Situating the Shahbag Movement: Re-founding the National?

Nazmul Sultan

“Each time an event unfolds or erupts hope and anxiety accompany it, in different ways and to different degrees during each event. And many initially outside its compass are rapidly moved to intervene, in attempts to support it, to redirect it, or to squelch it. An event starts out of apparent uncertainty and foments a wider band of uncertainties as it expands and morphs. Events emit contagious and infectious energies. Sometimes democracy or dictatorship hangs in the balance. Or the creation of a new right, faith or identity. Or the denial of one or more of those.”[1]


What has now been named as the Shahbag Movement was not an expected event. This is not due to the lack of historical conditions of possibility or for the absence of a popular base. Having held state power with a popular mandate to prosecute war criminals, the Awami League (AL) appropriated the political narrative that demanded trial of war criminals. This issue of war criminals’ trial became a deux ex machina for the AL’s political operation: finding the conspiracy to halt it in every oppositional gesture to the regime.[2] Parroting their support for a “proper” trial, the opposition parties accused the AL of politicising the issue, while they continued to be in political alliance with the party that contains most, if not all, war criminals. After almost three years of the trial process, the tribunal declared its verdict: death-sentence for a war-criminal-turned- televangelist. Since the convicted does not belong to any political party (and his was a trial in absentia, as he fled the country before he was charged), it was politically safe for the tribunal (and for the government) to hand him a death sentence. However, for the crimes of an even greater magnitude, the current assistant secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Abdul Quader Mollah, popularly known as the butcher of Mirpur, received life-sentence[3]. What had become apparent by then was that either the AL-led regime had succumbed to the vandalising show of strength by the party of war criminals (Jamaat-Shibir) or that it had reached a backroom deal with the Jamaat. Few had suspected this verdict would spark a fire, although it was predicted the verdict would leave people disaffected. Even when a handful of “online activists” gathered in Shahbag to protest against what they deemed a negotiated and unjust sentence, few had imagined it would swell into the gigantic mass that it is now. What is crucial here – and what I believe to be the defining element of the evental nature of the movement – is its ability to draw distance from the state-appropriation of the Bangladesh liberation war and the attendant trial of war criminals. This act of drawing distance from the hegemonic power and its satellites, I would argue, is behind the popular kernel of the movement, even as the movement is still led by people sympathetic to the regime. This not only provided a public-political legitimacy to the movement, but also placed the movement in a greater context than the single-issue movement that it might appear to be.

The “singular” demand for the highest punishment for war criminals expanded itself around the call for boycott of and resistance to the Islamist party (and its large financial network) that assisted and participated with the Pakistani military in the genocide of 1971. Apart from the legitimate demand for justice against the worst form of crime, what is significant about the demand raised by this movement is that it sits outside of the political projections of both the political and civil society. This feature of the movement does not solely reside in the declarative aspect of the demand (i.e. hang the war criminals); it rather lies in the performative signification of the demand in the relational context of Bangladeshi politics. While the apparently pro-movement regime seeks to align the demand for the trial of war criminals with its otherwise corrupt and anti-workers’ political logic, the movement, by virtue of its performative externality from the state, clearly expresses the non-congruence between the partisanisation of the issue by the AL-led regime and the popular significance of the issue. This popular significance is clearly distinct and even oppositional to the regime’s politics insofar as the AL’s appropriation of the nationalist discourse is challenged by the coming to the fore of an otherwise apolitical new middle-class youth. The main opposition party – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – has found itself at the margins while trying to respond to the movement. After tagging it as a government-orchestrated drama in order to distract people’s attention from the BNP’s movement for reinstating the caretaker government during the upcoming national election, they have been forced to identify the difference between this popular movement and protests sponsored by the AL government. Thirdly, the representatives of civil society, vacillating between their fear of an “ochlocracy” and the extra-institutional assertion of popular sovereignty, are maintaining an ambiguous relationship with the movement. While all these constituents of the “integral state” support the movement in varying degrees, the movement itself has remained at a distance from their respectively distinct political orientations. Owing to the symbolic distance that the Shahbag movement has drawn between the people and the integral state, the movement quickly became one of the most remarkable popular movements of Bangladesh after the anti-dictatorship protest in the 1980s and the student uprising against the military-backed regime in 2007. If there is any evental significance to this movement it, to repeat an earlier point, lies precisely in this act of drawing distance from the integral state. This is not to say that this movement has given itself a solid basis and has overcome the uncertainty that still surrounds its future. The uncertainty primarily emanates from the volatile relationship of the movement to the new ground that it itself has, meanwhile, generated. Although this movement is inextricably tied up with the political demand that it is putting forward, its political significance is something more than that single-issue mobilisation. As I will try to show, this movement might have been a culmination of the long-process of refounding the national within the Bangladeshi political horizon.


