The ‘Bangladeshi youth’, discursively

Anwara Begum

APPEARANCE can be deceptive; sometimes very deceptive. Is that why we are having a hard time understanding Shahbagh? Many asked me to tell them why the media was so engrossed in the Shahbagh phenomenon. Maybe, they feel I have something to say about it just because I study political science. Well, Shahbagh is complicated, to say the least, and we will need a lot of research and definitely more than political science to explain it. It is always a struggle for me to understand Bangladesh politics. But one thing I have learned — that Bangladesh politics is more complex than it appears to be. With many accusatory fingers pointed at Bangladesh politics and Bangladeshi politicians (those who belong to the governing party as well as those who don’t), it may sound outright stupid but I have acquired a degree of respect for both.
We have to go beyond appearances. We must try and succeed to some extent or horrible things could happen as did to King Pentheus’s mother who did not see beyond the lion’s mask and tore her son into pieces thinking she was killing a lion. Her father later told her, ‘It is only a mask.’ That happened in Euripides’s Bacchae. Some young people told me that there were two Shahbaghs; chronologically speaking, that is. Chronological focus is important, but it can take us only so far. If we think in terms of participants and goals there were at least three Shahbaghs. Understanding those will take time and efforts, of course. Meanwhile, we can, in a chaotic manner, take a look at some flows and linkages. Let’s begin with how our young people, who supposedly staged Shahbagh, have been discursively constructed by the media. Plato, the greatest ancient Greek philosopher, who was so concerned about balance in the state and about the education of the young would say, ‘Now you see why the state needs to educate its young.’
One could notice a media discourse developing about the Bangladeshi youth even before the 2008 election. It kept gaining force after the election when the Awami League’s victory was attributed to our young voters who rejected corruption, religious fundamentalism, and were ready to fight for the values of our liberation war. These young people were modern, secular, and westernised. And they held modern western values, or so we were led to believe. The discourse began gaining force after the election and became stronger every year. The multifaceted effort undertaken by the media to keep the discourse flowing is indeed breathtaking. News paper editorials, op-eds, reports, campaigns (sometimes on the sea beach), programmes (concerts), TV shows where young people are brought in for their opinions, programmes for young people sponsored by TV channels or newspapers (with names like Odomya Chottogram), movies coming out centring young people’s concerns, you name it. Some newspapers came to have supplements with different names but centring the same segment of the population, the young. It almost looked like a war to construct our youth as a depoliticised western youth who are very fashion conscious and like everything the Western youth love: secularism, concerts, women’s empowerment stories, candlelight vigils, and condemning corruption and the sorry state of Bangladesh politics and the ‘horrific Bangladeshi politicians’. The average Bangladeshi mother would not recognise her son or daughter dancing in the concert wearing the latest fashion or standing on the beach. So much so that by the middle of 2012, it seemed that Bangladesh was a country which only housed the young and Bangladesh itself was achieved by the young, and from now on the young would build it. I am sure many elderly people, mothers and fathers and grandparents, started wondering whether there would be a youth assembly from which a demand would come to cordon off the old- fashioned, diseased, older Bangladeshis and put them away en masse in old-age homes to prevent further pollution of the country. One cannot help pausing to wonder how old Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib and Maulana Bhashani were in 1970.
One important aspect of this discourse has been de-legitimising the existing student wings of the political parties and the party leaders themselves. I am not saying that either the Chhatra League or Chhatra Dal has acted like angels but sweeping condemnation of the parties’ student wings demonstrates lack of analysis and comprehension. Political parties interpret this as efforts to weaken them by weakening their student wings. One op-ed in a leading Bangla daily and written by a prominent columnist (published on January 13) calls the leaders of the student wings of the two major parties spineless and compromising, and engaged in corruption, terrorism, tender manipulation, etc. The same op-ed says that our young people are disgusted by the destructive politics of Bangladesh and dislike the two leaders of the two major parties. It calls for the formation of a countrywide youth forum that can later be transformed into a political party. You can see, reader, such writings systematically de-legitimise Bangladesh politics, constructs the Bangladeshi youth as a corrective moral force whose time has come to be organised using information and communication technology. The discourse has been flowing and playing and reaching a crescendo or that was still to come.
