By Syed Badrul Ahsan
Feb 20 2013
Politics in Bangladesh appears to have reached a critical, if not decisive, phase. For more than a fortnight now, tens of thousands of young Bengalis have been gathering at Shahbagh in the centre of Dhaka to demand that the war criminals of 1971, several of whom are now on trial, be given capital punishment. It seems the Awami League-led government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has heeded the call. With large sections of society expressing solidarity with the young, and with leading political, cultural and human rights voices calling for stiffer sentences for the Jamaat leaders and others charged with war crimes, committed in collusion with the Pakistan army more than four decades ago, President Zillur Rahman has signed into law a bill hastily introduced in parliament. It empowers international crimes tribunals (ICTs) to try not just individuals but also organisations for their role in 1971. That is clearly aimed at putting the Jamaat-e-Islami, the organisation as a whole, on the dock. In recent months, the Jamaat, whose murder squads allegedly killed ordinary Bengali citizens as well as leading Bengali intellectuals and professionals during the war, has not made matters easier for itself. Its members and young followers have gone on a systematic rampage on the streets of Dhaka and elsewhere in the country, attacking the police, vandalising and torching vehicles. Additionally, as a way of exerting pressure on the government to free its detained leaders, the Jamaat has been calling Hartals, or general strikes, in the country.
The spurt in Jamaat violence became particularly noticeable after a rightwing cleric, Abul Kalam Azad, also known as Bachchu Razakar, was condemned to death by the ICT. Azad, who had, for years, compared Islamic programmes on television channels in Bangladesh, mysteriously fled the country before he could be taken into custody last year. He is reported to have found sanctuary in Pakistan. It was, however, the ICT judgment on Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah that left Bengalis across the spectrum bewildered. Mollah, against whom evidence of war crimes was irrefutable, was only given a life sentence. That and Mollah’s apparent pleasure at the judgment — he flashed a victory sign outside the court — infuriated a group of young bloggers who quickly went on the offensive, demanding that Mollah be awarded a death sentence. In scenes reminiscent of Bengali protests against Pakistan during Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s non-cooperation movement in March 1971, crowds of young people surged to Shahbagh and quickly organised themselves into a vocal resistance group. For many days now, artists, writers, poets, journalists, business people and government servants have made their way to Shahbagh, which the young have renamed Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Square), to demand that the secular spirit of the country be restored. The organisers have, meanwhile, experienced tragedy. One of their leaders, architect and blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered. The death of the young blogger has only reinforced the determination of the young to carry on their movement. So far, there is no sign of people going back home. They have been lighting candles and singing the national anthem, apart from vowing to have all pro-Pakistan elements out of Bangladesh’s politics.
The protests at Shahbagh have clearly vindicated Sheikh Hasina’s position on the war crimes trials. She has long argued that the nation wishes to see the ageing leaders of the Jamaat punished for their role in the 1971 war and these protests can be considered a measure of how the young and indeed, large sections of society are with her government. But the protests, which have remained apolitical in the sense that the organisers have refused to have them commandeered by political elements, have proved to be an acute embarrassment for the opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of former prime minister Khaleda Zia. Two of the men charged with war crimes are leading figures of the Jamaat and served in Zia’s cabinet between 2001 and 2006. The Jamaat and the BNP have been in an alliance for years, a reality that does not go down well with Bangladeshis who consider the Jamaat a party of thugs and murderers, unrepentant about their wartime crimes. Last week, in its first public reaction to the movement in Shahbagh, the BNP seemed to be grudgingly supportive of the young but, at the same time, complained that “Joi Bangla”, a militant slogan the party thinks is partisan, was being raised by those taking part in the protests. That only helped draw more scorn on the party from the media and citizens across the spectrum, who reminded Khaleda Zia that Joi Bangla was a national slogan adopted during the country’s war of liberation in 1971.
The intensity of the protests has been growing, with the crowds asking people to stay away from dealing with businesses considered pro-Jamaat. Copies of rightwing newspapers, such as the pro-BNP Amar Desh, have been burnt for what have been described as motivated reports on the struggle. Television actors and directors have now let it be known that they will boycott the pro-Jamaat television channel, Diganta, owned by an individual who is accused of murdering Bengalis in 1971 and is now in prison, awaiting trial.
For all the patriotic fervour generated in Bangladesh by the Shahbagh protests, there remain uncertainties about its outcome. Moreover, the government, now that it has heeded the voice of the young and amended the law on war crimes trials, will need to convince human rights groups and the international community that the process of justice for the accused will be fair and without taint. It will be a tough job, for Sheikh Hasina’s government must not only be sensitive to popular sentiments about the war crimes but also be seen as presiding over a process that is above question. What is certain, though, is that a lot more of excitement and tension will define politics in Bangladesh between now and the next general election, expected early next year.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka