Delhi. Islamabad. And now it’s Dhaka’s Shahbagh square that is witnessing unprecedented protests in recent memory. The Shahbagh protests are now in their sixth week, but it all started when Jamaat leader, Adul Qader Mollah — accused of killing 344 civilians and raping many during the Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971 — flashed a victory sign while coming out of the International Crimes Tribunal last month. Instead of the death sentence many were expecting, he got 15 years in prison.
This didn’t go well with youth of the country and thus protests erupted, which kept growing as media coverage increased — much like the protests in India and Pakistan, or the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests in the West starting 2011. Though the triggers, demands and context in each case were different, there are similarities: they are mostly youth-led and demand a change in status quo.
Realities in all these countries are different from each other and protests have a different national context, suggests Prof Ian Talbot, an observer of India and Pakistan, whose most recent book is Pakistan, A New History. There is a “pervasive South Asian discourse” around corruption, he says. While the evolution of democratic space in Pakistan and Bangladesh has had a different pace, India has been under a democracy since its independence; Bangladesh is witnessing a relatively stable phase of civilian governments since 90s. But in Pakistan, frequent coups against the elected governments never allowed the democracy to stabilise. “The country will have its first successive election and hopefully first successive civilian government,” says an optimistic Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US.
“Whereas, India’s democracy has worked,” he adds.
It’s the first time that all major countries in the Indian sub-continent are simultaneously witnessing democratic rule. “It’s democracy only that allows the space for peaceful protests and to articulate your grievances,” says Dr Ajay Darshan Behera, head of Pakistan Studies Program at Jamia Millia Islamia. He adds, “That’s exactly why we are seeing frequently the protests like Anna Hazare, Qadri or Shahbagh.”
While protests in India, led by Hazare and Kejriwal, demanded better civil governance, and was led by the people who had a history of activism, the protests at Shahbagh has no leaders, quite similar to the Delhi gangrape protests — leaderless, large youth participation, social network driven and with a demand for death penalty. “It’s not a question of death penalty. It’s a call for the maximum punishment under law,” says Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International studies, Dhaka University.
The politicians were never before exposed to a social network driven protest, and they aren’t always “nimble enough to respond,” says Talbot. “There is also a significant middle class in India and Pakistan whose younger members can organise protests more effectively than ever before through the social media,” says he.
As in the JP movement and Mandal protests in India, youth had come out in large numbers, so are Bangladeshi students, once again after 50s language protests and 70s Liberation wars.
Surprisingly, a predominantly young Muslim crowd are demanding death sentence for war criminals, number of them are from Jamaat, which is aligned with the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Their other demands are banning Jamaat’s business wings (like Banks).
In contrast, Pakistan’s Qadri who was in self-exile in Canada for last seven years, suddenly appeared on national arena with demands like dissolution of parliament and election commission and formation of interim government before elections. Interestingly, Qadri, a law professor and a follower of Sufi Islam that is considered more tolerant, had also issued a Fatwa against terrorism in 2010.
The Facebook generation youth, who are largely believed to be unconcerned with the politics, is breaking the stereotype and increasingly galvanising a face-changing protests across the region.
“People are losing faith in mainstream political parties. In all the major parties in the entire South Asia, and as in Arab world, kinship prevails. That new generation is not finding it pleasing,” says Prof Imtiaz. “Political parties are the least professional units and they have to become as professional as our army and bureaucracy are,” he adds.
The social media initiated and magnified the protests and the conventional media widened its reach. “But are these protests in anyway influenced with other ones like OWS or Arab spring movement? Ananya Vajpeyi, author of Righteous Republic says that Shahbagh protests are different from the protests in India and Pakistan. Regarding Delhi protests, she says, while these protests have been successful in yielding ‘something’, it doesn’t have any clear goal and can’t be termed as movement. “In recent memory, we can recall, for example, Narmada Bachao Andolan as a movement which has a clear goal and has sustained over a long period.”
Perhaps a dominos effect is evident, starting from Arab spring, OWS and protests across India and Pakistan and now Bangladesh. “The newer technologies like social networking sites are fast changing the demography. How you are being governed can now be easily compared,” says Prof Bahera.
Suggesting that Qadri doesn’t have popular support, Prof Bahera says, masses are coming out not because they support Imran Khan or Qadri, it’s because of the void created by the lack of an effective state. “And that has played particularly well in the case of Qadri.” It stands equally true in context of protests in India as well.
As Christophe Jafferlot, political scientist specialising in South Asia, says, the societies suffering from corruption and law and order situation simply revolt against their government. “And I do not see why they should do it violently!”
The protests in Asian countries, not limited to South Asia, do not seem to end, as it’s appearing in one form or other. As the magazine Adbuster, that gave the call for Occupy protests, sums up, “now the Zuccotti model is morphing and Occupy is undergoing a period of sustained global tactical innovation. This is all just the beginning…”
India: Rape and other protests
After the gang-rape of a college student last December, Delhi and other parts of the country witnessed massive protests. College going youth as well as middle class population widely participated. The protests culminated into an ongoing debate for women’s security, safety and gender equality.
Experts see the protests in India as an extension of a working democracy. While Anna and Kejriwal protests didn’t have any political leadership at its helm when started, the gang-rape protests were spontaneous and leaderless. As protests grew further with a danger of going out of control, police responded strictly to curb it. Committees were formed to analyse laws and suggest measures to address the women related issues.
Such protests are not unique to India, with widespread protests are held against Special Economic Zones, nuclear reactors, dams and land acquisition across the country.
Bangladesh: Shahbagh Protests
Historically, the students of the Dhaka University have led movements in Bangladesh, starting from Language Protests in 50s to Liberation Wars of 70s and now against International Crimes Tribunal’s decision, which they perceive favours the criminals. While the cases are mainly against the powerful leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, which favoured Pakistan during Liberation Wars, youth are not relenting. The youth, though they didn’t witness the crimes committed during the Liberation War, wants a closure now, says Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University. Led mainly by students, with no political affiliation, the protestors demand death penalty for the accused.
On the other side of the spectrum, many see foul play, saying that ruling party is trying to eliminate opposition leaders before general elections.
Global: Occupy protests
In what turned out be a protest that was emulated in most of the world, the Occupy Protests started as a call by an anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, to gather at New York’s Zuccotti Park to protest against social and income inequality. Started and led by predominantly young crowd in Sep 2011, it had a wide resonance in times of recession where unemployment was high and there was a sense of resentment against rich elite whom protesters labelled as 1% and that’s how the popular slogan of the occupy protest came into being: “We are 99%”. Though many viewed these protestors as anarchists, organisers had a different view. In an email to their supporters, they said, “America needs its own Tahrir Square.”
Obama responded to the protests saying its “frustration of the American people”. The Occupy protests still go on in different parts of the world, with lower intensity, lesser media coverage.
Pakistan: Qadri Protests
Though led by a relatively unknown Sufi cleric, Mohammad Tahrir-ul Qadri, who was in self-exile in Canada for last seven years, the protests found an unexpectedly mass support in Pakistan. Experts say it was more of a show of angst of the middle class and youth than a support to Qadri.
Former law professor, Qadri demanded to install an interim government before the next parliamentary elections (the ongoing parliament’s term ended yesterday). His other demand which he made was dissolution of Election Commission. Qadri, who had issued a Fatwa against terrorism in 2010, gave a call for a Long March from Lahore to Islamabad in January this year to protests against the government’s alleged corruption. After four days of sit-in, Qadri signed a deal with govt which was called Islamabad Long March Declaration — that includes demands for electoral reforms and transparency.