|BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia addressing her party men after inspecting the BNP central office at Nayapaltan in Dhaka on Wednesday.|
The ruling coterie’s clever election strategy, in the last year of the present government’s tenure in office, by way of a propaganda offensive challenging the “mild sentence” of life term passed against an old “enemy collaborator” by the coterie’s own International Crimes Tribunal, and whipping up “sacred hatred” against Jamaat-e-Islami for “collaboration with enemy” 42 years back, designed to isolate that party and brought about under the banner of a broad combination of aligned cultural activists with “yuppie” bloggers called the “Shahbag generation”, has flopped after over a month of limelight.
The so-called “non-party” young activists, festively caring on agitation-propaganda to “hang” Jamaat leaders indicted of crimes against humanity during the 9 months of liberation war in 1971, were allowed by the Metropolitan Police to stage their psy-war by blocking a crowded cross-road next to the annual event of a book fair aid to its own headquarters on one side, and two big busy hospitals on the other.
They were given month long twenty four hours’ police protection in plain clothes. Their backers reportedly bought for them television time and media support. They sang old songs from the anti-fascist war period, but were distinctly fascistic in their disrespect for the rule of law and their desire for suppression of Islamists and Islamic politics. And they imitated Indian-style rituals of candle-light “satyagraha.”
Young generation of the Jamaat following, the Shibir, on the other hand, were being hounded out and jailed in big numbers by the police and not allowed to stand anywhere near the main streets to protest the harsh sentences and capital punishment accorded to their revered leaders by “unfair” trials of the International Crimes Tribunal. But the dedicated hordes of Shibir persisted in “lightening demonstrations” from the web of side lanes, and engaged with the trigger-happy police by hit and run tactics, in a manner that is now being termed privately by foreign diplomats in Dhaka and in print by much of the foreign media as primary-level “insurgency”.
One of the purposes of the “Shahbag generation” strategy, apart from drowning adverse press furore over abject failures in governance as well as scandals and corrupt practices in the commodity market, capital market, banking sector, communications sector, power sector-education sector, etc. was the electoral objective of dividing nationalists and Islamists in the opposition 18-party alliance. But excesses in the Shahbag drama, particularly the revelation of “dirty” propaganda in the internet against the Prophet of Islam written by some of leaders of the yuppie bloggers, infuriated sentiments of the clergy as well as pious members of the public.
Their reaction persuaded the Leader of the Opposition to stand by her ally Jamaat-e-Islami more closely and helped her to reach out for a broader opposition front, with possible “nationalist” defections from the ruling grand alliance. But it is not the political opposition, but resurgent spirit of Islam in the form of a call by Islamic scholars “not to allow space” to “atheist bloggers” (in the holy city of Chittagong) that put a stop to the Shahbag generation’s stride to carry on and reach the port city, with ripple effect in other places including Dhaka. The eye of the world (including Delhi?), however, is now focussed essentially on the brewing “insurgency” in Dhaka, as may be evident from the following excerpts in the international media.
Human Rights Watch of New York expressed its anxiety on the Bangladesh on March 1, 2013:
“The Bangladeshi government and the Jamaat-e-Islaami party need to act urgently to ensure that security forces and party supporters do not engage in further acts of violence, which has already led to the death of over 40 people since February 28, Human Rights Watch said today. The violence broke out on February 28.
“The police in Dhaka and other places used live ammunition against protesters. Media reports suggest that most deaths were at the hands of police, but supporters of the ruling Awami League party have also engaged in vandalism and violence. The initial information received by Human Rights Watch suggests that the police were responding to attacks by Jamaat members and supporters that resulted in police and civilian deaths after the party called for protests against the verdict. The Jamaat party has denied that their members are responsible for any lethal violence.
“According to information received by Human Rights Watch, Shibir and other Jamaat supporters resorted to lethal violence after the Sayadee judgment, in protests against the verdict. For example, on March 1 Jamaat supporters killed Saju Mia, aged 30, and Nurunnata Sapu, aged 22, both supporters of the ruling Awami League, following vandalism against Jamaat businesses by a group of Awami League supporters.
