Thursday, February 14, 2013

Progressive Bangladesh takes to the streets at Shahbagh Square

ZAFAR SOBHAN

To the public, although there is no evidence, the stench of back-room deal-making and cold political calculus is in the air.
  
They say a good compromise leaves everyone mad. The International Crimes Tribunal must have thought that giving Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah life in prison was a judgement Solomonic in its wisdom. Little could they have guessed that the judgement would ignite a firestorm of protest and fury that continues to burn brightly as I write this.

They are calling it Shahbagh Square. Ever since the verdict against Mollah came down around noon on Tuesday, voices began to be raised in anger and anguish, and many of the aggrieved started to congregate around Shahbagh Mor, an intellectual hub of the city and legendary site of political activism, to register their unhappiness with the verdict and to call for the death penalty for Mollah and all other war criminals.

Today, the movement is coming to the close of its fourth day, and shows no signs of abating, the cumulative crowd over the time having swollen to tens of thousands and with thousands of young activists at its permanent core, the beating heart of a deeply felt and electrifying political awakening. A spontaneous uprising of conscientious and conscious young men and women, deliberately distancing itself from the established political leadership and entities, this is the most exciting moment in Bangladeshi politics for years.

The protesters have a good case. Five separate counts of murder, the numbers butchered totalling in the hundreds, would seem to merit the death penalty under any reasonable interpretation of Bangladeshi law. Either the man is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or he is not. And if he is, then a life sentence is absurd.

To the public, although there is no evidence for such a suggestion, the rancid stench of back-room deal-making and cold political calculus is in the air. They place the blame for the verdict squarely on the government's shoulders.

Interestingly, the anger ignited by the verdict shows both that there is political life stirring among progressives and that the war crimes trials remain popular among the public. In the run up to the Mollah verdict, public and government anxiety all revolved around the Jamaat, who were flexing their muscles in clashes with the police and alarming displays of violence in support of their shut-downs around the country.

But ever since the verdict, they have been on the back foot. The streets are ruled by the progressives, calling for the execution of their leaders, the banning of the party, and threatening to meet them in the streets if they want to take it there. The balance of power has shifted dramatically.

If anyone thought that the controversies that have dogged the trials have caused the public to sour on the process, they will have to think again. Those out on the streets at Shahbagh weren't protesting the insufficiencies of the trial process. Their unhappiness is targeted in a totally different direction.

On the face of it, this outpouring of emotion would seem to be good news for the ruling Awami League (AL). They are the ones who have brought us the war crimes trials. The movement would seem to be an endorsement of the centre-piece of their political philosophy and policy platform. And the public's demands for the death penalty for war criminals must give the government confidence that they can see the trials through without meaningful backlash.

But there is a chance that the movement will take an unexpected turn in a direction less to the government's liking. While the movement is in favour of the trials and targeted at the Jamaat, there is also a lot of anger directed towards the government. AL leaders joining the rally were not permitted to speak, and one was pelted with water bottles.

It is richly ironic that the current opposition to the government is from those supporting the war crimes trials and not against them. This is opposition from a direction the government never anticipated, and if they are not able to either co-opt or cool down or otherwise contain this mobilisation of consciousness and awakening of activist emotion, it may yet consume them.

First published in The Sunday Guardian9TH FEBRUARY 2013

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, an English daily newspaper