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Bangladesh - Shahbagh Movement : A Beacon of Hope for South Asia

by Subhash Gatade, 25 October 2013

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Neighbouring country Bangladesh is going through a great churning.

As of now the most pressing question before everyone is how the process of elections to the next parliament would unfold itself.. Whether every political party would participate in it or not or the country is in for a period of further instability and political violence. Awami League led ruling dispensation and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led opposition alliance seem to be at loggerheads at this juncture.

The ongoing ‘war crimes trials’ has also seen diametrically opposite positions being adopted by both the Parties.

Everybody knows that the issue - of war crimes and crimes committed against humanity during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971 - is an issue which has continued to simmer for more than four decades. Despite the various attempts by different regimes and interest groups to deny or bury the past, it is a fact that it could never be suppressed. People remembered it in their own way and waited rather endlessly that there would be a closure one day.
As we go to the press daily one gets to hear reports of trials going on in the country with top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh and its other friendly formations facing convictions for their controversial role in the 1971 war of liberation. Two senior leaders of the BNP have also been found to be guilty by the tribunal and have been given exemplary punishment. It is now history to see how they collaborated with the Pakistani army at the time of the liberation struggle of the Bangladesh people.

The ongoing trials have demonstrated one important thing that if people are willing then invisibilising of mass crimes is impossible. This part of South Asia has been notorious for innumerable similar crimes against people committed by the state or the non-state actors which have gone unpunished. Every peace and justice loving person from rest of the world would agree that people of Bangladesh and the formations which led them, deserve a roaring revolutionary salute for breaking this cycle of impunity.
It is equally true that apart from members, sympathisers of the collaborator organisations there is a section of people which does not seem happy with the ongoing trials against the ‘war criminals’. All of them - which includes different shades of Islamists, political formations who have been at loggerheads with the Awami League led ruling dispensation - have tried to portray these trials as part of political vendetta, have raised procedural questions and even tried to pressurise the government through their network of international contacts.

Any discussion about the war crimes trials would remain incomplete without proper acknowledgement of the historic role played by what is popularly known as Shahbagh movement. A movement initiated by young bloggers of Bangladesh, which witnessed participation of hundreds of thousands of people for days together on the streets of Dhaka and other parts of B’desh, demanding strict punitive action against war criminals and their organisations, namely Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. This massive initiative did not let any dilly dallying on part of the powers that be, did not allow any wavering on their part and forced their hand so that organisation(s) responsible for these crimes are duly prosecuted.

The manner in which Shahbagh movement raised the debate to a new level and raised the question of separation of religion and politics has been unprecedented. It is true that by taking lead in this historic movement and persisting against heavy odds, the youth of Bangladesh attempted in their own way to carry forward the forgotten legacy of all those unnamed martyrs who sacrificed their present for a better future for the people of the country - a future free of religious extremism, a future guaranteeing a life of dignity to everyone. The ’success’ of the Shahbagh protesters could be better measured if we are able to have a look at rest of South Asia which is witnessing rise of communal mobilisation of various shades.

One is witness to the emergence/further consolidation of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist groups - trying to further bulldoze Tamil/Muslim aspirations - in Sri Lanka, or the likes of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad exerting influence cutting across boundary lines or the likes of Wirathu, the ’Bin Laden’ of Burma, a Buddhist monk and his rabid followers targeting Rohingya Muslims. India, which never forgets to pat its back for ’successful democratic transition’ has had its own share of violent groups engaged in furthering their own exclucivist agenda. While not much is heard of the Khalistani (Sikh nationalist) groups these days, who had created furore in eighties and nineties; activities and actions of Islamist groups and Hindutva supremacist groups get regular coverage.

In this backdrop, Bangladesh’s Shahbagh Movement stands apart as a unique and ground-breaking venture, for it has demanded that secular principles and ethos alone should guide and govern all politics. Thus, this movement is qualitatively and politically far more mature than, say, movements which arose from the womb of what is known as Arab Spring. Undoubtedly, in an atmosphere of growing religiosity and faith based practices the world over, where one witnesses increasing intrusion of faith and religion in matters of governance as well as societal functioning, the Shahbagh movement offers the rest of humanity not only a beacon of hope but a promise that things can be changed for the better.


Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly

Wily strategists meet their nemesis in unexpected ways.

Perhaps, Ghulam Azam, the once all powerful leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, at present in his nineties, might be brooding over this old dictum as he sits in his solitary cell in his wheel bound chair. Only a few months back he has been sentenced to 90 years of imprisonment for his crimes against humanity which he committed when people of the then East Pakistan - todays B’desh - had risen up against the occupation army of Pakistan in the year 1971.

According to the prosecution as ameer of the then East Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami he had played a pivotal role in forming collaborator forces with the Pakistani army- namely Shanti (peace) Committee, Razakar, Al Badr, Al Shams , he was the ’torchlight’ who guided massacres of intellectuals in Dhaka at the end of the conflict.(Dec 71). Not content with that he continued in his crusade to thwart the emergence and survival of Bangladesh even after the nine-month-long Liberation War in 1971, as he tried in vain to revive East Pakistan and spread propaganda against Bangladesh for several years.

After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the year 1975, he had returned to Bangladesh on August 11, 1978 on a Pakistani passport. He subsequently got back his citizenship and rejoined his position as the ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami. He served in the post until Motiur Rahman Nizami took over from him.

Definitely he is not the first leader among a pack of controversial figures, who are facing trial before the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) constituted by the Bangladesh government to bring to justice all those people who opposed the liberation struggle of the people and had become willing collaborators of the Pakistani Generals. Till date the two International Crimes Tribunals of Bangladesh have sentenced a few of the leading figures of Jamaat-e-Islami as well as two senior leaders of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for their complicity in crimes against humanity including killings, loot, arson, and rape. It may be noted that the Sheikh Hasina led government formed the first tribunal in 2010 and had constituted a second one two years later to expedite the trials.The maiden verdict in these trilas came on Jan 21 this year when former Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar was sentenced to death in absentia. The next on the line was its Assistant Secretary General Abdul Quader Molla who was awarded life term while the party’s No.2, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, and Assistant Secretary General Mohammad Kamaruzzaman got death.

Few of the ring leaders of these militia are either absconding or have been living as respectable citizens in western countries. While Ghulam Azam was convicted on 15 th July, two days later the tribunal ordered that another prominent Jamaat figure, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahdeed, its secretary general would be hanged. Mr Mojaheed, was minister of Social Welfare, in the previous elected government led by BNP from 2001 to 2006.
Chaudhary Mueen-Uddin - who lives in London and Ashrafuzzaman Khan, who is said to be living in New York, were amongst those who were put on trial immediately after - in absentia - for their role in abduction. torture and killing of innocents and heading a militia during the war. Ashrafuzzaman Khan was reportedly the Al-Badr’s chief executor and Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin the plan’s operation in charge. As the official charge sheet in their case declared Al-Badr, the militia floated by Jamaat-e-Islami, was entrusted the job of exterminating Bengali intelligentsia by the Pakistani military in mid Dec 1971 - because it was believed that they were the brain behind the struggle for independence.

As commented by an analyst, Ghulam Azam’s conviction was a slap in the face of all those leaders/formations who had no qualms in letting him stay in B’desh even after his visa had expired and were not at all keen to raise his dubious role in the independence struggle and had no qualms in seeking his support in holding reins of power or sharing power with the organisation he led.

It is now history how in the year 1991 the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) formed the government with support from the Jamaat .In 1998, the BNP and Jamaat formed the four-party alliance and Ghulam Azam appeared at a grand public meeting with BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia.

As expected the Bangladesh Jamaat e Islami, which has consistently refused to own responsibility for its opposition to the liberation war and its criminal role in thwarting the struggle, has not taken kindly to the ongoing trials. Despite the documentary and other evidence available about their heinous role, they have always claimed war crimes charges had been leveled against its leaders as an act of “political vengeance” and alleged the tribunal judges had ‘failed’ to maintain clarity and neutrality and demanded that the verdicts against its leaders be repealed. (UK based Islamists mobilising against war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh: propaganda speech on youtube,

