What a time to be in Dhaka! Kalyani Menon-Sen

This is a guest post by KALYANI MENON-SEN

I am in Dhaka right now.

Being here at this moment, in Shahbagh (Projonmo Chottor, as it is now called) and on the streets with activists from the Gonojagoron Mancha – young people, academics, veterans of the liberation movement, singers, artists, writers, professionals and thousands of ordinary people – is a unique and inspiring experience.

Battle for the soul of Bangladesh – Rally in February against the killing of Rajab Haider, the blogger who was a key figure in the protests against Islamists

The similarities and differences with the Delhi mobilisation are striking. There is the same exhilarating sense of reclaiming public space. The same energy and camaraderie, the same feeling of security and freedom. All kinds of unexpected encounters and conversations that leave one feeling both elevated and humbled. Hearing women and men who were part of the liberation war talking about their experiences. The “mashaal” rallies every evening – overwhelming when one is walking in the middle of it, and spectacular on TV, like an unending ribbon of light snaking down the streets.

Of course, this being Bangladesh, there is also a lot of very very good music and poetry! The greats are singing on the streets. I feel so privileged to be here.

But this is a far more politically aware and focused movement than what happened in Delhi – it is an out and out confrontation with the Jamaat and Hefazat-e-Islam, which calls itself “a people’s movement” in defence of Islam. And of course BNP is right in there stirring the pot and trying to skim off whatever they can.

This confrontation has been simmering for a long time and most people I’m talking to are glad it came now, when the young people are mobilised in force on the issue of punishment of war criminals.

Hefazat-e-Islam is of course a front for the Jamaat and is being funded and supported by the BNP, but the rank and file are in fact young men – boys really – from madrasas. To anger and violence they are pouring out is very scary. They are so wound up that they are literally fizzing with rage. Even the slogans they are shouting are mostly incoherent – although “Maar shala ke” is clearly heard in the din. Reminds me of the images from Ayodhya and Gujarat.

Islamist rally against the ‘anti-Islamic’ and ‘atheist’ Projonmo Chottor protesters, April 6

They had banned women from coming near their rally on 7th – they attacked a woman TV reporter who dared to go to their meeting at the Press Club square and the cameraman who tried to protect her – both are in hospital now. Their leader (a 90-year old Allama in a wheelchair who is said to be senile) has issued a very sour apology – read out by his son – but I am hearing that the journalists union is trying not going to give them any more air time than they absolutely have to – no more individual interviews. I can’t begin to describe how obnoxiously they have been sounding off on every channel thus far.

They have done another hartal today – in preparation, they went on the rampage last evening, beating up everyone they could lay hands on (including women vegetable vendors at a street market). They have created havoc in Chattagram (their organisational headquarter) and Mymensingh today – they have burnt the homes and looted the shops of Awami League supporters. They have also tried to charge the Projonmo Chottor and throw petrol bombs. The Gonojagoron activists have resolutely refused to respond with violence – although hundreds of young men with lathis are guarding the entry roads to the square.

The 13-point charter of demands that Hefazat-e-Islam is putting forward include imposition of death penalty for blasphemy, a ban on public mixing of men and women, an end to co-ed schools, enforcement of hijab…….you know how it goes.

It is so empowering to see the response of ordinary people (including many many practising Muslims) to these demands. People are coming stright from the masjid to Shahbagh every evening. “Ban the Jamaat” is a very loud slogan that is getting louder. In general, public opinion seems to be crystallising around this demand – the feeling is that this is the moment to end their political legitimacy once and for all. Of course this is unlikely to happen as long as the BNP-Jamaat alliance stays intact.

Incidentally, the government arrested eight senior leaders of BNP yesterday on charges of destroying public property during a previous bandh. They were denied bail yesterday – and are making as much political capital out of it as they can. Bad timing! BNP has got the excuse now for their own hartal tomorrow and the day after.

What a time to be in Dhaka!

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9 thoughts on “What a time to be in Dhaka! Kalyani Menon-Sen”

  1. Kalyani I was also in DHAKA last month and the Shahbagh rising was just as you describe and the Jamaat with its anti fires

    But one aspect which saddened Hameeda and Kamal and me as we had all been together with our protests and views WAS the very loud and in a way violent demand for death to those men who committed those crimes in 1971! Death death hang was also a call breaking the beauty of the congregation

    Sad devaki
    Sent from BlackBerry® on Airtel


    1. Devaki, I think we can take heart from the clear shift in this movement from the demand for death penalty to what Kalyani’s report shows, that the demand now is for a ban on Jamat to delegitimize it thoroughly and to resurrect the values of the independence struggle of 1971.
      Personally I’m not for bans, but as students of history watching this uprising – these two uprisings – from afar, I think we have not seen the end of the political growth the Projonmo Chottor movement is capable of.


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