By Zahid Husain
This write-up attempts to analyze the core reasons that brought the much talked about Shahbag movement/uprising to life in Bangladesh. Many observers in Bangladesh and elsewhere believe that the future of the country will inevitably be shaped by the outcomes of Shahbag. In order to provide an in-depth exposure to any concerned reader, the article presents the demands, achievements and potential of this movement along with the criticisms and challenges it faces. It is organized into a number of sub-sections to deal with the different aspects of an intricate issue.
Independence bought with blood of millions
Bangladesh paid an awfully hefty price for its independence with almost three million in direct and indirect casualties, and hundreds of thousands of Bengali women raped by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators. Over ten million people sought refuge in neighbouring India, and millions more were displaced within the erstwhile East Pakistan; all living in despicable conditions throughout the nine month long war. Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) played the central role in coordinating the operations of the local collaborators during 1971. The majority of these traitors belonged to a number of auxiliary forces sponsored by West Pakistan. These collaborators are commonly referred to as ‘razakars’, although in reality this group was just one of the several vicious militias created by JeI and their student organization, Islami Chhatra Sangha. The razakars viewed the war of independence against the ghastly Pakistani army as a battle against Islam provoked by the predominantly Hindu India. In addition to collaborating and participating in a countrywide genocide and a systematic campaign of rape to advance the Pakistani bloodline, the razakars executed the leading Bengali intellectuals when Pakistan’s defeat in the war became imminent. Intellectuals were targeted with a grisly desire to exterminate any prospect for the country to succeed upon liberation.
Justice delayed but could not be denied
Soon after independence, courts were set up under the Bangladesh Collaborators Order (BCO) of 1972 in all the districts of Bangladesh to try the thousands of war criminals and collaborators accused of involvement in heinous crimes including murder, rape, and pillage. The Bangladeshi government of the time also made attempts to try the 195 most notorious war criminals from Pakistani military being held as prisoners of war by India. Eventually, the government of the young state had to backtrack from this plan to ensure a safe return of almost four hundred thousand Bangladeshis stranded in Pakistan, as well as to gain UN recognition as an independent state. A promise was however made by Pakistan to try those criminals according to its own laws which, unsurprisingly, it never happened.
On August 15, 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh, was assassinated, along with most of his family members, by some rogue army officers. The principal beneficiary of Bangabandhu’s death was General Ziaur Rahman, who, after imposing martial law, scrapped the Collaborators Act, set the culprits free, and later made arrangements to rehabilitate the notorious war criminals in politics. After Bangabandhu’s assasination, the country had been ruled by either the army or the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), a party formed by Ziaur Rahman, until 1996. Both BNP and the military are well known for their sympathetic views towards JeI, its dark past, and its politics. Later in 1996, Awami League (AL), the party founded by Bangabandhu, returned to power with his daughter Sheikh Hasina at the helm. Regrettably, Hasina did not act to bring the war criminals to justice during her first term as Prime Minister. Critics point fingers at AL’s informal alliance with JeI in 1996, in their common quest to overthrow BNP from power, as well as their collaborative effort for a Caretaker Government (CG) as the principal factors behind its treacherous inaction.
Hasina’s inaction pertaining to the war criminals during her first term was particularly unfortunate as Jahanara Imam, a widely respected mother of a martyr of 1971, had single-handedly initiated a massive movement in support of justice for the victims of 1971 during the final years of the preceding BNP government. Awami League’s rule was followed by another BNP regime that formed a coalition with JeI in 2001, bringing the infamous party to the governing role for the first time, as well as rewarding them two key ministerial positions. Millions in Bangladesh were utterly disgusted to see two of the alleged war criminal kingpins in the cabinet. The coalition was later replaced by an army-backed CG that lasted almost two years (instead of the expected three months), until elections were held in December 2008. In this election, AL’s leadership was smart to recognize the voice of the people, particularly the young voters, and chose to include a promise to hold war crime trials in its manifesto. This move helped AL win the election of December 2008 by a landslide with support from the majority of young voters. Later in 2010, AL constituted the International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs) to fulfill their electoral pledge.
The tribunals were established under the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act (ICA) that first came into existence in 1973 to address some of the limitations of the Collaborators Order. The main objective of the ICA was to try crimes against humanity and war crimes including genocide and genocidal rape, in addition to those covered by BCO. Although BCO was annulled in December 31, 1975, the ICA was interestingly never scrapped. Before setting up the tribunals this time, AL government has however implemented a few amendments to the ICA in order to align the law further with the modern concepts of international laws enacted for trying war crimes.