For those who see selective persecution because only a handful of leaders have been made to stand on the dock, it is worth noting that after the World War II during which some 40 million died in Europe alone, only 24 leading persons were indicted before the court at the Nuremberg Trial. Supporters of the war criminals have not deemed it fit to report that in the particular cases which are there before the Tribunal, defendants have the option to select their own lawyers, including foreigners and they also have a right to appeal in the higher courts, to challenge the verdict. .
Each time its leaders were accused or convicted of war crimes, Jamaat had claimed they were ‘politically motivated’.To show its opposition, it has engaged in indiscriminate violence , burning cars, beating opponents, hacking to death activists who support these trials, hurling bombs at crowd of bystanders or destroying public property and demonstrate its brute power.
In his column in ’The Daily Star’ Syed Badrul Ahsan, a leading journalist and executive editor of the paper tells us (Wednesday, July 17, 2013, Ground Realities) :

The wheels of justice do not always turn. But when they turn, they do so with the clear message that the perpetrators of ancient crimes always get their comeuppance at a point in historical time. The judgment delivered in the matter of the crimes committed by Ghulam Azam during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation reinforces the old argument that sooner or later those who commit misdeeds must pay for their acts. Now a frail ninety-one year-old man, Azam is proof that criminality is never forgotten, some sins are never expiated. He joins the ranks of men who have killed or helped to kill and were therefore condemned by law and censured by history.

Close on the heels of these judgments has come another judgment by the Bangladesh high courts which has barred Jamaat from contesting polls in future. Although it has not declared it illegal, but has said that since it does not seem to believe in Bangladesh’s constitution, they are taking this step. A formal investigation into Jamaat-e-Islami’s alleged role in war crimes has also started. (Published: Monday, August 19, 2013, of now collection and analyising of documents has been taken up which would be followed by investigation into the role and activities of the various auxiliary forces of the occupation army formed with due help from Jamaat people namely Razakars, Al-Badr, Al Shams and Peace Committee. Once the probe is complete, a report would be submitted to the prosecution team and then after scrutinising the report, formal charges against the party would be submitted before the tribunal. It has been decided to start the probe from the very birth of Jamaat to its present activities, not to mention its role in 1971.


Established by highly controversial Abul Ala Moududi in 1941, Jamaat got banned twice, in 1959 and 1964, for its communal role. It got banned again just after independence in 1971 but it was allowed to resume politics during the regime of late president Ziaur Rahman.

The two international crimes tribunals, set up to deal with war-time offences, through several verdicts put the spotlight on Jamaat-e-Islami’s role in 1971.

The Tribunal-1 in the verdict against Ghulam Azam observed, “ … Jamaat-e-Islami, as a political party under the leadership of accused Prof Ghulam Azam, intentionally functioned as a criminal organisation especially during the War of Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.”

It added, “There is no proof before the nation that those who played an anti-liberation role in 1971 have ever changed their attitude towards liberation war by expressing repentance or by showing respect to the departed souls of 3 million martyrs.”

The Tribunal-2 in the verdict against condemned Jamaat leader Muhammad Kamaruzzaman observed, “Jamaat-e-Islami had played a substantial role in the formation of the Al-Badar [Al-Badr], Razakar, Al-Shams and peace committees [during the war].

“The Jamaat had indulged in indiscriminate massacre of their political opponents belonging to the Bangalee nation in the name of liquidating ‘miscreants’ and ‘infiltrators’ for which it had used Razakars and Al-Badar,” it observed.


Jamaat set to face prosecution

It was February 17, 2013 when Bangladesh parliament held its emergency session for an important issue. The idea was to amend the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973, allowing the state to appeal against inadequate sentencing of a convict and paving the way to hold trials of organisations for their criminal activities during the Liberation War. Victims of war crimes and their family members and seekers of justice have long been demanding the trial of Jamaat-e-Islami as a party.
Definitely it was not the first time that a party or an organisation was to be put on trial for crimes against humanity, genocide and other war crimes. We know how at the historic Nuremberg Tribunal in Germany, formed for trying Nazi war criminals of World War II, trials of seven Nazi organisations were held, including the Reich Cabinet, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the Gestapo. We have in our recent memory the formation of International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which looked into the Srebenica massacre or the Bosnian genocide case ; or the formation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) under the auspices of the United Nations for the prosecution of offenses committed in Rwanda during the genocide which occurred there during April 1994.

