By Nayma Qayum
During the past week, thousands of Bangladeshis have gathered at Shahbag, a neighborhood in Dhaka, demanding justice for the war crimes of 1971. The protests emerged after an international tribunal sentenced Abdul Qader Mollah, assistant secretary general of the political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), to life in prison.
Shahbag initially demanded the death sentence for Mollah. Its slogans, posters, and banners said “rajakarder fashi chai” (we demand the hanging of war criminals). Bangladeshis’ demands for the death penalty can only be understood in the context surrounding the trials. These trials followed a long, 42-year struggle for justice. The crowd burnt effigies of Mollah, and wore T-shirts with pictures of a noose around his head. But they also held candlelight vigils for the estimated three million lives lost during the war. More importantly, the protests sought the death penalty given the ineffectiveness of the justice system. In Bangladesh, politically affiliated criminals often serve a mere fraction of their sentences, and re-enter politics upon their release from jail. While serving their sentences, they typically received all the perks of a high-end hotel.
Over the course of the protest, however, Shahbag’s chants also reflected the desire to altogether ban Islamic fundamentalism from politics. The protest’s frontline leaders made their formal demands on February 21, the anniversary of Bangladesh’s Language Movement of 1952, which paved the road to the country’s liberation. In addition to capital punishment for the perpetrators, the protestors demand an official ban on Jamaat (JI), and all Islamic extremist groups, and its affiliated organizations. JI had publicly opposed Bangladesh’s freedom in 1971, and many of its members allegedly collaborated with the Pakistani Army in the conduct of genocide and other war crimes. Presently, they are Bangladesh’s leading conservative Islamic party. It possesses a strong, radical grassroots base, predominantly controlled by their student wing, the Bangladesh Islamic Chatra Shibir (Shibir).
Bangladesh’s bloggers and online activists’ network instigated this call for resistance. With the help of online media, news of the protest spread like wildfire. At its peak, the event drew an estimated 100,000 people — students, professionals, musicians, writers—united, for the very first time in years, under the banner of Shadharon Jonogon (ordinary people). In less than a week, Bangladeshis held smaller protests in cities as far away as London and New York. Protestors published thousands of pictures online, in blogs, on Facebook, Twitter, and online magazines. A week and a half into the protest, Shahbag’s organizers planned to reduce the movement from a 24-hour effort into what they called ‘3-10’, a protest seven hours a day. However, the brutal murder of Rajib Haider, blogger, and one of Shahbag’s frontline leaders, gave the protests renewed momentum. Some of the international media coverage compared Shahbag with Tahrir Square. Its fresh, young, and energetic participants have called this event “Shahbag Revolution Square, the Bangladeshi Spring.” In Bangla, they called it “Projonmo Chottor,” the “Square of the Generation.”
Shahbag showed that Bangladesh, submerged in a crisis of weak and exclusive political institutions, held no dearth of solidarity. In a city paralyzed by stagnant traffic, people set up food stalls in the area for protestors’ convenience, and some even handed out free food and snacks. The event reflected the intellectual undercurrents of Bangladesh’s many earlier uprisings—rows upon rows of people drawing pictures and painting banners, musicians and dancers performing, and creative slogans. Even the location was meaningful—Shahbag, close to Bangladesh’s museum and Dhaka University, was a key hub for Bangladesh’s intellectual activity.
Why Shahbag is Puzzling.
Shahbag surprised Bangladesh for two reasons. What compelled thousands of ordinary citizens to gather in support of an issue as controversial as capital punishment? Why would citizens gather to demand justice for war crimes committed 42 years ago, when they have remained silent on the many ills that currently plague Bangladesh? Bangladesh has experienced rapid, but extremely inequitable growth. At 6.7 percent GDP growth (2011), Bangladesh’s development matched many of its peers. And yet, over 30 percent of its population lives below national poverty lines. Booming urban industries—ready-made garments, transportation, and housing—have created an additional urban crisis of poverty and housing. Corruption is rampant, and governing institutions are weak. The country has a history of topping Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Basic freedoms declined—Freedom House scores dipped since the country became democratic in 1991. As a result, politics has been highly unstable—ruling parties, once assuming power, have a history of not finishing their terms in office, often forcibly removed on allegations of repression and mismanagement.
