Shahbag and identity

When a group of activists spontaneously gathered at Dhaka’s Shahbag a little over a month ago, little did know that they would serve as a catalyst for a broader movement and countermovement in Bangladesh. The initial outcry was over a sentence handed out to a conspirator and war criminal, who had not only opposed the foundation of nation of Bangladesh in 1971, but had also served as the leader of a prominent political party with impunity. This conspirator and others, who were being tried over forty years later, were not in court for treason, which in most sovereign countries is in itself cause for legal proceedings, but for the more barbaric acts of mass-murder, serial-rape, forcible religious conversion, arson, and other crimes for which there were numerable eyewitnesses. When Adbul Qader Molla, who was now a leader of Jaamat-e-Islami, was given a lenient life-sentence for involvement in over 300 deaths, sections of civil society erupted. Molla flashed a smile and a victory-sign to his supporters after the verdict, because he knew that if his party ever formed a coalition government with their current ally, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, then he would literally be a free man.

When on February 28, another war criminal Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was sentenced to death, the enemies of Shahbag, namely Sayeedi’s political party Jamaat-e-Islami and their student wing Islami Chatra Shibir did not sit and idly watch. For days, armed supporters wreaked havoc across the country, looting stores, burning trains and buses, vandalizing homes and religious places of worship of minorities, and savagely killing police and the family members of those who testified. They have since used social media outlets such as Facebook to coordinate attacks on property and person. They have doctored images (such as a photo of Sayeedi superimposed on a photo of the moon) and have spread blatant lies to instigate villagers. Within Bangladesh, they have a sizeable media presence, but they have also garnered the support of some foreign media agencies as well who have called out police “heavy-handedness” conveniently omitting that the police is responsible for maintaining law and order.

Shahbag, a neighborhood of Dhaka became a focal point for protests as well as a symbol of a greater movement to address questions that remained unresolved after more than forty years. Shahbag initially developed as a grassroots movement led primarily by the generation that was born after Bangladesh gained independence. Indeed it was absolutely necessary that the movement develop without any political affiliation because many Bangladeshis felt that they had been betrayed by the failed policies of all of the major political parties since the country’s liberation. All political parties had stifled dissent and allowed war criminals to enter mainstream politics. And in 2013, even though the Awami League was at loggerheads with Jaamat-e-Islami and their ally, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, segments of the population remembered that once upon a time even the Awami League had collaborated with Jamaat-e-Islami. Therefore, instead of politicizing their demands, the protesters looked for inspiration to the late Jahanara Imam, author of a famous memoir based on events occurring during the 1971 (and mother of a freedom fighter who died during the war for liberation) who had subsequently struggled to bring war criminals to book, but had failed due to political machinations.

In different South Asian nations, there are different official narratives of what exactly happened in 1971. When, for example the Pakistan Army targeted religious minorities and intellectuals in December even though surrender was only a few short days away, what objective did they expect to achieve? Still, as reprehensible as some of the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army were, they had the Nuremberg Defense: they were following orders. Additionally, the Mukti Bahini did retaliate against some civilians, though to a much smaller scale. It is a slippery slope when you try to weigh relative immorality, but the razakar conspirators were not soldiers, they were civilians who betrayed their own neighbors. The Pakistan Army waged an inhumane war, but left the country after defeat. The razakars that stayed in Bangladesh, on the other hand, reaped the benefits of liberation on the graves of the freedom fighters they butchered.

A section of the foreign media has wrongly portrayed Shahbag as mob vengeance and blood-lust. This is a superficial analysis. Shahbag boldly proclaims that a Bangladeshi identity is not equivalent to a Muslim identity or a Bengali identity, or for that matter even a Bengali Muslim identity. There are Muslims, Bengalis, and Bengali Muslims who are native to other countries in South Asia. There are also other ethnicities in Bangladesh and those who follow other religions in Bangladesh. None of these criteria are unique to Bangladesh. Therefore, none of these criteria alone are adequate to describe the Bangladeshi condition. Shahbag is in essence a reaffirmation of a Bangladeshi identity shaped by Partition, the Language Movement, and Liberation.

The Jamaat-e-Islami and their ilk have sought to discredit the Shahbag movement in whatever way possible. Jamaat sympathizers murdered a blogger who was a Shahbag activist and attempted to justify his death because reportedly he was an atheist. They have sought to portray Shahbag as entirely a movement of atheists, which is untrue. In fact a number of practicing men and women of all religions have supported Shahbag. As a broader point, Shahbag is a matter of national identity and has nothing to do with religion. Even Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party branded Shahbag as supporting the cause of atheism. In some bizarre parallel world, falsely calling someone an atheist is deemed an acceptable defense for supporting those who have been convicted of mass-murder and rape!

The logic of Shahbag is rather simple. if Bangladesh is a nation of laws, then there must be justice. If Bangladesh is indeed a sovereign nation, then those who committed genocide to stifle the aspirations of its citizens for sovereignty must be brought to book.

(This is a longer version of a post I wrote in Bangla).

