Bangladesh: Is it the Shahbagh Spring?

31 Mar, 2013    ·   3863

Suvolaxmi Dutta Choudhury compares and contrasts the Shahbagh uprising to Tahrir Square

The present political upsurge in Bangladesh has brought the 150 million-strong nation to the throes of a revolution. Certain commentaries have compared Shahbagh, the seat of the uprising in Dhaka, to Tahrir Square. Is the Shahbagh upsurge heralding a ‘South Asian Spring’? Does the movement manifest certain distinct resemblances with the recent happenings in the Arab world?

From Genocide to the Spring: A Short History
The Pakistani genocide during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 had colluders (razakaar), who brutally resisted East Pakistan’s independence. The International War Crimes Tribunal, established by the ruling Awami League government in 2010, is presently sealing the fate of those booked for war crimes. Crucially, the accused enjoy eminent positions in the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which in alliance with the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), constitute the main opposition force. The leaderless upsurge erupted on 5 February 2013 shortly after the second of the convicts, Abdul Qaeder Mollah, was awarded a life-term instead of the popularly anticipated death sentence. Amnesty International’s press release on 6 March 2013 reported a brutal counter to the movement since then. Hartaals are presently the order of the day.

Shahbagh and Tahrir Square: Points of Convergence
Shahbagh and Tahrir Square (the hallmark of the Arab Spring) find a commonality; the urban educated youth, without formal associations to any particular political organisation, have mobilised themselves through social media and mobile phones. The largely peaceful protests, in both contexts, have been organised sans any umbrella leadership.

Bangladesh, much like the Arab world, is a post-colonial developing nation-state where the socio-economic development goals are moving sluggishly, and political instability and unemployment are worrisome for its people. One lurking question is left to be answered here: has this pent up frustration found a collective political expression in Shahbagh, as in the case of the Arab Spring (though Shahbagh does not have an anti-regime character).

Also, what brings the two together is the search for a collective national identity through a popular uprising. For most post-colonial developing nation-states, a pivotal dilemma is left to be resolved: on what foundational principles should the nation-state’s collective identity be constructed? Often, post-colonial nation-states are, thus, a breeding ground for bloody struggle between opposing political ideologies. While in Bangladesh secular-nationalist forces are trying to stage a come-back amidst increasing Islamisation, the Middle-East has just witnessed the reverse.

Is it Shahbagh Spring?
However, comparing the Shahbagh movement to the Arab Spring may sound a bit far-fetched since the fundamental reasons why the respective movements erupted are notably different: while the Arab Spring was a series of pro-reform, pro-democracy, and anti-regime movements, the upheaval at Shahbagh symbolises a cry for vindication, in the collective conscience and historical memory of a people, against wrong-doings during its tumultuous birth.

Whether this political upheaval in Shahbagh is guided by revolutionary zeal or not is also not beyond contestation. The response of the Jamaat-BNP combine is that the movement is orchestrated just a little ahead of the elections by Awami political forces, who in the name of secularism, seek to destroy the massive economic and social clout held by the Jamaat. Though, the Jamaat’s electoral influence is not spectacular in independent Bangladesh, the party holds the reins of crucial sectors of the country such as banking, education, healthcare, etc. This line of argument gains certain solid ground from the fact that the present upsurge has called for the boycott of the Jamaat affiliated Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited, which is the largest private banking network in the country.

Tailpiece: A Cosy Liaison between the Jamaat and the Middle-East?
A crucial international dimension of the Jamaat movement is the warm relationship it shares with certain Muslim countries, many in the prosperous Middle-East. The Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited, which is the lifeline of the Jamaat’s funds, was established at the initiative of the Saudis and is associated with the Al Razee Bank of Saudi Arabia. Sixty per cent of the Bank’s shares are held by the Saudis. The UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar also own shares of the Bank. The Saudi-based Islamic NGO, Rabeta-al-Alam-al-Islami is also an important source of Jamaat’s finances. The Kuwait Relief Fund and Al Nahiyan Trust of the UAE are other NGOs fattening Jamaat’s kitty.

Bangladesh also enjoys Saudi oil at a subsidised price, which might be jeopardised on the event of a crack-down on the Jamaat-e-Islami by the ruling Awami League, given the support enjoyed by the organisation in Saudi Arabia. A debate in Bangladesh’s political circles has ensued about the banning of the Jammat. However, what is obvious here is that such a move would neither be able to surmount the outstanding socio-economic clout presently enjoyed by the organisation, nor would it deter it from continuing its alleged activities in the future.

To conclude, though the upsurge in Bangladesh may not exactly fit the bill for being called the Shahbagh Spring, the unrest could have vital ramifications for present international politics at large.