Bangladesh at a Precipice – A tale of two massacres

I attended a talk last Thursday night at CUNY Graduate Center that focused on the Shahbag Movement in Bangladesh, which was a quasi-spontaneous movement of individuals who descended on the Shahbag neighborhood a few months ago in Dhaka in protest after an International Crimes Tribunal there failed to declare a death sentence on war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah (who received a life sentence instead). This tribunal and the movement that created it (and pressures it) revolves around the prosecution of a few key figures who have escaped punishment for the more generalized, widespread violence and genocide at the time of Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971– The recent collapse of a textile factory in Dhaka that has killed at least 501, 600 (which will most likely rise) is one of the worst manufacturing disasters in human history and will also see the trials of a few key figures who will be found guilty while the more generalized, widespread violence of capitalistic competition and cost-cutting will escape prosecution. These two events, while concerned with scenarios separated by decades and distanced by the different foci of nationalism/genocide vs. international finance/proletarianization still allow us to focus on this unique area of the world where a confluence of currents shows the crisis of bourgeois/market capitalist democracy.


Bangladesh of course was not always “Bangladesh”– Because of its predominately Muslim population it was made a part of Pakistan (called “East Pakistan”) at the time of Indian independence and partition in the late 1940s. This drawing of borders and creation of two new countries (India and Pakistan) of course led to many massacres as the exact position of each country’s new boundary line left many groups on the wrong side of the fence as unprotected minorities. Millions of Hindus in what was now Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) fled their homelands as refugees into India, and many Muslims fled violence in India and emigrated as well. Communal violence was rampant and many massacres and atrocities were committed by both sides.

Fast forward to 1971 when Bengalis in East Pakistan fought for independence from Pakistan after the 1970 election result (which was won by the Bengali nationalist party Awami League) was not honored by the Military leadership in Pakistan. Bengalis, who already speak a different language from the Urdu-speaking Pakistanis and were chafing under the yoke their distant ruler took up arms against the Pakistani army which quickly became murderous, targeting intellectuals and instituting a policy of mass-rape. This terrorizing of a civilian population coincided with months of organized and spontaneous guerrilla warfare against the Pakistani army by Bengali irregulars and militias. But when the Indian army (provoked into fighting by Pakistan preemptively bombing an Indian airbase) joined the struggle, the combined Indian-Bengali forces had the Pakistani army on its knees within two weeks. 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered, most (or all?) of which escaped punishment (even for heinous crimes) under complicated prisoner exchanges to ensure the safe return of Bengalis residing in (West) Pakistan. The context for this 2013 International Crimes Tribunal is thus atrocities committed in 1971 not by members of the Pakistani army (who received a blanket amnesty), but the “fifth column” of Bengalis who supported the Pakistanis and helped commit massacres during the war.

bangladesh 1971

These Razakar collaborators for the most part escaped trial through similar amnesty or prisoner-exchange schemes after the war with the result that over the decades the Bengali traitors to the independence movement have slowly found their way back into power. Because the British split their colony along religious lines with Pakistan becoming an Islamic state and India Hindu, the Bengali Razakars (which means “volunteer” in Urdu) in Bangladesh who fought with or guided the Pakistani Army mostly had the ideological commitment to preserving Pakistan and East Pakistan as one country for all Muslim believers. The Islamic political parties and formations such as Jamaat-e-Islami are thus at the center of the controversy as the demands of the Shahbag protestors modulated into demands that this Islamic party be banned once again and forbidden from politics.

The contemporary political terrain is complex and adding to the complexity is that (as one speaker put it) 80% of all Bengalis alive today were born after the 1971 conflict. It is a very young country and yet the salient political questions hinge on historical questions that occurred before a large majority of the citizens were born. One of the speakers Nazmul Sultan had previously published an article on Radical Notes titled “Situating the Shahbag Movement: Re-founding the National?” which raises the national question in the context of Shahbag:

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 [members of Jamaat-e-Islami] 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.

This renewal of the national also is an evtentualization of politics that attempts to short-circuit the moribund processes of the current liberal market democracy that has so spectacularly failed to protect its citizens. Throughout the 1990s groups calling for a trial against these Razakars were prosecuted as enemies of the state for digging up long-buried ghosts. Calling for a tribunal of war criminals was simply not an acceptable position to take and those agitating for the trials were thought to be anti-Islamic, or even Indian spies trying to destabilize Bangladesh. But when the thoroughly capitalist (but roughly “liberal”) Awami League party found itself out of power for almost a decade, it decided to listen to popular demands and made the trial of the war criminals a part of the platform for the 2008 elections, which they won decisively. This is not the first time a bourgeois party which smiles left but walks right attempts to energize its base through electoral promises which it is nearly structurally incapable of fulfilling. But a promise is a promise and 40 years after the atrocities were committed the trials are taking place. In the case of this current tribunal there are rumors of backroom deals between the Awami League and its rivals the BNP that swayed the judges from delivering the death penalty. The Shahbag movement is thus that attempt to circumvent the bourgeois political machines and their commitment to cementing their own power and profit.

The owner of the factory that has massacred so many workers Mohammed Sohel Rana, paints an interesting portrait of interconnections between politics and business in Bangladesh. As this NPR article quotes, you couldn’t find a better example of how capital operates in the realm of contemporary electoral politics:

While Rana is currently a leader of the youth group of the ruling Awami League, he has also worked for that party’s archrival, the Bangladesh National Party.

“He doesn’t belong to any particular political party,” said Ashrafuddin Khan Imu, an Awami League leader and longtime Rana rival. “Whatever party is in power, he is there.”

But blaming a “corrupt” political process for this manufacturing catastrophe is a cynical ploy better left to magazines such as the Economist which from a safe distance have been busy ridiculing the Bengali government and regulatory agencies for their carelessness while watching the clothing retailers profits grow and grow. But Bangladesh is also a country where the prominent labor organizer Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered in April 2012. Although a gruesome death, it is this sort of violent intimidation and repression that creates the conditions in which wages can be as low as they are. The Gap, Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger, H&M are all dependent on a labor environment that actively works to crush worker organization and brutally repress their leaders. The rule of bourgeois political parties is a rule by massacre.

In early 2010, the country’s popular prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, expressed sympathy for garment factory workers. But after the government agreed to raise minimum wages to 3,000 taka, she said that her government would not tolerate any more protests.

Soon after, the police arrested Mr. Islam, along with more than a dozen other workers and activists. Mr. Islam and several of his associates were charged with instigating riots — accusations that he and the others denied. Criminal cases against him and two other senior labor leaders, Kalpona Akhter and Babul Akter, are pending.


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