Four seasons at the Shahbag Square : Occupant-Occupation-Occupy-Occupied

An elegy for the dead Alfred Soren, Humayun Azad and Bishwajit Das and for the living Helal Hafiz

By Mukherjee. P

And then. After walking through many many tracts of darkness, they discovered themselves in the midst of a large unending procession. Topu and Eva. In this boundless seashore, people are walking in front of them. Boys. Old Men. Girls. Children. Men. Women. Male Youth. Female Youth. They are tired of this long walk. Battered bodies. Battered gait. Where are we? In Vietnam or Indonesia? In Jerusalem or in Cyprus? In India or in Pakistan? Where are we?

An old man with a little tear in his eyes kept ranting: Do you know my child have been killed in Hiroshima. They have killed my mother in the streets of Jerusalem. My father was shot dead in Buchenwald. And my brother was hung to death because he loved humanity way too much. Beyond the permissible limit.

Topu and Eva stood next to the old man. And then they started walking once again towards that boundless sea shore. Slowly. Moving forward.

(Concluding paragraph of Zahir Raihan’s Aar Kotodin)

No it did not come as a surprise to me that the 165th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto happens to be February 21, 2013. And February 21 is a special day in Bangladesh. Not just for Bhasha Shahids, not just as UN-mandated World Mother Tongue Day but also as a reminder how language became a Marxian dialectic that triggered off an unique revolution. Shahbag strengthens that dialectic. Fortifies that praxis.

Shahbag is the new city of roses. Now that’s getting too romantic. The city of necessary barricades. Or shall we say that it is the new city of Cactus. And before you dismiss the revolution as that of act of wanting death penalty for rajakars involved in war crimes or wanting a total decimation of the Jamaat bridge or before you call it an uprising against corruption or misgovernance or before you label this as a wanton act of trying to influence judiciary, you have to understand that your seminar room analysis or your funded Phd discourse is load of bumkum to a necessary act of correcting a sponsored biased historical narrative that consumes the father of a Nation (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his family on that ill-fated hours of planned assassination) and successfully throws out Article 12 of a remarkable constitution (that specified secularism as a fundamental principle of the State).

Before you dismiss this anger as an uprising, please remember that Shahbag is a combination of the spirit of December 16, 1971 (independence of Bangladesh) and January 10, 1972 (when Bangabandhu returned to Dhaka) and the combined spirit wants that hard earned historical narrative to be safeguarded and not frittered away in the altar of moralists and revisionists.

Shahbag carries within it’s belly the unbearable weight of a constant collision. Between the history that is filtered by the funded-religious and between the people’s narrative of loss, anger and pain. The history crafted by the rajakaars (or the collaborators with Pakistan) and the history carried by the lost Bihari faces in the Geneva Camp inside Dhaka. History that will remember Lalon with his followers standing in front of Kangal Harinath’s press and daring those who want to burn the newspaper premises and this history that turns Lalon’s akhara into a organised mazaar.

That is why Shahbag to me as a South Asia is more significant than Tahrir Square. Shahbag tells me. Don’t just shoot your arrows…give them to the museum. That it is terrifying enough to know that the quiver exists. Let’s study the arrows inside the quiver. Let us try to understand that the arrows are not with the billionaires but the ones who lick the edges of our plate.

That we need to re-configure our violent mindspace. And move on. Not to emancipate others but to brutally interrogate one’s own self.

The fencesitters in Dhaka (who are in a significantly large number especially occupying significant positions in universities and peddling their west imported degrees and surprising a lot of them happen to be artistes and art activists) will ask : move on from what?

Shahbag’s reply would be: to move on from that culture of half-baked kindness shown by quarter-baked people. Move on from sunshine to moonshine. Move on from too much light and shadow to too much of dawn and dusk. Only then we shall not be terrified of mirrors from the past. Make or break isn’t a choice. Choice is make and bake (because there are too many hungry stomachs that want to share rice and revolution). Craft and reveal not create and conceal. There is an infinity beyond one plus one. Or as Hason Raja says the house that is constructed with the brick of nothingness. Only then we shall not attempt to change our world before changing the universe. Only then we will go beyond any upload/download or upstream-downstream-mainstream-substream-hiss-piss-shall-will-can’t-could-here-there-hereafter-thereafter type rhetoric peddled by seminar junkies.

