Book review: Paradoxes of the Popular: Crowd Politics in Bangladesh


Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2019

Paperback, 245 PPS, $28, ISBN: 978 1 5036 0947-1


by Arnold Zeitlin   20 July 2020

Exploring the impact of the crowd on politics, especially in Bangladesh, where crowds are part of everyday life, is a dandy idea. Nusrat Sabina Chowdhury, who comes from Bangladesh and is an assistant professor of anthropology at Amherst College in the United States, gives crowds a try in her book. Disappointedly, she falls short. In a meandering account that often drifts off to puzzling side issues, Ms. Chowdhury principally focuses on crowds that in 2006 opposed a proposed open-pit coal mine in Phulbari, a community in northwest Bangladesh some six miles from the Indian border. She also deals with the crowd protests in 2013 centered on Shahbag in Dhaka that forced the government to change a life sentence for convicted war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah to hanging. She cites Nobel Prize laureate Muhammed Yunis’s inability to attract a crowd during his failed attempt to found a third-force political party in 2007.

A crowd estimated by different sources to be from 20,000 to 80,000 demonstrators marched in 2006 to the Phulbri office of the London-based company that planned to dig an open-pit coal mine that would displace valuable farmland and force the resettlement of 20,000 inhabitants. Most of the extracted coal would be exported to nearby India. Still, the company claimed royalties to the Bangladesh government would amount to 1 percent of the country’s gross national product.

A unit of Bangladesh Rifles protecting the office fired into the crowd, killing three and wounding hundreds. Protest demonstrations persisted for eight years before Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced in 2014 the government had dropped plans to mine coal at Phulbari. Oddly, occasional demonstrations continue in London. The mining company still insists coal would be extracted from Phulbari and has discussed with China making the project part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The reader does not learn of the eventual resolution forced by protests. Professor Chowdhury demonstrates she is neither a political scientist nor a historian. She labeled Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Bangladesh’s first president (he was a prime minister)and Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia as heads of state (they were heads of government).

She is an anthropologist who need not bother with such political details. Shortly after the initial protest, she started fieldwork at Phulbari to examine the impact of that crowd on politics. The reader learns about individuals, Saiful Islam, a Phulbari sign painter whose work reflects protest; Majeda, the town’s prostitute who led a charge against the Bangladesh Rifles; and poor Tarikul, a bystander to the initial demonstration, who leaned down to pick up a dropped mobile phone only to be shot dead by a Bangladesh Rifle who may have thought he was picking up a stone to throw.
But the reader never learns about the crowd, how it formed, who, if anyone, emerged as a leader if the eventual success in shutting the mining project empowered Phulbari residents. At one point, Professor Chowdhury describes chatting with a “well-respected, elderly organizer,” without naming the person or explaining that person’s role in the crowd. Much the same is true of her discussion of the crowd at Shahbag and a rival gathering of the fundamentalist Islamic group, Hefazat-e-Islam. How does Shahbag,” she asks, “shed light on the relationship between crowds and justice in Bangladesh’s political history?” It’s a question a reader might ask in picking up the book to read. Her answer is not forthcoming.

The paradox of this book is leaving the reader wanting more answers.