But what had prompted the Bangladesh parliament to hold such an emergency session.

In fact, up to a quarter of a million people - a significant portion of them happened to be girls and women - had gathered peacefully everyday at Shahbagh - a famous intersection in Dhaka, witness to many historic gatherings of social-political awakening - and elsewhere across the country, since February 5 th to demonstrate in favour of exemplary punishment for war criminals, a ban on Jamaat and pro-Jamaat student body Islami Chhatra Shibir. Solidarity rallies and programmes were reported from different parts of the country and the government led by Awami League had to bow before this demand.

The flashpoint of this youth led movement became the ’lenient punishment’ meted out to a vice President of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Abdul Quader Mollah, who was given life sentence on February 5 in spite of his proven guilty of the heinous crimes that he had committed. He was proven guilty on five counts out of six charges that were brought against him, including murdering more than 300 people. The photo of this man emerging from the court, smiling and making a Victory sign, so infuriarated the youth that they gave a call on social network to gather at the historic Shahbagh Square. Rest is now history.

As has been written elsewhere, the uniqueness of the Shahdbagh movement - as hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life converged in this important part of Dhaka and continued to demonstrate for weeks together - was that though it was principally initiated by those youth who run online blogs, and none of whom had actually witnessed the actual genocide, the historic churning quickly witnessed the participation of other classes of people as well. People could see the repetiton of Tahrir square in Dhaka, but not many could forsee that it went much beyond. Like Tahrir Square, the awakening stage of Shahbagh was definitely started by what can be called as “Face book generation” but as we all know the Tahrir uprising had the surreptitious backing of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ and a large section of the Egyptian Army which wanted the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, whereas the Shahbagh movement targeted the religious fundamentalists themselves. Undoubtedly, by taking lead in this historic movement and persisting against heavy odds, the youth of Bangladesh were trying to carry forward the forgotten legacy of all those unnamed martyrs who sacrificed their present for a better future for the people of Bangladesh - a future free of religious extremism, a future guaranteeing a life of dignity to everyone.
It was also an attempt to revisit the question of identity of Bangladesh and its people more than four decades after its emergence. The militant youth was trying to sort out the longstanding identity issue - whether its majority people are first Muslim and then Bangladeshi or vice versa. It was important to note that the leaders and followers of the movement also tried to link their struggle to the anti-colonial struggle led by Masterda Surya Sen and Pritilata Wadedar, heroes of the historic Chittagong Armoury Raid (1931). They claimed the “blood of these heroes flows in their veins.”
It would be opportune here to quote excerpts of the oath conducted by Imran H Sarker, Convener of the Bloggers and Online Activists Network, in his speech at Shahbagh in the early days of the movement :

"We swear an oath that the leadership of mass people from the Gonojagaran Mancha will continue the movement from Teknaf to Tetulia until capital punishment is handed down on those Razakar and Al-Badr members who committed crimes against humanity like mass killing and rape in 1971.
"We take the oath that we will remain vocal both on the streets and online until politics of war criminal Jamaat-Shibir is not banned and nationality of their members not cancelled.

...."We swear that we will boycott the war criminals’ business entities — Islami Bank, IbnSina, Focus, Retina and different other coaching centres. We know through these they collect money to continue with anti-liberation activities.

"We will also boycott the academic and cultural organisations through which they are spreading anti-liberation sentiments among the children. In brief, we will work for banning all the business, social and cultural organisations belonging to Razakars and Al-Badr activists.

"We swear that we will continue with our demand of stringent punishment to Jamaat and Shibir, who have committed crimes of sedition by threatening with a civil war, after making their immediate arrest by recognising them through video footages and newspaper pictures.

"We swear that we will boycott war criminals’ mass media like Diganta TV, daily NayaDiganta, daily Amardesh, daily Sangram, Sonar Bangla Blog, etc.
“We will not subscribe to newspapers of war criminals at any office or house. At the same time, we will request the pro-liberation mass media to boycott war criminals and their accomplices."


A key demand of the Shahbagh protesters has been not only banning Jamaat-e-Islami but also boycott of the Jamaat affiliated educational and banking institutions as well as health service. It was not for nothing that many such institutions came under attack in the early phase of the Shahbagh movement; there were also reports that people were withdrawing their monies from banks affiliated to Jamaat.