“[A]n absolute, namely with a truth that needs no agreement since, because of its self-evidence, it compels without argumentative demonstration or political persuasion. By virtue of being self- evident, these truths are pre-rational – they inform reason but are not its product….”[4]


Mapping the Shahbag Movement

The story of the bloody birth of Bangladesh is well-known to South Asian readers.

The event of 1971 inaugurated a new political horizon – limning out the line between tradition and historical becoming, it gave expression to a specific way of national-political life that bases itself on a continual renewal and reliving of the cultural-historical “essence” of the perceived community.  Concomitantly, it sets up an indeterminate, but bordered, way of political interpretation, signification and, ultimately, the process of meaning-production. Of course, this mode of political life was specific to the urban middle class; the militarised state (at least, since 1975), while operated within the political trajectory of the national, maintained a dubious distance from it. Historically, the AL claimed to be caretaker of that new political reality under the name of Bengali nationalism. Their negotiated form of Bengali nationalism, which is a specific way of accessing the national, was soon ousted from state-power. During the long period of military regime, state-politics fluctuated from anti-political militarism to the emergent developmental discourse (from 1980s on). That, however, did not amount to a flight away from the foundational plane that emerged through the liberation war. Despite jettisoning the Bengali nationalist ideologies, the  ground of “the national” remained unchallenged, although its lack of influence upon the state contributed towards its gradual erosion. The dominance of developmentality, and its attendant discourses, perhaps helped the process of the decadence of the national. To put it briefly,  the national had been losing its networking factor. However, this scenario began to change from the early 2000s. The national seems to have acquired unprecedented networking power. And that is on account of the new spatiotemporal configuration of Bangladeshi society effected through a new wave of capitalisation. From a more explicit sociological perspective, this rejuvenation of the national imagination could be discerned from the popularisation of certain festivals,social movements for preaching the “correct” history of the Liberation war and so on. This re-enchanted expression of the national does have a mooring, which is the event of 1971. The evental presence of “1971” works as a marker of certainty, as it lays out the concepts of political antagonism (for and against 1971), subject and non-subject (freedom fighters and collaborators/Razakars),  the narrative of political origin and the promised destination, and so on. If the national is being presented as an ontological horizon, the evental presence of the liberation war of 1971 contributes toward more actualised drawing of political lines.

In other words, the narrative of 1971 operates as a self-evident source of political legitimacy.  This is thus an absolute which grounds – rather than being grounded in – the political. The political essence and configuration of the Liberation war – polarised between the Muktijoddha (the true subject) and the Razakar (the permanent heterogeneity, which I would term as the constitutive other of the national) – makes it clear. Insofar as that absolute is an authority, it is necessary for the political discourses internal to it to derive their legitimacy from its ground. In the last decade, nothing perturbed the existential state of an entire generation of Bangladeshi people as much as the national flag bearing images of two well-known war criminals-turned-ministers. The ontological horizon of the national got disrupted with the intrusion of what it took to be its constitutive other. Since the middle of the last decade, the renewed demand for the trial of war criminals began to gain ground. That discontent was most vigorously manifest in the Bangladeshi blogosphere, where self-employed activists for the demand of the trial and its attendant issues launched a vigorous effort to identify and denounce those who may contain the remnant of “Razakar-ness”. A campaign that at times resembles witch-hunts. It was thus appropriate that the first spark of the Shahbag movement would be the human chain of those bloggers.

