On October 16, 2011, we had written a piece (Bloggers (Asif and the likes): An emerging third force in politics?) on the activities of bloggers contesting the power relationships. 16 months later it looks like the analytical assumptions are proving truer than expected. We had written:
“A quiet revolution is taking place in Bangladesh. The blogosphere as a tried and tested weapon of the citizen not under the control of the state authorities or untrustworthy politicians has made its presence known. After many a summer, there is a definite whiff of optimism in the air as the footprints of a new future starts emerging.”
* * *
It is both ironic and tragic that the first ‘martyr’ of what is increasingly becoming a war of sort saw a blogger fall. Ahmed Rajib Haider, one of the main strengths of Shahbagh Movement was killed in a particularly gruesome manner for speaking out and organising. His enemies are obvious but his death is unacceptable. It would seem that like so many all over the world the voices of protest are stronger than its mere footsteps.
* * *
Shahbagh is a spontaneous expression of those who feel left out of the national political governance process. Young people unburdened by partisanism of the AL-BNP variety where brains are basically asked to take a vacation will not tag along so easily anymore. It’s a wonderful display of protest, power and aspirations. At one level, it’s a classical Bengali thing: hyper emotional, politically charged, liberal left, culturally decorated and resurrecting images and symbols that inspire them. Had the political structure of Bangladesh given them any space, Shahbagh would not have happened but that is exactly what Shahbagh is. It’s a gut reaction of many to the exclusion from national politics, always a private monopoly of the party in power. Shahbagh is truly people power particularly young people’s power.
* * *
But it’s also many other things including description of the state’s health particularly of its judiciary which has been ailing for long. The ICT has now become the symbol of what is not right with it. Any comment on the judiciary is usually punished and many people think many of them feel not accountable to the people except the political leadership. This has been going on for quite a while and questions raised by many were never addressed. Unfortunately the crisis went on deepening till it exploded and Shahbagh was born.
* * *
The ICT was promoted by many but what was not so well promoted was the ability to conduct quality trials. Any criticism was followed by summons and scolding but the court itself failed to live up to its expectations. It was not the skype controversy that was the key but that no action was taken except to move the judge out and sue the hackers. People had been saying that the prosecutors could be much better but nothing was done. The public looking for revenge had no problems with a court they saw as a revenge ensuring mechanism not a legal one. The Government probably thought the same.
This probably made the authorities careless and the prosecution did such an inadequate job that the judges who have already had given death sentence to one had to pass a life term in the Quader Mollah case without explaining why. It was compounded by the fact that Mollah was found guilty on four charges where the maximum penalty was death but none seemed to merit the highest punishment. And the public waiting for a hanging verdict were deeply disappointed and responded with Shahbagh. Obviously, in everyone’s mind, the accused had been found guilty before the trials began. But the massive response by ordinary people in rejecting a court verdict created a crisis whose impact may be high.
The exclusive jurisdiction of the judges in court decisions went out of the window and the legal process has become a matter of review by the street too. It signals the near end of the supremacy of judiciary on legal matters.
* * *
Judiciary had encroached into the civil society space through several cases and decisions recently. The court decision to scrutinise Humayun Ahmed’s novel ‘Deyal’ and the direction to use court approved language in media were two symptomatic instances where the public and civil society space was transgressed seriously. Once the sacred understanding that one institution such as the judiciary wouldn’t intrude into the space of another such as the civil society, was broken it was a matter of time before the public would also go into the judicial space as they have done now. So no verdict which is based on evidence will be enough for a judgment court. It will also have to pass the public opinion test.
But the judicial discord has also taken other forms as well. Such is the emotion of the crowd that it wants blood and not justice. The only justice they want is hanging and anything less is not good enough. Increasingly, it seems the state is taking cognizance of such demands as state politicians lend support and laws are adjusted. But the crowd however noble is not a constitutional force yet it has now become a factor making extra constitutionality a significant part of the judicial system.
But it’s not the verdict of a single trial that has created Shahbagh. It’s the much longer process of ignoring public opinion that led to the public taking to the street. The crowd didn’t believe the court had passed an appropriate sentence and rejected it. The crowd had no option but to gather at Shahbagh.
* * *
The Shahbagh crowd is behaving like many other crowds. To this is added the Facebook crowd and the inevitable part in this the ‘US and THEM’ mentality. So what will be the reaction of Shabagh if I were to say that all including war criminals has a right to a fair trial. That unless proven guilty every accused is innocent in our law. Will someone who does ask these questions be dubbed a Razakar as some have been”? As a blogger asked, “have you taken sides?” while trashing ‘foreign critics of the trial’, ‘pristine liberals and those who oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle’.
So is there a third space in the third force?
* * *
Although the 1969 mass movement was significantly led also by the Leftists including Maulana Bhashani, the booty was collected only by the AL. This was because this party was the most organised of the lot. The way the AL has overcome its initial embarrassment in 2013 and is slowly trying to takeover the movement is very interesting to observe. It responded like a mature political machine and accepted the crowd verdict and has moved closer to them. Now that Rajib has been killed, law enforcement will become an issue so the government will become a protector of Shahbgah. This process will obviously give AL much greater affinity to the movement and as the party in power they can be expected to gain from it. To whom will the spirit of Shahbagh belong now? The spontaneous crowd or the organised political party?
* * *
Shahbagh is a confirmation that the people are not happy with the existing political arrangement and many are willing to stand up and be counted. The historic closure of 1971 wounds hasn’t happened either and many are desperate enough to seek any route including mass demand movement to do so. That the state institutions — executive, legislature and judiciary — are at bay and lie at the risk of becoming irrelevant to the people. As someone who has lived through and participated in 1971, I hope our lives are never touched by another carnage.
* * *
As for Rajib, we must remember that to fear a blogger is to recognize his legitimacy. To kill him is to fear his strength which is the power of words and emotions. The bloggers have provided evidence that the conventional and traditional politics have a parallel universe where new rules operate. But the two universes also clash and Rajib is the first victim of the clash between the old and the new.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.