For an outsider neither the demand of boycott nor reports of its implementation gives an idea of the extent of penetration of such institutions in the society or the influence they wield over different sections of people. Perhaps it would be opportune here to share important extracts from Prof Abdul Barkat’s study of ’Political Economy of Fundamentalism in Bangladesh’ (Mainstream, Mar 22-28, ’13) It would be opportune here to add that Prof Barkat, is with Dept of economics, Dhaka University and President of Bangladesh Economic Association :

..[f]undamentalists have created an "economy within the economy" and "a state within the state" They have adequate economic strength (from micro to macro levels) to sustain their political organisations. The economics of fundamentalism, in the narrow sense of the term, can be explained in terms of enterprises ranging from large financial institutions to household level micro credit, from mosques and madrassas to news media and IT, from nationwide trading enterprises to local level NGOs. The estimated amount of annual net profit generated by these enterprises would be US $ 250 million. All these economic enterprises are run by ideologically motivated and professionally competent persons. At least 10 per cent of their net profits are being used to finance the political organisation, which is sufficient to fund the salary of 500,000 full-timers in Islamic fundamentalist politics. The relative strength of the economics of fundamentalism in B’desh can be traced to the fact that its annual net profit is equivalent to six per cent of the government’s annual development budget and the annual growth rate of the economy controlled by the fundamentalists is higher(7.5 per cent to nine per cent) than that of the national economy ( five per cent to six per cent)..
Discussing how fundamentalism is experimenting the effectiveness of various politico-economic models with the help of cadre based politics, he discusses how the following twelve, constitute the key sectoral elements of the model : "financial institutions, educational institutions, pharmaceutical-diagnostic and health related institutions, religious organisations, transport related organisations, real estate, news media and IT, local government, NGOs, Bangla Bhai or JMB, Jamaetul Muzahideen Bangladesh, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (Bangladesh HuJi-B) (and such programme based organisations0, and occupational/professional activity based organisations including of farmers and industrial workers."

According to him

The estimated annual net profit of economic fundamentalism in B’desh would be about US $250 million. The highest share of such profit, 27 per cent (of the total net profit), comes from financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, leasing companies, etc.

The second highest, 18.8 per cent of the total net profit, comes from NGOs, trusts and foundations, 10.8 per cent comes from trading concerns, 10.4 per cent profit comes from the pharmaceutical industry and health institutions including diagnostic centres, 9.2 per cent comes from educational institutions, 8.5 per cent comes from real estate business, 7.8 per cent comes from the media and IT business, and 7.5 per cent comes from the transport sector

Explaining the methodology of estimation, Prof Barkat makes it clear that it is largely based on heuristic estimates, but the pattern is indicative of the direction.

It needs to be recognised that the rise of the politics and economics of fundamentalism in B’desh has led to institutionalisation of fundamentalism which implies organised penetration of Islamist fundamentalist forces in all key spheres of life and state operation.In fact, the relative strength of this institutionalised fundamentalism is also evident in formation and operation of Islamic Sharia Council against the usual norm of the Central Bank. Prof Barkat adds that this

"Islamic Sharia Council - the central policy making body of all Islamic financial institutions - is a body fully controlled by the mainstream Islamist Party (Jamaat-e-Islami in this case) and headed by the Pesh Imam (the head) of the National Mosque, who is a government servant, who preaches in favour of implementation of Sharia rule through the mosque based administration and judiciary. This Islamic Shariah Council is an illegal entity according to the Company Act and Banking Act operating in B’desh. The Central Bank’s attempts to ban this Islamic Shariah Council and even the move to institute a "guideline for Islamic Banking" in B’esh could not be materialised in the past.And finally, an attempt to pass a law in the parliament "against religious extremism" ended up in gross failure."

What a time to be in Dhaka!

I am in Dhaka right now.

Being here at this moment, in Shahbagh (Projonmo Chottor, as it is now called) and on the streets with activists from the Gonojagoron Mancha – young people, academics, veterans of the liberation movement, singers, artists, writers, professionals and thousands of ordinary people – is a unique and inspiring experience.

