Four years ago, Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of political science at Illinois State University, received an email from a student who wanted to work with him on a project on Bangladeshi politics. It seemed no different from the many other emails Riaz receives every week from aspiring students around the world. The professor was about to politely wish the student success and express his inability to participate in the initiative.

But then, something about the message jumped out. Perhaps it was the way the writer evoked American social scientist Mancur Olson’s framework on the logic of collective action or the plan for employing this theory to analyse the 2013 Shahbag movement in Bangladesh. But in a few months, Riaz became the mentor of the author of email, Anupam Debashis Roy.

The relationship resulted in a research paper that won Roy an award as an undergraduate student at Howard University, and, last year, culminated in a book.

But Roy was not only an academic, as became apparent in the events that unfolded since 2016 when he wrote that email. Roy, then aged 20, went on to become perhaps the most prominent Bangladeshi activist of his generation. While people like Riaz paid attention to him because of his research acumen, he acquired a massive online following as his news-satire videos began to go viral.

His videos touched on topics that usually get low-key treatment in the Bangladeshi mainstream media, notably the turbulent issues surrounding India-Bangladesh relations such as water sharing, border killings and more recently a controversial coal-power plant project.

In 2017, Roy went on to found a civil movement platform called Muktiforum, which soon became very popular with young people in Bangladesh. He says it is the only organisation in the country that adopted pluralism as one of its core principles. The Muktiforum website has become the leading platform for citizen journalism in Bangladesh and its Facebook page has nearly 75,000 followers.

It wasn’t long before Roy’s cyber activism transitioned to street protests. In 2019, after a student was tortured to death by members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League for writing a social media post critical of a water-sharing deal with India, Roy’s fiery speech at a protest rally went viral, getting 7 million views on Facebook within 48 hours.

Born and brought up in a Hindu family in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Roy’s political awakening came at the time of the 2013 Shahbag movement. The protests were sparked by the decision of a war crimes tribunal to sentence Abdul Quader Molla, an opposition Islamist party leader, to life imprisonment instead of awarding him the death penalty for his alleged actions during the country’s war of independence in 1971.

The movement was rooted in Bangladesh’s polarising Liberation War narrative. Roy’s generation grew up reading highly nationalist literature by post-Liberation writers like Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, who identified alleged war criminals, often belonging to Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, as the ultimate evil. Indeed, the Shahbag activists called their movement the “second Liberation War”.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed the secession of erstwhile East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – from its Western wing, supported the Pakistani regime while it carried out a large-scale massacre, leading to a genocide. After Liberation in 1971, the Islamist party was banned by the Awami League government. But it came back into politics in 1979 when ban on religion-based political parties was withdrawn by Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the country’s second major political organisation, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The Shahbag movement deeply inspired Roy, who saw it as a movement of the people. But by the time he began writing his research paper on the movement at Howard University, much of the romanticism surrounding the mass movement had waned, both for him and the vast majority of the people who participated in the movement. By then, the protests had been co-opted by the ruling Awami League.

The Awami League government has been accused of using the war crimes trials to target its political opponents, with the tribunals facing severe criticism by international rights organisations and other observers for a lack of due process and ignoring serious concerns about their fairness.

Roy book, titled Not All Springs End Winter Political Economy of Mass Youth Movements in Bangladesh Before, During and after Shahbag, published by Dhaka-based Adarsha, was born out of his desire to look deeply into the Shahbag protest, but ended up being a study of the methods and strategies of youth movements that followed.

Among these movements was the Kishore Bidroho (revolt of the adolescents), as the 2018 road safety movement is sometimes called. It was an unprecedented country-wide protest initiated and led by school students after two teenagers were crushed to death by a bus in Dhaka.

The incident inflamed a long-held anger about the country’s notoriously poor road-safety conditions. In 2017 alone, over 4,000 people had been killed and 9,000-odd were maimed, according to conservative estimates.

The spectacle of thousands of teenagers in school uniforms flooding the streets shocked the authorities. The government eventually crushed the movement after 10 days.

But according to Roy’s analysis in his book, the road safety movement gave birth to a new era of political movements in Bangladesh. The 2018 movement encapsulates the new zeitgeist in Bangladesh’s politics: a focus on justice, rather than resolving historical grievances.