“The leadership of Jamaat should immediately issue public statements to its followers to stop these violent, unacceptable attacks against law enforcement officers and those who support the verdicts of the war crimes trials. At the same time, the government should instruct the security forces to strictly observe its obligation to use maximum restraint and avoid lethal force unless necessary to protect their lives or those of others. If cool heads don’t prevail, Dhaka could dissolve into uncontrolled violence.”
On March 5th Toby M. Cadman international criminal law specialist in the areas of war crimes, terrorism, extradition, mutual assistance and human rights law, wrote in Open Democracy from the United Kingdom:
“The present situation in Bangladesh is critical. The demonstrations in Shahbagh, that followed the first two convictions before the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (hereinafter: the Tribunal) have been compared to the revolution that started on Tahrir Square in Cairo. However, there is little comparison to be drawn. The Egyptian revolution sought to overthrow a dictator and return the democratic vote. The demonstrations in Shahbagh are seeking the execution of the leaders of an Islamist political party, and ultimately seeking the abolition of a democratic political party due to its Conservative Islamic beliefs and due to its perceived anti-liberation position in 1971 by supporting a unified Pakistan. One simply has nothing to do with the other.
The danger in what is occurring on the streets of Dhaka today is that mob rule prevails and the country is descending dramatically and rapidly towards civil war. The current Government is doing little to stem the flow of violence. If anything, by supporting the protesters, it is throwing fuel on the flames of discontent. To this point, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has been reported as saying in Parliament that she would talk to the judges to convince them to take the sentiments of the protesters into account in formulating their decisions. It is notable that one of the first judgments issued by the Tribunal referred to the ‘will of the people’ in reaching its decision clearly demonstrating the emotive manner in which these trials are now being conducted.
On 28 February 2013, the third accused, Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayedee, was convicted and sentenced to death following a trial that was characterized by prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, witness perjury, witness abduction and a flagrant denial of basic human rights standards. The call for death echoed by the Shahbagh demonstrators has seemingly dictated the course of events unfolding in the Tribunal in an atmosphere where defence witnesses are now too afraid to appear and where the judges have now been swayed by mob, anti-Jamaat sentiment. The big question is what would have been the response of the Shahbagh demonstrators had Sayedee not received the death sentence. It is clear that the Tribunal Judges were under such pressure to respond to the public calls for blood that, had they not responded as such, it is not inconceivable that it could have been their own blood spilt on Shahbagh. It has become a question of damned if you do damned if you don’t.”
The Asian Human Rights Commission in a report titled, “Shoddy tribunal has pushed the country to the verge of a civil war” on March 7 said, “The tribunal on war crimes established in March 2010 has pushed Bangladesh to extreme violence. Since 28 February, the events have taken a violent turn in which almost 100 persons including women, children and police officers have lost life. Several hundreds more are injured, and properties destroyed of which no body in the country has any true count. Many, who have lost their lives or are injured, were not participating in any armed protest. They were unfortunate to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Both state and non-state actors are responsible for these gruesome events, of which the government apparently has no control.
“Video footages available show the state forces murdering unarmed civilians in full public view. On 15 February, the state police shot Mr. Tofayel Ahmed, a student in Cox’s Bazar district town.
“In another incident, like several others, persons allegedly from the Islami Chhatra Shibir, a student wing of the Jamat-e-Islami, are seen snatching guns from police officers and beating officers to death.
“The violence has spread beyond Dhaka, where hoodlums target members of the minority communities and their properties. Arson and looting is rampant. Places of worship are burned down or otherwise vandalised. It is gruesomely clear that nobody is in control. Amidst the events, political parties are settling their scores against each other, for which the ruling political party is abundantly misusing the state forces.
“The tribunal is a political weapon of the incumbent government and its 14-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Awami League. Persons, who are close to the Awami League are not investigated for war crimes, though there are strong allegations against them. Similar allegations of bias exist concerning investigation and prosecution, that naturally is reflected in the adjudication of cases. The integrity of the investigative, prosecutorial, and adjudicative limbs of the tribunal is also widely questioned.
“The ensuing confusion has resulted in opportunities for criminal elements in the country, to target their victims, most importantly the minorities. The neutral space for discussion and criticism of what is happening in Bangladesh is substantially narrow. Human rights defenders risk various forms of repression. Media and information flow through modern communication tools have been severely restricted and monitored by the state.