The similarities and differences with the Delhi mobilisation are striking. There is the same exhilarating sense of reclaiming public space. The same energy and camaraderie, the same feeling of security and freedom. All kinds of unexpected encounters and conversations that leave one feeling both elevated and humbled. Hearing women and men who were part of the liberation war talking about their experiences. The “mashaal” rallies every evening – overwhelming when one is walking in the middle of it, and spectacular on TV, like an unending ribbon of light snaking down the streets.
Of course, this being Bangladesh, there is also a lot of very good music and poetry! The greats are singing on the streets. I feel so privileged to be here.
But this is a far more politically aware and focused movement than what happened in Delhi – it is an out and out confrontation with the Jamaat and Hefazat-e-Islam, which calls itself “a people’s movement” in defense of Islam. And of course BNP is right in there stirring the pot and trying to skim off whatever they can.

This confrontation has been simmering for a long time and most people I’m talking to are glad it came now, when the young people are mobilised in force on the issue of punishment of war criminals.

(Excerpts of a writeup by Ms Kalyani Menon Sen,, 8 april 2013)


No More Invisibilising of Mass Crimes

No Peace Without Justice

She lay hidden beneath a cot, transfixed, numb with fear, watching these ghastly scenes being enacted before her eyes. She struggled in vain to not shout but gave in to the horrific incident and let her pain come out loud. Then, it was her turn, to be brutally raped.

In the evening of Mar 26, 1971, Jamaat-e Islami leader Abdul Quader Molla and several other Biharis forced into the residence of Hajrat Ali Laskar in Mirpur. Ali was shot at, his pregnant wife and her two daughters aged 7 and 9 years were slaughtered.

Molla and his associates pulled Momena out from under the cot. All of them raped her as she fell unconscious. They took her for dead, but she survived to tell the tale.

...When she stood in the dock, deposing before the International Crimes Tribunal, she said, “I want to ask him: where is my father?”

Apparently, these atrocities against Momena’s parents and siblings had turned Molla’s life term into a death sentence on Tuesday.
(Momena seals Molla’s fate, Sumon Mahbub, ,Published: 2013-09-19 01:19:53.0 BdST Updated: 2013-)

A look at Bangladesh’s post independence history makes it clear that soon after its liberation the process of punishing the war criminals began and attempts were made to set up a war crimes tribunal. The then government led by Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman promulgated the Bangladesh Collaborators (Speical Tribunals) ordinance in 1972 and the local collaborators of the Pakistani Army were being tried for specific crimes against humanity. It was July 1973 when the newly independent country’s Parliament also passed the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act, so that individuals could be prosecuted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Haroon Habib, in his writeup ‘New Liberation War’ (August 2010, Himalmag) explains how “Around 700 were convicted by special tribunals set up all over the country, with several thousand still facing trial. The rest, accused of relatively minor offences, were freed under a government clemency programme.” As far as the Pakistani war criminals, most of them military officers were concerned; they were allowed to go back to Pakistan, thanks to the Simla Accord of 1972 between Pakistan and India and 1974 tripartite agreement between Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The 92,000 prisoners of war who had surrendered to the Indo-Bangla joint command on 16 th December 1971 were also allowed to go back to Pakistan.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s assasination (15 th August 1975) by disgruntled military officers and the subsequent change in government had a very negative impact on the trials of the war criminals. All such convicts and the prisoners who were still facing trials were released from detention and the issue of trials of war criminals became almost dormant. Undoubtedly people’s eagerness, persistence and enthusiasm that ’war criminals’ should not be allowed to go scot free continued to simmer. Their efforts appear more impressive once we know that despite the fact that major political parties had either aligned themselves with the same forces or were not keen to follow it up, that they did not lose heart and continued in their efforts.
Of course, time and again there were attempts at the non-official level to underline and emphasise this unfinished task. History of Bangladesh is witness to the efforts put in by the legendary Jahanara Imam (who was later declared Shahid Janani( Mother of Martyrs) after her death) and her group to restart the ‘war crimes trials’. Way back in 1992, an organisation led by her called ’ Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee’ (“National Coordinating Committee for Realisation of Bangladesh Liberation War Ideals and Trial of Bangladesh War Criminals of 1971”) had held mock public trial of people accused of war crimes in a People’s Court. Thousands of people had participated in those ’trials’ where many of the leading war criminals who are at present before the ICT were ’given exemplary punishment’. The immediate context of having this mock trial was that Ghulam Azam, whose citizenship was revoked by Sheikh Mujib, was elected as the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The High Court, however, in 1993 restored his citizenship which was later upheld by the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 1994.
Jahanara Imam, as many people know, was a leading figure of the liberation struggle and her husband and son were killed by a squad of Al Badr. And for mobilising people on the question of war trials, the then BNP ruled government had filed charges against her for ’sedition’. It should not be forgotten that Sheikh Hasina led Awami League had then adopted ambivalent position about the cases filed against her.
The tribunals which were set up in the year 2010 were in accordance with the 1973 law only when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was in power. To recapitulate, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina initiated the long awaited move of trial of war criminals on 25 th March 2010. She announced the formation of a tribunal, an investigation agency and a prosecution team under a law which was in fact enacted soon after the liberation, nearly four decades back..Close watchers of the B’desh situation can vouch that the call for the trial of the ‘war criminals’ played a key role in the last general election held in December 2008 which helped Awami League win the elections with a thumping majority. The youth of Bangladesh expressed its unequivocal support to the demand which eventually became one of the central agendas of the alliance led by Awami League.
Commenting on the restarting of the trial of those suspected of War Crimes Haroon Habib, leading journalist and author and freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s Liberation, had further added:

