This is the fifth in a series of five blog posts by Razia Shariff, a Doctoral candidate in the Politics and International Relations programme, as she conducts her field work on the Agency of Social Movements in Bangladesh

By Razia Shariff (PhD candidate)

This final blog looks at how the Shahbag Movement in Bangladesh in 2013 was very different from those experienced before in Bangladesh, and its unique dimensions compared with movements elsewhere around the world.

The area of Bengal has a long history of resistance and social movements. It is situated within the rich delta planes where the major rivers in Asia meet and descend into the Bay of Bengal, making the land very fertile. This fertility has meant that during the time of the Princely States in Asia Bengal was the centre of wealth and riches, and renowned for its arts and culture. It was a key province for trade routes during the rule of the British East India Company not only for spices, color dies but also for tea. But because of the delta planes Bengal has also been the survivor of annual natural disasters, and as a result the people of Bengal have become resilient against nature, and during the time of the British Empire were the source of many a movement against imperialism, e.g. Nil Darpan 1859 ( the indigo riots, against the conditions of laborers producing the royal color purple), 1905 Swaraj movement ( opposing the British decision to partition Bengal into east and west) which was reversed in 1910, and was the birthplace of the Muslim League in 1906 which grew in strength politically and negotiated the religious partition of British India in India and Pakistan in 1947. After partition with a Pakistan divided into two land masses, this culture of resistance and movements against the oppressors continued in Bengal (East Pakistan), with the 1952 Language Movement, the 1969 demonstrations against Pakistan’s Government and the biggest voluntary peoples movement, the liberation war in 1971 where ordinary Bengali’s with bamboo sticks wearing lungi’s and a vest fought against the Pakistan army in military uniforms with guns and tanks and won. Since independence in 1971 there has been ongoing political instability with the military coup in 1975, and a succession of military and quasi military regimes, each one being finally removed through peoples movements, demanding democracy. But none have been as big nor as peaceful and successful as the Shahbag Movement.

This begs the question why people felt that it was so important to make a stand against the lighter sentence given to a convicted criminal, when there were so many other times and issues that over the past 40 years could have triggered a movement like Shahbag. Many of those I interviewed said that they were doing it in the name of the freedom fighters and the victims of the liberation war, because if they didn’t make a stand for justice now, there would never be a chance again. Others saw the movement as a space to reclaim or re-imagine the spirit of 1971 for the younger generation, for a secular, democratic and independent Bangladesh. Others that this was an opportunity to finally secure the end of Muslim extremist groups in Bangladesh like the Jammat Islam (many of whose leaders are known as ‘razakkars’ collaborators from the Liberation war) who had been holding regular strikes against the ICT trials. Still others that the Government who had pledged to hold the ICT trials were the only pro liberation government likely to actually ensure the trials were completed and fair. Part of my research is to undertake a critical discourse analysis of the oral histories I have collected to try and understand the process and social constructions of the Shahbag movement by different people, and how this can help us understand the conditions needed for this kind of ‘spontaneous’ movement which demonstrated collective agency capability to occur.

In the literature on social movements, there are many different types of movements used as case studies from national to local issues, from identity issues to human rights. Theories seem to ‘turn’ depending on the type of movements experienced at the time so for example from the American civil rights movement and anti war movements since the 1960’s, literature on political opportunity structures and resource mobilization were key theoretical explanations for social movements. With the east European’s velvet revolutions from 1989 and global identity movements there was a ‘cultural turn’ with the notion of ‘New’ Social Movement theories suggesting the need to explore cultural frames for a theoretical understanding of movements. More recently social movement literature is being developed along the notion of the ‘dynamics of contentious politics’ to fit more recent pro democracy movements like the Arab Spring since 2010 and anti capitalist movements like Occupy since 2011. Thus incorporating cultural framing, injustice framing, media framing, crystallising identities and emotions (see for example Tarrow 2011).

These more recent movements have much in common with Shahbag, they were instigated by ordinary people, initially students and young people, they are seen as popular uprisings against an oppression not controlled or managed by a particular organization or political party, but engaging the masses, they used social media and online networking to generate interest and had a repertoire of initially non violent protest activities to assert their demands, they gained widespread media coverage and their actions were recognized and noted by Governments. But whereas the Arab Spring demanded democracy and was against existing regimes of rule, and Occupy Movement decided not to make demands but instead have Principles of Solidarity and a Declaration of Occupation. In contrast the demand by Shahbag in the first instance was very precise they wanted the convicted criminal to be given the death penalty. The Arab Spring which started in Tunisia spread across the Arab world with similar demands against other regimes, turning violent in reaction to state responses. Occupy also spread to 950 sites in over 83 countries, and with police resistance and violence led to many arrests, although most of their protest repertoire was very creative with civil disobedience, spectacles and the withdrawal of consent to systems and institutions. Shahbag grew in size where it started and was copied in towns across Bangladesh, as well as abroad through the Bengali diasporas, it was never violent, but more a protest using a repertoire of cultural activities and symbols, releasing balloons for every martyr, holding a 3 minutes silence, and ongoing slogans, chanting, singing and performances. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter where although many of the regimes were toppled, alternative regimes took over, or civil unrest continues. Occupy continues in different forms and activities. Shahbag achieved its primary demand with the appeals act being passed and implemented, and changes in the law, but other demands have still not been fulfilled.

What was unique about Shahbag theoretically was that it didn’t fit a structuralist understanding of social movements, Shahbag started as a reaction to a suddenly imposed dramatic, unexpected and highly publicized event which increased public awareness and opposition to the ICT court verdict. The accepted social condition is to accept a court judgment as it had gone through due process, so senior, established activists, and the media could not easily break this norm, it was the bloggers and students who broke free and made their voices heard, who resisted the judgment and created the space and opportunity to think differently and question the decision. Once this space was created at Shahbag, ordinary people ‘spontaneously’ started to join in, the non violent nature of the protest meant that it was a positive, festive atmosphere demanding justice, it was not controlled by anyone or any organization, it was a collective of the ‘multitude of singularities’ (Hardt and Negri) spontaneously forming to affect change. Once the main demand had been realized, ordinary people no longer needed to physically participate, their ‘agency’ was to decide when to participate in the activities and when to leave, but the impact of their collective agency capability was to change the legislation and introduce an appeals act which could be implemented. Because of Shahbag the social, political and cultural dynamics have shifted for future generations making it possible to ensure the trial of the war criminals and reassert the core principles from the liberation war of democracy, secularism and independence. It also set a precedent, that in future the populous could come together as a mass movement for a time and could have an impact, before going back to normal life. This ability of the masses to have the capability for collective agency and ‘swarm’ together for a ‘moment’ in time around a demand, to affect change, and then disperse is I believe an emerging model, a process of socially constructed practices of social movements for the future that needs to be understood. The conditions that created this collective agency capability is something I am now focusing on in my research to develop an understanding of future emerging social movement models in our current context.