It is on that frontiers of that history, we are standing. With the crutch called Shahbag. And that crutch is important to shape our history. History, that, will shape our generations understanding of the word “secular.” The current upheavals around Shahbag must be seen in the larger context of south Asia. When 11 million people crossed over to India and the churning of bodies and minds finally led to 14-day war, an important lesson emerged. That religion alone cannot be the glue to gloss over issues of identity, nationalism (not patriotism) and ethos. Liberation war is special because it taught us how a language can morph into identity and how that identity shapes thinking. Bangladesh did what Latin America could not.

And Shahbag reinforces that idea of ethos which has been almost successfully pulverised by Justice Sadat Mohammed Sayam, Lt Gen Ziaur Rehman, Begum Khaleda Zia, Lt Gen H.M Ershad and their cronies and then continued by Jamaat-e-Islami, Jam’mat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, Chhatra League, Khelafat Majlish, Islami Chhatra Shibir, Harkat-ul Jihadi Islami-Bangladesh, Hizb-ut Tahrir, Hizb-ut Twhid and groups and sub-groups, cult and sub-cults and cronies and assistant cronies that are mushrooming in alarming numbers.

There is a large gulf between Dhaka-centric thinking (which would extend to Chapainawabganj, Sylhet, Bogra, Sirajganj, Thakurgaon, Pabna, Natore and Narail) and the current ground realities in Barishal, Tangail, Madaripur, Ghazipur, Jhenaidaha, Narsinghi and the convoluted political landscape of Rajshahi and Noakhali. Then there are sharply polarised situation at Chittagong, Feni, Kushtia and Khulna which are tugging and pulling the lower income group in different directions. So, electorally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and their Jamaat cohorts may have lost out and may still lose the upcoming election, but the margin of polarisation is on a razor’s edge. And sustained funding for extremist elements may only hasten the looming spectre of a Shariah-propelled nightmare.

What is that nightmare? Very simply, to tear into the heart of a marafaat nation and transform it into a regimented religious remote control. This will not be the true values of Islam but the politics of personal revenge where Islam shall used as a mask. From a nation who’s people like being a river-nomad, forest-nomad, city-nomad, idea-nomad, moment-nomad, the religious radical forces will like to turn a nation of poets and philosophers into that of a land of theocratic nomads.

You are leaving them to fend with their own changed mirror image.

The idea of Shahbag is the idea of the young telling the fence-sitters: Hey, don’t be smug. Don’t wallow in your predictable self-pity. Self-righteousness. Tell me. Tell me. How do you differentiate between end and closure. Or are they synonyms couched as antonyms. What is their red line which distinguishes personal-impersonal; act-of-forgetting and an-act-of-erasure; the mundane-banal with the theoretical-superficial; the humane and the profane.

And the Shahbag youth put their body in the line of fire and screamed that each time you move from morality mirror to the forest of anarchy and from the forest of the anarchy your only destination can be the cactus landscape…meanwhile, your already bleeding body needs urgent treatment.

The Shahbag youth knows that the middle class of South Asia that feeds into the Kathmandu-Kabul-Colombo-Delhi-Mumbai-Male-Yangon-Lahore-Dhaka type of officially approved patriotism have no idea to make a trip towards a work-in-progress revolution. Even in their mindspace.

Perhaps you-the-officially patriotic type should not have made that trip. Perhaps you should not have angered the sleeping conscience in this land of cactus. Perhaps you should have been safely ensconced in some safe corner of a safe sofa inside your safe abode safely looking at your 3D television screen broadcasting high-definition f(r)iction. Perhaps it was a better idea to reduce yourself to a mere popcorn. Just be amongst many small globules in a tub waiting to be eaten as a combo offer. Perhaps your idea of revolution makes great TRP but lacks the ability to bring about any real change.

