Bangladesh: Who told you that the revolution would be televised?


Preceding recent violent events in Turkey and Egypt, a massacre of unarmed protesters in Dhaka, Bangladesh went more or less unreported in the international and local press. An exclusive report explores the significance of the massacre at a broader level, notably its colonial historical context.

An elevated view of the crowds around the Shapla (Water Lilly) monument

An elevated view of the crowds around the Shapla (Water Lilly) monument in Motijheel, Dhaka on 5th May, some hours before the government’s crackdown. (Source: image archive)

On the 6th May 2013 at around half past two in the morning, a security operation took place against unarmed protesters who were camped out and sleeping in the heart of the commercial district of a capital city. Thousands of police and paramilitaries used armoured personnel carriers, hot water, sound grenades, live ammunition and rubber bullets against crowds of tens of thousands of men, leaving – at a minimum – scores of them dead and many more injured, terrified and running for their lives.

Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, initially estimated that around 40 people lost their lives. A local human rights organisation published a detailed account after having interviewed dozens of protesters and tight-lipped officials, confirming 61 dead. Live video footage from the scene bears witness to the bodies of protesters lying on the streets, some convulsing, while others are seen escaping in panic as they are fired upon. The hospitalised injured gave vivid accounts via camera phones of trucks full of bodies being driven away from the scene of the crime. A taxi driver recorded a policeman bragging about his exploits and estimating a death toll of at least 400. Meanwhile, the government’s spin machine roared into action, aided by a complicit media.

Moving scenes from Dhaka in the early hours of 6th May. Distressing viewing, caution advised. (Source: DeshRights)

A policeman’s conversation with a taxi driver shortly after the incident. (Source: Kalurghat)

This did not happen in a military dictatorship, or in a country at war, but in the democratic People’s Republic of Bangladesh, hailed as a poster boy for development and progress by the neoliberal Economist magazine a mere six months earlier.

Bangladesh is the eighth most populated country in the world – strategically located between Myanmar and India, not far from China – and hailed by many as a moderate and secular Muslim democracy. And yet, while there was significant international coverage of the tragic and criminal garments factory collapse, there has been near radio silence by the international media concerning this massacre.

This article puts the killings into context and explores the reasons why civil institutions, both international and domestic, have colluded with the perpetrators to underplay and muddle this story. Whereas outright lying, found in buckets in the local press and official transcripts, plays its usual role, moot coverage has a more powerful effect, moving the audience onto other, less challenging, matters, like the now-disputed miraculous rescue of Reshma Begum, the last survivor of the garments disaster.

If we are to believe the myth of the Arab Spring, that people’s voices are free and powerful, and that the days of people being gunned down in the streets en mass or crushed by tanks are over, this incident in Bangladesh says otherwise. This story can be read as a portent of things to come, in the region and beyond.

Untangling the politics of a colonial present

The incident has its roots in the histories of Bengal, South Asia and European colonialism. Some of these roots of conflict are common in other societies impacted by colonialism, past and present. Historical Bengal (illustrated below), whose eastern flank constitutes today’s Bangladesh, was one of the first places to be colonised by the Europeans.

The victory of a pioneering multinational corporation, the British East India Company, in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, marked the beginning of a capitalist colonisation which irreversibly transformed the region, politically, economically and ecologically. As you would expect, the people of Bengal also possess a history of resistance, (co-operation) and co-option which took military, political, educational and religious forms.

A New and Accurate Map of Bengal

“A New and Accurate Map of Bengal,” by Thomas Kitchin, drawn for the London Magazine in 1760. (Source:Colombia)

Two alternate and contesting responses to the colonial encounter collided in Dhaka in early May this year. The first one, which dominates the elites, draws inspiration from the singular ethno-linguistic identity politics of Bengali nationalism, whose narrative was forged in the salons of colonial Calcutta, before being extended through the cultural politics of East Pakistan into Bangladesh.

The other has its origins amongst tenant farmers in the colonially deindustrialised rural hinterlands of East Bengal, who mobilised around their religious and class identities, whose expressions are muffled in the national idea. Both narratives were housed in educational institutions to carry their values, social projects and political movements.

In 1835, in his famous Minute on Indian Education, British historian and Whig politician Thomas Babington Macaulay evaluated the intellectual traditions around him with characteristic liberal disparagement.

“…I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.”

Turning to the policy debate before him, he outlined an educational strategy for elite Anglicisation, with local languages envisaged as dissemination channels.

“…it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

Today, this partnership and devaluation of non-secular intellectual traditions of knowledge can be seen most vividly in the traits of single identity Bengali Nationalism. High powered and globally connected, it is carried by gatekeepers such as Sabir Mustafa, editor of the BBC Bengali Service, whose selective coverage of events in Bangladesh warrants closer scrutiny.

In contrast, the other institutional view centers around Qaumi (Community) Madrassas, independent religious schools funded and supported by donations from local communities. The most authoritative of these schools is the Hathazari Madrassa near the port city of Chittagong, formally known as Islamabad during the Mughal era. Founded in 1896, Hathazari is an extension of the Deobandi movement, a traditionalist community-based educational response to the unsuccessful Indian Uprising of 1857. Unlike state-funded madrassas, they steer clear of institutional funding.

