The sea of humanity besieging the Shahbag area in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, for the last two months, has had an unusual demand – unusual, at least, when it comes to the Indian subcontinent. The demonstrators have been clamoring for justice for the victims of the genocidal massacres of 1971 that led to the former East Pakistan’s secession from
The demonstrations have been spontaneous, disorganized and chaotic, but also impassioned and remarkably peaceful. Many of the several thousand demonstrators at Shahbag are too young to have had any personal experience of the killings that marked the Pakistani army’s brutal, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to suppress the fledgling independence movement. But they are animated by an ideal – the profound conviction that complicity in mass murder should not go unpunished, and that justice is essential for Bangladeshi society’s four-decade-old wounds to heal fully.
What is curious about this development is that the subcontinent has preferred to forget the injustices that have scarred its recent history. A million people lost their lives in the savagery of the subcontinent’s partition into
and 13 million more were displaced, most of them forcibly. But not one person
was ever charged with a crime, much less tried and punished. Pakistan
An estimated million more were massacred in
in 1971, and only this year have some of the perpetrators’ local allies been
tried. Almost every year, somewhere on the subcontinent, riots, often
politically instigated, claim dozens – sometimes hundreds and occasionally
thousands – of lives in the name of religion, sect, or ethnicity. Again, investigations
are conducted and reports are written, but no one is ever brought before the
bar of justice. Bangladesh
To paraphrase the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: The intentional killing of one person is murder, but that of a hundred, a thousand, or a million is merely a grim statistic.
The idealism of
’s young demonstrators, however,
points to a new development. The outpouring of emotion evident at Shahbag was
provoked by a decision of an international criminal tribunal convened by the
government. The tribunal, which tries cases of war crimes and crimes against
humanity, found a prominent member of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political
party, Jamaat-e-Islami, guilty of complicity in the killings of 300 people, but
gave him a relatively light sentence of 15 years in prison (prosecutors had
sought the death penalty). Bangladesh
By demanding severe punishment for those guilty of war crimes – not the Pakistani Army, long gone, but their local collaborators in groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Al-Badar, Al-Shams and the Razakar irregulars – the protesters are also implicitly describing the society in which they wish to live: secular, pluralist and democratic.
These words are enshrined in
constitution, which simultaneously declares the republic to be an Islamic state.
While some see no contradiction, the fact that many of the collaborators who
killed secular and pro-democracy Bengalis in 1971 claimed to be doing so in the
name of Islam points to an evident tension. Bangladesh
If any proof of this clash of values were needed, it came in the form of a counter-demonstration against the Shahbag movement led by activists of the fundamentalist Islamic movement Hifazat-e-Islam, which occupied the capital’s Motijheel area. Unlike the Shahbag events, the counter demonstration was well-planned and organized, and conveyed the stark message that there was an alternative point of view in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.
The bearded, skull-cap-wearing protesters shouted in unison their agreement with speakers who denounced the International Crimes Tribunal. Their supporters include activists of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh, which has fought alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in
The debate between religious fundamentalism and secular democracy is not a new one on the subcontinent. But the issue of justice for the crimes of 1971 has brought the divide into sharp relief. The Shahbag protesters reject Islamic extremists’ influence in
, and even call for
organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami to be banned, while Hifazat-e-Islam and its
supporters want the country’s liberal forces repressed, secularist bloggers
arrested, and strict Islamism imposed on Bangladeshi society. Bangladesh
The young people at Shahbag are mainly urban, educated and middle class; Hifazat derives its support mainly from the rural poor. Traditional versus modern, urban versus rural, intellectuals versus the peasantry: these divisions are the stuff of political cliche. But, all too often, cliches become established because they are true.
The Bangladeshi government’s sympathies are closer to the Shahbag protesters than to the Hifazat counter-demonstrators. But it must navigate a difficult path, because both points of view have significant public support. The authorities have even taken steps to appease the Islamists by arresting four bloggers for their posts. But the government remains resolute in its support for the international tribunal.
The irony is that true religion is never incompatible with justice. But when justice is sought for the crimes of those who claim to be acting in the name of religion, the terms of the debate change. The issue then becomes one that has been avoided in
for too long: whether
claiming to act according to the requirements of piety provides an exemption
for murder. Bangladesh
The outcome of the standoff in Dhaka should provide an answer in
and its implications could reverberate far and wide. Bangladesh
First published in the print edition of The Daily Star, Lebanon, April 23, 2013
Shashi Tharoor is
’s minister of state for human
resource development. His most recent book is “Pax Indica: India and the
World of the 21st Century.” India