The Shahbag chance

There is more to the crowds at Dhaka's Shahbag square than meets the eye. Behind all its spontaneity, a political logic is at work that explains why Bangladesh's political cauldron has been on the boil, regardless of the fact that Sheikh Hasina's Awami League rules with a two-thirds majority.

As matters stand, the main opposition force, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is boycotting Parliament, with its leader Khaleda Zia unrelenting on her position that she will not contest the next elections if Hasina were to head the caretaker government. The Awami League has amended the Constitution to virtually remove the concept of a caretaker government. Hasina is willing to replace her cabinet with technocrats, but not remove herself from the helm.

The near absence of the opposition in Parliament has allowed Hasina to hold complete sway over matters big and small. And from South Block's point of view, India was quite pleased with the situation until the moment West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee provided an unforeseen twist to the script.

This context is important as one looks at the events at Shahbag Square, an unexpected, united expression of nationalist sentiment spearheaded by students revelling at the revival of a historical narrative that had almost been forgotten. The year 1971 marked the birth of Bangladesh, yes, but it was not seen as the signifier of a larger nationalist identity rooted in Bengali culture and a secular ethos. Through its tumultuous political evolution after 1971, Bangladesh swung from one extreme to the other and India, steeped in its own problems, remained distant until Islamic extremism assumed dangerous proportions.

Bangladesh, therefore, saw an interplay of competing identity narratives. This happens often in young democracies, but the problem in this country was the shrinking common ground. Differences spilled on to the streets, caused bloodshed, divided the military from the paramilitary (remember the BDR massacre) and spawned a political culture of violence in a country that, otherwise, had a lot to offer to the world from its civil society space. The contradictory notions of what Bangladesh should be plunged it into an unmanageable state of chaos, where no political leader felt safe but each wanted a slice of power.

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