There is an interesting foreign element in constructing this discourse and influencing its dissemination. One heard foreign diplomats frequently saying they were optimistic about Bangladesh because of its creative, new-thinking young people. Western youth leaders came to inspire our young people and visited important educational institutions in the capital and other places. Short-term training programmes took our young to foreign countries so they would learn leadership qualities. Foreign funding was provided to youth organisations. These organisations are to create normal (read depoliticised) young people with normal urges and tendencies. One day a student of mine came to me, full of excitement and wonder, and said, ‘Do you know a youth organisation is on campus and they are doing fun things. They suddenly make a sound and start dancing.’ The organisation was indeed a youth organisation drawing members from upper and upper middle class Bangladeshi families and is foreign funded. There have been seminars and round tables on young people and their future. Many of you remember that Hillary Clinton met the young people of this country in a televised adda. Among other things, such a meeting presented her as an example of open, upright, honest leaders as opposed to the corrupt, manipulative, uncaring leaders of our political parties. Foreign diplomats were hosting expensive lunches to talk to young university students to know their views on how the country is functioning and how the government is doing.
A vulnerable segment of our society, our youth, have been separated from us and constructed as a depoliticised moral force whose duty it is to give birth to a new kind of political order. A powerful discourse arose and literally built a young force in the name of morality, regeneration, correction. This, reader, is intriguing. Our parties, both the governing and the opposition, tend to think threats of takeover come from the military, the third force. One of my friends says, ‘The government still seems to think that some military officers will come to capture the state machinery shooting down whoever is in the way. But that happened long ago.’ Things have changed. This is a post-industrial, post-modern world. Here conspirators do not sit across the table to conspire to overthrow an elected government using the military. Things happen, naturally, because morality requires. Morality is indeed an important and effective weapon. The assumption seems to be that if you have the moral high ground and the media supports you, there is no need to worry; things will fall into place. It was only a matter of time that some young people would come to Shahbagh to make a moral claim that the punishment meted out to Quader Molla was not enough. But before we can really go into Shahbagh, let’s ponder about a few things like democracy, morality, democracy promotion by the Western world, etc.
During the Cold War Third World politics was controlled through military governments. One can remember the military rulers of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, South Korea, etc. It has never been easy. Military regimes often became very corrupt and oppressive. There were pressures from society for freedom and democratic government. The West, especially the United States, embarked on democratisation or democracy promotion. The West helped with transition to democratic rule that led to coming to power of pro-Western civilian governments. Although President Ronald Reagan began this policy of democracy promotion formally through a speech he delivered in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, it is Bill Clinton who is more closely associated with it. A large body of literature exists on democracy promotion; let me cite only a few sources (William Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Thomas Carothers, In the Name of Democracy: US Policy toward Latin America in the Reagan Years; Berkley: University of California Press, 1991; Thomas Carothers, Confronting the Weakest Link: Aiding Political Parties in New Democracies; Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006; T Ambrosio, Authoritarian Backlash: Russian Resistance to Democratization in the Former Soviet Union; London: Ashgate, 2009; Abel Polese and Donnacha O Beachain eds. The Color Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics: Successes and Failures, NY: Routledge, 2010). Democracy promotion activities and the democracy establishment are widespread and multifaceted. Money comes from different kinds of sources. The establishment includes the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, USAID, DFID, the German Foundations or Stiftungs; also, and very importantly, the NGOs in various developing countries. As one leading American expert said to me, this is a huge establishment and research can uncover only the tip of it.
