Wednesday, February 13, 2013

'Bangla Spring' brings back spirit of 1971

SUBIR BHAUMIK
IF THE Arab Spring was all about democracy and people power, this spring in Bangladesh is all about rejuvenation, a return to the spirit of 1971 that made independence from Pakistan a reality.
Since last Tuesday, tens of thousands of men and women, mostly young people, have thronged at Shahbagh, one of Dhaka's busiest intersections, demanding death for the 'killers of 1971'.
Over the last few days, many of them have refused to leave, some have stayed on even with their little children and whole families.
Songs, poetry, films and slogans have enlivened the cultural muscle of Bengali nationalism as it takes on the Islamists in an emerging confrontation that Lawrence Lifschultz had christened "the Unfinished Revolution".
It all started with a verdict of life imprisonment for Jamaat-e-Islami's assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Molla, popularly known as the "Butcher of Bengalis" for his role in the mass murders during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
The Jamaat stood for undivided Pakistan and opposed the Bengali struggle for independence from the Islamic state. Its activists joined the 'support forces' of the Pakistan Army in some numbers the Razakars, Al Badr and the Al Shams. Some of the horrendous atrocities perpetrated during the 1971 Liberation War were perpetrated by these 'support forces'.
Ever since Bangladesh returned to democracy from military rule in the early 1990s, the demand for trial of these Islamist activists who were responsible for the mass murders, the gang rapes and other atrocities have been growing.
The Awami League, which led the 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan, promised trial for the war crimes if elected to power in the rundown to the December 2008 parliament elections.
Once in power, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government set up two war crimes tribunals one in 2010, the other in 2012 to expedite the trials of the war criminals under a 1973 law promulgated by her father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman's administration.
It is not possible to try Pakistani officers and men but locals who perpetrated 'crimes against humanity' during the 1971 war can be brought to justice.
Nine top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and two of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party are now facing trial in these two tribunals.
On January 21, it pronounced its maiden verdict against former Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar. That was a death penalty but Azad is reportedly hiding in Pakistan.
Last Tuesday, it was expected that Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Molla will get a death penalty as well.
That did not happen as one of the six charges against him could not be proved. He got away with a life sentence.
That galvanised the nation, specially its youth, as messages flew fast and furious on social networking sites to turn up at Shahbagh for protest.
By Tuesday evening, the busy Dhaka intersection was full of men and women, demanding 'death' for Quader Molla.
As days passed, the crowds only swelled, the enthusiasm only grew, with those assembled there now demanding death for all killers of 1971.
On Saturday, someone in the crowd said Jamaat's former chief Ghulam Azam is under treatment in a nearby hospital.
"Let us shout so loud that he gets a heart attack," roared a few young men in the crowd.
A martyrs' monument has been built at the roundabout with flowers and paper.
Now the protests are spreading to other cities of Bangladesh.
On Saturday, thousands continued the protests in the port city of Chittagong, defying a strike called by the Jamaat-e-Islami that is asking for release of their leaders and a repeal of the war crimes trials.
Life was normal though Chittagong is where the Jamaat supporters had gone on the rampage just before Tuesday's verdict on Quader Molla, attacking police stations and patrols with firearms and bombs, leading to four deaths.
According to the official statistics handed out by Bangladesh, between 2.5 to 3 million people died and nearly a quarter of a million women were raped and dishonoured during the eight months of the 1971 Liberation War.
That was some price to pay for independence, hence passions run high because so many suffered.
It is rare for trial of 'war crimes' forty years after the war. But in Bangladesh, the war crimes trials are seen as justice delayed but not denied.
First published IBN Live, The North East Blog, February 11, 2013

Subir Baumik is a journalist based in India, who specialise in conflict and peace journalism on North East India. He has worked with BBC World Service for 20 years