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Monday, February 18, 2013

Shahbagh Square: Bangladesh’s fourth awakening

The protests in Dhaka against attempts to subvert justice in the war crimes trials show that the new generation is alive to the horrific acts committed by anti-liberation forces


THE YOUNGER generation of Bangladeshis has made history by not keeping silent when fundamentalist and communalist forces who had opposed the nation’s independence from Pakistan openly challenged the state. Since February 5, Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square has been the site of a mass protest in which young people have demanded capital punishment for all who committed crimes against humanity during the national liberation war in 1971. These young people have achieved what political parties locked in acrimonious feuding could not do.

Led through social networking
The new Gano Jagaran Mancha (Mass awakening platform) is almost a national reawakening; it could be the greatest social revolution Bangladesh has seen in four decades, and sends a clear signal to the Islamists, who seem determined to stage a comeback. At a rally on February 8, Bangladesh also saw the biggest mass mobilisation in recent memory. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, boys and girls from all walks of life, carrying national flags, banners and placards, demanded the death sentence for all war criminals and showed their determination to resist the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir.

The movement had started on February 5, soon after a war crimes tribunal had sentenced Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah to life. The verdict shocked the nation; there had been widespread demands for the hanging of Mollah, who, in 1971, had led a local cohort of the Pakistan Army which killed several hundred people and carried out mass rape. Using social networks, young bloggers quickly occupied Shahbagh Square, and their peaceful sit-in became a people’s movement.

In the preceding months, the Jamaat-e-Islami had carried out terrorist attacks in an attempt to stop war crimes trials, on a scale which even suggested that the movement was challenging the Bangladeshi state, the independence of which it had violently opposed four decades earlier. With support from the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), between November 2012 and January 2013, the Jamaat organised violent demonstrations against the war crimes tribunals, and sent hundreds of party cadres on hit-and-run attacks on the police. The new operatives are well trained, and their attacks revived memories of August 2005, when nearly simultaneous explosions occurred one morning in 63 of the country’s 64 districts.

Seven Jamaat leaders were in prison awaiting trial for crimes against humanity during the war of liberation, but the Jamaat warned of “civil war” if the trials were not cancelled and its leaders freed. The war crimes trials are a long-standing national demand; in the 2008 election, the Sheikh Hasina government was mandated to hold them, and Parliament has unanimously approved them.

Therefore, citizens irrespective of age and faith joined the Gano Jagaran Mancha in Shahbagh Square. “Hang all the war criminals” is not their only demand; they vow to boycott all businesses, banks, media outlets, and social and cultural entities connected to the Jamaat. “We pledge that we will continue our movement from Teknaf to Tetulia under the leadership of general people until highest punishment is given to Razakars-Al-Badrs who committed crimes against humanity like genocide and rape in 1971,” said the oath administered by Imran H. Sarkar, the young convener of the Bloggers and Online Activist Network.

Focus on media
The Mancha announced boycotting business and educational institutions run by “war criminals” including the Islami Bank and Ibn Sina trust, and sharply criticised some of the western media for “motivated coverage” of the war crimes trial. They added that they would maintain their demand that the Jamaat and Shibir be severely punished for sedition, and that they would use video and news pictures to identify members of those groups.

The current mass awakening could mean a new beginning in Bangladesh. It already constitutes a challenge to religious orthodoxy and extreme Islamism, and has reawakened secular nationalism of the kind that led the nation to rebel against religio-military subjugation by the then West Pakistan. The Opposition BNP under Khaleda Zia, a staunch ally of the Jamaat’s, has been taken aback by the movement’s success.

The young people who have reignited the flame of conviction did not march under any one political banner. They are united in their calls for justice against genocide and rape, and against fundamentalist resurgence. After they submitted to the Speaker of Parliament a list of demands including banning the Jamaat, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised in Parliament that her government would act on the oath thousands of protesters had taken. The cabinet promptly decided to move against the Quader Mollah verdict by amending the war crimes legislation, which had lacked provision for prosecution appeals.

Bangladesh’s history has always been made by the young, by students — in the language movement of 1952, the mass upsurge of 1969, and the armed struggle for national independence in 1971. There was an impression that the younger generation had forgotten the horrific acts committed by forces that were ranged against the country’s liberation, but the new generation has disproved that.

First appeared in The Hindu, Chennai, India, February 16, 2013

Haroon Habib, news correspondent of The Hindu is a Bangladesh liberation war veteran and a writer and columnist. Email:

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