Bangladeshi students in 2018 protest unsafe road conditions in Dhaka. Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Breaking the silence

The first political video Roy posted on social media, in 2017, was about the Rampal power plant, a proposed coal power station very close to Bangladesh’s Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO heritage site.

“This power station was originally planned for the West Bengal [in India]. But the West Bengal government did not allow it,” said Roy. “The amount of liberty the West Bengal government has, Bangladesh doesn’t even have that. West Bengal can say ‘no’ [to the Indian Central government], but Bangladesh cannot say ‘no’. And the Bangladesh government does not want to say ‘no’.”

India, referred to as “bondhu rashtro” (the friend nation) because of its political and military support to Bangladesh during the Liberation War against Pakistan, has historically favoured the ruling Awami League party. But over the years, the public perception of India has strayed from the official narrative owing to a number of points of friction, including water-sharing disputes and killings of Bangladeshi civillians by India’s Border Security Force, which have given rise to a growing anti-India sentiment.

Roy’s video on the Farakka barrage voiced this discontent. The barrage, which India finished building in 1970, nearly 18 km upstream of the Bangladesh border, seriously impedes the flow of the major Padma river in Bangladesh. “The water-sharing treaties are unjust to begin with, but even then, they [India] don’t give us the share according to those unjust treaties,” Roy said. “And our government only feebly protests this. It doesn’t do anything serious.”

Roy says the reason his videos grew popular, especially among young people, was because he brought into the public discourse issues that had been enveloped in silence – and because he also “make fun about them”.

However, humour alone would not have created such an impact. It was Roy’s meticulous research that truly delivered the punchline. Roy attributes this to his training at Howard University.

“This is why I always cited academic papers in my videos, or at least news reports,” he said. “My videos got traction because they were humorous as well as research-driven.” More importantly, this earned him the trust of his viewership, he said.

Anupam Debashis Roy at a protest in Dhaka in 2019. Credit: Anupam Debashis Roy

As an undergraduate student at Howard, the historically Black university tied to a number of important social movements in the United States, Roy wanted to dive right into serious research. “I told one of my professors, John Cotman, that I wanted to work on social movement when I was a first-year student, long before it was time for guided reading and research,” he said. Cotman took Roy under his wing and trained him to think like a political scientist.

At Howard, Roy participated in social initiatives and lived with members of the Black community, receiving more than academic training from his undergrad experience. From learning about the legal fight against segregation in the US to listening to guest lectures by Black Lives Matter leaders, Roy learnt valuable lessons. Most of all, he said, he learned how to turn anger into words.

His training translated well into his political work in Bangladesh, evidenced by his success in reaching a wide online audience. People reacted to these new political videos with interest and some compared him to celebrity political talk-show host John Oliver. The compliment irked Roy. “Why do I have to be Bangladesh’s John Oliver?” he asked. “Why can’t I be Bangladesh’s Anupam?”

There was a deep-seated residue of colonisation behind this, he said. That is why the second focus in his work has been on decolonisation. His podcast “Audhin Bangla Betar” (Dependent Bengal Radio), a play on “Shadhin Bangla Betar” (Independent Bengal Radio, the iconic programme during Bangladesh’s Liberation War), tries to “bring to the light the fact that Bangladesh is still an Indian colony, Chinese colony”.

On the personal level, being born in a Dalit family gave Roy a particular sensitivity to the sufferings of the marginalised. He felt it was important for him to work on issues relating to marginalised communities.

“I worked on the land rights of tea garden labourers,” he said. “They have been working on lands that they don’t own. This didn’t get millions of hits online, but it kind of jolted the intellectual community – that you have to talk about these important issues.”

The new zeitgeist

As Roy’s work has veered more towards offline activism, his video-making became less frequent. It’s not that he wanted to stop making videos, he says, but logistics and practical considerations got in the way. More importantly, he moved his attention more toward street activism because he felt Bangladesh needs “activists with conviction”.

Specifically, Bangladesh needs revolutionary activism, he said. Without a revolution and a big shock to the system, you can’t bring about real change, he said.

