Deconstructing the Shahbagh Square protests

Zeeshan Khan

Bangladeshi students and pro-government supporters gather during a rally demanding death to Islamic political party leaders who are on trial for alleged war crimes during the country’s 1971 independence war, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Eight top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party, are being tried on charges of mass killings, rapes and arson allegedly committed during Bangladesh’s nine-month war of separation from Pakistan. — AP Photo
Bangladeshi students and pro-government supporters gather during a rally demanding death to Islamic political party leaders who are on trial for alleged war crimes during the country’s 1971 independence war, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Eight top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party, are being tried on charges of mass killings, rapes and arson allegedly committed during Bangladesh’s nine-month war of separation from Pakistan. — AP Photo

DHAKA: The question of capital punishment stirs strong feelings and so it should. Every death brings bereavement. People unrelated to the crime – wives, children, siblings, husbands, parents – suffer as deep a loss as the people who lost loved ones because of it.

It can never be a wonderful thing to end a life, and as someone recently pointed out to me, to assume to possess the moral authority to do so is assuming quite a lot. At the very least, no death should ever be celebrated. The impassioned and festive calls by little children for Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leader ‘Koshai’ Kader Mollah to be sent to the gallows for his crimes against humanity during the 1971 war of independence are certainly revolting, but perhaps that presents a limited view of what’s really going on all of a sudden in Bangladesh.

And what’s really happening is astounding. Thousands of people have gathered peacefully for days and nights in a country known for violent demonstrations; demanding that their judiciary deliver justice even when a combined assault by Jamaat and its student wing Shibir looms large and in some ways, has already begun.

The protests are decidedly non-partisan and have resisted every attempt by leading parties to use their movement, including the ruling Awami League which initiated the war crimes tribunal and whose tacit patronage they receive in the form of police protection, public toilets and parliamentary speeches.

They have however, allowed members of civil society, intellectuals, freedom fighters and activists to give speeches and have been endorsed by numerous non-political entities, including the Bangladesh cricket team.  In a country where partisan divisions go deep, this is truly an unprecedented development.

It began when a group of bloggers calling themselves the Bloggers and Online Activists Network or BOAN assembled at Shahbagh Square, now the centre stage for the sit-ins, and registered their disgust for the life sentence that was handed down to Kader Mollah, in spite of the fact that he had been found guilty of being complicit in murder and several cases of torture and rape, including that of an 11-year-old girl.

The news about the sit-in spread virally, and by late afternoon a few thousand people had added their voices. By the first week, it was somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people, with chapters springing up across the country. Meals are provided, wi-fi is free and open, performances are catered for, an enormous petition has been rolled out, people come with their families and everything about the place is communal and considerate – except towards Razakars (those who were members and supporters of pro-Pakistan militia), of course, who are being given no quarter at all.

Asif Moinuddin, one of the BOAN bloggers and a member of the core group at Shahbagh, who was stabbed a few months ago by Shibir cadres for blogging about atheism and religious fanaticism, says their agenda goes beyond the hangings. It’s about rooting out a culture of low and high level terrorism, the sort that he was a victim of, perpetrated in the name of religion. He said they are fighting for the right to live in a functional, secular country where their freedom of expression and thought is not constantly challenged and where political intimidation and impunity is a thing of the past.

He was careful to make it clear that this was not a movement against religion, but against the misuse of religion in politics and simply an affirmation of the principles that Bangladesh was founded on – nationalism, secularism, democracy and justice.

Even though on the surface, Bangladesh doesn’t look like Afghanistan or even Saudi Arabia, the influence of a particularly intolerant brand of Islam remains perilously close. JI’s leanings are consistent with many elements of these doctrines, and their website plainly demonstrates their desire to be involved in politics only because it’s a necessary evil by which the imposition of Shariah can be realised. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the term ‘shibir’ was synonymous with ‘horror’ as student wing activists routinely slit political opponents’ tendons and throats. During their tenure as part of the previous coalition government, a creeping religious censorship entered the public sphere and manifested itself as acts of vandalism or outright murder.

A sharp spike in activity against secular, academic, cultural, non-Muslim groups and even the prime minister ,was witnessed during this period and while most were perpetrated by groups like Jamaatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkatul Jihad Islami (HuJI) and not by the JI, the fact that it happened on their watch is noteworthy. Some of these activities were carried out with Jamaat’s direct consent. The minority Ahmmadiya community was targeted, their literature banned and their mosques dismantled, and Shibbir activists viciously attacked the writer Humayun Azad with machetes for a book in which he exposed Jamaat’s militancy, both past and present.

