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Bloodthirsty non-violence: The paradox of Shahbag protests

By Ajaz Ashraf

The exhilarating, exemplary protest the Bangladeshis have mounted at Shahbag Square in Dhaka raises several perturbing questions, but which we in our understandable glee over Islamists being cornered have failed to ask. None of these is more challenging than the philosophical poser: can we describe as non-violent a movement which peacefully pursues a goal essentially violent in nature?

Violent, indeed, is the goal of the Shahbag protest, demanding as it does the hanging of all those arrayed in the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for killing people during Bangladesh’s war of liberation. It was sparked off, as we all know, at the ICT awarding life imprisonment to Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah, goading a disappointed people to bay for his death.

 Bloodthirsty non-violence: The paradox of Shahbag protests

Whether or not the Bangladeshis succeed in achieving their goal, they have certainly turned the philosophy of non-violence on its head. AFP

As the gathering at Shahbag swelled to mammoth proportions, death became the leitmotif of the protest. It surprised none to see them erupt into thunderous applause at the news that another Jamaat leader, Delawar Hossain Sayedee, had been sentenced to death. It would seem the protestors at Shahbag won’t return home until all the nine accused of war crimes have been sent to the gallows.

Whether or not the Bangladeshis succeed in achieving their goal, they have certainly turned the philosophy of non-violence on its head. Nobody had ever thought that there could come a time or a movement which would have people protest peacefully, not even lifting a hand or issuing dire threats, yet demand death for their opponents, as those accused of war crimes are for Shahbag. In this limited sense, the protest in Dhaka mirrors the agitation against rape in Delhi in December.

No longer do goons or revolutionaries want to mow down their rivals. Even peaceful protestors, our modern-day Gandhians, desire the death of their opponents. Indeed, Shahbag marks the appropriation of non-violence as a strategy to achieve a violent goal. The efficacy of this method can be gleaned from the praises lavished on Shahbag in both the Indian and international media, too awed by the mammoth assembly of pacifists to critically examine their methods and goals.

Perhaps the celebration of Shahbag without reservation is linked to the nature of debate till now on what constitutes a non-violent movement. For long, its proponents have concentrated on debating the legitimacy of means/methods to achieve goals universally valued – for instance, independence from the foreign yoke, or ushering in of a democratic rule by overthrowing a dictator, or for establishing socio-economic equality. They argued that a goal, however cherished and valued, does not justify all conceivable methods to realise it. Some were deemed outside the pale. Truth and peaceful protest were considered as important as the avowed goal, which an illegitimate method – violence – could sully and debase.

Shahbag seems to have reversed this equation: does a peaceful protest become illegitimate because its goal is violent? Can such a protest be called non-violent? These questions assume importance as the Shahbag protestors neither want radical changes in the judicial process nor a more skilled battery of prosecutors. Irrespective of the quality of evidence presented – which David Bergman, who manages a Bangladesh war crimes website, believes is questionable on many counts – Shahbag adamantly wants the accused hanged. It’s a demand decidedly unreasonable, even murderous, which, in turn, renders the peaceful protest likewise.

A non-violent movement, historically, doesn’t seek vengeance. In fact, it aims to break the cycle of violence-vengeance, persuade the oppressor about the illegitimacy of his or her methods, and mounts moral pressure on him or her to transform and rectify past mistakes. These principles guided Mahatma Gandhi in his endeavour to convince the British about the immorality of enslaving a people. Perhaps the Bangladeshis should recall the fast he undertook to stop the communal rioting in Noakhali and Kolkata, demanding neither imprisonment nor hanging for the perpetrators of violence, and quite content at its cessation.

Obviously, it could be argued that in a democracy, which Bangladesh is, the popular will must prevail. Though we can’t tell for sure whether Shahbag expresses the majority sentiment, the overwhelming victory of the ruling Awami League in the last election, which it fought on the promise of bringing war criminals to expeditious trial, could be cited as an expression of the popular will. Nevertheless, it isn’t just a case of quibbling to point to the significant difference between putting war criminals on trial and insisting they must be hanged, irrespective of the evidence against them. In demanding the latter, Shahbag has pushed Bangladesh closer to mobocracy than strengthening democracy.

We could well rue Shahbag in the future, historic though it seems to us in the present. It is conceivable that the Jamaat, currently on the backfoot, could recover from its setbacks and rally to power, say, 10 years later. What would we say if they were to gather thousands of Islamists at Shahbag to accuse the current crop of leaders of conspiring to send their leaders to the gallows in 2013 and demanding they be hanged? With what arguments would we challenge the Jamaat if it were to invoke the popular will to replace the largely secular Bangladeshi Constitution with an Islamic one?

We secularists are delighted because Shahbag appears to us a blow for secularism and moderate Islam, and seemingly promises to marginalise the Jamaat, its extremism, and its revolting intolerance of the Hindu minority. This development has been the cause of much rejoicing among policy-makers who have always found troublesome the Jamaat’s reflexive anti-India posture. But, really, do the Bangladeshis need to consecrate the progressive idea of secularism in blood? Would we Indians demand the same punishment for all our politicians, many of whom are feted regularly, for dabbling in communalism of a horrendous nature, although nowhere quite close to what Jamaat has been guilty of?

This doesn’t mean the wounds of Bangladesh should be allowed to fester. Perhaps its leaders should examine the method Nelson Mandela adopted to bring a closure to the history of bloody race relations in South Africa.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at

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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2013 12:57:24 IST