“I want to talk about colonialism, Indian hegemony and aggression, minority rights, religious rights and civil rights in Bangladesh,” said Roy. “You can’t really work on these issues by taking funds from the government and functioning like an NGO. You need structural change for that. The first step toward that is to keep the structure on its toes.”

The reason incremental change will not work in Bangladesh is because the rule of law does not exist in any meaningful way, he claimed. “What the lawyers can do when the court doesn’t want to hear your writ petition; and the Chief Justice flees the country?” said Roy, referring to the incident of Bangladesh’s chief justice Surendra Kumar Sinha’s resignation and exile in the face of alleged coercion and threats in 2017.

With freedom of expression severely stifled under the ruling regime, writing about injustice is no longer a right that can be meaningfully exercised, Roy said. “Real critical writings don’t get published,” he said. “Editors and publishers can’t print them. When some do slip through the cracks and get published, they get banned. Writers face persecution. All of these tell you that you need greater structural change.”

But the way to achieve that is not very straight forward, which is the philosophy that Muktiforum wants to build upon. “The idea of Muktiforum is that there is no one single way to liberation,” he said. “Liberation is not a singular thing. Every generation has its own liberation struggle.”

Helping a new generation

Roy’s book tries to unravel the formula that will help the new generation of activists to figure out the way towards these movements. “Shahbag had a spirit,” he said. “It was historical reconciliation. It was the zeitgeist of that moment.” But the zeitgeist now is different, Roy says.

The Bengali title for his book Kalker Andolon, Ajker Andolon (Movements of the Past and Movements of the Present) defines the post-Shahbag movements as the movements of the present. The difference between the movements of the past and the movements of the present, said Roy, is justice.

In Bangladesh’s political culture, the ideological yardstick is based on the narrative about Liberation War, in which the Awami League is what is called the “pro-Liberation” force, and anyone against it belongs directly or indirectly in the “anti-Liberation” camp. The Quota movement, in 2018, which demanded reform in the provision for a quota system in government jobs recruitment, moved away from the discourse that perpetuates the pro-Liberation versus anti-Liberation dichotomy, Roy said.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League party, once seen as the liberating force that expelled the oppressive West Pakistani rulers, became quite unpopular soon after independence. Rahman was assassinated by military officers, along with almost all members of his immediate family only five years after the liberation.

A remarkable portion of the population became antagonistic towards the Awami League as a result of its suppression of freedom of expression, widespread corruption and a concentration of power. This fostered the rise of country’s second major political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The Awami League eventually came back to power in 1996, a full 20 years after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, with Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina becoming Bangladesh’s prime minister. The political culture of defining everyone along the lines of whether they were claimed to be pro- or anti-Liberation once again gained momentum, supported by a major portion of Bangladeshi intelligentsia, which traditionally supported the Awami League.

It continued when Hasina came back to power in 2008 and has since managed to stay in power through two controversial elections. The general election of 2014 was boycotted by all major opposition parties with observers questioning its credibility. The 2018 election was held amid mass arrests of opposition party members and faced allegations of serious irregularities.

As the Awami League continues to rule, so has its proclivity to brand any dissent as seditious or as “anti-Liberation”. Roy’s willingness to reject this ideological test is what makes him stand apart from the traditional Bangladeshi Left.

“One of the things that my book aims to show is that the spirit of the time is not controlled by the ‘shushil shomaj’ [the liberal elites],” he said. “In other words, the establishment thought process does not dictate this new movement. These movements are not constrained within and limited by the pro- vs anti-Liberation War narrative.”

The movements of the past, says Roy, were also intricately tied with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Awami League division. But the movements of the present are about rights. “Whoever can absorb it will be part of this movement, whether it is the Awami League or the BNP,” he said.

The political forces that will absorb the “movement of the future”, he said, rejecting the establishment dichotomy, will be the “third force.”

“If truly the left and the right come together against its injustice and builds up a coordinated movement,” Roy writes in his book, “ would be very hard for the regime to continue its reign of terror. It would have to bow or be destructed in the face of the demands of justice and democracy of the new movement platform that will draw everyone.”

Roy is ready to fight through the long winter until that happens.

Saqib Sarker is Deputy Magazine Editor at the Dhaka Tribune.