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Protest: It’s a-changing


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It’s entirely possible that consumers of mainstream newspapers and television channels in Delhi know more about the alleged involvement of South African blade runner Oscar Pistorius in a sensational murder, than they know about the Shahbag protests in Dhaka.

But, it you were tuned in to Twitter or logged on to Facebook, you’d probably know that the Shahbag protests in a Dhaka square have taken the nation of 150 million people by storm.

According to the writer, Tahmima Anam, the single act of a Jamaat-e-Islami leader flashing a victory sign after being sentenced to life for his role in the 1971 Dhaka killings was sufficient to trigger what can only be called the “new protest”.

Starting from February 5 in the year of 2013, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens gathered in a place called Shahbag in the capital city of Dhaka to demand maximum punishment of war criminals of 1971. Then the movement started all over the world.

That’s what the website says on the top of its welcome page. And, at the bottom, it says the page is “powered by the people” of Bangladesh. Like others, I have issues with the demand for hanging all the culprits convicted by the international war crimes tribunal, but the force of these protests is undeniable.

Curiously, the #Shahbag movement was begun by online activists and bloggers, the face of the new protests. And, once they gathered in Shahbag, they were joined by tens of thousands of others.

Like what happened in Delhi after the December 16 gang rape and murder, these protests were outside the control of established political parties.

On Saturday, protests hit the Bangladeshi capital again as a young blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider (26) was killed outside his home, a crime that is being laid at the door of the Jamaat-e-Islami, two of whose leaders have, so far, been found guilty of war crimes committed in 1971.

Even as one joins issue with the “hang them cries”, there’s little doubt as Haroon Habib writes in The Hindu, the Shahbag movement challenges religious orthodoxy and Islamism.

We have seen time and again that the bullies of the religious right use goons to smash up people and works of art, to name only two targets, because they have the muscle power at their disposal. Often, this muscle power enjoys state protection, benign tolerance or a lack of interest that leads to these goons going free.

The protests in Dhaka and beyond demonstrate that numbers matter in tackling the fundos, which is why the Jamaat in Bangladesh is using all kinds of tactics, including physical attacks, to protect its political base.

It also demonstrates that ordinary people don’t like fundos and they want people to be punished for crimes, however, long it might take. Whatever else South Asia may have in common, it certainly shares a culture of impunity where the murderous and the rich and the powerful get away after committing heinous crimes.

We saw in Delhi after the brutal assault of a young girl in a moving bus in December that the protests were spontaneous, triggered by social media and television channels and had contempt for the word of the State.

So, whether it is India Gate or Shahbag, a new type of protest is following the inauguration of new kinds of social communication. More and more, these will be part of our political realities.

Governments, in South Asia and elsewhere, better get used to this new world of protest.


Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan. He tweets @abaruah64.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (5) Closed

SM Feb 18, 2013 10:16am
These protests haven't been able to deliver any sustainable results so far. The example of Egypt and Tehrir Square is well known.
K G Surendran Feb 18, 2013 02:00pm
The Bengali culture is all encompassing and it would not be surprising at all if the citizens in Bangladesh would show the religious parties their actual place in a democratic space - that political parties are formed to fight elections, win and form governments for good governance and not preach religion and control religious practices, which after all is a private matter.
viti99 Feb 18, 2013 04:30pm
Tahrir square did accomplish what it aimed at: overthrowing the rotten dictator. the problem is that the protesters couldn't maintain the tempo, and thus movement was hijacked by islamists. However, it did create political awareness among the youth, and once again they are at the forefront: a phenomenon which disappeared in much of the world by 70s. Regards
MKB Feb 19, 2013 08:20am
Shabagh protest is conspiraciously absent in Indian& Pakistani media. Thanks to Amit for writing about it. Bengali Muslims of now Bangladesh are different than the Muslims of other parts of the world. The have never compromised with their Bengali language, Bengali culture. The immergence of Bangladesh was the key point of these very Bengalines. The very onset, in 1948; Bengali student of Dhaka University (set-up before Delhi & Lahore University) strongly protested when Jinnah said that Urdu will be state language of Pakistan. Than came the famous 21 February 1952, resentment against West Pakistan had taken a complete shape, a independent Bangladesh. History repeats itself. The Shabagh protest is the repetition of Ramna, where Sheik Mujub first call for freedom on 6th march 1971. This protest was the incomplete tusk of people who had dreamed of a secular, democratic and prosperous Bangladesh.
anik Feb 19, 2013 09:17am
I agree with you MKB. As a Bengali in Kolkata, am stunned by the way the local papers (even the so-called responsible English ones like Telegraph and the Kolkata edition of the Times of India) are silent about what's happening in Bangladesh. I get my news online from Dhaka's Prothom Alo. But I don't agree with you on the conspiracy angle; it's not conspiracy per se, it is plain ignorance. I don't think the journalists out here in Kolkata know what's happening across the border...