The trial of Bangladeshi war criminals is seen by liberal Bangladeshis as nothing less than a dénouement to the Liberation War by seeking accountability for atrocities. The challenge before the government is enormous. For the moment, Prime Minister Hasina seems determined, having pledged that there would be no distraction from this ‘moral stand’. The country’s very footings in secularism, badly needed to guard against the current resurgence of fundamentalism and religious militancy, would receive a major blow if the trials process were to be disrupted once again. (‘New Liberation War’ (August 2010, Himalmag)

The significance of the War Crimes Trials be better understood if we are able to situate the 1971 genocide in the later day conflicts in different parts of the world. As noted by Gita Sehgal in one of her write-ups Bangladesh of 1971 has sort of become the template for many of the conflicts which define the late 20 th century. A closer look at the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia in 90 s or for that matter in Gujarat in 2002, could said to have already occurred in Bangladesh. One has been witness to widespread and systematic gang rapes, targeted killings of men and boys and the role of militias, composed of religious fundamentalists, in all these regions and the havoc they played with lives of innocents.

Looking at this background, the key thing to remember at this juncture is that in whatsoever manner the struggle unfolds itself, Shahbagh demonstrated that ordinary people very well understand the great hiatus between words and deeds of the fundos and they want people to be punished for crimes, however, long it might take. Looking at the a culture of impunity which prevails in this part of South Asia, where the rich and the powerful get away after committing heinous crimes, it is definitely a positive development.

There are quite a few important features of these trials and the mass upsurge which followed it to give exemplary punishment to the guilty and the organisations they hailed from which need to be taken note of :

- It is after a long time that mass crimes are being punished and perpetrators of indiscriminate violence against ordinary people are being brought to book..These trials have broken the ’unwritten convention’ much vogue in this part of South Asia that genocides or similar crimes against humanity are normally ’invisibilised’ or best covered up and the cause of rendering justice to aggrieved individuals, communities or formations is always pushed under the carpet. The net result is that there is no closure. For individuals, people, communities who had faced brunt under specific circumstances with the powers that be either in connivance with the perpetrators or deciding to remain neutral, the festering wounds/ the tragic experiences that get reduced to private grief best shared with near and dear ones.

May it be the case of partition riots or the killings of innocents which happened on a mass scale with political forces leading the carnage, or the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka which happened few years back or the Nelli carnage which witnessed more than two thousand killings of Muslims in few hours (1983), or the carnage which followed after assassination of Ms Indira Gandhi - which saw deaths of thousands of innocents , or the riots accompanying and preceding demolition of Babri Mosque (1992) or killings of innocents in the year 2002 in Gujarat ; we know very well that final word has not yet been said in any of these cases.