Frustrations with war crimes trial outcome
On February 5, 2013, the second of the two International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs) in Bangladesh announced its verdict on the case against Abdul Quader Mollah. Mollah was actively involved in politics as a leader of JeI before charges were brought against him. Naturally, the majority of the alleged war criminals presently being tried by the two ICTs are current or former leaders of JeI.
The court found five of the six charges brought against Mollah that include crimes against humanity proved beyond reasonable doubt, and sentenced him to life-imprisonment. He was found guilty of active participation in genocide, and aiding Pakistani military to kill and rape countless innocent Bengalis in the Mirpur area of the capital during 1971. Around that time, Quader Mollah was widely known as the ‘butcher of Mirpur’ for his extreme brutalities. In Bangladesh, where several accused are often sentenced to death for murder of a single individual, the sentencing of Mollah was predictably perceived to be too lenient by the vast majority of people following his trial. The resentments against the verdict were compounded by the fact that the same tribunal had earlier sentenced another accused, Abul Kalam Azad, to death for crimes of similar degree. Azad, however, was not actively involved in politics when charges were pressed against him, and was tried in absentia as he managed to flee the country avoiding his impending arrest.
Disappointments leading to Shahbag movement
Supporters of the trials were immensely disappointed by the different outcomes of the cases against Azad and Mollah despite being convicted of similar gruesome crimes. Frustrations grew even further when people found that there was a lack of provision in the ICA for the prosecution to appeal any sentencing which may be deemed inadequate, while, on the contrary, the defendant may appeal any conviction. This meant that there was no opportunity within the existing act to increase Mollah’s punishment by filing an appeal with the country’s Supreme Court. Speculations ran wild about possible reasons for the soft sentencing, which included rumours about possible collusion between the government and JeI. The fact that Jamaat was running a campaign of violence throughout the country prior to Mollah’s verdict, and had threatened to wage a civil war if Mollah were sentenced to death, made some think of a possible compromising attitude from the government for the sake of political stability.
Whatever were the reasons behind the surprising verdict, a group of bloggers and online activists who had been raising their voice to seek justice for years, decided to take their cyber movement onto the streets of Dhaka. It started with a few dozen protesters gathering at Shahbag Square, at the centre of Dhaka, demanding death penalty for Quader Mollah. Their slogans, however, reverberated throughout the country where millions rejected the verdict as unacceptable, and were willing to make the call for justice a national priority. Soon Shahbag turned from a gathering of a handful of enthusiasts and activists into a sea of people covering all generations and background demanding justice with one voice.
Shahbag inspires and unites generations
Shahbag has provided a nation divided on many issues a cause worth uniting for. Almost two decades of military and right wing rule led the nation founded on the principle of secularism steadily towards Islamization. The progressive seculars have been subjected to increasing marginalization and alienation. Shahbag therefore has revealed itself as a ray of hope for the liberals and pro-liberation majority of the population in despair. The dream of establishing a just society free of religious extremism and bigotry suddenly has become reasonably realizable. The ‘spirit of 1971’ is not just an overused cliché anymore. Shahbag has regenerated the grandeur of this spirit immersing the senses of million souls, young and old, taking pride in the glorious history of the great nation.
Like others from around the world, many Bangladeshis consider death penalty as inappropriate, and are therefore generally opposed to capital punishment. Therefore, when majority of these sensible and compassionate individuals are found to raise their voice in unison with the Shahbag protesters, it cannot be just considered as a simple demand for noose; rather it implies something much broader. First of all, people are viewing this movement as a fight to ensure the maximum punishment for the most terrible crimes humanity can ever experience. To them, Mollah’s punishment does not reflect the severity of his crimes in accordance with the judicial standards of Bangladesh. But more importantly, people are genuinely scared that after a change in government politically motivated presidential clemency, an abuse of authority widely excercised in Bangladesh, will see these culprits roam freely on the streets of Bangladesh in vehicles waving the national flag. The v-sign displayed by Mollah after being sentenced to life imprisonment has only helped to solidify the grounds for such apprehension. Majority of Bangladeshi people still remember the intolerable humiliation of having war criminals in the cabinet; there is certainly no appetite for repetition of that history.
Victories mired by attacks on minorities
Shahbag movement has successfully forced the government to amend the ICA to include the provision of appeal against inadequate sentencing. The amended law has also created an opening to try JeI as an organization for its involvement in facilitating war crimes. This will inevitably lead to banning of JeI in future for their role in 1971 although protesters are calling for an immediate ban through executive order.
