Paradoxes of the Popular
Crowd Politics in Bangladesh
Nusrat Sabina Chowdhury



IN AUGUST 2006, a small township in northwestern Bangladesh became an unlikely focus of national attention. Tens of thousands of residents of nearby villages gathered at the center of Phulbari, about 180 miles from Dhaka, to protest possible open-pit coal mining. Most of them were there to expel a multinational energy company, then called Asia Energy Corporation, that was planning the country’s largest development project. Three men were shot to death on August 26 in the confrontations between the paramilitary guards and the angry protesters.

“We are not discussing politics; we are discussing energy. One burns and the other creates,” a local organizer joked loudly—deliberately, it seemed, in order to be overheard. We were walking out of an activist meeting in Phulbari a few months after the agitations against potential mining became violent. The activist’s comment, at first, sounded like a neat allegory of the heightened crises around energy and democracy marking Bangladesh’s entry into the twenty-first century. The young man’s words, however, were more than a clever summary of the urgencies on the ground. They revealed a curious and counterintuitive valuation of energy (jwalani) and politics (rajneeti). Said with more than a touch of irony and loud enough for others to hear, the activist’s words were especially telling within the stifling political climate of a nationwide emergency that was declared in early 2007. Protests in Phulbari that were interfering with a glib rhetoric of foreign direct investment and development were under strict state surveillance. “Spies,” or low-ranking agents of the state security apparatus, followed around a renowned public intellectual with whom I had tagged along on my first trip. As we were paying visits to the families of those who were wounded or killed in the 2006 shootings, the organizers’ mobile phones kept ringing. I counted at least ten phone calls asking for my name and other coordinates of identification. A meeting at the local press club was abruptly adjourned because of a warning issued by a security agent who was hovering at the doorway to see us out. The freshly minted Emergency Power Ordinance and Emergency Power Rules banned any activity deemed political and allowed for arrests without warrants.

The same day I had started on my second daylong bus ride to Phulbari, the leader of the opposition in the parliament and the president of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, was arrested. The caretaker government imprisoned first Hasina and then, within three months, her political nemesis, Khaleda Zia, the most recently incumbent prime minister and the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The two leaders, who have alternatively represented a two-party, clannish political culture since the fall of military dictatorship in 1990, had never before been sent to prison.1 It was no surprise that for the activists and regular folks in Phulbari, a lot was at stake in this collective performance of nonpolitics.

Energy fit into a patently toothless rhetoric of sustainable development, but politics became suspect. Its seeming abjection had invited the military-backed, technocratic government. By late 2006, more than sixty political party workers were killed in street fights that started with a disagreement on the terms of national elections. The impasse between the two main parties eventually led to the army takeover. One burns and the other creates. In everyday use, however, energy is what is supposed to burn, producing power as a valuable by-product. The etymological intimacy between the Bangla words for “energy” (jwalani) and “to burn” (jwala) highlights the paradox at the heart of the comment, namely, politics taking on the role of energy. The former’s once-creative potential was now relegated to a natural resource like coal that was widely believed to forestall an energy catastrophe. Politics burned, though producing nothing but ruin. Talking about energy in the bazaars and tea stalls was acceptable, but political organizing around it was subject to state scrutiny and at times tough intervention.

Despite the celebration of nonpolitics during this two-year period that brought into sharp relief the cultural logics of everyday democracy, it is rather the inexhaustible energy of politics that has marked the decade since. Within a few months of the emergency, a confrontation between the students and army jawans (soldiers) at the University of Dhaka campus led to one of the most powerful oppositions to the caretaker government. Thousands of students and a number of their professors at public universities were jailed for instigating what appeared to be contagious violence. Despite the ruthless treatment by the state, the student protests revealed the first cracks in the façade of the military government supposedly without political ambition, and therefore, without corruption.

In 2013, a much larger crowd gathered at the heart of the capital city hardly a mile from the University of Dhaka campus. With an elected government firmly ensconced and another national election on the horizon, the country was in the throes of an urban and admittedly middle-class uprising in Dhaka. At Shahbag, a busy crossroads near the national public library, the national museum, and two renowned hospitals, a group of young activists—some with party affiliations and many without—came together to challenge an early verdict of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The Awami League government that had assumed power in the wake of the emergency set up the ICT. As part of its campaign promises, it had vowed to try the alleged collaborators of the 1971 war of independence. A long time in the making, the legal body had been at the receiving end of both warm praise and trenchant criticism. Many rights advocates and family members of the victims of war crimes had been demanding fair trials for the individuals responsible for siding with the Pakistani state and committing or abetting in war crimes. They saw in the founding of the ICT justice long delayed. The actual workings of the tribunal, with its various procedural loopholes and allegations of political appointments, made it one of the most controversial governmental steps in recent memory (Bergman 2016; D’Costa 2015; Sadique 2015).

The sudden outburst at Shahbag surprised political commentators, party bigwigs, and the general public. It questioned the seeming laxity in the ICT’s judgment of war criminals, which to many reeked of strategic negotiations between the government and Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest religion-based political party. It stood to lose the most from being sympathetic to the idea of an undivided Muslim Pakistan at the time of the war. Some of its senior members were accused of collaborative activities. Protesters took to the streets demanding capital punishment. What was once a fight for justice within weeks came to be seen as a struggle between secularists and Islamists vying to be the voice of the nation. A powerful backlash against Shahbag and its blatant secularism came from an ad hoc religious right that read into the message of Shahbag a threat to religious identity. As in Phulbari and during the army rule that followed, the crowds in Shahbag initially challenged the legitimacy of the trial and by extension the state, and while doing so, also gradually began to stretch the boundaries of the political cause for which they had originally come together.

These uprisings mostly took shape outside of party political structures. This is unusual for Bangladesh, known for the centrality of party politics, which, though not divided along caste or ethnic lines as in India, is deeply polarizing (Suykens 2017). The scope of the protests was not delimited by organizations or institutions. Nor did they primarily use infrastructure—as both object and medium—to lay claims on the state, as seen elsewhere in the global south where technopolitics is often the language of the poor (Larkin 2013; Schnitzler 2016). The protests have been public in the sense that they took over public spaces for their articulation. In this they have been formally akin to some of the spontaneous assemblies that dotted different parts of the world this past decade (Hamdy 2012; Mittermaier 2015; Navaro-Yashin 2013). The protests in Bangladesh—whether against corporate capital, land grabs, military rule, or war crimes trials—defied easy labeling, their form and content veering between progressive, secular, patriotic, religious, reformist, violent, radical, and reactionary. As bookends to the Phulbari movement, the student dissent during the emergency and the protests that came years later in Shahbag highlight the scope, and the constitutive paradoxes, of popular sovereignty in Bangladesh.

The following ethnography attends to the minutiae of these protests by locating in the crowd the energy, agency, and indeterminacy of mass politics. It tacks between multiple sites of public political gatherings and pays attention to the ephemeral and at times accidental configurations of the crowd. It starts with a movement against open-pit coal mining and ends with the agitations against a war crimes tribunal. The events span both rural and urban Bangladesh, specifically between the years 2007, when the state of emergency was declared, and 2013, when the self-consciously secular demands of justice for war crimes and the backlash against them reached their peaks.