Instead of simply seeking to resolve the lingering question of history, this movement is arguably accomplishing something more than that: it is re-founding what we earlier termed the national. The national, of course, never left Bangladeshis.  Since the Jamaatis have held state-power and have some public support, they often claim to be equally naturalised and the term Razakar no longer exists. While the members of Jamaat may win seats in national election and get one or two ministerial posts, the symbolic form of the term Razakar remains an outsider. This thus does not make the symbolic form of the Razakar integral to “the national”. The Jamaatis’ argument is something like this: their political opponents construe them as outsider or Razakar, while they do not actually fit the term. By arguing so, they speak in the terms of the very language that seeks to banish them from the ground of the countable (or the legitimate). The empty place of Razakar, the constitutive other, remains intact even when the signified Razakars come to share state power. The Razakars are those who can neither be absolutely excluded from the national (for the national needs the other to demarcate itself), nor can they be counted as an inclusive category of the national.

By mobilising the demand for excluding the Razakars from the legitimate space of politics, the Shahbag movement is not only seeking to resolve a historical question, but also performing the re-foundation of the national – i.e. it is tantamount to a call for re-asserting the absolute that is the national. The desire to negate that which denies the self-evident reality of the national accomplishes more than provisionally clarifying the unfinished assertion of the foundation. Without this recurrent negation of the other – that is the Razakar   the national cannot lay a positive foundation for itself. This negation, in other words, is a positive negation. The re-foundation is neither a return nor a plain continuation of the foundation. This is a renewal that seeks to re-assert the foundation, but the renewal takes place at a distinct point of conjuncture, and thus open to political prospects and pitfalls that often overflow the logical form of the idealised foundation.

The reclaiming of the slogan Joy Bangla (“victory to Bengal”) – the slogan that unified freedom fighters of distinct ideological persuasions during 1971 – is one of the more revealing instances of the movement. After Independence, this slogan was appropriated by the Awami League, becoming as it does the signal word of the party. The Shahbag movement, despite its conscious efforts to maintain distance from the AL, chose to reclaim the slogan – a risky move that reflected the desire to form a unitarian ground by re-evoking the code-word of the Liberation war. Indeed, as some participants of the movement have phrased it clearly, what they want is that no political tendency be allowed to deny the absolute that is the national.

Constructing the people:

If there is anything paradoxical about the popular character of the Shahbag movement, it lies in the way it constructs the people. While most emancipatory or populist movements construct the people in opposition to the state, the Shahbag movement seems to be doing so by internally dividing the people, while its relationality with the state is still non-antagonistic. Being distanced from the state, the movement is seeking to decide the normative political ground of the community – the act of constructing the people, as it were, concerns the desire to determine the political. Does that mean this movement is seeking to ground the political in an ethnic or an identitarian ground? I differ from such an interpretation. The distinctive feature of ethno-populism, to quote Laclau, is that it attempts to “establish…the limits of the community…there is no plebs claiming to populus, because plebs and populus precisely overlap…. The ‘other’ opposed is external, not internal, to the community.”[5] The Shahbag movement is constructing the people in terms of fidelity to the 1971 Liberation war. While that fidelity is being located in the continuity of tradition, the pre-existing populus does not work as a determining factor, rather it is the political fidelity to the “spirit” of the Liberation war that is at stake.  Nor is the “other” (i.e. Razakars) absolutely externalised. This externalisation takes place internally – while the symbolic place of the Razakar is otherised, it works internally to normatively differentiate the people.  