The democracy establishment engages in different kinds of activities, among those are: keeping linkages with journalists, intellectuals, politicians, parties; training election observers, training politicians, publicising information about democracy and democratisation, maintaining interactions among democracy activists, e.g. NGO officials and youth leaders, etc. Some experts think the West, through its democracy establishment, can have total control over the politics of many developing countries. No need to think that the all the Western officials and intellectuals working in this establishment cynically desire to control Third World politics. Many of them think that they are contributing towards cleaning up politics and establishing a system like their own in the developing countries. Things are more complex than they appear to be.
The democracy establishment is associated with the colour revolutions that took place in the East European and post-Soviet countries. The first colour revolution, of course, is the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and Corazon Aquino coming to power. It was the Yellow Revolution. Some experts have shown that this transition to democracy was controlled and supported by the US democracy establishment. The success in the Philippines inspired the activists and they used many of the methods in the Nicaraguan case. The National Endowment for Democracy was heavily involved in the Nicaraguan opposition’s strategies against the Sandinista government in the late 1980s. Then came the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia (2000), the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004), the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005). These revolutions usually go by the name of a flower or pick up a colour but they are known as the colour revolutions in the literature.
The colour revolutions start using a moral issue by a resistance group dominated by young people. Usually that issue is ‘achieving real democracy’ by accusing the unfair or fraudulent election that has just taken place. Young people start gathering in a square or in front of parliament or the seat of government as they did in Ukraine; they painted Ukraine’s Independence Square orange. The NGO network gets activated including women’s organisations and you have a great spectacle of mainly young people demonstrating day after day (not going home), condemning immorality raising their hands, staying on the street, singing and rocking. The participants feel they are rescuing their society from the grip of corrupt, insensitive, authoritarian politicians. Foreign funding is provided to train the activists and to establish or support news outlets like TV channels (Kanal 5 TV in Ukraine) or newspapers (MSN and Respublika in Kyrgyzstan). The Open Society Institute of George Soros provided funding to train Ukrainian NGO officials. These revolutions usually are led by youth groups like Otpor in Serbia, Kmara in Georgia and Kel Kel in Kyrgyzstan. The IRI held meetings in the Hilton Hotel in Budapest to train Serbian youth leaders of the Bulldozer Revolution. Edward Shevardnadze of Georgia who was overthrown by the Rose Revolution believed that George Soros, his erstwhile supporter, worked against him and funded his overthrow. It is interesting that one’s supporter, in the democratisation game, can turn into one’s opponent when the time comes. The worldwide democracy establishment ensures that the youth movement gets coverage in the appropriate manner. The leading activists get training from youth movements in a country where such a colour revolution has been successful or, to put it differently, from the democracy network. When the revolution is said to be successful, one finds a pro-Western government in power. Many young activists who participated later feel frustrated as many young women did in Ukraine and found that the foreign funding their women’s organisations were getting dried up after the revolution. Many are rewarded like Zamira Sydikova, editor-in-chief of Respublika, who became Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to the United States.
Some experts believe that the colour revolutions around Russia had a more important and long-term objective aside from instituting pro-Western governments. The objective was to encircle Russia with these colour revolutions and have the final triumph in Russia itself through a Russian colour revolution. There was a time, during the Yeltsin period, when numerous NGO activists landed every day in Russia to teach democracy to the Russians and help the opposition. Western NGO officials taught the Russian opposition how to compose campaign messages and conduct the campaigns themselves; stayed with them to show the ways of democracy. The Russian state became careful and tried to handle it as an external threat posing as a domestic phenomenon. This is why the Putin government despises the NGO network in Russia and has found a number of ways to handle it, one of them being the use of the youth organisation Nashi (our). As I write this piece, Angela Merkel is asking the Russian government to let NGOs function freely in Russia (as reported by the BBC World on April 8). Last year, in mid July, Russia passed a law requiring open reporting of NGO funding. Other states, like Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan, who feel threatened, have also taken similar steps. A technologically sophisticated method was used by the Belarus government. When the youth activists sent a chain cell phone SMS to gather in the October Square for a mass rally, the government also sent such a chain SMS stating that provocateurs were planning a massive bloodshed on the October Square and one should protect one’s life.