Another victory for Shahbag came after a hugely anticipated verdict was delivered by ICT-1 on February 28, 2013. The person under trial was Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a senior leader of JeI holding the post of Nayeeb-e-Aamir (equivalent to Vice-President), accused of killing, rape, looting, and forceful conversion of many Hindus to Islam during 1971. The tribunal found him guilty of multiple charges and sentenced him to death. It gave rise to jubilation among the supporters of Shahbag movement as the demand for justice had reached a critical milestone with this verdict.
The celebrations surrounding Sayedee’s verdict however could not last long as the supporters of JeI launched a country wide campaign of violence that saw onwards of fifty deaths including a number of law enforcers. Protesters belonging to JeI and Shibir (JeI’s militant student front) appeared true to their seditious promise of waging a civil war. The fact that the verdict against Mollah did not generate a fraction of violence that followed Sayedee’s verdict gives more credibility to the assumption that even JeI does not consider any sentencing other than capital punishment to be upsetting in the long term.
In addition to launching attacks on the law enforcers, Jamaat-Shibir activists indulged in one of the ugliest assaults on the minority communities in the history of Bangladesh. As of today, the attacks are continuing that particularly target the Hindus who have been subjected to similar hate crimes during the last BNP-JeI coalition government. As it was mentioned earlier, the anti-71 forces during the independence war used to depict the war as a conspiracy against Islam and the holy land of Pakistan. They used this notion to launch vicious attacks on Hindus making the minorities the biggest casualty of the genocide and rapes. Since the period of division the malicious culture of blaming and oppressing the minorities during any critical point in time has been continuing in every part of the Indian sub-continent. Ironically, many participate in such crimes simply to loot and capture the properties of the most defenceless citizens.
Historically BNP has been unfavourable to the minorities, and their close ties with JeI made them more susceptible to supporting the intimidators. Awami League, on the other hand, has always enjoyed the support of different minority communities; not because the party takes their plights more seriously but it is just considered the better of the two bad options. At least AL’s central leadership is not accused of sponsoring systematic marginalization and repression of the minorities although many rank and file activists of AL have shown their propensity to indulge in hate induced violence in the past. Only a few months earlier the vicious attacks on the Buddhist minorities in the coastal areas have witnessed participation from the local AL supporters along with the usual BNP-JeI people.
Until today every government has failed to take any meaningful step to sustain the sense of belonging of the minorities to the country. The fact that Awami League’s passion for the minorities’ cause is nothing more than a vote-issue to trump up their moral superiority card, became all the more obvious since they came to power in 2009. Although the leaders of AL had been vocal about the discriminations and state sponsored attacks on the Hindus during the last BNP government they have miserably failed to punish the perpetrators after they came to power. Such inaction has encouraged the bigoted thugs to continue violence against the minorities with a sense of impunity. Furthermore, it is a matter of utter disgrace that religious extremists are able to destroy minority households and vandalize their places of worship at a time when the party in power claims to be secular and enjoys unconditional support from the minorities.
Leaders and supporters of Shahbag have unequivocally demanded an immediate end to medieval hate mongering and communal violence targeting the minorities. They have called for forming community groups around the country to protect these powerless people, whose population has alarmingly diminished over the past decades due to forced migrations to India and elsewhere. History has proved on numerous occasions that the law enforcers alone cannot safeguard the most defenceless. The government also seems to be heeding to these calls as the Prime Minster herself expressed support for such communitywide initiative. However, a government that frequently fails to put its money where its mouth is, cannot be relied upon for delivering anything substantial other than rhetoric. A progressive uprising like Shahbag should therefore play a vital role by appealing to the humanitarian conscience of the majority, and by organizing a countrywide drive to encourage a cultural shift towards an inclusive and enlightened society. Such a shift often takes a long time to realize, and therefore keeping the pressure alive on the government will be crucial in the mean time.
Criticisms of Shahbag
Some Bangladeshi and Western critics love to characterize the protesters of Shahbag as a blood thirsty mob fired up by the desire for revenge with no regard for the rule of law. Such remarks implicitly render the supporters of this movement as proponents of violence. Although in most cases these comments are motivated to disrepute the tribunals and deny justice for the victims of 1971, in some cases they indicate the lack of intellectual capability of the commenter to interpret the movement beyond the literal meanings of the slogans being chanted by the protesters. When making derogatory comments about Shahbag they conveniently overlook the fact that never before in its history Bangladesh has seen a movement of its proportion remain entirely peaceful for so long. Some are also attempting to attribute a contemptuous character to the movement by portraying the protests as denouncement of the tribunals. As a matter of fact, none of the Shahbag leaders has ever criticized the courts in any way. All they have demanded is justice for war crimes victims and their surviving family members. They are primarily calling for punishments commensurate with the crimes these accused are convicted of, as per the Bangladeshi judicial standards. Expressing such demands in a peaceful way is a constitutional right of every citizen, which should not raise any question of contempt.
