61 years after 1952, we are experiencing another February. In Ekushey the spirit was that of the young people who protested a government policy decision and died on the streets of Dhaka from police bullets. Many if not most were students of the Dhaka University and it is indeed electrifying that the children and grandchildren of that generation have taken to the streets yet again to push for a cause in almost the same space. As we celebrate Ekushey in times of such historic turmoil, there is an opportunity to look at the two events, both so full of history, achieved and potential, real and expected.
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Ekushey 1952 was a continuation of the long standing nationalist movement of the East Bengalis. It had began in the late 1940s as the young radicals of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League wanted but failed to establish an independent united Bengal. These young people were in conflict with Jinnah and his non-Bengali led All India Muslim League. In mid 1947 these young ones met in Kolkata and decided to form an ‘independent Bengal’ even before Pakistan was officially established. The marriage between the province and the centre of the Muslim League was over soon and from 1948 onwards, there were a series of protests, hartals and meetings against Pakistani rule which culminated in the movement of 1952 and ultimately the later events leading to 1971.
The Bengali language movement began with 1948 and peaked in 1952. It was not a cultural movement only, but dominantly a socio-economic one that constructed the nationalist imagination of the Bengali people.
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The 2013 movement emerged out of a sense of betrayal and failure of the powers that be to deal with the issue of war crimes trials, hence the national character. The people felt that the trials are actually 40 years too late in coming and they felt left out of the decision making process. There is a feeling that the major parties ignored the people particularly the young and they are also venting their feelings about their social-economic frustrations. The young need and demand many things but they feel let down by the earlier generations. So it’s a movement of frustration as much as aspiration.
If the nationalist question is supposed to have been resolved through state building, the young are then protesting about the nature of the nationalist construction and some of its elements. Since the Jamaatis fought against the fruition of the nationalist destination and were till date doing national politics, a contradiction has been built in politics which led to the conflict. The problem has been produced by our politics of convenience which is happening even now and will probably produce more conflicts later on. So the Jamaat-e-Islami question was left to fester in politics and it’s really the need for quality control of the national spirit that has forced so many to question the trial process. Politics had prevented closure and now that lack of closure has led to the crisis.
The 1952 movement was about building that identity and the 2013 movement is trying to clean up that tainted identity. The 1952 move was meant to construct the product and the 2013 move is to purify it.
Both were youth led and explosive which captured the national imagination. While the 1952 path led to the future of national assertiveness, one is still not clear what this 2013 movement will go towards.
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Both movements are fundamentally political but certain differences are noticed. In 1952, an entire people was slowly building towards a conflict with central rulers, the 2013 one doesn’t seem to be in conflict with the government in power. It seems that the 1952 movement was against the people in power and the 2013 is directed towards the opposition, an unusual situation. So the element of contesting the power structure is probably fundamentally different. In 2013, it is more a reformist movement since it doesn’t want any significant change of governance. It wants a particular enemy demolished through a trial process and sentence for hanging. As a result, the socio-economic content of the present movement is less.
In 1952, the movement ultimately took on the national question and powered it towards a new state. Such a situation or objective is not present now. The movement is built around the power of new media to organize and frustration of young people over the quality of the state pillars, particularly the judiciary.
It’s more spontaneous but measured and not angry with the state. It’s inherently political but it doesn’t want to be close to a party. Nor are they floating a new one. They are the classic spirit of the third party but they are not a party.
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The leadership and core were very visible in 1952 and many players were old hands. The main leadership was held by politicians including Sk. Mujib (in jail), Bhashani and a host of others as well as the Communists who together made up the core. The state felt threatened and killed a few, put many in jail and were put on the defensive.
In 2013, the state appears quite happy with the development. The government party which is responsible for the mess actually appears unembarrassed by the unfolding of events and is cheering on the youth at Shahbagh. They have taken the credit to some extent of the movement and through legislative changes are taking advantage of the situation to push through various actions which they had refused to do so before. Although they were unable to organize a trial acceptable to the people and triggered the movement, they are using their failure if you will to bolster their own strength.
This is the fundamental difference and may decide the course of things of this movement.
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The 1952 movement was directly linked to political parties who through their organization channeled it to the national movement. In 2013, the idealists are facing a dilemma as they don’t have a political organization and their platform doesn’t cover socio-economic demands. Its strength is in its form more than its content but its self limiting in nature. So after 1952, the movement strengthened and went further but in 2013 it may end once the various death sentences are pronounced.
What both have in common is a desire to change things for the better but while the goals are different, the spirit of youth shines and so does the wish of many that cynical management of politics also ends in Bangladesh.
But it also tells us that 61 years after taking to the streets, the youth have to take to the street once again. Not much has changed.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.