Formations, Mobilisations and Meaning

Up until very recently, Hathazari kept a low profile on the political scene of Bangladesh. Three years ago, however, their sector became the subject of wild vilification for allegedly producing terrorists and creating unemployment problems. To respond to these criticisms, and advocate for the welfare of the community madrassa sector, its elderly principal, Allama Ahmed Shafi formed an organisation called Hefazot e Islam (Protection of Islam).

Allama Shafi’s scholarly pedigree is an important lesson in the history of South Asia. He is a student of Shah Ahmed Husain Madani, whose theological rejection of the Two Nation Theory – which split India – and creation of an alternative, plurinational model of Composite Nationalism remains prescient.

Along with a series of running grievances, including the denigration of religious symbols and personalities in public life, donor-driven government policies, Hefazot were moved to protest by the Government’s refusal to submit to a court order under existing defamation law regarding writings they deemed offensive.

In the government and its supporting establishment’s own view, Hefazot’s mobilisation was seen as a counter movement to their own Shahbag phenomenon, which began in February of this year. The Shahbag movement was sparked by sentiments desiring capital punishment for those accused of committing criminal acts on behalf of the losing Pakistani regime in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Thesecontroversial trials are seen by the opposition as a witch hunt, and continue to evoke near sectarian sentiments in the populace.

These two deep sentiments, which don’t necessarily contradict each other, of deep attachment to sacred Islamic and Bengali Nationalist values came to the fore as Hefazot’s alarmingly large mobilisation developed from February through to April’s Long March on Dhaka. Both Shahbag and Hefazot mobilisations bore the signatures of our age of apolitical single-issue mass movements, occupying the cultural and commercial thoroughfares of the capital. However the contrast between how they were treated by the establishment could not be greater.

protesters were attacked by a now established alliance of police and government aligned thugs

During the day of the 5th May, protesters were attacked by a now established alliance of police and government-aligned thugs. (Source: ChairmanBD)

Civil society and the inequality of media representation

Whereas Shahbag was co-opted, patronised, protected and promoted by the ruling Awami League and its aligned media, Hefazot were cast as barbarians at the gates. They were actively misconstrued, obstructed, slaughtered and covered-up with the help of international agencies. This inequality was reproduced in the global media, Al Jazeera English included, due no doubt to the ideological native informancy of local gatekeepers, but also lazy journalism and an appetite for War of Terror narratives.

The articulation of Hefazot’s perspective was prevented in a number of ways: as their movement began to rise in April, the government arrested and tortured the editor of the Amar Desh vernacular daily, Mahmudur Rahman, and closed his press. On the night of the massacre, two television channels, Islamic TV and Diganta TV were illegally shut down, for broadcasting the crackdown live. Given the atmosphere of intolerance towards dissent, victims and their families fear to speak out about their experience and loss.

There are few remaining voices resisting the onslaught of a government and corporate media nexus with massacre on its hands. Farhad Mazhar, an anti-capitalist activist, has been using his right of audience as a public intellectual to argue that Hefazot’s points of contention need to be understood on their own terms, and a constructive dialogue held. Farida Akhtar, a feminist activist, did not see them as a threat to the rights of women, as their detractors alleged, and judged their critique of donor-patronised policies as legitimate.

On 10th June, more than a month after perhaps the most ruthless killings in independent Bangladesh, afact-finding report was published by Odhikar, one of the smaller human rights organisations in the country, but the only one challenging the government’s account of events in a serious way. This report provides a graphic and detailed account of human rights violations during the 5th and 6th May. Contrary to the dominant media depictions, people from a broader spectrum of society were amongst the dead, from imams of mosques and religious school students, to a labour leader and an elite engineering student.

Business as usual, as usual?

As the monsoon season washes away physical evidence, and the bodies which were disappeared (some of which were found in a pauper’s graveyard) decay, the people of Bangladesh carry on with their lives, the memories of the deceased, wounded, humiliated and bereaved bubble away in a cauldron of quiet anger, and a hunger for justice and redress grows. In late June, US lawyers, on behalf of two diaspora organisations, petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate 25 government decision makers from the ruling party and security apparatus.

Both sides claim that they do not simply represent a narrow constituency, but the viewpoint of the majority, pointing to the large crowds they assemble. However, recent electoral victories by the opposition in local city polls suggest that sections of the electorate are aware and disgusted at the massacre of their countrymen at the hands of forces supposed to protect them. This has been admitted by local activists of the governing Awami League in the wake of recent defeats.

The Water Lily monument around which these killings unfolded was erected to mark killings committed by forces loyal to the state of Pakistan during the Bangladesh War of 1971. This brutality changed the political character of the country, and region, irreversibly.

The dark and cyclical irony of the events of 6th May 2013, at the same point in urban space, points to the next transformation, and challenges people of conscience and adherents of the nation’s different narratives to step into the unknown and sculpt a more humane, just and pluralistic selfhood.

The tendency to brook no difference of opinion, and seek to eliminate all opposition, physically as well as from the historic psyche, is fascistic, and single identity nationalism can only lead to it.


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