Syncretic Bangladesh challenges Political Islam again
BY Nazes Afroz
When the uprising was coalescing at Shahbag Square in Dhaka in early February, demanding stern sentences for war criminals of Bangladesh’s nine-month-long war of independence, I was getting daily reports from a close friend and her daughter. My friend has been a leading light of the country’s feminist movement for almost three decades, and the daughter is finishing college while also working for an NGO. The mother’s reporting, as I expected, was highly political, even as the daughter, who had not participated in any direct political activity in her life, was telling me how her friends’ mothers who’d never get close to any protests were joining the gathering at Shahbag. I heard the same from another journalist friend. Her younger brother, his wife and their friends—all in their late twenties or early thirties—who had no penchant for any kind of political activity during their years of growing up, were present at Shahbag on a daily basis.
Another artist-cum-photographer friend was regularly posting photos of the gathering on his Facebook page. What caught my attention was the diversity of the crowd: there were old and young people, even children; thousands of women—activists and housewives; the Dhaka elite and madrassa students; small shopkeepers distributing water to protestors; leading feminist figures and women in headscarves; the country’s top artists putting up huge paintings to depict the spirit of the gathering; caricatures of Jamaat leaders on the walls around Shahbag; and famous singers turning up to sing for the crowd.
The most striking picture was a top shot of a candlelight vigil by a sea of humanity converging on Shahbag Square. Even though I was not present there, it was not difficult to gauge the emotions of the gathering.
While outsiders—namely, Western critics, including some human rights groups—were debating the question of the ‘death penalty’ and the ‘unfair’ process of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) looking into the horrors of 1971, the gathering was swelling and demanding that the Jamaat-e-Islami and all kinds of religious extremist groups be banned from politics in Bangladesh.
THESE CONVERSATIONS WITH friends and my scanning of social media and news reports on the emotions of Shahbag reminded me of experiences narrated to me by another close friend, filmmaker Tareque Masud, who died in a tragic road accident in 2011. In the mid-1990s, Tareque and his wife Catherine had just finished their first documentary film on the 1971 war, Muktir Gaan (‘Songs of Freedom’), but its release ran into trouble with the then BNP-led government. The distributor simply reneged on his promise to screen the film. Undaunted by these obstacles, Tareque organised screenings of the film by gathering groups of young students who took the film to small towns and villages. They screened the film through portable projectors by renting local town halls and school auditoria and putting up open- air screens in remote villages.