Understanding Shahbag: Bangladesh at a Crossroads

May 2nd, 2013, 6:15 – 9:00 pm

Martin Segal Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center


Note: Video from this event is now available on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLib64KehQ4xc0hpeAm2woK-1BIFB_OqV0

In February 2013, Bangladesh became witness to a spontaneous protest which erupted in the Shahbag neighborhood of the capital city Dhaka. The protestors were demanding the death penalty for alleged war criminals who had assisted the Pakistan army in murders and rapes during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The scale of the protest, the overwhelming presence of young people in the crowds, the large presence of women at overnight sit-ins, and the role of digital media in organizing the protests all heralded the arrival of “something new.” The spread of Shahbag movement throughout Bangladesh and among the diaspora signaled that a significant portion of Bangladeshis are dissatisfied with the current conception of a fair trial.

But did Shahbag’s demands also unleash an equally determined opposition? A reactionary movement to Shahbag has formed with two allied political parties– the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat is a crucial factor here, as some of their leaders are facing trials for alleged war crimes during the 1971 war. In the last few weeks, the country has experienced strikes, particularly violence between reactionary and state forces.

These conflicts have spurred concern among Bangladeshis and people around the world, and have brought out many political questions that require theoretical and political responses. This event will seek to provide a platform for analysis of the present political crises facing Bangladesh, by bringing together people from across the United States and Bangladesh who are academics, political commentators, activists, and students, for a discussion and dialogue with the audience. We hope this discussion will help unravel the various dimensions of Shahbag in all its complexity: conflicting memories of the past, questions of rights and judiciary, contesting claims of nationalism, the crisis of the present, and the uncertain future.


Hasan Ferdous is a columnist for the daily Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s largest circulating newspaper.  Previously he worked in Bangladesh for various publications, including Daily Sangbad, Weekly Sachitra Sandhani and Weekly Dhaka Courier.  He has published extensively in English, as well as in his native Bengali. His works include six volumes of essays on literature and aesthetics, a collection of essays on Bangladesh’s liberation war and a collection of poems. His latest publication, Rabindranath, Gitanjali o dui Harriet, was published in 2011 as a tribute to the Nobel Laureate’s 150th anniversary of birth.  Currently he lives in New York and works for an international organization.

 Dr. Azfar Hussain is an Associate Professor of Liberal Studies/Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, while he has also taught English and World Literature, Ethnic Studies, and Cultural Studies at Washington State University, Bowling Green State University, and Oklahoma State University. In Bangladesh, he worked as a magazine editor, a member of a national-level left activist alliance, and as a university teacher of English before he came to the United States on a Fulbright fellowship. Azfar Hussain has published—in both English and Bengali—numerous academic and creative pieces, including translations from several non-western languages. Interested in theory in the largest sense—while believing that politics, poetics, and praxis need to be organically orchestrated together in the service of radical social change—Hussain has written on a range of topics from Native American poetics and politics to Marxist political economy to third-world literatures. Hussain is the author of The World in Question: Essays in Political Economy and Cultural Politics (Dhaka: Samhati Publications), while he has co-edited the two-volume reader Reading About the World (New York: Hartcourt Brace).

 Naeem Mohaiemen researches histories of the international left, and the contradictions of borders, wars, and belonging, through essays, photography, and film. His museum projects have been described as “not yet disillusioned fully with the capacity of human society” (Vijay Prashad, Take on Art). Naeem was the lead critic of Sarmila Bose’s revisionist history of the Bangladesh independence war, in the essay “Flying Blind: Waiting for a real reckoning on 1971” (Economic & Political Weekly). He edited the anthology Chittagong Hill Tracts in the blind spot of Bangladesh nationalism (Drishtipat/Manusher Jonno Foundation). Naeem is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Columbia University.

Nayma Qayum is a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at CUNY Graduate Center. Her research interests include political institutions in transitional and developing countries, and her dissertation topic is “Engaging bad governments: Informal Institutions and Political Participation in Bangladesh.” She was a researcher for the UN Team supporting the transitional process in Iraq from 2004-2006, a Research Fellow at BRAC in Bangladesh from 2009-2001, and a contributor at WorldPolicy.org. She is a member of the Organizing Collective of South Asia Solidarity Initiative and has been an Adjunct Lecturer at City College, CUNY, and Rutgers University.

