Anthropology as a discipline is well regarded for its 'observation' and 'narrative analysis' methods assisting in understanding society and peoples' lives. Keen observation, engagement, listening, and documenting voices are some of the major techniques under anthropological investigation.
In the last few days, both as 'observer' and 'participant observer', I have learnt that the growing protest movement (Andolon) of thousands of students is just the eruption of their suppressed anger and agonies in regard to the lawlessness on roads resulting in mass decimation which includes student lives, of course. In my viewpoint, this student movement is also tied closely to their consciousness and desires and motivated by self-interest. Protester (Andolonkari) voices are reflected through their participation in traffic management on several streets.
In democracy, the expression of voices requires active participation by individuals with a multitude of diverse interests; individuals who look for a space to protest, speak, discuss and debate. To me, this Andolon (the expression of voices of the students) is a symbol to initiate modern public and democratic practice that resonates with various global discourses of voice. In Anthropology, we focus on the cultural aspect of various protest movements and want to examine how public statements of discontent and the need for change have been communicated and developed by non-hegemonic groups in different periods of history.
ANTHROPOLOGY OF BANGLADESH: Wednesday, August 01, morning, I had a lecture at the Technical Teachers Training College on the 'Anthropology of Bangladesh'. At the beginning of my lecture, I tried to explain how as the most humanistic discipline of social sciences, anthropology looks into every single aspect of our life and how various techniques that are used in anthropology help to get a comprehensive understanding about society, culture, economy, politics, religion, gender, kinship and power-relations. It also explores why the anthropological approach is now considered as one of the best approaches in analysing any social, political and cultural issue. Followed by that I talked about the different historical, cultural and social influences of Bengal ranging from the Pal Dynasty to the last Pakistani influence, and how our nation was born through mass rebellion and in the midst of a moving history.
However, what was common in the struggles, especially in recent decades starting from the language movement of 1952 to the independence movement in 1971 and then the 1980s movement that led to the fall of the military regime, was that students were always at the forefront.
VISUAL AND MEDIA ANTHROPOLOGY: In the afternoon, I had another lecture on 'Visual and Media Anthropology' at the University of Dhaka. The focus was on critical understanding; analyzing different forms of visuals and giving them meaning from different anthropological perspectives. It was important to understand the context of production of each of the visuals and how it affected the content likewise. Questions over the role of 'media' in 'manufacturing consent', controlling public reception through illicit representation, agenda and propaganda through social media and other powerful visuals also arose.
In visual anthropology, the saying 'seeing is believing' is a very common one. From it we interpret a philosophy, "If you tell me something, I will forget. If you show me, I will remember. And if you engage with me, I will embrace it and live it''. The recent student protest was also spreading over through various forms of voicing (speeches, public gatherings of shouting protesters, or debates in tea stalls, streets, offices and other places), newspapers (printed and online), television, internet, Facebook, twitter and many other forms of social media in the form of news, photos, and videos thereby providing different messages and meaning to different people.
The next day (August 02) student protesters stopped my car and asked the chauffeur for his license. On the road, students had created two separate lanes to ease the traffic: one for rickshaws and one for cars. Students from all backgrounds had congregated on both sides of Satmasjid road. I found one female student from Bangladesh Medical College stopping a motor-bike and checking the license. After a few minutes, I came back home and took my daughter with me and this time with rickshaw. We saw many parents coming on the street to give food to the students, office going people distributing bottles of water and passersby talking about the power of youths. Although journalism vouches to speak for the masses, it is also an anthropologist's task to listen to the public. Below are some of the messages from a few of the students I talked to:
"I am a student of class nine. I have very little idea about politics. I don't know even the name of the leaders of our political parties. But I know something about the history of our country and I know about the struggles we did for our independence. I am proud of that" (a student of Kakoli High School in Dhanmondi).
"We are on the street now. We know we can't bring any significant change through this protest. But we believe, we can give a message to our politicians, law-makers, police-administrators, policy-makers and others. It is not like we can ensure a Bangladesh where there will be no accident but we want a state of laws and rules, so that 'everyday will not be a day of accident' (a 10th grade student of an English-medium school in Dhanmondi).
"You can't blame us for coming to the street. Situation forced us to come to the street. I believe, it is not only me, but all of my friends have a dream to be a part of nation-building process and thus it is our moral responsibility to fight for bringing rules in the society" (a student of Dhaka University).
THE ROLE OF PUBLIC ANTHROPOLOGY: The overlap in content of what was taught in those two lectures with what I observed on the street speaks volumes in regards to the role of Public Anthropology. I don't teach Public Anthropology, but some of my friends at Jahangir Nagar University both teach, practice and preach the subject. In general, public anthropology refers to anthropology's response to people and itsengagement in public spaces.
Having been both an 'observer' and a 'participant observer' of the ongoing protest I initially felt that this was a mere statement to bring those responsible for the death of those students to justice. However, the manner in which this sprouted spontaneously to become a call for institutional change has been exemplary, with the State being asked to enforce road regulation - an act which will ensure no further friends die.
Although it is true that continued protest might lead to the involvement of different vested groups/agencies that could sabotage the true motive of the movement, but whatever the movement stands of now is purposeful enough: it is a wake-up call for all of us and all of our lawmakers and policymakers. It's time they gave serious thought to this matter so that students can have renewed faith in our system. But at the same time, it is important to understand that this is just not a mere protest avenging two lives. This is part of a larger domino effect: 'one phenomenon cannot be explained as just a single phenomenon but can rather always be explained by other phenomena'.
Dr. Saifur Rashid is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Dhaka.
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