The Unseen Dissent
TAWHEED RAHIM paints a picture of the many faces of protest.
Recently we've all been surrounded by protest. Many of us have joined in to protest, others have simply witnessed the spectacle of the protests, and others still have been reading or hearing about it. Protest is in the air, it is on our streets and our screens and in our discourse. And while Shahbagh is certainly the loudest and most spectacular protest that is taking place, there are in fact many smaller acts of protest taking place both within Shahbagh and across the country that are going unnoticed by the cameras. In the untold stories of these very small and personal protests, I think there is indeed a story worth telling and one that perhaps reveals how deep the will to protest has penetrated the public consciousness.
To begin, I think we should note that protest is in fact something quite new to the average Bangladeshi citizen. Of course we're all used to seeing political rallies and strikes, but these are always funded, organised and orchestrated by party officials. Few deny the fact that people are paid to attend and play pawn for a day in the game of chess being played out by the political parties. They are thus a far cry from the grassroots style protest that we're witnessing today in Shahbagh. A New Yorker recently told me that Shahbagh reminds her of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I think the comparison isn't far off. Walking around Shahbag, you realise that the place gives off a flavour that is closer to Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, than the politically funded protests we're accustomed to in Bangladesh.
Though that said, we might not want to take the comparison too far. For one thing there are already traces of the political parties squeezing their way into the centre of Shahbagh. Old habits die-hard! Another point of course is that demanding justice for the crimes of 1971 is quite different from the revolution that was enacted at Tahrir Square. Indeed a friend of mine made it a point to express his dissatisfaction of the term 'Shahbagh Square'. Yet whatever the differences between Tahrir Square and Shahbagh, I suspect that we can't rule out that events like the Arab Spring may have played some role in planting the thought within the Bangladeshi consciousness that a different type of protest was possible -- a people's protest.
The mark of the people's protest is that it is fuelled by the will of the people and not political will. People here do not gather together and shout slogans because they are paid to, but because they believe in the cause. And it is this that makes such protests an all the more irresistible force. While evidence that what is taking place now is indeed something that is truly with the backing of the people and fuelled by their resolve is something that is rightly being called into question, there in the centre of Shahbag and across the country, in the most unexpected places, one finds evidence that what is taking place here is something quite unlike what has come before.
One example of this took place on Tuesday, February 12th at 4 in the afternoon. The media records that many across the country observed a 3-minute silence in solidarity with the cause being championed at Shahbagh. What the world doesn't know is that deep within the metropolis, in a familiar sort of office, 21 people rose to their feet and held their silence for those three minutes. Of this little occurrence, which interrupted an otherwise routine training session, there were no outside witnesses. Both doors to the room were shut and all the blinds were pulled. Not even a photograph was taken to prove that these 21 women and men had protested. And yet, even though nobody was watching, they felt it important to partake in the protest.
What is remarkable about this most unspectacular protest of the 21 is that it highlighted will over showmanship. The 21 had no monetary gain, nor an audience to impress. And so what shone through most brightly for those three minutes was how much the cause meant to these 21 as individuals. Then, two days later when all the centres of protest were alight with candles, in an apartment in Chittagong a young girl and her brother lit candles in their living room in time with the protesters they were watching on TV. Like the silence of the 21, these candles in the living room would of course go unnoticed, but it was important to the girl and her brother that they join in. It is this desire and will of the people to join in and partake even in the nooks where nobody can peer into, that gives this protest a true flavour of being of the people and not just another play in party politics.
There will of course always be critics, and the critics are worth listening to. For despite what we all might want Shahbag to be, the old party politics has been seeping in too. Inevitably some in politics stand to gain from this and some stand to lose. With so much riding on the outcome of this, how could the politicians from any party merely stand by and watch? Yet whatever influence all the interested parties are exerting or attempting to exert on the scene, their involvement should not shadow the fact that the people are behind this one too.
Merely seeing the faces of the protesters as one walks through Shahbagh is enough to prove this. The face of those men we see at the political rallies are seen here too, but so too are the people present from all walks of life. You turn one way to see an elderly couple sitting quietly happy to be submerged in the energy; you turn another way to see a man still wearing his suit and tie from work adding his message of support to one of the posters. You see the artists splash their paint across the walls, the musicians banging on their drums and the actors performing their plays. Others still have chosen to express themselves through films presented with projectors and screens, while others sit there with their laptops protesting through social media.
This is the success of Shahbagh. A political rally has one face, a peoples' protest has faces innumerable. The inclusivity and diversity of the space is itself worthy of celebration. Though these are things that can easily be lost when those shouting into the microphones drown out the voices of all the others. For as united as the people might be on seeking justice for 1971, the diversity of faces means a diversity of voices. Shahbagh has become a platform for much more than public discontent on the ruling of one court case. Shahbagh is the frustration of the people pouring out against crimes, corruption, injustice, discontent and so much more.
Last month I wrote that we could take pride in Ekushey February as it marks a time when we stood together against a common injustice that sought to rob us of our language, culture and identity. I urged that there were injustices that plague our society that are still worthy of outrage and in need of united action. Little did I know then that the people really would flood the streets to unite around a common call for justice. Though I hope now that the other injustices also being called out in these protests will not be forgotten.
This Valentine's Day, when billions of dollars worth of advertising was ignored and people flooded Shahbagh to light candles. An entire office block wore red and held a human chain on the streets for half an hour. They stood there to protest against violence against women. It is issues such as these I hope shall not be forgotten, for injustices are plenty in our society. In that article I highlighted the plight of the Chakmas as one injustice. I was happy to learn of the small group of Chakmas at Shahbagh that were chanting slogans in a circle, switching seamlessly from Bangla to their indigenous language and back again. It is their plight, the plight of the women made to suffer violence, the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden that I hope we shall not let slip by.
I'd like to end with another untold story of dissent that might help shed further light on the moment we've arrived at. On Valentine's Day when that office block had decided to wear red, one man from the office was in black. Yet this man hadn't been detached from the protests for he stood the line to protest against violence against women with his colleagues. The reason for his black clothes is found in the protest story of the day before. The day before had been Pohela Phalgun, which was marked by many protesters by wearing black instead of the traditionally bright colours. The man in black had still been wearing black from the day before, having had no time to sleep or change clothes going from spending all night in Shahbagh, to 9am office, to the human chain at 1pm. Such is the will and determination of the people that is backing the current movement. The question for us then is: Now that we've finally found our voice, and now that we've finally found a cause to unite, can we afford to let this rare moment in our history slip us by without addressing wider social injustices too?
Tawheed Rahim is a Staff Researcher at the Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.