Nights inside the city of cactus are elastic. They neatly fold up and fits into your wallet. Into your transactions. Into your dominance. Into your victimhood. Into your standard response. Into your aftermath. Into those blank spaces in the burial ground that awaits a new corpse. These tactile nights fight back to haunt our tomorrows. Make us understand that the cost of secularism is a constant state of red alert.

And that is why Shahbag is a celebration of artistically alert political nomads. From Gogon Harkara to Lalon Fakir, from Ashwini Kumar Dutta to Araj Ali Matubbar, from Dhirendranath Dutta to Humayun Azad, from Showkat Osman to Salim Al Deen, from Shamshur Rehman to Hasan Azizul Haque, from Akhtaruzzaman Elias to Kalpana Chakma, from Qamrul Hassan to Cholesh Richil, from Gandhi’s Noakhali peace march to a dead blogger in the middle of a Dhaka night, from Kalpana Boarding to Zahir Raihan, from Shahriar Kabir to Shamim Osman Bhulu, from Kofil Ahmed’s brilliant evocation on Ganga to Molla Sagar’s camera that rips open the hungry heart of the jute mill workers, from Shahidul Alam’s unrelenting lens that fixes it’s gaze on crossfire and counter-narrative and from a land of Modhumela to Sanatan Mela, from Jainul Abedin to Piren Snal, from the womb of Jahanara Inam to the spirit of Begum Sufia Kamal….Shahbag extends that list. Celebrates the political nomads. The real ones. Not the cause-hoppers or the because-hoppers. These nomads are becoming an increasingly lonely tribe who’s services are used in their youth and then they are high and dry. Cast away into a statistically irrelevant “leftover” group that will soon be forgotten. This is/was/will be a systematic habit with every so-called private fascist/ public liberal messiahs who wants to tinker with the shape of our political memory.

What is political memory? Isn’t it a collection of unrelenting images playing out through a never ending slide show- getting back at us- with new press button keys- lapse, relapse, locate, relocate, structure, de-structure, condition, de-condition, belong, unbelong, dead-alive, alive-dead, unfettered, uncluttered, unhinged- almost a new genre of music- the refugee blues.

I am not surprised seeing my irrelevance. I am not overly concerned over the fact that my dissent looks more fashionable or cool than it looks to be persistent. I know soon inside a multiplex we will be seeking varieties of violence inside a Pearl-pet jar. With happy hours. Discount coupons. All this. All that.

What will I do for myself that very day. When I’ll enter the shop and face this fresh-faced earnest looking salesman ready to sell violence in small pockets. Let me share with you a little secret. I have met him already. Inside some multiplex. Inside the belly of Burganga in old Dhaka. Inside the freofshly dug earth of the broken site the Buddhists at Ramu (September 30, 2012) or the carnage at Ukhia, just before sunset as gutted nine storeyed building of Tazreen garments (30 kms north of Dhaka in Ashulia, where 125 workers of an almost 2,000 strong workfirce was charred to death) wore a deserted look and much before lingering shadows in Rangamati and Khagrachhari became dark parabolas.

Shahbag tells me that the God that you and I know is neither statistical nor empirical. He/She needs you to know that denial of history only makes us less tolerant. Even the quiver is jampacked with arrows and you do have many targets…take it easy…Inhale. Exhale. Exhale again. Inhale now. And then clean up the quiver to keep the humane arrows and not the divisive ones.

You can now keep a zillion mirrors in the room. Shahbag am not afraid. Shahbag is ready to see a zillion split images of it’s already dissected halal self. And it will now move on to a nether zone that is unreachable even by imagination. Shahbag has not forgotten how the finest intellectuals were killed by razakars in those early seventies nightmare. Shahbag has not forgotten Zahir Raihan and is incompete classic Let There Be Light inspired from his brilliant novella Aar Koto Din.

Shahbag makes me learnt all that. I now know that I won’t bleed that easily. City of cactus as always will be a tough pit stop. But my carriage will roll by. Will negotiate the chicane. Real-life zebra crossings. And zoom towards a carnival-esque space, where humour is contagious. Even black humour. There- in that space- I’ll have my private chess match with demons, morons, patriots, feminists, nationalists, zealots, revolutionaries, fascists, communists, green ones, saffron ones, the damaged, the fragile, the disadvantaged, the chewed, the eaten, the moth-attacked, the barbecued, the roasted, the unnecessarily stressed, the disappeared- of course with those glorious fence-sitters.