Few places are as politically precarious as Bangladesh, even fewer as crowded. Its 57,000 or so square miles are some of the world’s most densely inhabited. Here, population is a hoary governmental problem, but unruly urban traffic has become the most obstinate affliction. Native speakers use the term bhir along with and as often as the English “jam.” The first refers to crowds of people; the second, an immobility caused by too many vehicles and too few roads. A growing number of Bangladeshis waste personal time and exhaust public resources being stuck in traffic in an ever-more atomized capital city (Hobbes 2014; Rosen 2016). They “fall into” or “get trapped” in a jam, as the Bangla expression jam e pora makes clear. “Jammed-up roads are the indelible image of Dhaka’s agony. They may also be its single greatest cause,” Jody Rosen (2016) wrote in the New York Times about a city that would be ranked “the world’s second least livable” two years later (Chaity 2018). But a jam is also the effect and the condition of possibility of needs and desires that coalesce and turn the streets into sites of work, politics, fun, and survival. Rosen describes the chaos as pervasive and permanent: “Bangladesh is the 12th most densely settled nation on earth, but with an estimated 160 million citizens it is by far the most populous, and the poorest, of the countries at the top of the list. To put the matter in different terms: The landmass of Bangladesh is one-118th the size of Russia, but its population exceeds Russia’s by more than 25 million” (Rosen 2016).

Comparisons of scale are strategies to put an out-of-the-way place on a familiar map. They make the global south legible to the Euro-American reader. They also point out how comparisons can be hopelessly misleading. Rosen finds herself in Dhaka on a day of hartal, a tried-and-true model of public protest (Suykens and Islam 2013). As a political tool, it aims to halt the regular movement of people and things. Depending on who is calling the strike, the traffic during hartal can be relatively thin. But surely “relatively thin” is relative, Rosen discovers quickly, as she ranks Dhaka crowds above those of Mumbai and Cairo. This density is exaggerated when the cities and townships accommodate a different kind of traffic: the flow of a michhil, a procession powered by the movement of people, or janata, the other Bangla equivalent of the crowd but with a difference.

Many South Asian languages share some variance of janata (janta in Hindi, for example). In Bangla, janata is different in its political potentiality from the cognate term, janogon or “the people.” The former is a close approximation of the crowd, the multitude, or the masses of social and political theory. The latter is more normative and is mostly at the service of official language, as in “We, the people,” which begins the constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.2 To speak of janata is to note the historical and regional specificities of mass politics. More than a mere vernacular iteration of the crowd, it is a repository of the nuances of postcolonial sovereignty, where the popular and the uncivil come together (for more on civility and popular politics, see Mitchell 2018).3 The crowd as janata is the ethnographic and analytical focus of my book.

Bangladesh, one often hears, has been a definitive case of the bankruptcy of postcolonial governance. Its fate seems to be lodged within a global despair around the collapse of the social and political hopes that had forged anticolonial imaginations and national sovereignties (Scott 2004). The resultant anxiety of exhaustion, as David Scott (2004) describes it, is manifest in the paralysis of will and vacancy of imagination, corruption, authoritarianism, showy self-congratulation, and instrumental self-interest. In spite of the rampant feelings of despair familiar to those who think and write about Bangladesh and many more who live here, the narrative of crisis comes with a few significant caveats. This may be why paradox often recurs as a motif when discussing Bangladeshi politics, economy, and history.

There are at least a couple of ways in which the Bangladesh paradox has become a way of thinking about the nation’s becoming as well as its feats and failures in the first five decades. The first relates to progress in the economic sector simultaneous with the political instability, environmental disasters, and poverty. At least since 1991, the year that marked the end of roughly fifteen years of authoritarian rule of different stripes, the advances in social and human development indicators in Bangladesh have surpassed those of the neighboring countries. Regime changes, even when relatively frequent, have had little effect on the microeconomic policies and political commitments to social development (Mahmud 2017; Riaz 2016; Sen 2013). Per a September 2017 report in the Economist, Bangladesh edged past Pakistan with a slightly higher gross domestic product (GDP). The irony of the erstwhile eastern wing taking over the richer, western part from which it had broken away decades ago was not lost on the writer of the Economist article: “A country that once lacked cloth for shrouds now exports more ready-made garments than India and Pakistan combined.” Bangladesh has transformed itself from being a dawdler to a leader in many indices—from gender to GDP—making some experts wonder at the so-called Bangladesh surprise (Mahmud 2017). Once the proverbial basket case, Amartya Sen writes, the country has surprised the naysayers by jumping out of the basket and starting to sprint ahead (Sen 2013).

Bangladeshi nationalism itself has been known to host a series of contradictions (Samaddar 2002). While history (beginning exclusively in or around 1971) remains a fecund site of scholarly and cultural production, it is profoundly out of step with postcolonial miseries. Some of the crucial silences in recounting the rise of nationalism—the repression and criminalization of progressive radicalism within the struggle for freedom, for instance—have yet to be redressed (Umar 2004). The weary tensions between ethnic, religious, and national identities—Bangali or Bangladeshi—inform rhetoric and policies, though mostly opportunistically by political leaders or a politically ambitious intelligentsia. The eclipse of the left within the first few years of independence has been partly ascribed to a regime of power set up with the help of bureaucrats, the coteries within the established political party, the politics of international aid, and the armed forces. The problems with the nationalist idea that Ranabir Samaddar identifies include, among others, an autonomy movement that overnight catapulted into a freedom movement, the ongoing suffering of ordinary citizens, and the leading role of a party that was at best a movement, more often a crowd, but never a party capable of waging a war of liberation with a social agenda of its own (Samaddar 2002; see also Lewis 2011; Umar 2004). Even Bangali Musalmaner mon—the Bengali Muslim mind—has presented itself as somewhat of a paradox (Sofa 2006). At the start of the new millennium, much of this had prompted at least one eminent literary figure to ask, “Amra ki ei Bangladesh cheyechhilam?” (“Is this the Bangladesh we had wanted?”) The rhetorical question—and surely the pathos in it—has found many iterations in local commentaries since the book of the same title was first published (Azad 2003).

In this book, I foreground “paradox,” at one level, to account for these historical and sociological contingencies that have generated a curious mix of optimism and despair, a distinctively postcolonial combination where the early zeal of anticolonial nationalism has been routinely banished to the “waiting room of history” (Chakrabarty 2000; Scott 2004). At another level, I do so in order to attend to the foundational contradictions within popular sovereignty, of which the crowd is an exemplar. The paradox of peoplehood begins with the very act of representing “the people,” which has always been a fiction. Its very existence requires a suspension of disbelief, as Edmund Morgan has shown in the seminal Inventing the People: “Before we ascribe sovereignty to the people, we have to imagine that there is such a thing, something we personify as though it were a single body, . . . ​a collective entity more powerful and less fallible than a king or than any individual within it or than any group of individuals it singles out to govern it” (Morgan 1989: 153). The shift in cosmologies that made possible a transfer of power from the king’s two bodies to the people’s two bodies sustains a number of contradictions, such as the fact that the people are actual subjects as well as fictional sovereigns, and that not just anybody—or “mere” people, as Morgan would say—can constitute “the people” (Frank 2015; Kantorowicz 2016; Santner 2011; Wolin 1981). Its sovereignty must not be confused with the unauthorized actions of individuals or of crowds.

