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Bangladesh: Shahbagh - Its international significance

22 February 2013

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The Daily Star, 21 February, 2013

by Peter Custers

Is Bangladesh just trying to process its dark legacy, the trauma of the genocide that took place during the country´s liberation war in 1971? Or is something more afoot? On February the 5th, activists belonging to a network called ´Blogger and Online Activist Network´, occupied a key intersection in the centre of the capital Dhaka known as Shahbagh, and started protesting the verdict pronounced by the International Crimes Tribunal in the case against Abdul Quader Mollah, the assistant general secretary of the country’s main fundamentalist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. The verdict was the second one pronounced by the court´s judges, and it was considered too lenient by the activists. Hence they demanded capital punishment, nothing less. The public’s reaction to the Shahbagh occupation has been so overwhelming, and the movement´s advance so sweeping, that it might surprise foreign observers not acquainted with the dynamics of Bangladeshi politics. Within no time, the demand for capital punishment reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the country, forcing the country’s Awami League-led government to change gear and strengthen its commitment to bringing justice for the victims of 1971. Moreover, within no time the focus of the protests has shifted towards the demand that the Jamaat-e-Islami, seen as the party that embodies the legacy of war crimes, be banned.

Let’s to start further highlight the actors and momentum of the upsurge. The Shahbagh protests were initiated by none of the country’s established political parties. Nor was it started by any of the forces which in the past have been instrumental in building public opinion around the demand for adjudication of war crimes. The principal role is being played by independent activists, and by the country’s population of students and youngsters. Whereas people from all walks of life have participated in the mass rallies and demonstrations held in Dhaka and elsewhere, - it is male and female students of universities and high schools who have been coming out in largest numbers. Some of the key steps of the movement so far: the grand rally held at Shahbagh on Friday February the 8th, three days after the beginning of the rising, which was attended by tens of thousands of people; the 3 minutes of silence observed countrywide by people forming human chains on February the 12th; and the candle light protests staged in the evening of February 14. Particularly impressive also was the hoisting of national flags at thousands of educational institutions throughout the country this last Sunday. The principal force carrying the mass movement forward indeed is Bangladesh’s generation of youngsters. They are showing a keen interest in events they did not experience themselves - those leading to the country’s independence 42 years back.

We also need to take a closer look at the political polarization around the protests. First, the nature of the target the youngsters are up against. As mentioned, people are not just protesting the court’s leniency in the case against one single war criminal; they do not just insist that all those leading politicians who helped the Pakistani army implement its policy of mass murder be given capital punishment. The 6 point charter of demands which a delegation of the bloggers and online activists brought to the speaker of the parliament on February 10, notably included the demands that the Jamaat-e-Islami be banned and that its financial wealth be confiscated. There is indeed ample evidence proving that this party’s leaders in 1971 offered their services to the Pakistani military. They set up paramilitary forces and death squads which murdered innumerable numbers of intellectuals, members of the Hindu minority and other civilians. Moreover, not only did Jamaati leaders never apologize for the terrible role they played in 1971. Since the start of the trials against a selected number of war criminals, the party has tried its utmost to obstruct the court’s proceedings. Thus, over the last months party militants have repeatedly confronted the police in street battles, protesting the very holding of the war crimes trials! The Jamaat also is widely presumed to be behind the murder of online activist Rajib, whose dead body was found near his residence on February 15.

What about the attitude of Bangladesh´s government which is led by the daughter of the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman? Characteristically, several leading politicians belonging to the ruling Awami League, including the party´s joint general secretary, were refused permission to speak at Shahbagh. Indeed, whereas the chief demand of the activists tailors with official government policy, - the mass movement from below is largely an expression of public frustration with the way the government has handled the war crimes trials. And yet one can´t say that Bangladesh´s government has not responded to the restlessness of its young generations. Thus, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has publicly hailed the Shahbagh protestors, and several Ministers have humbly visited the intercrossing to express their solidarity. Equally significant is the fact that whereas the government in the past seemed very lukewarm - to say the least - about de-legalising the Jamaat-e-Islami, - on February the 17th the Parliament dominated by the Awami League passed a bill enabling the International Crimes Tribunal to put the party on trial – in line with what the post-World War II Nuremberg trials did with Germany’s Nazi party. It seems only a question of time before the Jamaat will be banned. Clearly, the government is not sitting idle or waiting for the situation to run out of hand.

Rests to discuss the international significance of the current protests. It is perhaps too early to address this theme fully, as it remains to be seen how Bangladesh’s foreign donors will respond to events. Nevertheless, it is possible to initially comment on the dynamic interconnection between Bangladesh’s people’s upsurge and the Arab Spring. Given the fact that the country’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, it is only natural that Bangladeshi citizen closely follow the changes taking place in Egypt and the Middle East. Again, from the way the Shahbagh protests were launched it is evident that Bangladeshi activists have drawn lessons from their Egyptian counterparts who started their encampment at Tahrir square with a call via facebook. Bangladesh´s youth has been late in reacting. Yet the agenda of the Shahbagh protests goes beyond the agenda of the democratic movements in most parts of the Middle East. After all: here is a movement which does not just have an uneasy relation with Islamist parties. No, Bangladesh´s mass upsurge from its inception has borne the seal of secularism and tolerance, and is opposed to fundamentalist politics. Indeed, the South Asian country is not just re-living its own historical legacy, i.e. the secular spirit that pervaded the struggle for the country´s independence. Perhaps it is on its way to setting a fresh example for the Muslim world and for the West.

The writer is International Correspondent of The Daily Star. Website: www.petercusters.nl

P.S.

The above article from The Daily Star is reproduced for educational and non commercial use