- Usual reasons offered for not taking up such cases – like lapse of time, issues like ‘why unnecessarily open old wounds’- a tradeoff between peace and justice- have not deterred the powers that be from taking up the issue of trials of ’war criminals’. And the key factor behind this is the people’s quest for justice itself.

As an aside it may be mentioned here that not some time ago we have been witness to the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) on all 11 counts of aiding, abetting and planning war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. As has been noted the jurisprudence of international human rights law and international criminal law, by attaching liability to a former head of state, has expanded in its application and covered the situation of impunity that prevailed during Taylor’s regime.

Or remember the Rwandan government, which enacted special legislation (4) in 1996 in order to address the genocide that took place in Rwanda, in 1994. It created four levels of culpability: 1) Leaders and organisers of the genocide, and perpetrators of particularly heinous murders and sexual torture. 2) All others who committed homicides. 3) Perpetrators of grave assaults against persons not resulting in death. 4) Those who committed offences against property (5).

Here it is important to note that the ICT in Bangladesh has expanded its ambit of late. In fact till recently its focus was on actual perpetrators of violence - basically as individuals - which had left the possibility open that the organisation under whose guidance, protection they had committed the said crimes against humanity was left untouched. The Awami League led government was forced to amend the terms of reference of the ongoing trials and include Jamaat-e-Islami as well because of the historic Shahbagh movement.


- The year 1948 saw the adoption of a Convention by the international community in the form of Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by the UN General Assembly ( 9 th December 1948) which came into effect on 12 January 1951. This contained an internationally-recognized definition of genocide which was incorporated into the national criminal legislation of many countries, and was also adopted by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (in article 2) defines genocide as:

...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. As reports tell us the trials of key leaders of colloborators of the Pakistani regime, many of those leading ’war criminals’ would go on despite resistance from fundamentalist forces and their political allies. One can see for oneself the degree of resistance offered by these forces with due help from their national and international allies.

The Rome Statute, the legal basis for the existence of the International Criminal Court, defines four substantive types of mass crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. As has been noted in the Indian context, specific acts and omissions committed by heads of state in the context of genocide and crimes against humanity have not yet been criminalised either through statutes or through judge-made laws. Till date, mass atrocities/crimes or gross human rights violations have not been defined in national legal jurisprudence; nor has it been acknowledged that the Indian state has committed specific types of mass crimes.


Apologists All ?

Any death is regrettable and those who died due to police fire may also come under this category. What is interesting is Jamaat’s modus operandi. The lone survivor of 14 December mass murder of intellectuals described in a recent TV documentary how Al Badr killed Prof Munier Chowdhury and others. Some were bitten with iron bars to death and at the final point; they would insert such bars into the head of their victims to ensure death. Jamaat-Shibir reportedly did exactly the same couple of weeks ago when they killed some police constables and others. It shows Jamaat-Shibir’s Standard Operating Procedure has remained unchanged for the last four decades...

(Rabiul H. Zaki, 1952, 1971, the genocide and Shahbagh,

“The Pakistani soldiers unleashed a reign of terror on the soil of Bangladesh in 1971. They brutally killed innocent people, molested Bengali women and ruined the economy. The Jamaat leaders, Ghulam Azam and Matiur Rahman Nizami, issued the fatwa that those activities were permissible to save Islam”

(Dr Mohammed Hannan, Page 252, Bangladeshe Fatwar Itihas, 1999).

What is common between Syed Md Nurur Rahman Barkati, Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan Masjid, Kolkatta and Maulana Syed Athar Abbas Rizvi, imam, Cossipore Masjid or Md Qamruzzaman, general secretary, All Bengal Minorities Youth Federation ? Well, if media reports are to be believed then they were the leading lights of a ’one lakh strong demonstration’ which was held on March 30 th 2013 in Kolkata demanding stepping down of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena. The participants in the well attended demonstration had come from different parts of West Bengal. In fact, a dozen odd Muslim outfits had meticulously planned the demonstration to protest against the verdict of the ’war crime tribunal’ against Jamaat-e-Islami’s leaders in connection with the atrocities committed by them during 1971’s Liberation War’. [. . .]

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Shahbagh Movement : A Beacon of Hope for South Asia
by Subhash Gatade
Full PDF version
26 October 2013