(This article is part of our special series ‘Rethinking Bangladesh’. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)
The word ‘crowd’ can be particularly evocative: it suddenly forms, wreaks havoc, and then, just as suddenly, melts away. The elusive nature of crowds demands examination in a political context, particularly in Southasia, a region where political agency often evades democratic institutions. Possessing one of the most volatile political landscapes in the region, Bangladesh is a fitting starting point to examine the paradoxes of the crowd – which Nusrat Sabina Chowdhury attempts in Paradoxes of the Popular: Crowd Politics in Bangladesh. Chowdhury’s ethnographic analysis draws heavily from pictures, language, everyday articles, and other seemingly mundane elements of collective life. This “picture thinking” allows the narrator to deconstruct the complex relationship between person and state, and most importantly, between the crowd and the general political atmosphere of the nation.
The reality that emerges from the failure of postcolonial political ambition is the core focus of this work – one of simultaneous economic development and political instability. The crowd as the source of paradox is examined through frameworks proposed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and social psychologist Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon. The Freudian estimation of the crowd’s potential destructive nature is especially apparent in the book’s storytelling.
The unavoidable crowd
Chowdhury’s book opens with an account of the 2007 state of emergency imposed in Bangladesh and the changing political climate as a result. At the time, former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia were being held hostage to a technocratic military regime struggling for legitimacy, which gave rise to a distinct political climate that challenged the previous semi-feudal political system. In this context, the author focuses on banker-entrepreneur and Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus and his attempt at engaging in Bangladesh’s politics.
Yunus’s groundbreaking appeal to individual citizens instead of the previous political practice of agitating the janata – the larger public – is identified by the author as an attempt to break away from crowd-dominated mass politics. His failure reveals the duality of Bangladeshi politics – the aspiration to create a democratic polity matched by dependency on often antagonistic crowd politics as the only practical medium of advancing a political agenda.
The contrast between the ‘crowd’ and the ‘public’ is more vividly demonstrated in the deconstruction of two images, namely a photo of a national identification card (NIC) circulating on Facebook and a famous picture taken during a student protest that shows a student kicking an army officer. The author provides a clear lens through which language and identification on an NIC card belonging to a Kasu Mia demonstrate the failure of the technocracy in ‘making’ the potentiality of a crowd into a civil polity. The subaltern pattern of the language used in the NIC deviates Kasu Mia from being an active member of polity (his parents not being identified by name but rather by their relationship to other family members). He remains as he was, a potential medium for the imperceptible politics of the crowd.
This ethnographic account of the socio-political contours of emergency-era politics eloquently demonstrates the contemporary juxtaposition of the technocratic project of building a polity, and the unavoidable crowd.
Protests in Phulbari
Chowdhury also engages with the crowd in Phulbari, Dinajpur, in the aftermath of violent protests against mining company Asia Energy and, by extension, the technocratic government. Her account describes how the crowd views its own struggle, examines the ‘accident’ as an imperceptible driving force sustaining a crowd, and lastly, analyses the crowd’s concept of dalal (collaborator).
The word ‘crowd’ can be particularly evocative: it suddenly forms, wreaks havoc, and then, just as suddenly, melts away.
The protester’s perception of the reasoning behind a protest is vital in the analysis of any movement. While middle-class anxieties about disparity between foreign and local economies were the rallying point for protests against the Phulbari coal project in urban areas, the residents of Phulbari did not share these concerns.
At the time, Asia Energy was expanding its operations by pouring in cash to establish the company’s dominance over the region. A Phulbari artist, Saiful Islam rejects any notions of utility that this cash flow represented. His paintings are visual demonstrations of this refusal, and clarify the viewpoint of the protesting people of Phulbari, who ascribed superior value to productive labour over foreign cash. Among many others in Phulbari, Saiful refused to partake in material exchange with the company or any of its representatives. This agriculture-based economy, often described as ‘primitive’, stood its ground against an influx of capital which offered very little foreseeable utility for Phulbari, given the area’s socio-economic background.
