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Watching the Shahbagh spring

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The protests in Dhaka's Shahbagh are a pivotal event for Bangladeshis looking to push their country into becoming more liberal. But they could still go very wrong, says Indrani Bagchi

It was close to midnight when I walked into Shahbagh square for the first time. After I had had my hand painted over with the words, Phaanshi Chhayi! (' We want the death penalty' ), a kind of de rigueur ritual. But I ducked the headbands. Walking alongside me was a couple - a man with a long Islamic beard and his veiled wife, but what struck me how the man and wife walked together, holding hands in public. You'd never see this in Pakistan. 

You could almost touch the fire in the crowd. They wanted death for those who collaborated with the Pakistan army in 1971 that led to rapes and murders almost unparalleled in modern history. They wanted a political system that allowed them to be Bengalis and Muslims without these two identities coming into conflict with each other. Most of all, they wanted their nation to start over again, tethered in the 21st century. 

The Indian government has been out there from the beginning, giving a thumbs up to the movement. Just this Friday, Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon told an audience in Pune, "the ongoing spontaneous gathering against extremist elements and war criminals by thousands of youth at Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka shows the strength of feeling, capacity for political mobilisation and openmindedness of Bangladeshi youth. " 

That night in the square, I savoured the moment. Because it could not last. While the protesters demanded death for the guilty, they were on relatively safe ground. When they trained their guns on the country's Jamaat-e-Islami party, demanding it be banned, they entered a political minefield. The death of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider on February 15 prompted Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina to declare to his weeping mother that the Jamaat had no right to exist. 

Politicians can be depended upon to make the wrong choices. Hasina proved to be no different. The Shahbagh protesters would have voted Awami League anyway, but her government made the mistake of believing that the whole country had turned into Shahbagh sympathisers. Shahbagh did not convince the "other". 

While the Awami League government "bowed" to the spirit of the protests by amending the war crimes tribunal act, allowing for stiffer penalties, they lapped up the Jamaat demand as well. Jamaat, which, with its extremist ideology, has functioned openly as a political entity for some time now, struck back. Through a publication called Amar Desh, they accused the dead Rajib Haider of being an atheist. That was the first worry-line in the protests. The average Bangladeshi is not ready to accept atheism. The message quickly spread, and many questions arose about whether Shahbagh was anti-Islam. 

With Islam as a debating point, Jamaat easily got the support of 12 Islamic organisations for countrywide protests which left more than 5 people dead. Their "hartal" last Sunday brought Jamaat ally, BNP out on the streets in support. Until then, BNP, the country's other major party, was on the backfoot. But it was easily seen that the spirit of Shahbagh was an urban spirit, naturally allied to the AL. BNP, meanwhile, is believed to be scooping up the rural votes with Jamaat. Until Shahbagh Hasina's re-election prospects were mediocre at best. Shahbagh has been a shot of adrenalin for the ruling AL. Even Dipu Moni, Bangladesh foreign minister with the pucca accent, appeared to have been swept away by the movement. "Isn't it fun?" she asked a group of visiting Indian journalists. 

But in the week since then, the demonstrations on both sides have become fully joined. There is the unpleasant smell of a civil war in the air. It is fertile ground for the likes of Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Taiba. Bangladesh's home minister said this week they had come across LeT cadres out to sow trouble in the country. Entirely possible. This will now become a battle on Islam, not for a more progressive political structure. On the other side, the Shahbagh protesters may have thinned out, but they also spreading out to other areas of Dhaka. 

The protests have evolved - at one level they are secular versus religious. At another, they are urban versus rural;you can go on. Politically, they remain a battle of the begums. BNP's Khaleda Zia may be down, but she's not out. Hasina appears like she's in control, but she may not be. 

The Jamaat, never short of funds from toxic regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, is even more comfortable in the social media space than the Shahbaghers who ask participants and visitors to "check in and tag" (on Facebook). 

The original organisers of Shahbagh are slowly becoming disillusioned as their vision is muddied by politics. "The US wants Awami League out, they prefer the BNP in government, " said one organiser. Nobody is telling them any different. India, they say, wants the opposite. As in most countries in transition, they believe outsiders are calling the shots. 

The Awami League government clearly wants to harness the Shahbagh spirit to boost their own political fortunes. In an equally cynical counter-reaction, it might also boost the fortunes of the ones they want out.

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