 Dr. Tazreena Sajjad currently serves as Professorial Lecturer in the Department of International Politics in the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington D.C. Her specialization includes human rights and conflict, justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of war, humanitarian interventions in violent conflicts, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants (DDR), and the role and experiences of women as combatants, peacemakers and peacebuilders in war and its aftermath. Her publications include her book Transitional Justice in South Asia: A Study of Afghanistan and Nepal” (forthcoming), These Spaces in Between: The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and its Work on Transitional Justice, and Human Rights and Human Insecurity: The Contributions of US Counter-Terrorism (co-authored with Julie Mertus). Her publications have also appeared in Exploring International Human Rights, Subcontracting Peace: The Challenges of NGO Peacebuilding, International Human Rights Post 9/11, Women and Wars, and Rape: Instrument of War and Genocide. Dr. Sajjad is also the author of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit report Peace At All Costs? Reintegration and Reconciliation in Afghanistan. Prior to joining AU, Dr. Sajjad worked in Global Rights’ Afghanistan program and in the National Democratic Institute (NDI)

Ahmed Shamim is pursuing a Ph.D. in Linguistic at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research interests include linguistic nationalism, language policies and ideologies, endangered language documentation, and the descriptive grammar of Bangla.  A collection of his essays on Bengali language was published in 2013 under the title of Bangla Kotha by Bhasha Chitra, Bangladesh.  He was one of the organizers of the Bangladeshi leftist alliance Protirodh Parba.  Mr. Shamim holds an MA in English literature from Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh and an MA in Linguistic form CUNY Graduate Center.  He has taught a range of courses, including linguistics, Bangla language, and English literature at several universities in Bangladesh.  He has been teaching linguistics at CUNY LaGuardia Community College, Bangla languages at the South Asian Summer Language Institute, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

 Nazmul Sultan is a student of Philosophy and Political Theory at CUNY Baccalaureate Program.  His philosophical interests lie in exploring the concept of the political, while he is also working on topics such as theory of sovereignty in the context of late capitalist political formation and the way it relates to emerging borders and their attendant violence, politics of civil society, and the concept of politics-as-a-way-of-life. He has published articles on the Shahbag Movement, on the logic of violence at Indo-Bangla border, and on the problematic of civil society oriented politics in Bangladesh. He’s been a regular contributor to the Bengali weekly Shorbojon, a bulletin that played an instrumental role in giving expression to the radical kernel of the Shahbag Movement. Sultan is a co-editor of the forthcoming academic journal in Bengali, Itihashjan.


Humayun Kabir is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at CUNY Graduate Center.  He is interested combining Comparative Politics and Political Theory frames in studying post-colonial societies.  His dissertation topic is “Thoughts of Becoming: Negotiating Modernity and Identity in Bangladesh.”  He is also a blogger at AlalODulal.org and a member of the Organizing Collective of South Asia Solidarity Initiative. He has been an Adjunct Lecturer of Political Science at Baruch College, York College, and FIT.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Shahbag: Bangladesh at a Crossroads

  1. It was in the early eighties I had started a Bengali society in university of Aston in UK. Some Bangladeshi students protested that they would prefer Bangladeshi society and not Bengali society. They did not feel comfortable to identify themselves as Bengali as that would mean they would have to accept Hindu culture as part of their cultural upbringing.

    The problem is getting more complex now as some political parties and some religious ones, are seeking their religious identity as more prominent than their cultural identity. It is true that Bengali culture is predominantly Hindu culture . This is a historical fact.

    Reading Shakespeare does not make anyone christian, and reading Tagore would not make anyone Hindu. Good literature, and songs, and films, are for the humanity, wherever they are. In this age of electronics, narrowing one self as to a narrow religious identity against a multiple identity would not make anyone any favor, let alone the Bangladeshis. Bangladeshi politics, their culture will always be influenced by the Indians as India is bigger in size, and Indian culture, through their films, are well known.

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