Others are criticizing Shahbag of being a political ploy of the ruling Awami League. Overwhelming majority of these critics are themselves politically motivated. Their allegations, although extremely unfortunate, are not unexpected as these people have in the past expertly politicized most of the nation’s prized history. They have even infamously derided the dreadful cost of independence by playing down the casualty figures of 1971. These critics are actually preying on those Bangladeshi citizens who are supportive of the war crime trials but are cynical about contemporary politics. The cynics just tend to hold themselves back whenever they smell any possibility of their actions or endorsements benefiting any political party or group, no matter how fundamental the cause is, allowing the politically inspired criticisms some success. In order to diffuse such detractions, the leaders of Shahbag, however, have always been extremely careful to not let politicians of any colour use the platform of Shahbag to promote their narrow agenda.
Another criticism that Shahbag movement is frequently subjected to relates to its exclusive focus on the war crimes issue. Some critics are asking the protesters to embrace the numerous contemporary issues that have pronged the country ever since AL came to power. These critics are calling Shahbag protesters to broaden their focus to include everyday crimes committed by people that include murder, rape and corruption who are often sheltered by the ruling party. Among other things, supporters of BNP in particular have asked Shahbag to include the demand of restoring the provision of CG in the constitution that was scrapped by AL after a Supreme Court verdict. The demand for CG is undoubtedly popular one; however, it falls short in its appeal to generate a spontaneous movement anywhere close to Shahbag. People tend to forget that all issues are not equal when it comes to the amount of passion and emotion they can stimulate. The call for justice for the millions of victims of 1971, many of whom do not even have any living family member around to stand for them, resonates through the hearts of millions, and in terms of appeal is insurmountable for any other contemporary issue. As a matter of fact, any attempt to draw parallels between the war crimes issue and anything else is nothing but a deceitful ploy to undermine the awful sacrifices made by the millions during 1971. Instead of drumming up support and sympathy for other issues, such treacherous remarks only help to divide and polarize the nation further. Those who are worried about AL’s intention of exploiting the movement to deny BNP and its allies a fair election actually imply BNP’s inability to organize any popular movement around any issue. There is just a simple question to be asked here. Is it appropriate to ask Shahbag to stir public support for political issues that BNP and its allies care so much about, but apparently failed to mobilize people in their favour?
Challenges facing Shahbag
Like any other popular movement Shahbag has seen its share of compromises as well. The movement started with a broader set of objectives. There were demands to ban politics based on religion in general and JeI in particular, which are very much aligned with the secular spirit of the constitution. However, the Islamists in Bangladesh, particularly JeI, portrayed these demands as a war against Islam, and managed to bring other Islamist parties to the streets on their behalf causing widespread chaos. Furthermore, part of the Bangladeshi media backed by BNP and JeI has been relentlessly trying to portray the movement as one led by atheists with an agenda against Islam. Such campaign has managed to spread resentments among a segment of Bangladeshi populace who identify themselves as Muslims first. The killing of Rajib Haider, a blogger and staunch supporter of Shahbag with an atheist view, has escalated the tensions further. Provocations by different quarters have increased the probability of further violence against the leaders and supporters of Shahbag. These challenging circumstances forced the Shahbag leaders to distance the movement from the larger demand of banning Islamist politics, and focus on banning Jamaat instead. This is viewed by many progressives in Bangladesh as a compromise that has diluted the broader appeal of the movement. Majority of the supporters, however deem this compromise as a pragmatic approach focused on the goals achievable in the short term. Justice for the victims of 1971 is the first step towards broader goal. Banning of JeI will take the movement to the next step and setup the stage for further secularization of politics.
Even with all its sincere efforts Shahbag has not been able to keep itself above political debates. In a broad sense, Bangladeshi politics has always been divided into two fronts, usually known as pro-71 and anti-71. Shahbag movement has just helped to polarize people around these two platforms even further. As the movement continued to gather steam, BNP leaders and activists never felt inclusive to Shahbag’s demands. Finally at a very crucial point, amid JeI led violence throughout the country, the leader of BNP expressed her implicit but absolute support for the extremists. This announcement left the Shahbag protesters with no choice but to denounce BNP’s actions. Although the position taken by BNP is regrettable, it pretty well fits the historical track record of the right wing party, and is therefore unsurprising to any informed political observer.
