Crowd Politics in Bangladesh

Paradoxes of the Popular: Crowd Politics in Bangladesh, By Nusrat Sabina Chowdhury (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Rashmi Sadana, George Mason University

The crowd allures and repels, making it a useful object of inquiry for anthropologists. There is the sound and shape of crowds and the meaning of them in relation to politics, publics, spaces, places, and peoples. It is this last category of “the people,” as defined by the Bangla term janata (the masses), into which Nusrat Chowdhury’s Paradoxes of the Popular takes a deep dive. The book begins by reminding us just how crowded Bangladesh is and how precarious its everyday crowds are, hemmed in by traffic jams and the Bay of Bengal. But it is not the expanding crowd that Chowdhury is ultimately interested in. Her crowd is noisy, busy, and bothered – you can hear it: “a roar…crashing in the air,” in the words of nationalist-era novelist Mahmudul Haq, whose novel Jiban Amar Bon she explicates early on. It is a crowd that has something to say. And this is an ethnography not only about “the cultural logics of everyday democracy” (p. 3) but also the very energy (jwalani) of participation, a creative force of “politics taking on the role of energy” (p. 2). Chowdhury’s crowds are both present and they represent throughout her text, and this back and forth makes for an especially rich ethnography of the political.

While the book’s theoretical focus is on the crowd, it is not only about crowds in an ethnographic sense. Chowdhury contextualizes and reads the crowd and its appearances across many other aspects of political discourse, including literature, art, and print and digital media. In the first chapter, she analyses Nobel Peace Prize winner and Grameen Bank founder Mohammed Yunus’s attempted foray into politics, alongside a national ID spoof that became a much-shared joke on Facebook and a censored photo of an ordinary man kicking a member of the military; all three are forms of “picture-thinking” that took shape during Bangladesh’s 2007 emergency. Chowdhury’s point is to analyze the idea and practice of popular sovereignty, by both finding the connections between the reading public and the pulsating crowd and drawing distinctions between individualized right-bearing citizens and the poor masses. How she identifies the various elements of democratic practice as they play out in the circulation of texts is what makes this chapter so interesting; for instance, her analysis of Yunus’s use of the pronouns “you” and “I” in his letters published in the newspaper show his desire to summon a reading public “that would rise from the crowds and make the reasonable choice of finding their voice in Yunus” (p. 37).

The ethnographic part of the book is set in the mining town of Phulbari, which in 2006 became a focal point for protests against government-backed foreign investment and the extraction of local resources. Chowdhury recounts the 2006 protests against the British-owned Asia Energy Corporation and the technocratic Bangladeshi government’s promotion of a “future that tied its coal mines inextricably to the prosperity of the nation” (p. 77). The people are caught in between political and corporate power, and their precarity (symbolized by the many power cuts they are subject to) sets the stage for the crowds that will form in protest. Chowdhury links the peasant-centered resistance paintings of Saiful Islam, who has artistically documented the Phulbari movement, to one of her key interlocutors “Majeda,” a working-class activist who was known for her role in a protest against Asia Energy during which sacks of cash in its local office were plundered and burned. Chowdhury delves into Majeda’s place and role in Phulbari, drawing on insights from Michael Taussig, Georges Bataille, and Georg Simmel, before showing how the cash burn “elevated both her and the money,” and in the process “created value” for Majeda “as an individual as well as a member of a protesting crowd” (p. 90).

The book builds on these explorations of how politics happen to develop reflections on accidental politics and collaboration in chapters three and four. I found these to be the most satisfying chapters in terms of their focus and argument. For Chowdhury, the accidental is when things happen unexpectedly, leaving unanswered questions or contingencies to be debated. Examples include the death/murder of an NGO worker who was pinned to the wall by her own car and possibly negligent driver, a peasant-turned activist’s very entrance into the political sphere, or a bystander in a crowd whose ordinary action of picking up his mobile phone when it falls to the ground results in his death. These events offer “a fresh way of thinking about affect and intimacy,” which Chowdhury accomplishes through discussions of affect theory as well as detailing the relationship between accidental and ordinary events. Here she draws on the work of Brian Massumi, William Mazzarella, Rosalind Morris, and Veena Das to make her own points about “the cultural work that accident does in forging or splintering societal life” (p. 99) and how the uncertain agency involved in accidents prevents them from being represented in a coherent manner (p. 106). The indeterminate question of agency seems to give Chowdhury’s examples in this chapter their relevance and lasting power. Accidents tell people what to pay attention to, the when and the where, without resolving the basic issues of how and why. This lack of resolution makes accidents rise up from the crowd and linger in the air.

The feeling of unease that the accident brings gets amplified in the discussion of collaborators. Chowdhury draws a connection between the protests in Phulbari and the figure of the dalal that is often evoked in discussions of Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence—someone who “conspired with the Pakistani state against the idea of a Bengali homeland” (p. 128). In Phulbari, dalals do the bidding of Asia Energy, casting doubt on protests and convincing others of “the inevitability of mining” (p. 131) as they “confuse and collapse binaries of local/foreign, friend/enemy, or neighbor/dalal” (p. 133). Chowdhury dissects the themes of inside/outside, public/intimate in the process and draws on Walter Benjamin’s writing on the “intriguer” in German society as a parallel figure (p. 140). She also ties the collaborators to the material object of the cell phone, with its “indexical iconicity because of its perceived ability to facilitate exchanges” (p. 144). This materiality takes different form in the fifth chapter, where the author analyzes “the body of the crowd” and brings us to protests in the Shahbag district of Dhaka in 2013 and the murder of blogger Ahmed Haider Rajib. Drawing on Judith Butler’s and Partha Chatterjee’s respective thinking about democracy and the political, Chowdhury suggests that it is the presence and visibility of crowds that signal the relevance of the politics on display, and that crowds in the end are “constitutive of South Asian political modernity” (p. 197). Crowds then, even when they melt away, retain their power to focus political energy at the next given moment, the next event around which they will coalesce.

Paradoxes of the Popular shows how mass feelings (from fear and despair to joy and possibility) become political, and how the political (from notions of democracy to demagoguery) is conceptualized in the everyday. The book will be of special interest to scholars and graduate students interested in contemporary Bangladesh, South Asian democracies, and political anthropology more generally.