The Shahbag movement, regardless of its appearance, is anything but a movement delimited within the traditional trajectory of  single-issue movement. It is a popular movement proper, one that, by way of returning to the founding instance of the national, goes so far as to re-construct the concept of the people. Bangladesh experienced an intense experience of national liberation movement, which was of course part of the global wave of anti-colonial movements. In the Bangladeshi specificity of that historicity (not unlike many other third world nation-states), the fiction of social contract theory (i.e., that there is a conscious transference of sovereignty from the individual citizens to the sovereign state) does not shed much light on the political landscape. The primacy of people over the colonial ruler conditioned and provided political legitimacy to historical struggles, and this way of locating the source of legitimacy did not fizzle out even after the Independence. One way of explaining the routine uprising against oppressive regimes in Bangladesh is to analyse how the intimate identity between the “people” and sovereignty makes the state often an illegitimate agency. Once the crowd occupies the street (the political space proper in Bangladesh) and claims itself to be the people who own sovereignty, the ruling regimes, in trying to contest them in terms of legitimacy if not in terms of brute force, crumble. The Shahbag movement is taking place precisely in the continuum of that historical sequence of political struggles. This is a movement that explicitly claims to define the people who can legitimately lay claim to sovereignty. Now let us specify the form in which the movement is tending towards conceptualising the people. This is not an easy task to settle upon, since this approach to the people is neither taking place in the general equation of people-against-the-state, nor is it locatable in a palpable concern of pre-existing social antagonism.

One way of approaching the question is the articulation of political demand, since it brings forth the category of “demanding” people. The explicit demand of the movement is clear and simple: the government should ensure everything so that the death sentences are given to known war criminals. The energetic chanting for death sentence led many westerners to compare the protest with a lynch mob (see footnote for an explanation of why such an interpretation is mistaken).[6] This is a political demand rather than a pre-political expression of anger. The movement performatively expresses the political desire to negate the specific politics of the Jamaat-Shibir, which is more than sheer rage against a handful of war criminals.

If that is a popular movement with a popular demand, the question then is how does it relate with other political demands of the existing political agencies? Does it play a symbolic role in combining other demands around itself? I think what this movement does is neither subsume other political demands nor does embody an all-embracing popular demand. Instead, it posits an order of demand, where the political mobilisation against war criminals is seen as a priority without which no other political demand can be expressed. The “essence” of the perceived (legitimate) people, so to say, relates with the very ordering of the demand, rather than solely with the demand itself.

Generally speaking, this movement construes the people in terms of their fidelity to the Liberation war, but that fidelity strictly pertains to the level of recognition and acceptance of the event and its accompanied political configurations. This is not an identitarian or ethnically-oriented movement insofar as the lines of politics are drawn around the political configuration of the Liberation war that I previously laid out.

This conceptualisation of the people, by way of asserting distance from the permanent heterogeneity that is the Razakars, presupposes a deeper unity of those who maintain fidelity to the event. As such, this concept of people is not able to reckon with the internal division and difference that may override the sense of unity. Also, insofar as the act of maintaining fidelity to the event of Liberation war requires a participation (or organic expression) in a certain way of political life, it means that a large chunk of the population (especially, garments workers, informal sector workers, if not the peasants whose “organic” way of life may automatically present their fidelity) remains de facto externalised to the imagined people. In fact, the most noticeable absence in the Shahbag movement was that of Dhaka’s industrial workers, doubtless the most militant political agents in contemporary Bangladesh.

