Dhaka, Bangladesh – Slogans, songs, poetry, and street theatre – the heady mix of culture and protest has given burgeoning demonstrations in downtown Dhaka a unique Bengali ambience.
People in this country of 150 million first fought for their language, then independence, and again for an end of military rule. Now protesters gathering in central Dhaka believe they are fighting for a return of liberalism and secularism – and death to alleged war criminals from decades past.
A slogan in Bengali has been frequently shouted at the busy Shahbagh Square to annonce that the area is now the epicentre for change in Bangladesh: “Tomar aamar thikana, Shahbagher Mohona” or “your address, my address, Shahbagh Square”.
Tens of thousands have gathered here in recent days demanding reform, and protesters believe the scenes are reminiscent of the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Another slogan often chanted is “Shahbagh does not sleep.” True, it doesn’t these days. There is no room to rest for starters, and loudspeakers are constantly blaring.
Amid frequent calls for death to all war criminals, Shahbagh is alive with songs, poetry, film and street plays. The cultural muscle of Bengali nationalism is on raging display.
Punishing past atrocities
On February 5, one of Bangladesh’s two war crimes tribunals announced a life sentence for a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami group, Abdul Quader Mollah, who had been accused of mass murder and rape during the 1971 civil war.
Many had wished for and expected a harsher punishment – a sentence of death. Messages flew fast and furious across social networking sites, mobile phones and by word of mouth. By that evening, thousands of mostly young men and women had gathered at Shahbagh, one of Dhaka’s busiest areas, to protest the perceived light sentence.
“Death for Quader Mollah,” they shouted, as more people converged on the square.
Two weeks have passed and the crowds have not gone away. In fact the numbers have steadily grown and those gathered are urging more Bangladeshis to come and show their support. Shahbagh has even been given the new name Projonmo Chattor, or Generation Square, to reflect the driving force of the movement, the youth of Bangladesh.
Protests continue in Bangladesh
“This is the generation who have not experienced the Liberation War, but who appear to be as determined to uphold its secular and liberal spirit,” says Jogesh Sarkar, who fought as a guerrilla for the Mukti Bahini, or Liberation Army, against Pakistani soldiers and their allies.
Jamaat-e-Islami opposed the break-up of Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. In the bloody civil war that followed, its activists in large numbers allegedly joined irregular military units and fought alongside the Pakistani army.
The group’s members are believed responsible for some of the most horrendous atrocities committed during the eight-month war, which killed between 2.5 to 3 million people. Rape was routinely used as a weapon.
“We now want the death penalty for all war criminals. We want a ban on the politics of religious fundamentalism. We want a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami,” says Imran H Sarker of the Bloggers and Online Activists Network, one of the leaders of the Shahbagh protest.
But Moulana Rafiqul Islam Khan, the general secretary of Jamaat, said the protests were part of a plot to create anarchy and force the tribunals to give verdicts as per its dictate.
“We want to clearly state that the people of the country won’t let the government implement its plot chalked out to take its political revenge,” he said.
Coup derails tribunals
After the vicious civil war, the first government of the independent country enacted the International Crimes Tribunals Act in 1973, to try those responsible for the “crimes against humanity”.
But a coup in 1975 led to the assassination of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and the military rulers not only shelved the trials of those accused of war crimes, but allowed many of them to return to ordinary life.
Jamaat-e-Islami was even allowed to register as a legitimate political party. Mujib’s party, the Awami League, swept parliamentary elections in December 2008, and his daughter Sheikh Hasina became prime minister.
True to her pre-election pledge, Hasina’s government constituted two war crimes tribunals under the 1973 law – one that began work in 2010 and the other two years later.
Besides Mollah, eight other leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami and two of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are now on the dock, standing trial for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the 1971 war.
“At last, the nation feels some justice is being done. Nobody here wants these war criminals to get away lightly,” says Shahriar Kabir, whose organisation Committee for the Elimination of the Killers and Collaborators of 1971 have pushed for the tribunals since the mid-1990s, after democracy was restored in Bangladesh.
The demonstration has not been entirely peaceful. Ten days after the protests started in Shahbagh, one of its leading figures, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was killed near his house in Dhaka’s Mirpur locality.
An architect by profession and passionate blogger, many believe Rajib represented the form and spirit of the Shahbagh protest, which is largely led by young professionals and students.
Struggle for the future
Lucky Akhtar, one of the main demonstration organisers, says there is more to the protests than just holding those to account for war crimes committed more than 40 years ago.
“The movement is led not by politicians but by those who feel concerned about Bangladesh’s future, those who want the country to return to the secular and liberal spirit of the Liberation War, those who believe in humanity, those who want Bangladesh to be distinctively its own self,” she says.
The movement will go far because it has risen above partisan politics, Akhtar says. “We have touched the soul of the nation.”
Akhtar says the government will have to ban Jamaat-e-Islami and all its affiliates, and finally nationalise its considerable assets.
“The Jamaat and its brand of religion-driven politics has to be eliminated from our soil. It is the unfinished agenda of the Liberation War,” she says.
The government has reacted swiftly to keep pace with the popular mood. Prime Minister Hasina and her party leaders have expressed solidarity with the Shahbagh demonstrators. “I am here but my heart is at Shahbagh,” she told parliament this week.
The government has hinted at a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, and thousands of its activists have been arrested for acts of violence during a series of general strikes the Islamist party sponsored over the last few months.
An amendment to the 1973 crimes tribunal act was also recently passed in parliament, where the ruling Awami League-led coalition enjoys a huge majority. The amendment allows the government to appeal Quader Mollah’s life sentence and request the death penalty.
The legislation will now allow the war crimes tribunals to try organisations and political parties for alleged crimes committed during the war of independence.
Conspiracy to destroy Jamaat?
The opposition has denounced the parliamentary amendment, describing it as politically motivated. Jamaat leader Islam Khan says the government is clearly out to destroy his party.
The party has accused Prime Minister Hasina of backing the Shahbagh protests for possible electoral gains. Whipping up nationalistic sentiments and banning Jamaat – an important ally of the BNP – would seriously dent the opposition ranks and hand her the advantage in the run up to next year’s elections.
The Shahbagh protesters, however, deny any ties to the government.
Many of Bangladesh’s most important historical moments have roots at Shahbagh. The rise of the Bengali-language movement, the call for independence by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and the surrender ceremony of the Pakistan army all happened within a few kilometers of the square.
Some observers say the current Shahbagh occupation could also be a defining moment for Bangladesh.
“History has a habit of repeating itself in Bangladesh,” says historian Sagar Lohani.
Journalist Haroon Habib, who also fought as a guerrilla during the 1971 war, says the Shahbagh demonstration is a struggle between secular Bengali nationalism against Islamic radicalism.
“It is all about which road Bangladesh will take,” Habib says.