By Kanchan Gupta
17 Feb, 2013
The stunning Shahbag protest in Dhaka shows young Bangladeshis want nothing to do with Jamaatis. But why is the Awami League going soft on Razakars?
Something remarkable is happening in Bangladesh which has gone under-reported, if not unnoticed, by newspapers and news television channels, especially in India. Given our media’s proclivity to get excited every time a non-event occurs in Pakistan, this is not entirely surprising. What is a pity and a shame is that the international media, which goes into overdrive if 10 people gather at Tahrir Square or a bunch of lazy layabouts decide to ‘occupy’ Wall Street, has missed a story that tells more than one unfolding tale in a country with a bitter past and an uncertain future, a nation whose blood-soaked birth is unparalleled in recent history.
Since February 6, tens of thousands of young Bangladeshis, many of them still in their teens, have been gathering at Shahbag in Dhaka, waving their country’s national flag, demanding death for all perpetrators of war crimes during the Liberation War of 1971. The men they want to see hanged without any trace of mercy are Razakars, or collaborators, who joined hands with the Pakistani Army in committing gut-wrenching atrocities to put down the freedom movement in what was then East Pakistan. Women and girls were gang-raped and then bayoneted; men were dragged out of their homes and shot dead; intellectuals were murdered in cold blood; entire villages were laid to waste.
But the mass murder of three million men, women and children by the Pakistani Army (whose patrons in America refused to intervene) and its collaborators, all of them associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, failed to kill the spirit of the Bengali nation: Bangladesh was born after its tormentors surrendered to the Indian Army. Sadly, that was not the end of the story. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his entire family were assassinated by Army officers — his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was the only survivor. Decades of martial law followed and it required a popular uprising to restore democracy.
Since then we have seen power alternating between the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of Gen Zia ur Rahman who ruled the country for a while. The Awami League still retains some of the secular values enshrined by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; the BNP happily aligns with the Jamaat-e-Islami, now led by the Razakars of 1971. The Jamaatis were never brought to trial; the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman enjoyed immunity till 12 of them were sentenced to death, seven in absentia, after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina initiated legal proceedings against them. Five of the killers were executed but others still remain at large, sheltered in Western countries.
It is to Sheikh Hasina’s credit that she also set up a War Crimes Tribunal to try the Razakars and ensure justice was done to the victims of 1971. Depositions by witnesses revived the horrors that were perpetrated by the Jamaatis. Despite criticism from human rights organisations which strangely argue that it is unfair to bring the mass murderers of Bangladesh to trial, the tribunals have done a splendid job considering four decades have lapsed since the unspeakable atrocities were committed.
Of those accused of collaborating with the Pakistani Army, Abul Kalam Azad has been sentenced to death in absentia; Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior Jamaat leader, has been sentenced to life imprisonment; Delwar Hossain Sayedee, another senior Jamaat leader, is in jail awaiting the tribunal’s verdict; the trial of six Razakars, including Gholam Azam, is still on and they are in jail; and four others are being investigated. It is the judgement in the five cases filed against Abdul Quader Mollah that has brought Bangladeshis out on the streets and ignited the mammoth protest at Shahbagh in Dhaka: Life sentence is not acceptable to the protesters; they want him, and all collaborators, to be hanged.
There are two reasons that are being cited in support of this demand. First, the punishment is not commensurate with the crimes the Razakars committed — for instance, in one of the cases in which Mollah was charged he was found guilty of having collaborated in the killing of 381 innocent civilians. Second, if the BNP were to return to power, it would happily grant clemency to the Razakars to appease the Jamaat and they would walk free. Neither is acceptable to those who want to see the Razakars brought to justice and Bangladesh cleansed of Jamaat’s toxic ideology which makes Jamaatis natural allies of their ilk in Pakistan.
There’s a third factor that has kept the Shahbag protest alive, with more and more people joining in every day, and sparked similar demonstrations across Bangladesh, since February 6: Many Bangladeshis have begun to feel that the Awami League has suddenly adopted a soft line in view of the coming national election. This is what makes the Shahbag protest significant. Those demanding death for the Razakars would be inclined towards voting for the Awami League (large portraits of Sheikh Hasina have been seen at the jam-packed square) and have resolutely thwarted the efforts of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir, to run riot against the on-going trials. They have braved the Jamaati thugs and rallied in support of the Awami League. They have, in a sense, re-ignited the spirit of 1971 although most of them were born much after the birth of Bangladesh.
What, then, makes them suddenly uneasy about the Awami League’s intentions and politics? Are they sensing that there is a subtle shift towards not enraging the Jamaat and its various powerful organisations? Are they beginning to feel that Sheikh Hasina is once again toying with opening lines with the Jamaat as she did in 1996 when she allied with the party of Razakars? For all her bluster, Sheikh Hasina has hesitated to push for a full return to the secular politics of her father’s time. An example will suffice: She could have restored the original Constitution in toto but she elected to retain the amendment that makes Islam the state religion.
If the seeds of doubt were to germinate, Sheikh Hasina would find it difficult to carry popular opinion with her and the Awami League could well lose the election to the BNP. The Jamaat will go with Begum Zia, having tasted unfettered power when she was Prime Minister and the Jamaatis were part of her Government. This, no doubt, augurs ill for Bangladesh. More importantly, it does not augur well for either India or the world.
Post Script: On Friday night, Ahmed Rajib Haidar, a blogger who was active in mobilising anti-Jamaat activists for the Shahbag protest, was brutally murdered near his home. If this was meant to send a chilling message to those chanting ‘Death to razakars’, it has had the opposite effect. There’s greater determination in the ranks now. But there’s also a question which is being asked: Is the Awami League batting straight?
Kanchan Gupta is a senior journalist based in Delhi