Awami League on the other hand is the self-declared flag bearer of the ‘spirit of 71’ which claims to be secular and has recently restored secularism back in the constitution. The party’s commitment for progressive ideas is however dubious at best and its overall records from the past paint a very disturbing and inconsistent picture. For example, the party had signed a pact with an extreme pro-Islamist party (Khelafat Majlish) to prove its affection for Islam before an election that was supposed to be held in early 2006. The pact had sent the progressives of Bangladesh into a state of utter despair and disbelief. Within the pact AL had pledged to allow certain clerics to declare binding ‘fatwas’ that would destroy the independence of judiciary and severely undermine the rule of law. It also promised to enact a blasphemy law to restrict criticisms of any aspect of religion, particularly Islam. Fortunately, the election did not take place due to military intervention for other reasons, and the pact was later disowned by AL. The nation has also not forgotten Awami League’s informal collusion with Jamaat before the 1996 elections which consolidated JeI’s rehabilitation in the post-liberation Bangladeshi politics.
As hostilities from the anti-71 forces towards the leaders and supporters of Shahbag kept growing, the resulting tensions and concerns have forced to unite the pro-71 people around Shahbag. The prevailing situation has ultimately led the movement closer to the ruling AL and its coalition partners who with all their flaws still lead the ‘pro-71 block’ in the political arena. Such alignments have conversely made even the moderate BNP supporters, with favourable views regarding war crimes trials, distance themselves from Shahbag; although one may ask if Shahbag really have any other choice.
Future of Shahbag and Bangladesh coincides
The ongoing war crimes trials and the fallout from the verdicts justify the necessity of a progressive movement like Shahbag. The movement epitomizes the frustrations of generations who disapprove of the path Bangladesh has been walking since its independence. A country that adopted secularism as its fundamental tenet has drifted too far from its original promise of a progressive society. Bangladesh and Shahbag in that respect share a converging future, as the outcomes of this movement will ultimately determine the long term status of Bangladesh. From this perspective, the nation is currently at a critical juncture, and therefore must decide the course it wants to take. Beyond realizing the short-term demands placed by the Shahbag protesters the movement is inducing a socio-cultural revolution that will help to carve progressive ideologies in the conscience of the majority. The people of Bangladesh therefore cannot afford to give up this fight if they want to establish a country, where justice and fairness will prevail over petty politics and fanaticism; where communal violence on any premise will only be a matter of academic discussions in the history class rooms.
Before the movement was initiated, even the staunchest progressives were underestimating the depth and breadth of support for the war crimes trials. The apologists for war criminals and some critics have tried their utmost to paint the movement as one staged by the government, supported by the atheists, and motivated against Islam. Such criticisms, although based on narrow political and religious prejudice, have made some neo-enthusiasts to leave the platform. Although the number of supporters is an important factor for any movement the activists are even more critical, and the movement has been witnessing a steady increase in their number. The movement also continues to command support and respect from a vast segment of the populace. No matter how it is sliced, Shahbag has brought the discussions on specific issues involving war crimes and JeI as well as the place of religion of politics from the fringe to the mainstream. It has effectively melted the frozen emotions and aspirations of millions and by extension inundated the senses of millions more with the spirit of 71. Never before in the history of Bangladesh there were more vocal supporters of justice for the countless victims of 1971. The progressives in Bangladesh have never been more confident of their vision of building a Bangladesh fair to every citizen irrespective of their religio-political affiliations.
Leaders of Shahbag movement have also shown their adaptive skills to deal with spiteful challenges even though they are often criticized for being politically novice. At the same time they have not shied away from expressing their progressive secular ideologies in unambiguous terms. By any stretch, the compromises made to sustain the movement were done in good faith to keep the focus fixed on one great cause at a time. For the leaders and supporters of Shahbag, the current fight is about justice for the victims of crimes against humanity. The next Shahbag will inevitably lead to the fight for a just society, free of extremism, bigotry and corruption that will be a beacon of tolerance, accommodation and prosperity. That destination is not too far away. The nation just needs to hang on.
[Dr. Zahid Husain is a Bangladeshi researcher residing in Canada with interests in the various challenges facing the world in particular and Bangladesh in general.]
Photo-credit: The Guardian
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