The nation-wide fear of being held hostage to a radical interpretation of Islam is a very real one, and one that the Jamaat-Shibbir nexus perpetuates with their tactics of terror. Immediately after the first verdict, AbulKalam Azad aka BacchuRazakar’s death sentence, they declared a nationwide strike, which was marked by violence including the clubbing to near-death of a police officer.

They followed this up with a second equally violent strike, and went as far as threatening the government with civil war if more death penalties were issued. Over the last few days they have taken to the streets, shooting at the police indiscriminately, injuring many of them along with civilians. They have attacked Jahangirnagar University’s Vice Chancellor for going to Shahbagh and have entered into a sustained campaign of vilification, calling the movement an affront to God and the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), and encouraging ‘God-fearing’ people everywhere to resist it.

Things have begun to get ugly with one of the BOAN bloggers, Rajib Haider being murdered in a way that bears all the signs of a JI hit. Violent clashes with the police have left people dead on both sidesand last Friday after Jumma prayers thousands of people across the country driven by JI’s smear campaign against the movementattacked journalists and symbols of Bengali nationalism byburning flags and vandalising a monument to the language martyrs of 1952. They have threatened to swoop on Shahbagh or bomb it and security is on high alert.

The Awami League government has begun developing legislation to ban JI from politics while simultaneously shutting down their sources of funding and communications and a full-scale political showdown is in the making. There have been skirmishes in mosques between pro and anti JI supporters and an uncomfortable polarisation is beginning to develop between a religious right that feels under attack and a secular left that is growing more and more emboldened.

Jamaat considers the War Crimes Tribunal a kangaroo court and have strongly questioned its integrity, along with the government’s motives, which they believe include vendetta and political manoeuvring. In a sort of upside down reality, their sentiments are shared by some western governments as well as rights groups and independent observers that claim the trial falls short of established standards of due process.

Muslim countries have also voiced their concerns, with the Turkish president going as far as sending a letter to the Bangladeshi prime minister asking for clemency for the accused. There have also been protests at the recent Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit against the government of Bangladesh.

Given all this, the government’s commitment to follow through(questionable verdicts notwithstanding), and the demonstrations at Shahbagh along with the nationwide solidarity they have encouraged, shows that this is an issue that still inflames.

Questions about the legality of challenging judicial rulings in as flagrant a manner as is being done in Shahbagh can also be added to an already enormous list of anomalies. It veers close to contempt of court, since a ruling can be challenged within the framework of appeals, but not on the streets. In a contradictory move, the Awami League, which has been able to stem their plummeting popularity by supporting the movement, has distanced itself from the courts, coming close to contempt of court themselves.

They have also hastily put together a bill, which will give powers to the prosecutor to appeal for a raised sentence; a power previously unavailable and also quite improper after a verdict has already been given. If the prosecution appeals and there’s every chance they will, then Kader Mollah’s case will be reviewed again. He’ll probably be found guilty and hanged. But if, as the observers say, the trials are politically motivated then we will have to ask ourselves if the right people are being punished for these horrific crimes. And if not, it begs the question: who and where are the real razakars?

What happens in the political realm in Bangladesh is always messy and murky, and if the people at Shahbagh are being used as a political tool then it’s most unfortunate. The energy that they have brought to the table is remarkable and their ability to control large numbers of people makes them a force to be reckoned with.

The macabre calls for death are certainly disturbing and the imprint it will leave on the country’s national psyche is cause for concern, but I’m heartened when I also hear slogans like golakatarajniti, rogkatarajniti ain kor e nishiddhokoro (ban the politics of terror) ‘moulobadirajniti ain korenishiddhokoro (ban fundamentalism)Ai Banglarmati, hobena Afghanistan, hobena Mali (Bengal will never be Afghanistan or Mali).

If the movement expands to become a cry for conscientious governance, as still other slogans suggest it might do, then it’s very encouraging indeed.

Zeeshan Khan is the Deputy Web Editor of the Dhaka Tribune, and has previously worked as a communication officer for DFID and the UN.

Source: Dawn


  1. Interesting that the young female marchers are wearing ‘Shalwar Kameez’ associated with West Pakistan in the photo accompanying your article. In Pre-1971 days, at the height of the nationalist and liberation movement we were scared to wear it. Some women were actually beaten for wearing the oppressor’s dress. In all the photos of 1971, women protestors are always in saris.


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