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Bangladesh: The Meaning of "Shahbag Square"

7 February 2013

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Alal o Dulal - February 7, 2013

by naeem

Although I do not support the calls for “hanging,” I believe this is a mass phenomenon parallel to Jahanara Imam’s famous gono adalot which inspired our generation in high school days. It is formally also a new phenomenon (at least temporally) because majority of the people in Shahbag were not even born, or were in their child stage, when gono adalot happened.

I am opposed to the death penalty, no matter who it is. My position does not change when it is the dreaded rajakars. I believe even war criminals deserve a fair trial (something we have so far not managed) and they should receive life sentences. Therefore I cannot call for “fa(n)shi,” even for dreaded war criminal Kader Molla.

I wrote against the death penalty after the JMB verdict.

At same time, what is happening in Shahbag is a new phenomenon. It needs to be paid attention to, not dismissed.

Jahanara Imam is not a known figure for them. She died of cancer when some were still chidren.

Ghadani (Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee: Committee to Destroy Killers & Collaborators) is not a significant organization for them. They have neither seen the rise nor the fall (doladoli, kondol, dhanda, failure) of those movements.

Therefore, whatever their source of energy and anger is, it is something different.

And as such, this phenomenon needs to be analyzed and understood. I am trying to do that, by following the news and reading the reports.

Some say this is really pent-up frustration at Jamaat. Some say it is a direct response to repeated violence by Shibir and hartals by Jamaat. Others theorize that it is partially to prevent AL from reaching any back-door deal with Jamaat (reports are circulating that AL and JI members are meeting at an Ambassador’s house).

There may be a larger “great game” but there is also spontaneous street uprising. We know from history that the chess masters will try gain control of the street uprising, but we also know from history they do not always succeed.

How long this will last is hard to say. I believe the AL will try very hard to appropriate this movement (they are already trying). If they succeed that will take the wind out of the movement. People will not want to be used by AL, just as they don’t want to be used by BNP, JI, JP, or Army.

The humanistic model demands full agency to individuals. Is that possible in Shabagh, site of so many street battles: Murti Andolon, Musee Guimet, the list is long.

Calling it “Shahbag Square” is premature, since Tahrir Square was a demand for ouster of a dictatorship and this is not that. This movement also lacks, so far, the revolutionary consciousness needed to prevent becoming appropriated by the AL.

However, with all these caveats, this is still an important moment. If the demands of the movement can be interpreted as a demand for full, fair, and transparent trials for 1971 war criminals (including members of the Pakistan army, why is that demand never brought up?), I support that movement.

I am never for death penalty, but I am for fair trials and life in prison if found guilty.

Sometimes I feel like an exhausted combatant. The first time facing this issue was in 1992 when Ghulam Azam was invited to speak in a Ohio conference by ICNA (or ISNA). We, the few Bangali students at various Ohio schools mounted a fax campaign for the speaking invitation to be canceled. We did not succeed of course, as we did not many other times as well.

After this many decades, WCT is finally happening. Why don’t I feel happy? Because we wanted a trial process that would make us proud, that would meet the highest international standards for war crimes trials. That would be a template for future trials.

Is that what we have? Can we even raise that question?

There are many who want to save the trial process, who want to make it right. But the government refuses to listen to any suggestions. The government thinks they don’t need any advice from anyone, and that international precedents don’t matter. They think a law passed in 1973 is already “jugopujogi” and ratified a new version with virutually no changes. Many people, including myself and Jyoti Rahman, said the Act needed to be brought up to date. Nobody listened.

Is it possible to save the War Crimes Trials process. To bring them to international standards? Is that what Shahbag Square could be interpreted to be about? Can Shahbag Square be a revival of “spirit 71.” A spirit that is mature enough to ask for justice, not revenge; fair trials, not mob lynching? Only time will tell.


1. On Facebook, Maha Mirza gives her interpretation of Shahbagh: “কাদের মোল্লার ফাসির দাবিটি নিছক একটি ফাসির দাবি নয়। এই দাবির পিছনের দাবিটি আরো অনেক বড় অনেক বিস্তৃত। সরকার ও জামায়াতের গোপন আঁতাতের বিরুদ্ধে, যুদ্ধাপরাধের প্রহসনমূলক বিচারের বিরুদ্ধে, এবং জামায়াত-শিবিরের সাম্প্রতিক আস্ফালন ও ঔদ্ধত্যের বিপরীতে আপনার কাউন্টার অবস্থান জানাতে শাহবাগে থাকা জরুরি।”

2. শাহবাগে সশরীরে উপস্থিত না হয়েও যেভাবে সাহায্য করতে পারেন

3. Grand Rally on Friday

4. RTV


The above blogpost from Alal o Dulal is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use