward the verdict of life imprisonment for Jamaat-e-Islami Assistant Secretary General Abdul Quader Mollah, a man commonly known as the “Butcher of Mirpur”. People want him hanged, not attend to garden duty at the central jail and then be exonerated by the next government and reinstated as a minister of some sort. We have seen that game played out far too many times in the brief history of this nation.
However, if the primary demand were to be met by the judicial body and the verdict changed to hanging, then it will surely delegitimize the whole process (by that I mean due process along with the judicial body, not just the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)), as public pressure is not an acceptable reason to change a verdict, only new evidence is.
On the other hand, any rational person would ask, why is this war criminal not given a death sentence when he is guilty of war crimes? I will set aside the issue of the general unacceptability of capital punishment in most civilized nations for now. Although some protesters are probably hungry for blood, with retribution rather than justice on their minds, I am certain that the reason most people want the death penalty is that they are disillusioned with the idea of life imprisonment when it really only means three months in jail with access to HBO and cricket, followed by a new “ministership” under the next regime. The reason of a less than maximum sentence seems more political as opposed to legal. Let me also remind you that if we had a better set of lawyers who were drafting the initial amendment to counter situations like this, we would not be here.
I do not support any form of capital punishment as long as the punitive process within the judiciary works. I wish we lived in a country where life imprisonment meant life imprisonment, as opposed to “I will wait it out to unleash terror when I am minister again,” but unfortunately, we do not. So it is a tough moral question, and to twist and turn on the matter is inevitable. Clearly, this is a lose-lose situation for the judiciary. The reason it is a lose-lose situation is because if they change the sentence then the streets dictate the law, and if they don’t then they lose general legitimacy from the streets. I don’t recall any time in the history of this country the judiciary has been under this much pressure with this much to lose.
Now let us look at the future of this movement. Let us assume the Shahbagh movement gets what it wants. Does that change the culture of impunity on matters of not only war crimes but also corruption? After all, we are unable to get a proper loan from the World Bank because our leaders are stubborn and loyal to ‘criminals’, yet have no regard for the general public. So what does this change? Do we have a plan? Or is this merely sound and fury signifying nothing in the long run? These questions need to be answered before we invest any more excitement in a cause that may be the mother of all causes to some, but all nations are orphans, and disillusionment in this movement will cost this nation its soul.
Perhaps we need to actually realize that as long as it is business as usual for the parties, it is no business of our own. For this movement to survive and to change the role of politics in this nation will require not only a sustained understanding of nonpartisanship but also an improvement in what we dejectedly call Bangladeshi politics. Whether or not that is a viable idea can only be seen over time and space.
So five years down the road, if we can look back and say this movement changed the political landscape of our country, only then can we surely feel a sustained joy, otherwise this is just getting high in one’s parents’ basement on euphoria, anger, and indignation, none of which is going to help a poor country like Bangladesh that is fraught with corruption and broken revolutionaries.
Ultimately we are here for the country itself.
Revolution without sustained evolution ends in agony for all. You do not need to read Crane Brinton for that. Now on to Shahbagh.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a war theorist and a visiting researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development, Harvard University.