To come back to Shahbagh, reader, you are thinking, ‘Oh, you are suggesting Shahbagh was an attempt at a colour revolution?’ I am not suggesting anything, I am trying to raise questions, which is the only thing that an academic can do at this stage. The three Shahbaghs were complex; and time consuming, tortuous research is needed by capable researchers to come to a conclusion. All we can do at this time is raise questions and look at linkages and symbols and events and the ways Shahbagh unfolded. It is said that the first Shahbagh was a gathering of young people who wanted to protest against a certain verdict and the evolving entente between the government and Jamaat-e-Islami. This was framed as a moral issue and the government was accused of immorality; the accusers used the government’s own symbols and values of our liberation war that this government supports. Against the backdrop of a potent media discourse flowing about the neutral, morally upright youth of Bangladesh, a gathering of young people can be easily justified and supported by some sectors of the media, on the internet, and words of mouth. Imagine, a group of young people with strong support by some sectors of the media in this age of cell phone technology making a strong moral claim against a Third World government (97% of whose MPs are corrupt, so says a famous international NGO’s objective research) sitting and gathering supporters in the heart of the capital. Any government would be worried about such a prospect. Soon one heard Shahbagh being captured by supporters of the government. That is Shahbagh two. It can be seen as a defensive move by the government. Shahbagh started dominating Bangladesh politics with directives being issued to do this or that. Participants kept demanding death penalty for the captured Jamaat leaders. The media kept supporting both the Shahbaghs!
Let me digress a little here. Shahbagh one and Shahbagh two both fed on the media discourse on Bangladeshi youth. One can see it in the coverage provided by some important sectors of the media, both the texts and the pictures. They were supported as Bangladeshi youth’s effort to move Bangladesh to progress and liberation. But the main demand coming from Shahbagh was not progressive at all. The young people raised their hands, tied ribbons around their heads, and shouted slogans demanding death penalty for war criminals. Death penalty for criminals, any criminals, is not progressive. Death penalty is not justice; it is cold-blooded murder by the state. Framing of the issue is also interesting. Such a demand implies that our martyrs who sacrificed their lives for our sovereignty, peace, and prosperity cannot rest in heaven unless some people are killed by the state. But our martyrs are not restless for revenge; their soul would rest in peace if we can build a dynamic, peaceful, democratic polity that can be the pride of each Bangladeshi. The government which really wanted to put the war crime issue ‘behind’ and go forward seemed trapped.
Shahbagh two is not as simple as it looks. To think that the government’s supporters were in control would be a mistake. Things started happening, blogs became involved, and aggressive utterances were heard. Shahbagh two seemed controlled and planned but by whom? It remained adamant for a death penalty and it came. Many experts could tell that this was going to lead to violence given the way everything was poised. That, of course, brings us to Shahbagh three which cannot be chronologically pinpointed but which is the fallback position that includes Shahbagh one and two. Shahbagh one was supposed to be interactive with some forces. The government tried to bring under control this ‘interaction’ element and keep things within limits in Shahbagh two. Shahbagh three is also strongly related to the ‘Bangladeshi youth’ media discourse; it saw the government intervention coming and incorporates Shahbagh one and two. Shahbagh three interacted with the government and Jamaat instigated violence and with some other forces. The government did not feel it could nor in reality did control Shahbagh three. The government tried hard to handle something but what really? Third world governments and parties tend to be penetrated by different kinds of forces and it is difficult for them to handle complex crises. The government’s efforts were not entirely unsuccessful. But Shahbagh three was not just sitting there it was flowing as a process and it was successful as well. Shahbagh three, it seems, aimed at the softening up of the government. Even strong supporters of the government have come to think that the government lost ground. Because Bangladesh tends to be a country embracing different kinds of political forces, our governments need to face them with an open mind and tolerant attitude and, of course, respect. We have to remember that we live in a changed world and changed Bangladesh.