Still, protesting crowds have been the media of meaningful change in the democratic culture of Bangladesh as in many other places. The effects of these political collectivities spill over the boundaries of well-defined political projects. Established power and its opponents harness crowd potential even as it frequently betrays both. As an agent of politics, the crowd has been the much-touted nemesis of the people and the public in scholarly treatises on democracy and public life. Theories of popular sovereignty in the Marxist or liberal-normative tradition, as well as their critiques, are dotted with a figure whose energy surpasses the demands of democratic politics (Canetti 1984 [1962]; Dean 2016; Freud 1975 [1921]; Hardt and Negri 2005; Jonsson 2013; Laclau 2007; Le Bon 2002 [1896]; Tarde 2014 [1903]). It is at once a force to exploit, an entity to denigrate, and more often than not a symptom of shifting social and political conditions. Jodi Dean voices a familiar leftist lament when she says that by reducing autonomy to individual decision, we destroyed the freedom of action we had as a crowd (Dean 2016). And yet, Dean admits to the crowd’s constitutive volatility and its limited freedom in becoming a possible unit of politics. Even when the “crowd’s breach of the predictable and given creates the possibility that a political subject might appear,” the crowd, instead of having politics, can only be an opportunity for politics (Dean 2016). In the longue durée of writings on the political, the crowd is a permanent fixture against which the acts and utterances of the people are defined.

In urban South Asia, giant political crowds and pedestrian rallies are the most spectacular political statements. In Dhaka, political groups aim to take over historically meaningful spaces of public gathering, like the Paltan Maidan, Bangabandhu Avenue, the roundabout called Shapla Chattar, the footpath in front of the National Museum in Shahbag, or that narrow stretch of concrete—a sidewalk more or less—named Muktangon. The word means “free space,” and despite its gradual downsizing, it is still dedicated to offering a safe place for venting political and social grievances. But even these dense hubs of urbanity serving as spaces of dissent are now under threat as traffic becomes more unruly and space more rigorously managed (Dhaka Tribune 2013). Whichever political side one is on, the goal is to take over the street—not the agora or the arena, but “the asphalt in-between” (Morris 2013). This is why urban roads are blockaded and the highways that connect the cities to each other are obstructed as a first step toward making an effective political statement. These are not spontaneous crowds of angry citizens, though those too happen with relative frequency, as I show in the book, but are more or less rehearsed spectacles of presence. They are a visible gauge of popularity for a cause, an institution, or a leader. The political ritual of blocking streets has deep roots in mass democratic consciousness in Bengal (Chakrabarty 2011). Despite its longer lineage, the political uses of the street—what Dipesh Chakrabarty in a Bangla essay calls “rajneetir rasta,” or the streets of politics—became more frequent in the twentieth-century nationalist and communist movements in West Bengal. More recently, everyday demands as disparate as road safety, medical malpractice, or irregular supply of water or electricity bring people to the streets—similar acts that in the vernacular political languages of South Asia are known as path aborodh, gherao, bandh/banda, hartal, or chakka-jam (Lakier 2007).

The street is a public thing as are parks, prisons, schools, transportation systems, pipelines, libraries, airport security, and public phones (Honig 2017); they are aspects of modern life that are hidden in plain sight. Public things, according to Bonnie Honig, “provide a basis around which to organize, contest, mobilize, defend, or reimagine various modes of collective being together in democracy” (Honig 2017). The street is a public thing in that it gathers people together materially and symbolically, even when they are divisive. Genevieve Lakier, however, has shown in her ethnography of urban Nepal that the South Asian versions of “politics of the street” impede the individual autonomy of other citizens and transform the neutral space of the public into a politicized domain (Lakier 2007). Although it is imperative that we question the so-called neutrality of the idea of the public (or for that matter, the “private”) (Kaviraj 1997), or the normative underpinnings of citizenship (Cody 2009), what is obvious is that the cooptation of the development infrastructure is at the center of everyday and spectacular performances of protest (Lakier 2007). In this, the relationship between public things and democracy is different from “democracy’s infrastructure,” where pipes, meters, and grids are becoming central to the strategies that members of political societies use in order to negotiate with the state (Chatterjee 2006; Schnitzler 2016). Although this book is about the subjects and not the objects of democracy, so to speak, it bears repeating that the latter are the condition of democratic sovereignty. To write about public things, then, is not simply to write about infrastructure but to make a case for embracing publicness in democratic life, for the sake of democratic life.


Popular politics in South Asia—be it revolutionary or nationalist—has long relied on the power of the crowd as have counterrevolutionary forces from the colonial to the contemporary (Amin 1995; Chakrabarty 2007; Guha 1983). From vibrant rallies that rouse mass affect (Chakrabarty 2011) to oppositional tactics of hurling homemade bombs to kill as many ordinary commuters as possible (Sultan 2015), the crowd is both a solution and a scapegoat, and in that sense, a true political pharmakon.

Indeed, in Bangladesh, michhil and meetings have played formative roles in the origin story of the nation. The crowd at Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s speech at the Ramna Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) in 1971 is a significant part of national folklore.4 Nearly a million people had assembled on the afternoon of March 7 to hear the leader. They chanted “Joy Bangla” (Victory to Bengal) and waived lathis to signal their readiness to fight (Ludden 2011). The event that was led by the future first president of Bangladesh was a grand moment of declaration where the boundaries between popular demands for independence and constitutionalism were blurred to produce one of the most iconic moments—and sound bites—of East Pakistan’s struggle for nationhood:

He directed people to make every home a fortress and to fight with whatever they had ready in hand. He ended his speech by declaring: “This struggle is for emancipation! This struggle is for independence!” His rousing speech had a double meaning. It evoked two meanings of independence [mukti and swadhinata, respectively] by promoting constitutionalism and a freedom struggle. Despite its ambiguity, however, this landmark speech inspired a popular revolution, whose force and organisation came from outside the halls of constitutional politics and quickly commandeered East Pakistani state institutions. (Ludden 2011)

Mahmudul Huq’s 1976 novel Jiban Amar Bon (Life is my sister) starts a few days before Mujib’s landmark speech.5 The war begins and ends within the Bangla novel, which is narrated in the third person. Jiban Amar Bon is largely about its central character Khoka’s struggle to make sense of the events that are sweeping away the region and with it a whole generation. It is a tale of the main character coming face to face with what he likens to a force of nature. Khoka calls this unreflexive, uncouth, and hysterical entity by the name janata. “To Khoka what was until then a skinny word wrapped in the wispy feathers of three letters, like dayita (beloved), jamini (night) or madira (wine), is suddenly spreading across the city in thunderous explosions—janata!” (Huq 1976: 44).

At the outset, Jiban Amar Bon is a story of a twenty-two-year-old college graduate casually ignoring the political urgency of his time. His family’s bougainvillea-covered house in the East Pakistan capital and collection of books bespeak (upper) middle-class comfort. His friends are young men with whom he studies, smokes and drinks, and argues passionately. There are also a few women, specifically a married lover but others too whose advances he lusts after and loathes. Khoka tries his best to keep them away from his younger sister, Ronju, the space of innocence in his life.

