By Jason Motlagh
A young girl’s call pierces through the din of the packed square. Like the macabre billboards that loom above featuring bearded old men in nooses, and the blood red headbands worn by scores of participants, her demands are direct and full-throated: “Hang the war criminals and long live Bangladesh!” The fact that she and most of her fellow protesters were not yet born when the crimes at issue were committed, more than four decades ago during the country’s bitter war for independence, is beside the point. “This is a shame on our nation,” says Nidhi Hossain, the 13-year-old girl holding the megaphone. “We must get rid of these criminals once and for all so we can move forward.”
Protests — even very, very large ones — are nothing new in the world’s most densely populated city. Tens of thousands are known to take to the streets to chant down rivals or the latest spike in petrol prices. The difference with the now two-week-old Shahbagh movement, say those old enough to know, is that it has managed to transcend Bangladesh’s stale party politics, religion and the age divide unlike any mass agitation in recent memory. While the ruling Awami League party has tried to co-opt some of the momentum and the opposition is crying foul, all have taken a backseat to a frustrated young generation that is finding its voice.
“The No. 1 thing about Shahbagh is that it’s political, yet nonpartisan,” says Toufique Imrose Khalidi, editor in chief of bdnews24.com, a leading online news outlet. In country where a maidservant is sure to get death for killing one person, he explains, young people are simply trying to figure out why convicted war criminals are not punished accordingly. “This is really about the rule of law and democracy, about justice in general. Nothing is fair in this country, and never has been.”
The protests began Feb. 5 after Abdul Kader Mullah, the leader of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), was sentenced to life in prison for murder and abetting Pakistani forces during the 1971 liberation war. JI members were among those who collaborated with Pakistan in a brutal campaign to quell a nationalist uprising that included widespread rape, systemic killings and a targeted push against Bangladeshi intellectuals. All these years later, JI remains a fixture in national politics with vast, lucrative business interests. As such, analysts say, many Bangladeshis took the belated verdict against Mullah to be emblematic of a broken legal system — and a possible way out for the convicted, should the party’s political allies gain the upper hand in the future.
In response, online activists organized a gathering at the capital’s Shahbagh Square. What they initially hoped would draw between 400 and 500 people has since swelled to over 100,000, with some estimates placing the number far higher. The protests continue to swell, in the capital and other major cities, despite the threat of violence and intimidation. And, grim effigies notwithstanding, they have taken on a carnival-like atmosphere: floats and drum circles, ice cream vendors and free food are on hand for the mix of students, teachers, café owners and rickshaw pullers who say they have come together to right a historic wrong.
“We fought and died for liberation, but the people have not seen the benefits,” says Shiraz ul-Islam, 76, a war veteran who bore shrapnel scars on his shins and wrist and a bullet graze across his forehead. He first heard about the protests while in the hospital recovering from surgery and says he was restless to “help support the youth who want to finish the revolution that we started.” On his seventh day out, ul-Islam was accompanied by three of his daughters and his 12-year-old granddaughter as fresh crowds poured into the square waving banners and flags calling for Mullah’s execution.
The movement appears to have doubled down since the killing of one of its own. Late last Friday, Ahmed Rajib Haider, an outspoken blogger and co-organizer, was stabbed to death by unknown assailants. Activists blame members of JI’s youth wing, which has been involved in sporadic street attacks since the protests began. (JI officials reject the charge.) In the aftermath, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina vowed she would not rest until the party is banned and moved quickly to do so. Over the weekend, the government passed an amendment allowing a tribunal to punish any organization whose members committed crimes during the country’s fight for independence. Another gave prosecutors the right to appeal any of the panels’ verdicts, effectively laying the groundwork for a ban.
In a statement published on the JI’s website, acting general secretary Rafiqul Islam Khan asserted that the moves were part of a “plot to push the country into severe anarchy” by an Awami League–led government bent on “political revenge.” It could take weeks until Mullah goes back to court, but his lawyer Abdur Razzaq contends that under this kind of pressurized climate, any chance of a fair hearing is precluded. What’s more, he warns, the lack of “political space” for JI and its faithful is likely to cause more trouble in the weeks ahead.
Having already defied JI calls for a nationwide strike and the death of a comrade, the Shahbagh protesters insist they are undeterred. “Since killing, we have taken an oath not to leave until we have true justice,” says Mamudul Haque Munshi, 28, a protest organizer with the Blogger and Online Activist Network. “We can change the political equation here.” For his part, Khalidi, the editor, hedges that it’s too early to make facile comparisons with of a paradigm shift in the national politics, given the deep-seated corruption and powerful players. But, like many of his generation, he does not want to underestimate the youths now filling the streets either. “They are capable,” says the former activist. “Let’s wait and see.”