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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Stirrings of a Dhaka spring

Youths demand death penalty for Islamists, on trial for genocide during the nation's liberation war of 1971


On February 5, one of two war crimes tribunals trying those accused of 'crimes against humanity' during Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971, sentenced Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) Assistant Secretary General Abdul Quader Molla to life imprisonment.

The judges say one of the many charges against him, the mass murder at Dhaka's Keraniganj, could not be proved.

By that evening, university student Mohammed Adil was on his way to Dhaka's Shahbagh Square along with thousands, demanding death penalty for Molla. "We are ready for a fight to the finish with the evil forces of 1971." His girlfriend, Raushan, a college student, also joined the protest. Three weeks later, they were still in and out of Shahbagh, shouting slogans between sweet talk.

A February 28 death sentence for former JEI lawmaker Delawar Hossain Sayadee drove the country to the edge.

The JEI threatened a 'civil war' and the government warned of tough action in the event of any violence. The protesters at Shahbagh said hanging Sayadee or the other war criminals won't be enough. They have given the government a March 26 deadline: Ban the Jamaat-e-Islami and nationalise the party's considerable assets.

The battle lines have never been clearer in the four decades after the 1971 Liberation War.

Bangladeshis expected the death sentence for Molla, the mastermind behind scores of massacres, after the tribunals sentenced an absconding JEI activist Abul Kalam Azad, alias Bachchu Razakar, to death on January 21. Tens of thousands of people who have streamed into Shahbagh, one of Dhaka's busiest intersections close to the Bangla Academy and the historic Race Course, waving angry banners depicting symbolic hangings of those accused of war crimes.
The huge presence of women of all age groups cannot be missed in the protests. Dressed in saris, salwar-kurtas or jeans and not in face-covering burqas, they are in no mood to spare those responsible for the gang rapes during the 1971 war. Bangladesh has made huge progress in women's empowerment, specially in education. The loudest voice in Shahbagh is of pintsized Lucky Akhtar. Fellow protesters call her "Slogan Kanya" (Slogan Girl)- such is the power, rhythm and telling effect of her slogans.

Prodded by a powerful community of bloggers loosely organised under the banner of Bloggers and Online Activist Network (BOAN), the thousands who had gathered to demand death for Molla are demanding a ban on JEI and nationalisation of its assets.

Social media has boomed in Bangladesh since 2005, with more than 140,000 bloggers posting on just one site,

"The extraordinary world of Bangladesh's bloggers reflects a mini nation," says Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana, one of the pioneers.

That the protests are led from a non-party platform in a highly polarised society has made them unique. One of the leading figures of Shahbagh, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered by suspected Islamists ten days into the protests. Haider, an architect by profession and blogger by passion, lambasted JEI'S religion-driven politics. His murder only added fuel to the protests.

Nursing the pain of history The protesters' angst is rooted in the legacy of Bangladesh's painful birth on December 16, 1971, when Pakistan's defeated army finally surrendered. But not before they had killed nearly three million people, raped more than a quarter of a million women and forced 10 million to flee to India. JEI militias, which opposed the independence of then East Pakistan, joined the mayhem.

No wonder then that JEI is the country's major Islamist party, but with just four seats in a 300-member parliament. Bangladesh passed a law to try 'war criminals' in 1973, but two years later, the country's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was assassinated in a bloody coup. The military rulers legitimised JEI and made constitutional amendments to change Bangladesh's secular polity.

Only after the Awami League returned to power with a landslide victory in the December 2008 parliamentary polls did it muster the confidence to start the war crimes trials. The two war crimes tribunals, established in 201012, have so far indicted 11 people, including eight leaders of JEI.

The trials have made the youth aware of the horrendous atrocities of 1971. The Awami League's landslide 2008 victory was attributed to the massive support from first-time voters drawn in by promises of a war crimes trial. A generation of young people (a third of Bangladesh's 150 million are below 20) now want justice. "Though they defeated the Pakistan army, our freedom fighters could not finish JEI, the force of political Islam and the bitter legacy of Pakistan. These defiant tigers at Shahbagh have done that," says political analyst Saleem Samad.

The fury of this new "Bangla Spring" has continued for over three weeks, attracting school and college students, housewives and professionals, writers, filmmakers, stage artists, singers, poets and even rickshawpullers.

National cricket captain
Mushfiqur Rahim led nearly his team to Shahbagh to express solidarity with the protests. Popular cartoonist Tariqul Islam Shanto died of cardiac arrest while demonstrating there.

Shahbagh keeps the faith
The protesters say "Shahbagh does not sleep". It doesn't, literally. The day at the busy square, where thousands have encamped to carry on the unending protests, begins around 7 a.m. with the national anthem "Amar sonar Bangla, ami tomay bhalobashi (My golden Bengal, I love you)". It is followed by slogans, poetry, music, street theatre and films-all day and night.

As Shahbagh-type protests spread to other cities and even among Bangladesh's diaspora, the government has moved with the wind. An amendment has been passed to a 1973 law that will now allow the prosecution to appeal against Molla's verdict, or even try organisations such as JEI for war crimes.

A buoyant economy, fuelled by record remittances from expatriates (US $14.2 billion in 2012; up 16.3 per over 2011), success of its garment industry and huge progress in several social sectors, has given Bangladesh the confidence to emerge as a 'breakout nation' in this century. The country's GenNext is determined not to fritter away its economic success. "We must bury the legacy of a failed state like Pakistan in our country, once and for all," says bureaucrat-writer Musa Sadiq. The youth echo his feelings. "Our elders took the right decision to break out of Pakistan. Now we must finish our fundamentalists and develop Bangladesh into a modern liberal state," says engineering student Mohammed Nayeem.

That is why the "Bangla Spring" is so different from the recent "Arab Spring", which brought down authoritarian regimes only to be replaced by Islamists who oppose liberalism and force women newsreaders to wear headscarves. "You cannot put the veil on me or my generation, not anymore," says young student Sharmin Mahmud.

First published in India Today, March 1, 2013

Subir Baumik, a journalist worked for BBC for two decades and specialises in conflict and politics of North East India and Bangladesh

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