Limits and Prospects:

Ever since the movement has surfaced, some critics of this movement have been reiterating the accusation that this populist movement entails fascistic aspirations. The specificity of the target of this movement – i.e., Razakars and their party – prompts those critics to identify the desire to annihilate a certain political tendency. Some even go further, claiming that this movement entails opposition to Islam – i.e., it is the deployment of extreme instrumentalist secularism against the adherents of Islamism. At the primary level, such critiques are informed by a mechanical understanding of mass psychology, as if any mass movement that expresses opposition against apparently non-statal agents are in some way connected to fascism. While this movement does dovetail opposition against the primacy of religion over the national, this movement is far from aiming to radically reconfigure society so as to pose the risk of fascistic development. Additionally, the party that this movement opposes is something already more akin to fascistic tendencies, not least in their institutionalisation of terrorism and communalism as a political strategy. The neoliberal form of governance incorporates the exception (which one may ascribe to fascism) in its normal procedure. The routinisation of extra-judicial killing – primarily targeting the Maoist radicals, but also other criminals (which provides popular support to the practice) – is an apt case in point. Nor would it be appropriate to put it under the received discourse of secular Bangladesh against Islamic Bangladesh.[7] This movement does not in any way pose challenge to the cultural and political imbrication between religion and politics.

The widening gap between the Bangladesh state and the principles and promise in the name of which the state was founded has made the political apparatus of Bangladesh deeply undemocratic. While political sovereignty oscillates between the street and the state, the lack of their interconnection other than in moments of contest owes to the absence of the political substantiation of otherwise popular movements. If there is any single virtue of the current movement, it lies precisely in registering that there can be a people that stand outside of the integral state, providing basis to their demands and expectations. What is also clear is that Bangladesh’s existence as a political community is still under the shadow of the event that founded it, and no politics can define itself without negotiating with it. Furthermore, the act of re-founding the national – an act which is fraught with multiple possibilities – has opened up the possibility to intervene and mobilise popular-democratic demands. Given the absence of popular politics outside of the state and its integral parties, this is a profoundly important development for the future of Bangladeshi politics.

This movement of re-founding the national, as I have argued so far, operates within considerable historical limits, not least is the limit that is constitutive of the national. Nationalist political discourses, needless to say, are constitutionally delimited within the idea of horizontal unity that non-antagonistically co-exists with vertical inequality (e.g. class relations). The normative way of defining the people, while not ethnicity-oriented, still seeks to pre-determine the ontological horizon of the political.  The Bangladeshi left, by and large, has embraced the movement, and that is a justified political move (and this is not surprising either, for the Bangladeshi left has historically emerged through the nationalist experience). Nevertheless, those who are seeking to intervene and radicalise the movement should remain aware of this constitutive limit. What is, however, clear is that no politics, howsoever novel, can readily step outside of the political horizon which has been named here as the national. Even the politics of transcending the national, if there ever be any, will have to work internally, and not from an Archimedean point of leverage.


[1] William Connolly, “The Politics of the Event” April 3, 2011,

[2] The most poignant specimen of that practice is probably the government’s claim that a veteran left-wing leader of the readymade garment workers’ movement, Moshrefa Mishu, has secretly conspired with the Jamaat-e-Islami. The only evidence that they could present was that she chatted with a fellow prisoner in a prison van, who also happened to belong to the Jamaat!

[4] Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin Classics, 1965 (192).

[5] Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. Verso Books, 2005 (192).

[6] The demand for death sentence is a combination of several elements. First, it is being regarded as the expression of highest condemnation of their crime. To not come up with such a sentence is popularly seen as a failure to recognise the severity of their crimes (this is independent of the justified ethical objection to death penalty as such). Secondly, the leniency in the case of Quader Mollah has convinced people that it is either an outcome of Jamaat’s political threatening or reconciliation between the regime and the Jamaat. Thirdly, the volatile nature of state power means the criminals will walk once the regime changes. The combination of all these factors placed the demand of death-sentence at the centre of the movement. Given the de facto heteronomy of the juridical-procedural system, the movement initially began as a countervailing political force to the Jamaat’s threat of destabilising the nation if their leaders are sentenced. In addition, this is a movement for a particular kind of founding injustice, not a hysterical expression of mob anger. Nor is it a movement purely with the desire to force the juridical agency to follow public opinion, for the juridical is reflected in its displacement in the political. Even though the movement seeks to ensure a juridical solution, its primary significance is political.

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