Khoka does not recognize the power of history amidst which he finds himself. His deep disgust for any sign of its strength makes Huq’s novel an unusual document of Bangladesh’s birth. It is, however, an ode to janata as a political actor in the event of national independence (Sultan 2016). Janata, not Khoka, is the motor of history. When Khoka ignores the rumors of a military attack on civilians, or when he mocks the spark of nationalism in his friends, he denies the janata sovereignty. He fails to see reason in those who are occupying the streets, demanding political rights, or fleeing the city en masse. Khoka himself is fleeing the janata throughout the novel. Its dialectical movement forward ends in tragic synthesis. The crowd stampedes an ailing Ronju, Khoka’s only surviving kin, whose adolescent innocence kept him sheltered from the riffraff of the outside world. The charging crowd was the same janata whose power Khoka had denied all along. At the end, it also sweeps him away—literally—when running from an advancing army.

We see glimpses of the paradoxical nature of popular sovereignty in the long internal soliloquies of Huq’s protagonist. It is not easy for Khoka to go with the flow like the others. The whole business of politics (rajneeti) to him is “utterly, gorgeously slutty” (Huq 1976: 14). With equal (chauvinistic) disdain Khoka notices naïve schoolboys who still wipe their noses on the backs of their hands while taking political lessons at street corners. He calls the on-strike tannery workers guinea pigs and questions their newfound political consciousness. And yet, a deafening noise interrupts his thinking:

A roar—yes, a roar—is getting louder and louder, crashing in the air. Khoka places his ear against it. The noise is fast becoming a grumble. Like an angry python a procession gets onto the main road from Rayer Bajar and moves towards the EPR [East Pakistan Rifles] barracks. How quickly Dhaka is changing; how fast the people are changing. Some with sticks, some iron rods, others with black flags, arrows, swords, oars, shovels, axes, and whatever else they could find on their shoulders. How swiftly the faces are changing. Shifting also are the shapes of those faces. Fast, fast, fast. It is approaching like a glacier; a glacier that is the onslaught of an impending death. People! People! People and people! [manush] . . . ​What Noah’s flood is this? Khoka stumbles a little inside. His head starts to throb. (Huq 1976: 16)

Janata is an active, affective and political configuration of manush, which is the word Khoka uses for “the people.” The Sanskrit-derived gloss for the human can be either singular or plural. Manush howa is the process of growing up; it is a progression toward becoming a fully functioning, humane adult. It is at once developmental and social as in the expression manush kora—to bring up a child. But the word does not pack a political punch in the same way janata or janogon does. Manush speaks to an innate humanity that need not include political maturation or participation. Janata is a higher level of collectivity than the more passive manush or the mundane bhir (literally, crowdedness).

Khoka highlights this disjuncture by comparing people to its abject other, animal (janowar). “We, half-animals, are only ever eager to become full animals. . . . ​At every opportunity we want to avow that animality with a roar,” he says to his politically inclined friend (Huq 1976: 97). The becoming political of the people is also their becoming fully bestial. The beast as janata perplexes Khoka. His disgust is palpable as is his denial of its power to come together and multiply. His hatred for either rajneeti or janata is not familiar middle-class apathy toward mass politics. No doubt, South and Southeast Asian political cultures mirror the hierarchies of a deep-rooted class society. When Sudipta Kaviraj coins the hybrid term pablik to denote the creative uses of public space in Calcutta (Kaviraj 1997), or Vicente Rafael observes the cell-phone-toting prode-mocracy crowds in Manila (Rafael 2003), or Lotte Hoek notes the coming together of the mufassal (peripheral towns) and the metropolis in Dhaka (Hoek 2012), they show in vivid detail how public life is riven by socioeconomic distinctions. If anything, Khoka’s discomfort echoes the recurring ambivalences around the crowd in scholarly work. Those who have written on and during political upheavals in the West in the last couple of centuries, especially in interwar Europe, have taken a keen interest in the category. The crowd and the janata, as tokens of mass political entities, overlap and diverge in revealing ways.

At the center of Khoka’s universe is Ronju, his younger sibling. At its edges are other characters, like Khoka’s lover, who is the wife of an older friend; a cousin who tries and fails to romance him; and an independent professional woman whose character, or lack thereof, is the talk of the town. Khoka verbally abuses the women as well as the crowds and considers them mad. Ronju, the asexual, infantile girl-child, is the exception. “Between Ronju and the world, Khoka wants to stand guard,” Nazmul Sultan writes in an engaging commentary on the novel (Sultan 2016). In Khoka’s imagination, the boundaries of women, licentious men, and a boisterous janata start to blur. By the end of March 1971, Dhaka goes under the control of the army. Khoka gives in. He leaves the city with Ronju, but only to sacrifice her to an onslaught of people. As Ronju dies under the feet of the janata, Khoka is forced to become a part of it. “All he wanted was for Ronju to live. But [Khoka] doesn’t know that that’s where he is wrong. This desolate country would never give Ronju the sole right to live, he soon learns” (Huq 1976: 158).

The michhil has a catalytic role in another piece of fiction from the mid-1970s. Ahmed Sofa’s well-known 1975 novella Omkar (The Om) reaches its climax in 1969 and, like Jiban Amar Bon, unsettles a rehearsed story of Bangladeshi nationalism (Sofa 2007). Here too the march of an insurrectionary crowd coincides with death. The relationship between the two is less direct though equally poignant as in Huq’s novel. Omkar begins a couple of decades earlier with the reminiscences of its unnamed narrator. Unlike Khoka, this young man is of modest means. He owes his livelihood to a rich and hawkish father-in-law who is as good at defrauding others as in being all too familiar with the military regime. It is his mute daughter whom the main character marries in exchange for a job and a comfortable life in the capital.

In 1969, the protests against the military dictator, Ayub Khan, had spread across East Pakistan, leading to deadly violence. In the political trajectory of Bangladesh, 1969 reflected the most congealed form of contentious politics. For the first time, Bengali nationalism became a primary motif in the mass agitations that were gaining steam in East Pakistan and successfully joined forces with insurrectionary left politics that led to the toppling of Ayub Khan. The People’s Uprising (Gono Obbhutthan) became a precursor to the war that broke out two years later. Asad, a student leader who was killed at a rally in 1969, is now considered one of the first martyrs of independent Bangladesh.

These were restless times. Mujib was in jail. Processions were everywhere. The protagonist/narrator of Omkar embodies this restlessness as he shifts his gaze away from the political posters on the walls and toward the sky. He keeps to himself, though unlike Khoka, more in fear than disgust. Every little thing makes him nervous, yet he knows he has been deluded; someone as inconsequential as he could never be the target of the hatred and anger of the thousands.

I cannot stand processions [michhil]. I lose my hearing as soon as I catch the noise of slogans. I lose all perception. It feels as if the procession-goers are hitting me with a thousand sharp arrows. As soon as there was an incoming michhil, I would shut the doors and windows by habit. I acted as though they were not in front of me but very far. Even when the sounds came through, I would put my hands over my ears. This was my way of keeping the storm of time at bay. Later I heard that this was something I had in common with the late Ayub Khan himself. (Sofa 2007: 32)

While he covered his ears, it was his wife who opened the doors and windows at the first hint of a marching crowd. She struggled to understand what was being said. The sound of a michhil was a magnet to her inner being. Noises burst out of her without provocation while an uncanny presence took over her body. One day when a michhil was approaching their house, her happiness was palpable. She moved to its beat as if possessed by a jinn. The pieces of words that she struggled to form, which used to come out as little cobblestones, now rang different. A realization hit him. She too was trying to utter “Bangladesh” that wafted in from the michhil. With a sudden jolt, his mute wife leapt up. No sooner had the first intelligible word—Bangla—come out, she started bleeding in the mouth and fell unconscious on the floor as if something inside her tore into pieces. “I stare at the stains of fresh blood on the floor and at my unconscious wife and only one question comes to my mind: Whose blood is redder? Is it Asad’s or my mute wife’s?”—Sofa writes in the last line of the novella (Sofa 2007: 36).