Let me talk about the ball. I hear so much about the ball being in the government’s court that sometimes I wonder why the government does not see the colourful thing in its court. It is easy to malign the government of a poor developing country as blind, corrupt, inept, etc. But seeing the ball in the government’s court displays a particular mindset. It frees other parties, including the opposition, from responsibility. Both the opposition and the government should realise they cannot have all of it and must make some concession. It is true that the government, as the legally instituted, elected government should have tried harder to bring the opposition to the parliament and facilitated its functioning. The opposition also should have attended the parliament sessions on a regular basis making all concerned see that it was functioning in the open as a democratic force. And its desire to do exactly (paying back in one’s own coins) what the Awami League did (or supposedly did) to come to power the last time does not reflect much creative thinking.
Politics is ultimately an art that must aim at safeguarding the interest of the majority of the people taking into consideration the interest of the minority. It is an art of compromise and politicians need not be ashamed of making compromises for the good of the people and prosperity of the nation. Philosophical orientations, issue-framing must adjust to the greater good of the people, the nation’s needs in the current reality. We cannot just parrot the words, as some supporters of Shahbagh did on TV, that we must punish our war criminals harshly because that is what the Europeans do. We must have our own philosophy of dealing with war criminals, with openness, tolerance, and fairness reflecting our own socio-politico-economic realities.
I know reader you will say Shahbagh was an attempt by Awami League supporters to restore the government’s image tarnished by the stock market collapse, Hallmark scandal, Padma Bridge scandal, etc. But that does not explain how the media discourse was drawn upon and why the media kept supporting Shahbagh even after the government took control (I am talking about some important newspapers not just some television channels). One does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand what kind of chain reactions can occur in Bangladesh politics after Shahbagh was thought to be dictating the government’s actions.
Coming back to colour revolutions, a newspaper is already talking about the Shapla Revolution. I think the government needs to ponder about a number of things. It prevented the Bangladesh Nationalist Party from having large gatherings and felt there would be a Tahrir Square in Bangladesh organised by the BNP. But something very similar to a Tahrir Square took place right under its nose using its own symbols, its own slogan, and its own concerns — in Shahbagh. Many in the media supported it as the advent of the young and morality which implicitly de-legitimises Bangladesh politics. And Jamaat seemed ready to play its role.
This government was taking beatings for: Hallmark, the stock market collapse, Dr Yunus issue, NGO hostility, and finally Padma Bridge. With this went the TIB releasing information at strategic times. The Padma Bridge issue is a superb stroke dealt by such a huge institution that managing it has proven very difficult because everybody seems to believe the World Bank and its media supporters and not the governments of poor developing countries which, according to the corruption discourses, are incorrigible culprits.
Reader, you must be thinking, ‘There was no need to create more confusion by talking about multiple Shahbaghs, was there?’ You feel that way because you think I have tried to explain Shahbagh; as they do in political science. No, I have tried to avoid doing exactly that. Maybe, we need to get away from explaining and understanding and try to see linkages and ripples going through the society and the effects created. Some feminist scholars question the distinction between the subject and the object and problematise objective knowledge. As the post-modernists would point out, the victim and the criminal in the dichotomy victim/criminal are really not two opposing terms. If we can see that, the distance between Shahbagh and Hefajat’s Shapla Chattar is short indeed. You are probably angry with me, reader, and thinking, ‘Why are you serving this philosophical nonsense? Just say that you think it was a complex conspiracy.’ No, I have not been talking about a grand conspiracy; I wish I was; it would be really simple then. But everything happened so naturally, normally and morally. That is the beauty of it, don’t you think?

Anwara Begum is professor of political science at Chittagong University.

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