The story of Majeda (a pseudonym) also demonstrates this apathy towards ‘foreign’ money, as she and others burnt a stack of cash which was believed to come from the company as a bribe (for what, specifically, it’s never elaborated in the book). This burning was a radical move that unsettled the urban elite’s conception of the protesters’ interests. The author also unfolds the banality of technocratic projects, and in particular, the local authority’s projection of transparency, even while concealing the details of the high-stake agreement between the government and a foreign corporation amidst an impending energy crisis.
The reality that emerges from the failure of postcolonial political ambition is the core focus of this work – one of simultaneous economic development and political instability.
Majeda first involved herself in the Phulbari protests due to the humiliation suffered by a close friend and benefactor at the hands of law enforcement. In August 2006, she charged at the border guards then known as the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in her village and was assaulted by them. This whole affair made her a media sensation and a representative for Phulbari resistance, due to the recent advent of mobile phones and television. Majeda demonstrated the dual persona of the obedient wife, and a member of the crowd as a political medium. She described herself as ‘not good’ due to her defiance – yet this duality allowed her to charge at the BDR with a machete, becoming the voice of the crowd and helping them overcome their fear. This gendered perspective provides another instance where the imperceptible politics of the crowd transcends societal norms, which generally does not allow such an example of free feminine agency.
One of the key reasons for the emergence of ‘accidents’ in Southasian crowd politics is the deep dehumanisation of crowds by authority. As Majeda describes, “They had become animals” to describe the force of authority in attempting to control the crowd. These conditions can lead to ‘accidents’ – like the death of activist Nasreen Haq – which decisively involved civil society in the events unfolding in Phulbari. The 2006 shooting of a well-to-do youth, Tarikul Islam, who was observing a large crowd trying to gain access to the Asia Energy office, rendered him a martyr. Tarikul’s death rejuvenated the spirit of resistance. The crowd consolidated themselves around another ‘accident’. The ambiguity of Tarikul’s attachment to the protesters also raises the question of his psychological allegiance. If Tarikul was a protester, then did he identify himself as part of the working-class? If he did, then to what extent? These questions give rise to important concerns.
Nevertheless, the radical denial of human agency, as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire defined it, is arguably a lingering colonial phenomenon. The application of a Freirian perspective would probably enrich the analysis of the ‘accidents’ uncovered in the books more deeply.
One of the strong points of Paradoxes of the Popular is the author’s contextual treatment of both rural and urban-national crowds.
The secrecy surrounding Asia Energy’s conduct led to the emergence and identification of a group of people known only as dalals – namely, collaborators. The narrator uses Freudian perspectives on secrecy and ethnographic experience to deal with the emergence of collaborators. “Suspicion was the lingua franca in these exchanges, and it is to suspicion I first turn,”, the author writes. Suspicion, she notes, directed many activities of the crowd. An example given by the author of actions born out of suspicion was the vandalisation of a suspected dalal’s home carried out by a man known only as Kamal, who was part of an angry mob. It is the act of vandalising known people’s houses that highlights the concept of ‘the other among us’. This defines dalals in the context of closely packed people living in the same location.
The confiscation of mobile phones in Alam’s house tells a similar story. Mobile phones in the context of Phulbari meant sudden wealth, thus creating suspicion. The collaborators often used ‘foreign technology’. The use of the Flexiload mobile-subscription reload programme for bribes and the supposed conducting of long-distance conspiracy via mobile phones made it a token of dalali according to some residents. But such sweeping generalisations wasted the crowd’s transformative energy as the author states, “The cell phone… was successful in diverting focus from the ulterior motives of the company”.
Foreignness as an indication of distrust and suspicion is apparent in the experiences of the narrator as she explores the social position of the outsider Chapayas (people of Chapai Nawabganj) in Phulbari. The entire settlement of Chapayas was branded as collaborators who supported Pakistani forces during 1971. Though Sharif and Kofirul’s accounts confirm the accusation, the reason for them being branded as collaborators was, according to them, a result of supporting Naxalite forces. This shows that the primary cause of being branded a dalal was not their allegiance, rather, their foreignness.
Possessing one of the most volatile political landscapes in the region, Bangladesh is a fitting starting point to examine the paradoxes of the crowd.