Huq’s and Sofa’s stories end in cathartic sacrifice. The sacrifice, albeit accidental, is of the self for the sake of the collectivity. The two female characters are tragic victims to what Sofa calls the “storm of time” (kaler jhor). While Khoka’s sister is killed by the crowd, the mute wife manages to echo the crowd by uttering her first meaningful word, which is the proper name of a yet-to-be-born nation. The two male protagonists, their self-appointed guardians, realized the urgency of history too late and lost what to them was the most treasured. Their inability to see the power of the crowd cost them dearly.

The role of the feminine in the narrative resolution of the stories demands a closer look. An obvious place to start are the concerns over female hysteria and the beastly behavior of the crowd that hover over notable nineteenth-and twentieth-century writings on the masses. Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon have famously taken a psychosocial approach to understanding the popular. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Freud 1975 [1921]), Freud engages with Le Bon’s influential late nineteenth-century text that elaborates on the hysterics of the crowd (Le Bon 2002 [1896]). The crowd is compared to the so-called primitive, the infant, the barbarian, and the feminine; in other words, the quintessential markers of the Other of Western rationality. The masses, it would seem, have always been the eclipse of reason and enemy of a well-ordered polis (Jonsson 2013: 23).

There are still important differences between the two famous decoders of crowd psychology. The category in Le Bon and Freud’s studies does not necessarily denote the same thing (Dean 2016; Jonsson 2013). Freud’s crowd, compared to Le Bon’s urban working classes, is a far more encompassing epithet. The opposition posited between the crowd and the individual—the former being the bearer primarily of passion and the latter of reason—is more complicated in Group Psychology than what first meets the eye. The crowd here is not the antithesis of individual rationality. Rather, individuality is an effect of repression, sublimation, and inhibition of psychic drives. As Jacqueline Rose would later say of Freud’s work, “We are peopled by others” (Rose 2004: 143). The crowd and the individual, therefore, are one and the same; the former is a window onto a society not yet encumbered by power, where institutions or authorities have not stabilized human passion (Rose 2004).

On the feminine, Le Bon and Freud’s voices are more in concert. Passions supposedly drive women. Passions are also the constitutive elements of crowd action. In losing oneself in the crowd, one indulges in feminine behavior that is out of control. Individuality is a masculine phenomenon and the masses a feminine one, Jonsson adds when commenting on what he calls the stock item of mass psychology and its fascination with the crowd. The question of gender and crowds offers an added challenge when posed from the vantage point of South Asian public political life. Within the sizeable expanse of South Asian studies, one finds a quintessentially masculine, if not male-dominated, crowd. Sociologically speaking, the South Asian crowd and its imagination do not easily line up with the gendered thinking that has informed classical European literature on the masses. Among the ethnic rioters across South Asia’s cities (Tambiah 1997), the unruly peasants in colonial Uttar Pradesh (Amin 1988), or the mourning fans at the funeral of their favorite film star in Dhaka (Hoek 2012), we see crowds as men. They participate in protests or celebrations the styles of which are culturally tied to young men. Fun or jouissance marks the urban masses ever-present in rallies, communal showdowns, cinema halls, and religious functions (Hansen 2001; Hoek 2012; Prasad 2009; Verkaaik 2004). They enjoy certain comfort in and control over public space that is not available to many women. While this may seem applicable to Western crowds as well, I would argue that the South Asian crowd tends to be at once empirically male and, in an ideological sense, masculine-gendered. This in no way belies the reality that millions of women across the subcontinent routinely find themselves in and as urban crowds. This is as true of Mumbai, the South Asian city best known for having a veritable presence of women in public (Phadke and Ranade 2011), as it is for Dhaka, infamous for routine unequal treatment of and violence against women in the streets and in public transport (Uz Zaman 2018). The fact that women’s marches or gatherings to “take back the night” still need to be qualified as such shows how everyday access to space is hardly democratic and, in its “unmarkedness,” decidedly masculine.

The cinematic gaze is often thought to be a male one. The passionate masses of cinemagoers, whose immaturity has been a source of consternation for the colonial and the developmental state, are primarily imagined as men, though in their jouissance still passively permeable. The subaltern spectator is routinely described as illiterate, uneducated, rural, ignorant, uninformed, working-class, adolescent, youth, and so forth (Prasad 2009: 70). Postindependent conservative cultural policy continues to treat the masses as a kind of “cultural reserve” in need of protection from the alienating effects of modern popular culture (Prasad 2009: 74). “Male viewers are inherently public and, qua pissing men, crowd-edly so,” writes William Mazzarella (2013a).6 As “pissing men” who need to be told where to relieve themselves because of their inability to read public signs, as rowdy cinemagoers who stomp their feet, whistle, and make catcalls at the movies, or as protectors of the women in the family, shielding them from the sensuous provocations of the cinematic image, men as crowds have provoked state measures of regulation and ideological dreams of development (Hoek 2013; Mazzarella 2013a).

Khoka’s escape is more than an avoidance of patriotic responsibilities. His disgust for collective sovereignty and the ultimate loss in its hands are results of his strenuous disavowal to recognize crowd potential. His suspicion is challenged in the most traumatic way. “This desolate country would never give Ronju the sole right to live,” Khoka realizes in the final lines of the novel (Huq 1976: 158). The crowd here is both a promise and a cause for panic; it is also a message and a medium that gathers and transforms elements, objects, people, and things (Rafael 2003). In the crowd of the nationalist literature, the auratic and the aural also seem to be closely linked. In Omkar, in which the mute woman speaks up with the crowd—an act that coincides with her death—brings sound squarely at the center of the narrative. She finds clarity with the utterance of her first intelligible word, Bangla. “Omkar” (from Sanskrit, Omkara) is the sound of the sacred syllable, Om, which is a fecund icon within Hinduism. Along with its profound polysemy, which includes the soul, the truth, and the supreme spirit, the sound itself is auspicious and a tool for meditation. The last noise that Sofa’s otherwise silent protagonist manages to blurt out takes on the sanctity of the divine syllable. It is she who opened the windows to let in the din of an approaching crowd. Her husband could not tolerate the noise. But it was also more than mere noise. The crowds were chanting the name of the unborn nation. In Jiban Amar Bon, too, Khoka hears the janata before he sees it. As the noise gets closer, it reminds him of an angry python that makes its serpentine journey around Dhaka, a city on the brink of a war in the early 1970s.

