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Saturday, March 02, 2013

'We gave up, but they didn't': A former Mukti Bahini guerrilla walks through Shahbag Square and sees the demise of political Islam in Bangladesh


The deafening roar of the youth at Shahbag Square, the epicentre of protest in Dhaka, is awe-inspiring. Mainly because over 1 lakh youth are chanting "Joy Bangla" (Long Live Bangladesh).

This was the war cry of the Mukti Joddhas (war veterans) who liberated the country in 1971. I haven't heard that slogan in over 40 years since the country was liberated.

I was a Mukti Joddha. I joined the underground movement in April 1971, a month after the liberation struggle began. I was a student of the (now defunct) Central college.

I spoke fluent English and Urdu and was tasked with reconnaissance and arranging getaways for guerrillas who did their hit-and-run raids out of Dhaka. If the Pakistanis caught me, the punishment was death.

But death would come after slow brutal torture where they would try and extract the names of all my collaborators from me. I guess I was too young to worry about the consequences.

The Joy Bangla slogan became a taboo after the assassination of independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. "Today I walk in the streets shout the slogan without fear, prejudice or being bashful," Shamsuddin Ahmed, media consultant and writer tells me.

The revival of the war cry of Bangladeshi nationalism is significant. Young people from all walks of life have turned out in their thousands to protest the life sentences handed out to Islamists.

If they persist, Bangladesh could become the world's first Muslim nation to bury political Islam once for all. It is a devil which needs to be contained. And here's why.

The struggle against Islamic Pakistan was sparked off in its erstwhile eastern province in March 1971. Nine months later, the new nation of Bangladesh emerged, after a bloody gruesome war for millions of Hindus and Muslim alike.

Pakistan's marauding army with their local henchmen committed genocide, arson and forced abductions for nine months of liberation war, 4 lakh women were sexually abused, intellectuals murdered and abducted.

Bangladesh war historian Prof. Muntasir Mamoon claims genocide of three million people. These were people whose only crime was to believe in independence of Bangla speaking nation. The marauding Pakistan forces and their henchmen were blamed for the genocide.

The peasants fought the elite Pakistan military forces and their auxiliary forces, largely recruited from among the Bangali Muslim population in the country. War veterans of the Mukti Bahini, a majority of them like me are still alive and active in civil society.

Our spirits are not dampened and we have demanded the trial of these collaborators and war criminals. For forty years our voice was not heard. After nearly 30 years of struggle, we gave up. But we underestimated the new generation.

Their thunderous cry is not just audible over Shahbag Square. It echoes over social media, Twitter and Facebook. It is an angry voice demanding justice.

In the Arab Spring, the protests were anti-government. The Arab protesters objective was to achieve democracy, freedom and justice. In Bangladesh the scenario is dramatically different.

The protesters quest is to seek justice for crimes committed in 1971, when Bangladesh, formerly Eastern province of Pakistan, attained its independence. The crowd listens patiently to chorus, poetry recitation and brief speeches for hours. Thousands chants slogans repeatedly.

Popular belief suggests that Bangladesh is a conservative Sunni Muslim society. The presence of young women at the square belies this. The women are there, with children in tow, on their lap or shoulder way past midnight.

Forty two years after its difficult birth, Bangladesh is witnessing a rebirth in Shahbag Square.

First appeared in India Today, March 2, 2013

Saleem Samad is an award winning journalist based in Bangladesh. He specialises in conflict, ethnicity, Islamism and elective democracy. He recently returned home after living in exile for six years in Canada. He was imprisoned, tortured and later expelled for his articles in TIME magazine

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