The Limits of Radical Politics in an Unstable “Field”: Rethinking Shahabag, Hefazat-e-Islam, and the Women’s Grand Rally

From the Series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia

Photo by Mythri Jegathesan.

On February 5, 2013, chants of “Phashi Chai!” (Hang them now!) reverberated through the city of Dhaka when a collective of activists occupied Shahabag, a major intersection connecting some of Dhaka’s most culturally and historically significant neighborhoods and institutions. The activists were protesting the International Crimes Tribunal’s (ICT) verdict sentencing Jamaat-e-Islami (henceforth JI) leader Abdul Quader Mollah to life imprisonment for committing war crimes during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Enraged by what they saw as a light sentence for crimes that included rape, torture, and murder, protesters insisted that all war criminals be hanged and that all religion-based politics be banned. The nonviolent protests grew rapidly, particularly among members of the secular, educated middle class, and soon became the largest popular movement in the history of Bangladesh.

Right from the start, Shahbag fragmented Bangladesh into factions: secular/religious, nationalist/traitor, and Bengali/Other. Strikingly, protestors resuscitated narratives of the birth of Bangladesh in a bid to recreate the “liberatory,” redemptive atmosphere they remembered from 1971; the four pillars of the first constitution—nationalism, socialism, secularism, and democracy—were invoked as key to the strength and success of Bangladesh. Protestors recalled how, in the struggle for Bangladesh’s liberation, a hegemonic middle class had defied the narrative of common religious ancestry imposed through the creation of Pakistan in 1947 by championing a secular Bengali nationalism in its stead. They saw the current moment as necessitating a similar struggle given the steady decline of secularism in Bangladesh from the 1980s onward, particularly after a constitutional amendment that declared Islam the state religion. Shahabag thus sparked what many at the time thought was an existential conflict over how to define the very ethos of Bangladesh.

However, the radical promise of the Shahabag movement was eventually co-opted by the ruling Awami League (AL) through an unexpected series of circumstances. Fearing the possibility that JI might ally with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the state allegedly summoned forth Hefazat-e-Islamanother prominent Islamist organization—to neutralize JI by taking on the mantle of protecting Islam from secular protestors. This move backfired spectacularly as the state quickly lost control over its suspected foot-soldiers. Fierce opponents of “secular” education and equal rights in property for women, Hefazat convened a grand rally on May 5 to condemn the Shahabag “atheists” and set forth a thirteen-point list of demands, which included calling for a movement to topple the state and establish an Islamic regime in its place. This movement was immediately and brutally crushed by the AL. This turn of events ended with the secular middle class now on the side of the state, which had seemingly shifted its allegiance from the “Islamists” to the “secularists.” This unforeseen alliance only served to strengthen a neoliberal Bangladeshi state with authoritarian tendencies that has, over the years, co-opted or silenced all dissident voices, progressive or otherwise.

The closure of what could have been a radical political opening was evident at the Women’s Grand Rally, convened in Dhaka on May 11 by a platform of sixty-eight women’s organizations and NGOs with Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP) at the forefront. I arrived at the grand rally as a long-term BMP member myself, but I could not help but feel, hearing speech after speech condemning “fundamentalist” forces and celebrating secular Bengali nationalism, that the state crackdown on Hefazat had already made such efforts redundant. This sense of irrelevance was palpable in the crowd itself, which felt like a spiritless, disembodied congregation compared to the energy and intensity of Shahabag. Veteran rights activist Hameeda Hossain’s words captured our mutual disappointment well: “I don’t know whether you noticed that [the] women [who] came in droves [were] brought in by their organizations. Not sure if they knew why they were there. So, it is difficult to call this a feminist rally or even a women’s rights rally. It is mass mobilization the way political parties do it.”

Being intimately familiar with the biographies of many of the activists gathered there that day compelled me to reflect on a series of questions: how had the women’s movement arrived at such a dispirited and passive moment? How had it become seemingly co-opted by an authoritarian state? Was Shahabag’s fate sealed for the same reasons? To address these questions, we must recognize that the fields in which social movements operate are unstable, historically contingent and politically fluid, which means that they can shift easily from radical to bourgeois-liberal to conservative. Attending to the historically shifting social field in which feminist activists and groups in Bangladesh have operated might shed some light on how seemingly progressive movements can be captured by authoritarian political projects.

The Left imaginations that fueled anti-colonialism in Bengal in the 1940s, as well as post-Partition nationalist movements in East Pakistan/Bangladesh brought women to the center of the revolutionary struggle in this region. The most radical forces within the post-independence women’s movement invested their energies in rebuilding the war-torn nation in the 1970s, working closely with the state to secure women’s rights as full citizens, placing them in a powerful but ambivalent position. This alignment with the state led to the first deradicalization of the women’s movement in Bangladesh, which was further attenuated during the Cold War. In response to popular protests, the autocratic regimes that came to power after Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s assassination in 1975 (and were aligned with U.S.-Saudi capitalist interests) systematically and brutally destroyed the Left on the ground while supporting Islamist parties/movements. In this process, women’s groups found themselves occupying the “secular” end of an emerging “secular”/“Islamist” contestation.

In the same period, massive inflows of capital to support neoliberal development projects encouraged the depoliticization of activism, while compelling the state to present itself as promoting “women empowerment” to the UN and donor agencies. This led to a proliferation of women-friendly legislation (family courts, affirmative action, etc.) as well as NGOs, signaling a second deradicalization of feminist politics. Women’s organizations were compelled to reckon with these neoliberal forces, replacing Left transnational networks with UN agencies. Changing local needs and the requirements of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action drove women’s organizations to register as NGOs. The emergence of a post-Beijing administrative feminism turned many of these organizations into service-delivery organizations, marking a further phase of deradicalization.

Women’s organizations in Bangladesh have struggled to retain their critical edge amid the temptations and onslaught of various neoliberal regimes. Their realignments and reconfigurations prioritized survival over radical potential, with women’s organizations now turning to the state to fight their battles on their behalf. The Shahabag uprising had momentarily renewed the promise of transversal, democratic politics, but the legacies of the shifts that had shaped the political field in which Shahabag emerged—and which the uprising failed to challenge—had already drawn the limits of what radical possibilities it could contain. The fate of the women’s movement in Bangladesh can thus show us how inherited legacies have an afterlife that can persistently thwart attempts to plot a different politics in the present, and that progressive movements always carry within them the possibility of being claimed and used by unlikely forces to entrench their own power. The language of “co-optation,” however, can prevent us from seeing the struggles and compromises that movements have had to engage with across perilous terrains just to ensure their survival. Attending to such histories also allows us to see that the inherent fluidity of these fields means that new shifts and possibilities can always emerge, and that the very survival of dissident voices, however deradicalized they may seem, can open up the space for radical politics in future.