Does participatory democracy have a sound, then? Writing on the sonic motif of contemporary politics, Laura Kunreuther asks the same following her research in Nepal, where she has identified awaj (“voice” in Nepali, Bangla, and a few other North Indian languages) as a metaphor for political participation (Kunreuther 2018). From the pelting of stones at businesses that have not shut down on a quiet day of a banda to the stunning absence of traffic noise, what becomes powerful in and as protest is noise itself. Still, noise is often thought of as prepolitical and nonreflexive, an unintentional effect of urban life rather than a calculated disruption (Kunreuther 2018). One could say the same for crowds. Kunreuther makes a similar observation when she writes, “But noise is also associated with the intentional unruliness of a crowd that threatens to spin out of control, to go against law and order, and to challenge some of the foundations of liberal democracy” (Kunreuther 2018). At the same time, mass mediation makes visibility compete with audibility and legibility, Rosalind Morris notes of contemporary populisms, in which being seen to speak often appears to be more significant than what is being said (Morris 2013).

Consider this story that I had heard even before setting foot in the mining area. It concerned the physical assault of a young man who had traveled to Phulbari from Dhaka with a documentary film crew. He was the younger brother of a well-known filmmaker who had sent his team to gather footage of the protests that flared up in 2006. While shooting the film, he was unsuspectingly sporting a T-shirt with the logo of a film festival with the word “Asia” in it. “Asia,” by then a name familiar due to the presence of Asia Energy, was enough to anger the crowds. They attacked the man on suspicions of working for the company. Influential activist leaders had to intervene to save him from public wrath. Later when I spoke to a woman who was a part of the crowd, she remembered vividly: “We would’ve killed him. The situation was such that we would’ve killed him. If each one of us had hit him, he would’ve been dead.” I asked her if she had seen the genji [T-shirt], to which she replied with equal excitement: “Yes! They, like, they looked like they had no life left in them. . . . ​ They just came with cameras. . . . They knew someone. . . . [Two other leaders] had to verify if he was someone from [Asia] energy or if he was only wearing the genji.” The same sign that was found on an outsider’s clothing was also familiar as the corporation’s logo. The crowd that vandalized the company’s office and attacked its employees had located on the body of an urban youth a dangerous icon, which was not read the same way by all, if “read” is at all the right verb in this context. The woman confirmed seeing the T-shirt but most likely did not know the meaning of either Asia or energy; she used “energy”—in English—as shorthand for the company’s proper name.

To understand democracy in the age of deep mediation, then, we need to view crowds as political actors who are self-consciously shaped through mass publicity (Cody 2015; Gürsel 2017) while also recognizing that it is in the tangle of representations and practices that one must always come to the political (Rosanvallon 2006). In my description of crowd politics in the following pages, the reader will routinely find words, actions, and characters that were not often the most striking or even, at least seemingly, the most significant. Despite the spectacular nature of these political assemblies, the figures that appear in and out of view were frequently lost in crowds, stood at the sidelines, or came together by accident. Hearsay more often than direct communication formed the basis of their reminiscences. Together, their words and actions cohere as what I describe as imperceptible politics. This is the politics that arises from the emergence of the miscounted, “those who have no place within the normalising organisation of the social realm” (Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and Tsianos 2008). Attempts to harness and work with these imperceptible potentials are generally misrecognized and translated into the given terms of representation. In Escape Routes, Papadopoulos and his colleagues give a history of such escapes, those of vagabonds, wandering poor, uprising peasants, and mobs who have for centuries made up the rebellious forces. National and local authorities have sought to prevent these free movements whether as measures to rein in poverty or to direct labor to manufacturing. The concept also has significance, I believe, for understanding political crowds. It is no mere coincidence that “mobility” refers to movement but at the same time to the common people, the working classes, and the mob (Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and Tsianos 2008). The escape of which the authors write is surely about dissent and construction, but it is not, or not always, resistance. It comprises everyday, singular, unpretentious acts of subverting subjectification and betraying representation, a strategy that cannot be reduced to one successful and necessary form of politics. These everyday cultural and practical exercises of escape are what I document in the following pages as the politics of the crowd.

This conceptual and ethnographic background raises a few related questions: What relationship between politics and energy was articulated in the pointed remark of the cynical activist, or the angry woman who had found in the English equivalent of energy that which needed to be violently excised from the social? What ideas of the political informed the crowds that attacked the suspicious film crew, and under what circumstances were they a part of the same protesting collectivity, if at all? More broadly, how and to what effect did the state of emergency’s facile equation of noncorruption with nonpolitics—a familiar technocratic fantasy—intersect with the issue-specific organizing in Phulbari and Shahbag? In the aftermath of Shahbag, in what ways were the self-consciously secular and religious crowds co-constituted? How did an emergent technomediatic environment simultaneously challenge and aid official efforts at surveillance and disaggregation of crowd politics? Extrapolating from these ethnographic particulars, this book explores the contours of Bangladeshi democracy in order to offer useful analytical pointers in understanding mass politics globally. By focusing on the mediations of popular protests and the competing visions of the political that fuel and sustain them, the book ultimately asks: What does an anthropological account of the crowd teach us about the simultaneously enduring and tenuous object of mass democracy—the people?


Paradoxes of the Popular weaves together my experiences and observations of living in the mining area and my interactions with protesters and political personalities in Dhaka. It makes use of a rich textual culture coproduced by print and digital media, political activists, and ordinary people. My notes from the processions, meetings, and informal conversations help sketch Bangladeshi public life in one of its most vibrant and violent phases. Phulbari is the book’s main physical location, while the protests that challenged the technocratic governmental façade of the military regime and the crowds that gathered later in Shahbag and elsewhere act as necessary backdrop and explanatory context. Together they underline the intertextuality of the events in Bangladeshi public life where a much-talked-about energy deficit came face to face with the excess energy of crowd politics.

A few months before emergency was declared, in August 2006, large numbers of anti-mining protesters participated in a sit-in at the office of Asia Energy in Phulbari. The demonstrators set out to resist the forced displacement, the method of extraction, and the alliance between the government and Asia Energy Corporation (Bedi 2015; Faruque 2017; Luthfa 2011; Muhammad 2007). By that time, homegrown anti-mining sentiments were increasingly boasting extralocal and international support. The event in August was one in a series of awareness-raising programs organized by the National Committee to Protect Oil-Gas-Mineral Resources, Power and Ports.7 A nongovernmental group, the National Committee, was founded in 1998 to address and resist national resource extraction by multinational capital. In Phulbari in 2006, it was set to make a statement by hosting speeches by local and central leaders, cultural programs by performers from Phulbari, Dhaka, and elsewhere, and michhils around the township. The event was planned as a gherao of the office of Asia Energy. Literally “a siege,” a gherao is a symbolic act of cordoning off a site of power to address political grievances. Many people who had traveled from afar to join the procession that day were nevertheless ready to expel Asia Energy right then and there, they told me later. Gherao took on different meanings as the message Asia Energy desh chharo (“leave our land, Asia Energy”) spread to remote villages.

People started coming in the early morning, and the approximate number, 40,000 to 50,000 in total (some would say many more; see Luthfa 2011) exceeded the expectations of those in charge. The atmosphere was both festive and anxious; some members of the local indigenous communities joined with bows and arrows, cultural groups sang protest songs, and troops of police and paramilitary guards took position around the township’s main thoroughfare and the building rented by Asia Energy. At around 4:00 P.M., a substantial crowd gathered at the highway near the center of town, close to a bridge a mile or so from the company’s office on the other side of the river. The leaders were wrapping up their speeches, delivered from the top of a truck with loudspeakers in hand. Paramilitary guards and the police had already barricaded the bridge to stop people from crossing the river to get to the company’s office. In response to the speeches and the repeated slogans demanding the company to leave Bangladesh, a local magistrate made a public promise on behalf of the district commissioner to expel Asia Energy from Phulbari by September 13, 2006 (Bablu 2006).