I want to play a private game of chess inside Shahbag. It is a little crowded here. We lay out the chessboard a little far..pass the aromatic flower market..cross the road and then sit at the foothpath adjoining Aziz Market. And I’ll ask my Shahbag friends that same, silly inane question which I keep asking them each time we slug it out on 64 squares- which colour do you prefer black or white? And this time each one invariably retorted with the word: grey.

So, this time, we invented our brand of chess. Neo-shatranj. We devised a new board. We formulated new rules. We start playing the game that will last till the apocalypse. Million evenings make way for billion nights. Finally, the match finishes. It has taken a million years. Fair enough. We shake hands. Shahbag is now clear. Cleansed (mind you, not purged).

Flashforward over: Back to Now

No futuristic chess match happened. It is late afternoon and the Projonmo Chottor (the Boulevard of the Future) is still teeming with people. I file my despatch and am off to the airport.

The flight is boarding.


Dear Reader, to your house and mine too. Epar Bangla (this Bengal). Opar Bangla (That Bengal).
It will land on your/mine bed of thoughts.
You will find me some lip-balm for my dry parched lips.
When I finish reading the mind of Shahbag I will melt into the night. Next morning as and when you wake up (well, you hardly sleep nowadays…you want revolution and Facebook both in real time)- you’ll summon me and ask what lessons have I learnt. And I, will tell you read Shahbag from the prism of painstaking research of Professor Abul Barkat (Dhaka University) that says that under various versions of Enemy Property Law and the later avatar called Vested Property Law that 925,050 (about 40 per cent of Hindu households), 748,850 were ejected from agricultural land, 251,085 from homes, 48, 455 of garden lands, 79, 290 of ponds, 4.405 from commercial land, 114,530 of different categories of land, 1.64 million acres (6640 square kilometers) constituting 5.3 per cent of total area of Bangladesh (which is about 53 per cent of Hindu proprietary land) has been snatched/taken away.

Who are occupying these lands? The ones who have opposed /will oppose/is planning to oppose Shahbag or co-opt Shahbag to their agenda or even leave no stone unturned to begin planned character assassination and also orchestrate tactical and strategic killings like the brutal hacking of Mirajuddin Ahmed brother of Ahmed Imtiaz Bulbul and killing of Class X student Tanveer (son of Ganajagaran Mancha activist Rafiur Rabbir) in Narayanganj. These are the same people who burnt 11 persons including a new born and seven women alive in Tejendra Lal Shil’s house At Sadhanpur in Banshkhali near Chittagong on the midnight of November 19, 2013 or the 2003 murder of Dr Sudhindra Nath Mukherjee (he was stabbed first by a blunt instrument and then his head was ripped open with scissors).

Dear Reader, you’ll tell me not allow my nostalgia to become violent. Rather to be clued to the present. To be glued to the revolution. Nostalgia also kills. Because all the neutral memories are dangerously vagrant. They waft, bite and chew. From the mirrorpolis to forestpolis to cactuspolis- it was one helluva journey.

And who said that this journey is over?

Exile isn’t just a mere roadshow. You can feel exiled even amongst the thousands who surround you. It is a state of mind that joins dissenting dots, straightening up the frayed edges and all that it takes to make the individual universes of people’s histories talk to the larger multi-verse of shared co-created participatory history.

Shahbag tells me what Nirmalendu Goon told me so many times: Ami Jonmer Proyojone Chhoto Hoyechhilam/ Ami Mrityur Proyojone Boro Hochhi (I became small to accommodate the act of my birth. I am now expanding myself to accommodate the act of my death).

And when you can shadowbox with death then you kill the negative shadow. Remember shadows don’t have ID cards.

Personal was always political in Shahbag. Marx is a fakir here. He sings with ektara, he tilts, balances, topples over and says Amar Ghorer Chabi Porer Hate (the keys to me house with somebody else). Who is that somebody? Who are those some bodies?

Every Body. Every One. From Teknaf to Tentulia.

Image by Saha B.


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