“In the mad rush of the political parties to grab power in the country, what they have forgotten is the duty of the state to bring about justice, to those whom it has been denied thus far. The shoddy tribunal, literally negates the possibility of legitimate justice, not only to those who have suffered violence in the past but to the entire psyche of the nation. Worse, the tribunal has become a cause for more violence, and will trash a nation’s hope to seek and obtain justice.
“The country today has slipped further into an abyss where the notion of the rule of law, does not exist. It is Bangladesh’s tragedy that an institution created to deal with past human rights abuses has pushed the country to the verge of a civil war. Deep problems that have affected the functioning of justice institutions today are claiming its inevitable price, in blood.”
And the valued Indian magazine Outlook published on-line the following report for its March 18 printed issue:
“Outlook was on board the Boeing 747 President Pranab Mukherjee flew to Dhaka in even as Bangladesh literally burned. Indian high commission officials sweating it out on the tarmac were relieved once ‘Big Brother’ had arrived in a Jumbo Jet. ‘The size of the aircraft matters, yaar. It sends the right message to the host, it exudes power,’ a first secretary remarked smugly. But the ground situation in the capital city was so scary that when artillery pieces boomed in a ceremonial welcome for the Indian president, some in the entourage mistook it for police firing and were visibly shaken.
“Anti-Jamaat demonstrations at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square by secular-liberal forces and spiralling countrywide violence has turned the spotlight on the BJI, which went on the offensive after February 28, when Sayedee was handed the death sentence. It’s an electoral ally of former PM Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), labelled anti-India, unlike Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League, widely perceived as pro-India. The two parties, backed by their coalition partners, are contenders for power in elections due next year, if they can agree upon the composition of a neutral interim administration—a constitutional requirement to ensure fair elections.
“Even as the Awami League government takes on the Jamaat, does it constitute a clear and present threat to India?
“In September 2011, Manmohan Singh famously said that ‘25 per cent of Bangladeshis swear by the Jamaat, are very anti-Indian and are in the clutches of the ISI’. However, a pertinent question: what has South Block done to win them over since? New Delhi refuses to have any truck with the Jamaat, and calls it a terrorist outfit in cahoots with Pakistan, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“It’s high time India plays ball with the Jamaat. America’s concern for the Jamaat is pretty evident: it has even shrugged off gratuitous Indian advice to engage only with democratic and secular forces in New Delhi’s backyard. Washington has questioned irregularities in the war crimes trials and told Dhaka that human rights violations won’t be tolerated. The US obviously sees the BJI as a key player in its plans to coronate Khaleda Zia, even as India finalises its strategy to ensure another term for Sheikh Hasina.
“Neither Indian diplomats in Dhaka nor Hindu community leaders can recall a murder of a Hindu for purely religious reasons in years. Hindus have been killed by BNP-Jamaat followers, but were essentially victims of political vendetta. They were targeted not as Hindus, but because they were perceived as adversaries owing allegiance to the Awami League. It can be compared with political violence in West Bengal, where CPI(M)-Trinamool clashes regularly claim lives of political workers—many of them Muslims, and from either party.
“A spokesman for the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (HBCUC) told Outlook that an elderly priest of a Hindu temple in Banskhali near Chittagong was beaten to death hours after Sayedee was sentenced on February 28, but Indian high commission officials insist that the death didn’t have religious overtones. Interestingly, in December 2012, a Hindu youth called Biswajit Das was killed in a union clash by members of the Awami League’s students’ wing, Chhatra League, in broad daylight. The 24-year-old victim was captured on camera screaming that he was an apolitical Hindu. Biswajit’s gruesome, cold-blooded murder has blotted the Awami League’s copybook.
“Bangladeshi Hindus may not live under the shadow of the sword, but life for them is not a bed of roses either. The vicious attacks they suffer are economic in nature, but wreak havoc nonetheless. Their homes, shops and cultivable land are targeted, forcing them to migrate to India so that their properties can be appropriated.
“Even so, the HBCUC spokesman said that pogroms like Gujarat or Kokrajhar against the minority community are inconceivable.”