Right when the leaders were moving away from the barricade, the police began shooting rubber bullets and tear gas shells at the crowd, heightening the tension on the street. People retaliated by hurling stones while scurrying away from the lathi-charging and gun-toting troops. In the ensuing chaos, when some people were already halfway across the bridge and others were crossing the river by wading through the water, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) started shooting, at first at the sky and then at the scattered crowd. Three men were instantly killed and many more were hurt by the bullets and the beatings by the BDR and the police, respectively. This went on until the late evening.8

The next few days were a mix of tense silence and collective effervescence. On August 27, when the border guards entered the neighborhoods still randomly harassing people, rural and working-class women came out of their homes to protest. Phulbari, in the meantime, was separated from the rest of the country. Activists felled trees on the highway to interrupt communication, buses, trucks, and rickshaws stopped running, businesses closed, the houses and property of the so-called collaborators and sympathizers of Asia Energy were attacked and looted, and the model homes built by the company were destroyed. On August 30, a six-point Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the mayor of Rajshahi City Corporation9 and the member-secretary of the National Committee on behalf of the people of Phulbari. The movement continues to make three major demands on the government: to declare moratoriums on the involvement of foreign companies, the method of opencast mining, and the export of coal: bideshi na, unmukto na, raptani na (literally, no foreign, no open pit, no export). With the tensions mounting, Asia Energy Corporation abandoned its Phulbari office and temporarily shelved the project.

Despite its remoteness from the heart of political activities in the capital, Phulbari managed to tie together widely circulating concerns about energy crisis with uncertainties about the volatility of national politics. Things got particularly messy when a lack of consensus between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in late 2006 led to fatalities in the streets of Dhaka. On October 23, 2006, low-scale tensions erupted into full-blown street battles between government forces, their supporters, and the opposition. General strikes, transport blockades, destruction of public property, and the death of political activists due to clashes with law enforcement officers brought regular life to a halt (Riaz 2016: 83). In an email sent to a closed group of activists and academics, a public intellectual and senior activist summed up the close ties between the unfolding political and energy crises:

For Asia Energy the embedded journalists who were taken to Germany have been continuing their services to the company. Recently added some legal consultants activities. Lawyers from the firm that has been working as legal adviser of Asia energy are now holding key posts in Law ministry and Attorney General’s office. Their efforts became apparent when law ministry issued a sermon against Phulbari agreement between government and the people. At this point British high commission seems to be very active in this matter. We keep our voices heard till now. In Bangladesh emergency rule is being tightened. All Public Universities are declared closed sine die. Student halls are made vacant. Some teachers are also arrested. In this context international campaign should gain momentum. (Email sent to, September 3, 2007)

The mining project of Asia Energy, then, brought together contesting hopes, fears, desires, and despair that traveled along its global circuits clustered around people and events, policies, and institutions that remained hidden from most people in Phulbari. The promissory notes of a well-lit national future and popular struggle and sacrifice were often at odds with each other. What became prominent in the slippages between these claims were the repeated attempts at unmasking connections that hovered just beyond the ethnographic imagination. The efforts in part of the crowds at unveiling power did not always fit neatly into the official narrative about Phulbari’s wealth or the formalized political discourse that opposed it, and in the process, highlighted the power and perils of crowd politics.


In Bangladesh, neither the inequitable distribution of resources nor a biased and compromised judiciary is big news. They appear as instances of long-standing political malaise. Student riots that had sown the seeds of defiance against the military-backed regime also have precedence in Bangladesh’s political history, most recently in 1989–90 but earlier too: in the 1950s and again in the late 1960s during the East Pakistan era. Together, these uprisings have summoned the crowd, or mobilized a certain image of it that has succeeded in affronting the sovereign power of the state. The specter of the crowd during the emergency, for example, haunted the regime, which later became the mouthpiece of the demands of democratically elected officials who were either imprisoned or were being forced to go into exile. Months later, the same political elite, now with the force of electoral power behind it, criminalized the janata in whose name they had voiced their grievances.

Shahbag had self-consciously invoked and in many cases reinstated the slogans and imagery of anti-British and nationalist struggles, both of which rode on the extraconstitutional power of the janata. Shahbag, as the ethnographic moments in the book show, threatened state power while also making itself available for selective cooptation, giving rise to anxiety, despair, and crisis for counterrevolutionary and progressive political projects. It is in the crowds that one locates a similar kind of energy and excess that is the necessary precondition of imperceptible politics. That is why crowds remain subversive figures of political agency whose actions are never fully recoverable but still only available through political representation.

Chapter 1 engages directly with the question of crowd politics by analyzing a set of disparate texts in circulation during the emergency—letters published in newspapers, a national identification card, and a censored photograph. A month after the emergency was declared, Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank fame and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a letter which appeared on the front pages of major Bangla and English dailies. Within a short span of time, he wrote two more in which he expressed his enthusiasm for—and subsequently, his disenchantment with—the idea of running for office. These letters are symptomatic of a crucial political conjuncture in Bangladeshi national life, where technocratic governance—and its promise of transparency, immediacy, and honesty—seemed to have left behind a plebian political culture riven by corruption and violence.

This chapter looks closely into the public culture of the state of emergency with two ends. First, it expands on the familiar impasse that South Asian democracies often experience when confronting the relationship of sovereignty and citizenship. In this logic, a repressive, corrupt, and undemocratic governmental apparatus is blamed for the underdeveloped political rationality of its citizens. For the very same reason, sovereignty as domination is justified as a way to protect the masses from their own unruly nature—say, from acting as crowds rather than exercising their rights as citizens. Second, the chapter expounds more on the presumed distinctions between a reading public versus unruly crowds. Yunus’s letters remind us how the distinction between the stranger/citizen and an embodied (albeit fictional) crowd was mobilized with an aim to usher in a novel era in politics.

A democratic future where corruption would be a thing of the past—promised, ironically, by a military-backed regime—looked different from the vantage point of Phulbari where I was doing fieldwork. Against the backdrop of the transparency-fetish of the emergency, the protest culture in Phulbari presents an alternative politics of seeing, or what I call “seeing like a crowd.” Chapter 2 expands on this idea by identifying the significance of money in aesthetic productions and political acts that was different from the nationwide drive against corruption. In the first half of the chapter, I focus on a painting by an artist in Phulbari. Its message, I argue, contrasts with the viciously apolitical and individualized desire for efficiency and good governance in a globally recognized language of neoliberal transparency. Similarly, in the second half of this chapter, I present the recollections of Majeda, a socially marginalized woman who had become the face of the grassroots nature of the mobilizations. I situate the looting and burning of money by the crowds, of which Majeda was a part, within the larger context of the crisis in national politics that also gathered steam around money. While still privileging visuality, these popular strategies were a form of a transparency-making enterprise, with different and potentially profound political effect than the anticorruption agenda of the state.

