IT IS not possible to avoid the irony that the leader of the Shahbagh movement is pelted with eggs when he was coming out of the court in 2017 when his greatest achievement lay in mobilising public opinion against a tribunal decision in 2013. A case of defaming the prime minister was registered against him by his once organisation, the Chhatra League. Imran H Sarker’s remarks were made in protest against the AL alliance with Hefazat-e-Islam. In fact, the Chhatra League wanted to beat him up. A court case, with eggs thrown included, was much more acceptable than that promise.
Gana Jagaran Mancha, the organisation that emerged out of the Shabagh protest movement which challenged the war crimes tribunal decision to give life imprisonment to Kader Mollah of Jamaat-e-Islami. Many wanted the highest sentence for him which is death penalty and it is out of this protest that the Shahbagh movement was born.
This Shahbagh challenge became so big that the government was forced to take cognisance of the demands, change and expand certain laws and also mobilise its own cadres to join Shahbagh. The war crimes tribunal verdict was overruled in the higher court and Mollah was ultimately hanged. It not only showed the power that the youth activists had mobilised but also the pent-up feelings of resentment that existed in many hearts about the post-1971 happy life of the collaborators of 1971. This included ministries in the BNP government of 2001–06.
From a Chhatra League student leader of the Rangpur Medical College, Imran H Sarker became a national figure, a role model to many, hero to even more. He represented the new generation, the resurrected ‘prajanma’ of 1971 as many felt. Yet, this Shahbagh movement rose and fell dramatically in far too brief a time.
AS THE government took charge of the ‘highest punishment’ for collaborators’ movement, Shahbagh, too, began to fade. The movement was limited to a cause and the government had implemented the demand. There was no one to complain to any more because the Awami League was as strident as Shahbagh was. Though it still stayed in the public imagination, the objective once met started to weaken the cause. The ruling party through brilliant political management had turned a challenge of sorts to its position into creation of a junior ally of its own jihad against war collaborators. Yet for a few weeks, Shahbagh threatened to become a force of change that never transpired.
It is true that the Awami League was, for a brief few days, was not the only custodian of the 1971 chetana but shared it with Shahbagh. But the Awami League asserted control swiftly. Gana Jagaran Mancha also depended largely on the government of Sheikh Hasina for its sustenance. So once the counter-threats were mobilised by the pro-collaborator forces terming Shahbagh as ‘nastiks’, it began to cave in. Later, Gana Jagaran Mancha was splintered, acrimony began on the social media and soon it had collapsed. It was the ruling party which came out looking as the owner’s of Shahbagh’s goodwill.
Mancha after Shahbagh and new politics of Hefazat
WHEN after a few months, Gana Jagaran Mancha picked up issues, going beyond war collaborators such as the Tonu murder case, etc, it had little impact. It was no longer the only conscience keeper of the nation. As it faded away and conventional political forces asserted control, street politics returned to business as usual. Shahbagh became a fond memory, better known as the grand gathering of light and hope for a short period and not any continued resistance that shook the entire middle class all too briefly. History seemed to lie elsewhere.
Soon, Hefazat arrived in town on a sit-in mission which was supported by the Jamaat, the BNP, Jatiya Party and all others who were hopeful that this was the best way to topple the Awami League. But if the ruling party was brilliant in managing Shahbagh, it was awesome in managing Hefazat whose sit-in imploded in a few hours of a single night. It also became a golden opportunity for expanding the Awami League’s power base. It now sits stronger than ever with allies to the right and left of them.
What happened perhaps was that Shabagh’s main strength and weakness was that the main support came from the urban middle class who are not strong enough to sustain a movement on their own. They lack organisation, structure, discipline, funds and common objectives. On top of that, it is so dependent on the ruling class to provide resources and shoulders that no matter how much it hurts to say, Shahbagh was never dancing by itself except in the earliest period when lefties were involved. It always had the Awami League shoulder’s to lean on.
Once AL activists entered, they quickly took over and with no fallback position. Shahbagh achieved its short-term goals but the Awami League won the long-term politics.
History and alliance making as keys to power
IN THE end, it was not Jamaat which rattled and weakened Mancha but the protector of Shahbagh itself, the Awami League which had no intention of letting its position be usurped. The Awami League understood history better than Shahbaghis did. The middle class led party of pre-1971 had become the upper class-led party of today where the game of power may be the same but the stakes are bigger and perhaps different.
Shahbagh was also never a mass-based political movement but limited to an urban activist middle class of many colours whose goals were symbolic — hanging of war criminals. Compared with that, in that very year, Hefazat made bigger claims and demands that came from the deeper and larger bowels of rural society where millions lived.
Its constituency were large pockets in the rural area, was linked to the massive qoumi madrassah network, was funded by the villagers and the government’s education grants, had a history nearly 200 years old with cadres that slept in the mosques which was their biggest strength though like Shahbagh, it was a social and not a political movement but linked to politics.
The middle class that led 1971 and whose children participated in Shahbagh were over as a power class and belonged to the past. The future belonged to another history and by protesting the emergence of Hefazat as an ally of the Awami League, Imran was protesting, the future which the Awami League was steering towards.
The abuse and threats from his erstwhile party colleagues, the court case and the eggs that followed were reminders that history had passed Shahbagh long before it burst out as a brilliant explosion that was out of place and time, no matter how bright. It was not Imran Sarker that was pelted with eggs, it was the collective idea of Shahbagh and the class that upheld it.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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