Ordinary Bangladeshis, the non-partisan citizens, have remained surprisingly silent on Bangladesh’s governance issues. Why, then, have they stood up for this issue with such vigor? What compels them to demand the death penalty for crimes committed 42 years ago? What is Shahbag for Bangladeshis?
…an expression of citizenship. In a country where repressive and ineffective governments block most avenues for participation, Shahbag provides a platform for citizens to be heard. It is a space that citizens have carved out for themselves, to engage in political activity for the sheer act of expression. Slogans in Shahbag extend beyond calls for justice, to reflect Bangladesh’s liberation and history. The posters, banners and artwork brought to life Bangladesh’s flags, maps, and national symbols.
…the ordinary people. The many uprisings in Bengal’s history show that Bangladeshis are deeply political. And yet, Bangladeshis despise politics because they find it dirty and exclusive. In a country where partisanship has infiltrated every walk of life, Shahbag started off as non-partisan. The protestors took pride in calling themselves Shadharon Jonogon (the ordinary people). Initially, they threw out political leaders who attempted to infiltrate the gathering. Bdnews24.com, an online news channel reported that when Mahbub-ul-Alam Hanif, Awami League (AL) joint general secretary and special aide to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrived at Shahbag, protestors threw bottles at him. AL Presidum Member Sajeda Chowdhury was forced to leave without speaking a word. Shahbag is a call to the government that we, the ordinary people, exist.
…an opposition to the ruling party’s backdoor politics. For decades, Bangladeshis have been demanding a fair trial for the 1971 war crimes. And yet, the recent trials clearly showed the Awami League’s tendency to retain power through backdoor politics, and particularly, JI support. Many Bangladeshis felt that the tribunal fell far below the required international standards. The jury lacked qualifications, and most reputed Bengali lawyers did not participate during the trials. Second, the tribunal added the 5th Amendment to the International War Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973s to avoid retrial. The Act originally permitted citizens to appeal the outcome of any war crimes trials. However, the 5th Amendment initially permitted retrial, only in cases of acquittal.
The AL-Jamaat alliance has frequently emerged in Bangladesh’s history. In 1986, the AL refused to participate in elections under Martial Law during General Ershad’s regime. Standing in Dhaka’s Lal Dighir Moydan, AL leader Sheikh Hasina had claimed, that whoever participated in the upcoming elections would be a national traitor. In an effort to secure the position of opposition leader over Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) Khaleda Zia, the AL joined hands with the JI, another leading opposition party, and contested at the last minute. In 1991, when Jamaat elected known war criminal Ghulam Azam as its leader, secular political figures created the Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee to Exterminate the Killers and Collaborators) under the leadership of Jahanara Imam. The Committee set up mock trials across Dhaka in March 1992. Upon Jahanara Imam’s death in 1994, the AL once again allied with Jamaat for elections, and upon taking office, labeled the committees’ activities as unlawful. Such backdoor politics is not uncommon behavior for either of the ruling parties. However, Shahbag prompted the government to take a stand against Jamaat. On February 17 the Awami League government passed an amendment to the ICT act, incorporating a provision for trying political parties and organizations alongside individuals, and providing the government with the right to appeal verdicts, alongside defendants.
…an opposition to Jamaat. Jamaat has a formidable political presence in Bangladesh. Since the 1990s, Islamic politics has grown in a region that has a predominantly secular history. Shahbag is an oh-so-important reminder of Bangladesh’s parallel identity—of secularism, of its intellectual history, of the young people who are standing up in opposition to mainstream Jamaat’s repressive agenda.
…the spirit of the liberation war. Shahbag shows the deep emotional bonds that tie Bangladesh’s younger generation to their country’s national struggle. Ordinary citizens fought the liberation war under the leadership of defected armed forces commanders. The protesters are the children of these civil combatants. Some have lost family members in the war. The pain and frustration of their families, disillusioned by Bangladesh’s weak and unresponsive governments, have jarred them. Shahbag shows that Bangladesh’s youth consider themselves children of this ongoing war, and feel it is their duty to see the nation’s battle through to the end.