Chapter 3 is an ethnographic account of the accidental, the contingent, and the imperceptible nature of crowd politics. To understand the political possibilities of accidents and to assess their ethnographic significance, here I approach accidents both literally and conceptually. Can accidents be political? What kinds of politics take shape in the wake of an accident? And what are the ethico-political possibilities that are made available, or are foreclosed, within various discourses of the accidental? Anthropological perspectives on accidents, I argue in this chapter, rescue the concept from its usual modernist and technicist moorings while opening up spaces of radical contingencies that are enframed in local logics of culture and politics.

Widely discussed and debated, collaboration—in the sense of working for the enemy and benefiting from it—has given rise to a particular kind of crowd politics, as I illustrate in chapter 4. From the vantage point of most protesters, a collaborator (dalal) was a figure that straddled the boundaries of the community and whatever stood beyond or against it. A dalal was by definition a local, though his (and at times, her) ties to the foreign were exposed within the community through suspicion, gossip, jokes, and assaults. Crowds were at arms against the collaborator, and the latter, for all intents and purposes, was a part of the crowd. Chapter 4 looks into this violent culture of accusation of collaboration in order to shed light on the entangled effects of aggressive resource extraction, collective sovereignty, and popular and state-initiated attempts at settling score with the nation’s past. In Bangladesh, the individuals indicted for crimes against humanity and collaboration in 1971 are also called dalal, among other things.

Still, the phenomenon of collaboration in Phulbari exceeded the considerations of the state or the international economy. Following, respectively, Walter Benjamin’s writing on the “intriguer” and scholarly interest in the category of the “neighbor” (Benjamin 2009; Thiranagama and Kelly 2010; Zizek, Santner, and Reinhard 2005), I submit that the dalal is a third type that disturbs the duality of friend and enemy. This ambivalence produces a culture of doubt and suspicion that demands certainty, which became a matter of particular urgency in Phulbari and was made abundantly clear in the national spectacle that has been the International Crimes Tribunal, the central focus of chapter 5.

This final chapter is located in post-emergency Bangladesh. Its primary sites are the physical and virtual spaces of politics and activism that are at once emergent and historically poignant. At one level, it explores a particular fascination with the body—of the collaborator, the blogger, and the militant—and its relationship to crowd politics under democratic rule. At another level, it comments on the proliferation of digital technologies that has deeply impacted social and political communication.

A rise in surveillance technologies in public spaces in Bangladesh also points to more rigorous efforts to control spaces and bodies as is illustrated by the two events I analyze in the second half of the chapter—a journalistic exposé of public harassment of women and a viral video of a public lynching. Both these examples from urban Bangladesh show, on the one hand, that the secular and religious crowds, in their desires to be seen and heard, often end up mirroring each other. On the other hand, individual online users of social media often act collectively, coming together and performing the excess and volatility associated with crowds. The call for adequate punishment demands a crowd for its execution. It also takes a crowd to protest the cruelty of collective violence against the disenfranchised or to make those in power accountable. The state, in turn, has made its allegiances known in an opportunistic fashion, either by indulging or repressing certain crowds over others.

And yet, the story of the crowd, its remediation through so-called new technologies, and its vexed relationship to institutions of power are not explained away as the vagaries of the state. What happens, then, when we start with the crowd—and the possibilities of politics that it opens up or forecloses—as constitutive of not only South Asian political modernity but understandings of publicness everywhere? What happens when we start rethinking the public sphere, as Francis Cody has urged us to do, from an illiberal perspective, which would entail taking the libidinal, corporeal, and poetic ties of kin and community, and not the empty stranger/citizen, as a starting point (Cody 2015; see also Yeh 2017)?

Doing so is not the same as rehashing some “hoary revolutionary myth” about the crowd (Frank 2015). This is not an attempt at finding in the crowd the direct expression of a unified and sacred popular voice but instead approaching it as a living image and a potent political representation. It is to ask when and how a numerical minority of individuals physically gathered in a public space can be understood to speak and act on behalf of a superior but forever disembodied entity called “the people” (Frank 2015: 2). It is also, ultimately, to interrogate what animates the popular that evokes hope and despair about the fate of democracy itself, particularly the postcolonial versions of it? Thinking beyond South Asia, how does the ephemeral ordinariness of the crowd contrast with the “populist resentment” that has become a prominent motif in understanding democratic politics globally? These are a few questions I take up again in the conclusion as I end the book with a political showdown around a Supreme Court verdict in Bangladesh that aimed, but spectacularly failed, to resurrect “the people” as a fundament of mass democracy.


1. Sheikh Hasina was barred from returning to Bangladesh after her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the rest of his family were killed in a military coup in 1975. She was allowed back in 1979. Later, Khaleda Zia, as the widow of another slain president and the leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party was under house arrest a few times when H. M. Ershad was in power in the 1980s. Yet, those episodes hardly compare to the dramaturgical effect of their imprisonment in 2007. This was partly due to the lack of publicity that such political drama received because of the repressive nature of Ershad’s authoritarianism and the absence of (mostly privately owned) satellite television channels that have thrived in the decade after Ershad’s rule. More important than the question of public visibility, I believe, is the ideological grounding of this governmental move. It was obvious that Zia, as opposed to Hasina, was being incarcerated because of her decision not to participate in the national elections that would give legitimacy to a military dictator’s dubious attempt at performing democracy. Zia’s noncooperation at the time had earned her the widely used epithet aposhheen netri, or “uncompromising leader,” among supporters and followers. This time around, both leaders were imprisoned on charges of massive corruption. Ten years later, Zia was imprisoned again on corruption charges, a move widely understood as politically motivated as her nemesis Hasina has been the prime minister for almost a decade. Zia was still waiting for her bail hearing during the writing of this book.


3. Kajri Jain (2016) writes about the remediations of religious images and spaces in India, in which she tracks the emergence of a specific form of public to the late colonial moment. The word for this particular form of publicness is the Sanskrit sarvajanik (sarva means “all” and jan stands for “people”). The root, jan, is found in everyday Bangla words such as janata and janagan. Unlike the janata or the public, sarvajanik is neither an affect-laden rallying point nor a name for a collective political actor. It is more or less an occasional heuristic for a normative sociospatial configuration, writes Jain.

4. As documentary heritage, the speech is now inscribed at UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

5. Jiban Amar Bon was first published in 1976 after being serialized in the weekly magazine Bichitra.

6. In the censor’s discourse, the public space of the movie theater is imagined as a place where women and men can enact spectator-citizenship on equally autonomous terms (Mazzarella 2013a). This, I believe, is apt for South Asian public spaces, more broadly, a topic I discuss again in chapter 5.

7. The members of the National Committee were largely, ideologically left and included the participants of Baam Ganotantrik Front (Left Democratic Front) and a consortium of eleven smaller and more radical left parties (Shahidullah n.d.). It has been a relatively diverse organization since with active involvement of intellectuals, feminist leaders, and student activists, among others. Its Phulbari chapter was formed in 2005 and has since aided in organizing and publicizing events around the coal project and sustaining the protest culture.

8. This description of the events is based on my collection of eyewitness accounts of the day, both oral and published. It is the most skeletal version culled from many impassioned and (by necessity) fragmented recollections of people who happened to be there physically. I offer the outline with those qualifications in mind. For a more detailed order of the events, see Luthfa (2011) and Faruque (2017).

9. A divisional headquarters and a major urban center relatively close to Phulbari.