Another perspective on collaborators can be seen through the beliefs of a man named Mahbub, a former guard working at Asia Energy who quit his job, signalling his disassociation from the company. When asked by the author if one becomes a dalal if he works for the company, he responds that wage-earner working-class people are not dalal. Dalals are those who do not work but rather, take money from the company as payment for working as informants and agents, he says. The author claims that Mahbub’s identification of dalals as a distinct class does not bear the markings of any specific economic class, a debatable claim. Mahbub’s identification of dalals by contrasting between productive and unproductive labour may very well signify a distinct class that survives on an economy built on corruption.
Through the author’s interviews, it becomes evident that suspected dalals in close-knit communities are often helpful neighbours, close kin and acquaintances, making it harder for the crowd to take any measures against them. The uncertainty of their identity also posed a problem. The apparent clear identification of razakars (used to describe those who collaborated with Naxalites) after the liberation war of 1971 resulted in retribution at the hands of the crowd. But the crowd at Phulbari were not able to identify dalals with absolute certainty, which prevented the possibility of dealing with them violently. This uncertainty acts as a restraint on the crowd’s retributory actions, which though not explicitly stated, is implicit in the author’s treatment of the issue.
Shahbag and social media
One of the strong points of Paradoxes of the Popular is the author’s contextual treatment of both rural and urban-national crowds. The Shahbag movement as the epitome of spontaneous urban crowd action post-1990 contained contradictory features. The author highlights the fundamental tension in a liberal, peaceful protest that demands the death penalty for war criminals. This analysis shows how seemingly progressive people can function as a crowd, losing their individual agency.
The narrator identifies despair as the raison d’etre for mobilisation. Despair emerged from the pragmatic environment of Bangladeshi politics that uses ideology as a signboard and nothing more. Outrage against the probable dealings of the Awami League with the Islamic movement Jamaat-e-Islami fuelled the crowd at Shahbag. The antagonism between supporters of Shahbag and the Islamic advocacy group Hefazat-e-Islam pre-election created the recipe for conspiracy and political turmoil.
This was perhaps concentrated in the death of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider at the hands of members of the militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team. In predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, the inclusion of an atheist as an icon of the Shahbag movement effectively alienated it from wider political society. After the demise of the movement, the dialectical opposition of religiously sentimental crowds became a factor in national politics. The removal of the statue of Lady Justice from outside the Supreme Court building in 2017 after objections from Islamist groups highlights this phenomenon.
The author’s record of the crowd as a medium for politics will remain an important analysis for those who wish to recognise the crowd and its full political potential – in Bangladesh and beyond.
The author identifies the first notable instance of the urban crowd’s dependency on social media and the coexistence of opposing crowds in virtual spaces during the Shahbag and subsequent reactionary movement. According to Chowdhury, the “Shahbag-Hefazat phenomenon finds analogous expression in the vigilantism across virtual and actual crowds”. The author’s comparison of Bangladeshi social-media vigilantes with the Chinese-origin crowdsourced virtual network of crime busters, known as ‘human flesh search engines’, shows the crowd potential that virtual spaces hold. In the Bangladeshi context, the April 2015 incidents of mass molestation on Pahela Baishakh (Bengali New Year) and 13-year-old Sheikh Mohammad Samiul Alam Rajon’s murder after he was suspected of stealing a rickshaw van were used as a means to show the crowd potential of virtually connected individuals. The Facebook page ‘Moja Loss?’ and its identification of molesters clarifies the potentiality of the internet and shows the contrast between two different crowds. Rajon’s murder and the subsequent uproar for justice also captured the crowd potential of netizens.
Two novels mentioned in the book’s introduction, Jibon Amar Bon and Omkar warn us about the potential danger of not acknowledging the crowd. In each story, the protagonists try to shut out the realities of the crowd, only to lose their closest family members to its power. The author’s record of the crowd as a medium for politics will remain an important analysis for those who wish to recognise the crowd and its full political potential – in Bangladesh and beyond.
Rethinking Bangladesh: A special issue
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Arif Sohel is a student at Jahangirnagar University. Anupam Debashis Roy is an independent writer and researcher.