By Mahmudul Sumon
Ever since the start of Shahbagh affair, I have found myself with some discomforting thoughts with regard to certain expressions on the ground. Every body knows that this was a non-violent movement. Yet, some of the slogans during the pick of the movement were violent in nature: akta akta shibir dhar, shibir dhaira jabai kor. I wondered whether that is all I would like to do as an activist. I write this fully knowing that this is what Shibir and Jamati politics is all about in Bangladesh.
However, that was not the only slogan in Shahbagh. Most students, ordinary citizens and blogger-activists (who initially organized the event) on the ground were chanting slogans for death penalty of the Rajakars of 1971 war. Shahbagh, one may say, was the assemblage of many symbols: of self and other. Different poster expressions, of the Rajakars was also a kind of problem for me. It smacked of narrow nationalistic zeal where there is always a need for an “enemy”/ “other”. Shahbagh, through its sloganeering reminded me all of that and made me uneasy. Was countering Jamati violence in the same language as Jamat an answer? There were also some other issues: slogans such as “who are you, who am I: Bengali Bengali” was also discomforting as this sounded exclusionary and hegemonic and did not recognize the other ethnicities than the Bengalis in Bangladesh. (this slogan of course changed later).
On the ground though, people were increasingly divided in the wake of Shahbagh movement (my friends are unsure as to whether we should call it a movement or not). Like almost every other political issue in Bangladesh, we have seen a clear cut position on the verdict of war crimes tribunal. Some supported it while others opposed it, often according to political taste. For me this was again a case of how sharply people due to some discursive shifts (verdict etc) changed from proximity to identity, a topic heavily dealt with in theories of group and collective identity formation. Images of violence on TV (both state violence and violence against the state perpetrated by Jamat and BNP) were also an important issue during the Shahbagh movement. After 2nd and 3rd verdict, respectively of Kader Mollah and Delwar Hossain Saydee, the political party directly impacted by the verdict, were calling strikes and this ensured violence of many forms. All of these, often shown live on TV accentuated different formations of identity, often forcing one to take a side.
Such a situation was also discomforting as this requires one to take a position and I for one cannot agree with any essentialist narrative of self and identity. Shahbagh was for sure vouching one (Bengali identity). Why an essentialist narrative of self and identity is theoretically problematic? Firstly, there is an issue of construction. Such narratives remind us of Colonialism, of the enormous activities of knowledge-power. It is a reminder of a particular brand of elite history which has been internalized. Secondly, hearing such narratives, I wondered what purposes are being served. Is not this almost similar to the discourses we keep on hearing from all the different primordialist/ essentialist groups in South Asia and other places of the world? In colonial situations, such originary claims are best understood if we take into consideration the concept of modernity in this part of the world. The main feature of this discourse is to claim origin to a land or territory.
Events at the Balkans, or the gruesome Hutu-Tutsi conflict due to some form of national cosmology (in the words of Malkki) in Africa and some other long standing “ethnic” and “tribal” conflicts have made me critical of any essentialist reading of identity, be it in Europe, Africa or South Asia. Scholars have pointed out that such assertions are essentially modern and bourgeoisie and are often in the hands of the elite. If we just look around “us” we will start gathering more such evidences.
Thus, I too have my share of anti essentialism with regard to question of nationalism and nationalist identity. For few days, I viewed Shahbagh with lots of apprehensions. Singular answer to sloganeering such as “who am I who are you: Bengali, Bengali” seemed problematic to me. Chanting this slogan was difficult because this “other” ed people in the country and vouched for a majoritarian discourse. This was simply a tool of governmentality. By shouting at the top of the voice about Bengali, I was afraid that I was subsuming to that power and thereby doing injustice to the population in the country who were not necessarily Bengali but Pahari, Adivasi and other identities.
Since all this begun after Kader Mollah’s verdict, one day I asked a rickshawalla a very precise question: What do you think about the verdict? By that time both the verdicts were declared so I asked about Saydee verdict too. The rickshawalla who was riding me through a Dhanmondi road on a hartal day (An innovation of Bangladeshi politics where power politicians play with Molotov cocktails, middle class boys and men and not girls and women play cricket on the streets and working class people go to work amidst fear of getting stuck by a homemade bomb) paused a bit: “Look, I don’t have an opinion on this but…it is not fair to kill so many people just for one person…law is equal for all…isn’t it? If you have done wrong you have to be punished”.
I asked him again: who is doing all these killings? His reply, “I mean all that is happening, these hartals…at the end of the day I am a rickshawalla…no matter who comes in power I have to eke out a living from rickshaw pulling and today I am scared of coming to the road”. Listening to this I hurriedly add, “I am scared too! I don’t want to die from a Molotov cocktail”. I kept thinking about the rickshawalla afterwards. How quickly he is down to some basics. He is young, and energetic, half of my age I guess. He does not support all this violence. It appears that he is not so sure about what we often term as “state violence”. For him things are pretty simple. It is simple math of power politics. In his imagination state is something given and there not anything that people can do about it. On the contrary he asks protection of his livelihood from the state. Nothing else, nothing more.
Later it occurred to me that perhaps we were making things complicated. We imagine things which are not there. Violence across the country on police stations and other government establishments by Jamati Islam (who use religion for politics in Bangladesh and elsewhere) are read as signs of the “rise of Islamism”. For me and I am sure many of us this latter phenomenon is an epistemic question, yet to be seen in Bangladesh. During Shahbagh movement we also saw use and misuse of words and terminologies. Death casualties to assuage Jamati violence was termed as genocide by one intellectual of Bangladesh. Perhaps he thought that in such violence lay the seed of Islamic epistemology. For me this is simply equating apple with bananas. Fire in the masque by Jamati activists were termed as anarchism by the PM. For me again anarchism has a deeper philosophical meaning although the power in question hardly recognizes this here or for that matter anywhere in the world. I condemn such misuse of terms. This misguides people. In the midst of all this misguidance we do not see how children and women are used in the name of “saving Islam”. Concurrently, we also miss how people die under state patronage.
The rickshawalla I speak to reduces things to basics. For him state violence is normalized. He does not see state as an immediate threat to his being. Like it or not, he asks the state to give him shelter of his livelihood. I, however, felt close to the rickshawalla that day.