It’s entirely possible that consumers of mainstream newspapers and television channels in Delhi know more about the alleged involvement of South African blade runner Oscar Pistorius in a sensational murder, than they know about the Shahbag protests in Dhaka.
But, it you were tuned in to Twitter or logged on to Facebook, you’d probably know that the Shahbag protests in a Dhaka square have taken the nation of 150 million people by storm.
According to the writer, Tahmima Anam, the single act of a Jamaat-e-Islami leader flashing a victory sign after being sentenced to life for his role in the 1971 Dhaka killings was sufficient to trigger what can only be called the “new protest”.
“Starting from February 5 in the year of 2013, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens gathered in a place called Shahbag in the capital city of Dhaka to demand maximum punishment of war criminals of 1971. Then the movement started all over the world.”
That’s what the website shahbag.org says on the top of its welcome page. And, at the bottom, it says the page is “powered by the people” of Bangladesh. Like others, I have issues with the demand for hanging all the culprits convicted by the international war crimes tribunal, but the force of these protests is undeniable.
Curiously, the #Shahbag movement was begun by online activists and bloggers, the face of the new protests. And, once they gathered in Shahbag, they were joined by tens of thousands of others.
Like what happened in Delhi after the December 16 gang rape and murder, these protests were outside the control of established political parties.
On Saturday, protests hit the Bangladeshi capital again as a young blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider (26) was killed outside his home, a crime that is being laid at the door of the Jamaat-e-Islami, two of whose leaders have, so far, been found guilty of war crimes committed in 1971.
Even as one joins issue with the “hang them cries”, there’s little doubt as Haroon Habib writes in The Hindu, the Shahbag movement challenges religious orthodoxy and Islamism.
We have seen time and again that the bullies of the religious right use goons to smash up people and works of art, to name only two targets, because they have the muscle power at their disposal. Often, this muscle power enjoys state protection, benign tolerance or a lack of interest that leads to these goons going free.
The protests in Dhaka and beyond demonstrate that numbers matter in tackling the fundos, which is why the Jamaat in Bangladesh is using all kinds of tactics, including physical attacks, to protect its political base.
It also demonstrates that ordinary people don’t like fundos and they want people to be punished for crimes, however, long it might take. Whatever else South Asia may have in common, it certainly shares a culture of impunity where the murderous and the rich and the powerful get away after committing heinous crimes.
We saw in Delhi after the brutal assault of a young girl in a moving bus in December that the protests were spontaneous, triggered by social media and television channels and had contempt for the word of the State.
So, whether it is India Gate or Shahbag, a new type of protest is following the inauguration of new kinds of social communication. More and more, these will be part of our political realities.
Governments, in South Asia and elsewhere, better get used to this new world of protest.
Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.