At daybreak

This morning I intuitively sensed that I could no longer see a particular color. “Sensed” was not the right word, because I could not remember if this was actually true either:  how do you really know if something is missing if it had never been there and you had never asked?  For an instant I had no way of knowing if I had always been colorblind. Perhaps, I had gone through life missing out on a particular color. Or perhaps, I once recognized this missing color but now it had stared to fade: as my perception of it got blunted, instead of the canvas being devoid of its hue completely, another color bled into the spot to replace it. One by one, is this how we lose our perception of a field of flowers? Is this how the kaleidoscope eventually becomes monochromatic?

I lied still in bed trying to hear the sounds around me. I thought about all the frequencies which I knew were inaudible. It was not a silence, but a heavy white noise that enveloped my ears. Maybe I was deaf to particular notes? Or it could have been that there were entire octaves that had gone missing in the night.

I took a deep breath. I exhaled. I could smell nothing. It is said that smell is the sense closest linked to memory: there in that sterile room, I tried to recall waking up many mornings to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee. I tried to reconstruct the bitter flavor on my palate. But it seemed that my nose was blocked. The room was impervious to all sensation. Or was the room unchanged and I had changed?

How could I even be sure that the physical attributes of the objects around me remained as they had in the past? Were events still occurring, transmitting the same amount of information as before? Was the sun up? Were children laughing? Did flowers still blossom?  Truly, I had no way of knowing, because my weakening receivers had failed to pick up the details hidden in so many lost frequencies.

While lying in bed, the colored lenses in front of my eyes had become eye-patches. I had heard nothing as the cut-off filters progressively narrowed the dynamic range restricting what sounds reached my brain. My olfactory receptors had withered in a sudden frost.

Just then the alarm rang. I rubbed my eyes in a blur. By focusing and filtering for so long, I had let the world slip away until I had reached the point that I could no longer recognize it. I had rationalized that I didn’t need to see the forest for the trees, and in the meantime, the trees had vanished one by one, leaving only a foggy imprint of what was once lush vegetation.

Those were the thoughts of a man who had just woken up older by another day.

Today you turn one

One year ago, we came into your life.

It is all so vivid in my memory. I remember the day you came home from the hospital, the first day you dipped your toes in water, the day you first said baba and ma, the day you got your first tooth, the day you ate solid food, the day when you started to crawl, the day you opened your first book and turned the pages, the day when you waved at me, and the day you took your first steps. I remember being able to cradle you in one arm and to rock you to sleep. My biceps have since gotten bigger.

365 precious days ago, you came into our life. You were born with your eyes wide open and full of curiosity. Your movements became coordinated. You started to grasp. You began to sit up. You started to stand. You reached for the camera. You took your first photograph.

You had your passport photo taken. You sat in cars, and trains, and planes. You traveled to cities, forests, fields, deserts, and mountains in three countries on two continents. Along the way, you learned to smile consciously. You became camera-conscious.  We have taken thousands of photographs of you over the last year. Let me confess that among those photos that have turned out well, I have not been able to delete a single one of you, even those backed up on multiple storage devices.

I still fondly remember the tiny clothes and swaddle blankets you rapidly outgrew. Your mother has neatly folded every single article of clothing since your birth. You won’t be able to wear them again, but we have not been able to give them away yet. Your fragrance still lingers in them.

Growing up has taught you fear. Of the unknown that lurks in the dark. Of injections. Loud noises. Iron supplements. Gerber’s sweet potatoes. The fear that your mother will get lost behind the bathroom door. That your father will get up in the middle of the night and leave. And there must be many other fears that I cannot know which stalk you in the night. But when you wake up, your mother’s reassuring voice is always there to caress you.

You have taught me conversations in which the meanings of words are inconsequential.  You have helped me to be patient when rational arguments are meaningless. You have shown me how to derive pleasure from the simplest of blessings. Last year, for a fortnight, I was traveling from one strange town to another. Every evening, in my hotel room, I would check my email for new photographs of you, and wistfully wonder what milestone I had missed. Even now, every morning, as I leave, I am saddened because I will not see you until the evening; every evening my footsteps hasten because I know you will rush up to the door with a beaming smile to greet me.

Before you were born, I had an erroneous idea about parenting. I thought that once I became I father I would finally have to grow up and act my age. Since, you’ve been born I’ve had the rare opportunity to be a child again. We’ve stared at grease stains on windows, made music with makeshift instruments consisting of tin lids and pots and pans, played battleship while simultaneously modeling global warming by overflowing bathroom tiles with bathtub water, danced Gangnam Style to the Elmo song, and derailed choo-choo steam trains in dastardly Maoist attacks.

Last week we went to the beach. You were amazed when you saw waves rolling into shores for the first time. You looked out into the distant horizon where the water dissolved into the sky and clasped my right hand tightly. After mumbling something of great import, you let out a huge sigh. With a serious expression, you sat down. You purposefully picked up your little shovel and started to pour sand in your bucket. The beach was vast and your bucket was tiny. How much sand could it hold? I joined you. We filled up the bucket. We poured out the sand we had collected. We repeated this activity until we got exhausted.  As it turned out, I had the rules wrong. I had underestimated the thrill of the game. It was a blast.

Today, as you turn one, we celebrate. I can’t wait to find out what new adventures await.