When a group of activists spontaneously gathered at Dhaka’s Shahbag a little over a month ago, little did know that they would serve as a catalyst for a broader movement and countermovement in Bangladesh. The initial outcry was over a sentence handed out to a conspirator and war criminal, who had not only opposed the foundation of nation of Bangladesh in 1971, but had also served as the leader of a prominent political party with impunity. This conspirator and others, who were being tried over forty years later, were not in court for treason, which in most sovereign countries is in itself cause for legal proceedings, but for the more barbaric acts of mass-murder, serial-rape, forcible religious conversion, arson, and other crimes for which there were numerable eyewitnesses. When Adbul Qader Molla, who was now a leader of Jaamat-e-Islami, was given a lenient life-sentence for involvement in over 300 deaths, sections of civil society erupted. Molla flashed a smile and a victory-sign to his supporters after the verdict, because he knew that if his party ever formed a coalition government with their current ally, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, then he would literally be a free man.
When on February 28, another war criminal Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was sentenced to death, the enemies of Shahbag, namely Sayeedi’s political party Jamaat-e-Islami and their student wing Islami Chatra Shibir did not sit and idly watch. For days, armed supporters wreaked havoc across the country, looting stores, burning trains and buses, vandalizing homes and religious places of worship of minorities, and savagely killing police and the family members of those who testified. They have since used social media outlets such as Facebook to coordinate attacks on property and person. They have doctored images (such as a photo of Sayeedi superimposed on a photo of the moon) and have spread blatant lies to instigate villagers. Within Bangladesh, they have a sizeable media presence, but they have also garnered the support of some foreign media agencies as well who have called out police “heavy-handedness” conveniently omitting that the police is responsible for maintaining law and order.
Shahbag, a neighborhood of Dhaka became a focal point for protests as well as a symbol of a greater movement to address questions that remained unresolved after more than forty years. Shahbag initially developed as a grassroots movement led primarily by the generation that was born after Bangladesh gained independence. Indeed it was absolutely necessary that the movement develop without any political affiliation because many Bangladeshis felt that they had been betrayed by the failed policies of all of the major political parties since the country’s liberation. All political parties had stifled dissent and allowed war criminals to enter mainstream politics. And in 2013, even though the Awami League was at loggerheads with Jaamat-e-Islami and their ally, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, segments of the population remembered that once upon a time even the Awami League had collaborated with Jamaat-e-Islami. Therefore, instead of politicizing their demands, the protesters looked for inspiration to the late Jahanara Imam, author of a famous memoir based on events occurring during the 1971 (and mother of a freedom fighter who died during the war for liberation) who had subsequently struggled to bring war criminals to book, but had failed due to political machinations.
In different South Asian nations, there are different official narratives of what exactly happened in 1971. When, for example the Pakistan Army targeted religious minorities and intellectuals in December even though surrender was only a few short days away, what objective did they expect to achieve? Still, as reprehensible as some of the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army were, they had the Nuremberg Defense: they were following orders. Additionally, the Mukti Bahini did retaliate against some civilians, though to a much smaller scale. It is a slippery slope when you try to weigh relative immorality, but the razakar conspirators were not soldiers, they were civilians who betrayed their own neighbors. The Pakistan Army waged an inhumane war, but left the country after defeat. The razakars that stayed in Bangladesh, on the other hand, reaped the benefits of liberation on the graves of the freedom fighters they butchered.
A section of the foreign media has wrongly portrayed Shahbag as mob vengeance and blood-lust. This is a superficial analysis. Shahbag boldly proclaims that a Bangladeshi identity is not equivalent to a Muslim identity or a Bengali identity, or for that matter even a Bengali Muslim identity. There are Muslims, Bengalis, and Bengali Muslims who are native to other countries in South Asia. There are also other ethnicities in Bangladesh and those who follow other religions in Bangladesh. None of these criteria are unique to Bangladesh. Therefore, none of these criteria alone are adequate to describe the Bangladeshi condition. Shahbag is in essence a reaffirmation of a Bangladeshi identity shaped by Partition, the Language Movement, and Liberation.
The Jamaat-e-Islami and their ilk have sought to discredit the Shahbag movement in whatever way possible. Jamaat sympathizers murdered a blogger who was a Shahbag activist and attempted to justify his death because reportedly he was an atheist. They have sought to portray Shahbag as entirely a movement of atheists, which is untrue. In fact a number of practicing men and women of all religions have supported Shahbag. As a broader point, Shahbag is a matter of national identity and has nothing to do with religion. Even Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party branded Shahbag as supporting the cause of atheism. In some bizarre parallel world, falsely calling someone an atheist is deemed an acceptable defense for supporting those who have been convicted of mass-murder and rape!
The logic of Shahbag is rather simple. if Bangladesh is a nation of laws, then there must be justice. If Bangladesh is indeed a sovereign nation, then those who committed genocide to stifle the aspirations of its citizens for sovereignty must be brought to book.
(This is a longer version of a post I wrote in Bangla).