Shahbag is not…
…in favor of the death penalty, for the sake of the death penalty itself. The flurry of online responses to Shahbag clearly showed that many Bangladeshis did not support capital punishment. Other, however, felt a 15-year sentence is too lenient for a man who allegedly committed 344 murders. Underlying the demands of the death penalty is an uprising against Bangladesh’s weak and ineffective justice system. Shahbag sought justice for the many lives lost in silent killings, for the brutal murders of journalists Shagor and Runi in their own homes, for Biswajit, beaten to death in broad daylight in Dhaka streets. Shahbag shows how frustrated Bangladeshis are with a justice system that attaches such little value to the life of the ordinary man.
…Tahrir Square. Yet Shahbag is not a movement, for it does not yet involve a series of events. It is not yet a revolution, for it has not yet toppled a government. But do not be fooled by the simplicity of its demands. Shahbag has tangible goals, which is far more than we could have said for Occupy Wall Street. It has a massive support base, and grew so rapidly that it took its own organizers by surprise. Shahbag demands something tangible, which stands upon the larger causes of justice, good governance, and respectable leadership. Bengalis have often resisted authority with concrete, perhaps even limited demands. However, deeper, more powerful causes drove many of these movements. The tebhaga movement demanded a fair share of harvest for Bengal’s farmers, but in many areas, received its momentum from the anti-colonial movement. The Language Movement of 1952 simply demanded recognition of Bengali as an official state language, but scholars now recognize the event as the first of a series of uprisings leading to Bangladesh’s independence. Bangladesh has yet to see what Shahbag will bring. But it would be foolish to undermine its significance, by virtue of its simplicity.
…likely to topple the system. The Awami League, like other ruling parties, has often managed to spin politics in its favor. They can hardly unleash party goons and police at the peaceful and joyous protest that Shahbag has become. The party cannot afford to have the blood of Bangladesh’s youth, musicians, artists, writers, and general public on its hands. Initially, the parties had taken the softer route to containing Shahbag. Soon after its beginning, the student wings of ruling parties AL and BNP, the Chhatro League and Chatro Dol, came together to assume leadership of the protests. Some Shahbag protestors have wrongfully embraced this move, assuming that the two parties have united for the greater cause of justice. Both the AL and BNP have publicly declared their support for the protests, which makes one question whether Shahbag can continue to remain apolitical.
Shahbag’s continued spirit shows that ordinary Bangladeshis are not ready to give up so easily. However, no movement can emerge without certain institutional resources—leadership, finances, and organization. Whether Shahbag can grow into something more, depends on the ability of its members to harness the event’s momentum, and give it organizational strength.
It is too soon to answer many of the questions that these events raise. Will Jamaat retaliate? Will the movement now turn violent? Can the uprising stay non-partisan? Will Jamaat be banned from Bangladeshi politics?
Two weeks into the uprising, the Bangladesh Government has attempted to appease Shahbag protestors by considering the ban of Jamaat, thus distracting the world from the uprising’s original demand—the war crimes trial. Like any other political party in Bangladesh, Jamaat, and its student wing, Shibir have engaged in their share of violence. Those in favor of banning Jamaat argued that that the party should not be allowed to exist given its anti-liberation stance in 1971. However, not all rajakars were Jamaatis, and not all Jamaatis are rajakars. Banning the party without vetting war criminals runs the risk of their re-entry into politics, perhaps under the auspices of a new political party, or the banner of an already existing party. If banned, Jamaat may take its activities underground, and without repatriation its cadres could resort to crime. Shahbag’s leaders, however, were not distracted. Their demands included a ban on Jamaat, but death penalty for the war criminals remains their first objective.
So, now that Shahbag’s leaders have made their demands, what concrete steps can the government take? The movement may phase out until March 26, the government’s deadline to meet these demands. But before retrial, the people of Bangladesh deserve an investigation of the trial’s proceedings. The investigation can be followed by the creation of an inclusive War Criminals Committee who can draw up a comprehensive list of untried war criminals, and select a tribunal of international standards. For this, Bangladesh could draw on the experience of the Iraqi National Conference, and Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, among others. The newly launched website Shahbag.org can be a depository of available information on war criminals and war crimes.
Nayma Qayum is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and a research fellow at BRAC.
[Photo courtesy of Rajiv Ashrafi]