Witness to History

Photo: Hassan Bipul

It was a year ago today. Like many others, I vividly remember where I was at that moment. On 5th February 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal was due to declare the verdict on Abdul Quader Mollah, collaborator on war crimes with the Pakistan Army during our Liberation War and accused of committing atrocities in Mirpur area in particular. The ICT had already announced the death sentence in absentia for Abul Kalam Azad, another war criminal who is now a fugitive. This verdict was going to be the first one where the accused was present. Understandably, all eyes were on the situation. The Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh had declared a strike on the day, something that they continued doing every time one of their leaders was brought to task for their past crimes.

At the precise moment when the verdict was announced, I was out on an errand and decided to check on my cellphone for news updates, and there it was. The tribunal had sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah to life imprisonment, despite the fact that he was found guilty of having superior responsibility behind over 300 deaths. Their rationale was something along the lines of how he ordered these crimes but did not commit any of them himself. This was rationale that would find a German foot soldier guiltier than Adolf Hitler himself. I felt disappointed and cheated. As I found out within the next few hours, I was not the only one.

Photo: bdnews4.com

The social media was abuzz with a mix of outrage and heartbreaking disappointment. Everyone was talking about the lack of logic behind this sentence, speculating whether the tribunal was being held on these war criminals for some reason. One thing was clear – a substantial number of people did not feel as though justice had been served. But what of it? We, the people of Bangladesh, are disappointed at every turn. All we ever do about it is complain on the internet for a few weeks, and then forget anything ever happened. This time would not be any different either.

Fortunately, I was wrong. Around later afternoon, reports started coming on of people gathering at Shahbagh to protest this verdict. This was already a novel concept, but the cynic in me was still not impressed. These people would leave Shahbagh in an hour, and once again forget the whole issue in a few weeks.

But I was wrong again. People kept pouring in for the next several days. The first time I went there myself I got off the bus near Bangla Motor and had to walk. As I walked towards the stage, slogans drifted to me. Slogans that called for justice, for honouring the sacrifice we made in 1971. It gave me goosebumps. As I walked towards the stage, I felt like I am about to enter a whole new era in our history. I was.

Photo: bdnews24.com

It is no surprise that politically conscious people, who have been talking and writing about the war crimes trials, were there at Shahbagh. What surprised a lot of us, pleasantly, was how people who never bothered themselves with the politics or current affairs of this country were now all heading to Shahbagh. Maybe they were just indulging themselves on an impulse, but even that gave others the opportunity to discuss the Liberation War and the war crimes perpetrated on Bangladesh. It created an opportunity for dialogue; it gave some of us a chance to tell our younger siblings, nephews and nieces, and our students about the history and the cost of our freedom. It nothing else, this opportunity has been one of the greatest gifts of the Shahbagh movement.

A year has gone by. Abdul Quader Mollah has since then been executed. A lot of other war criminals have also had their sentences declared. Some of these have also been disappointing, but the process has been carried out and awareness of these people and their crimes have been well-established. Someone I look up to and deeply admire once told me, these people are now proven criminals. No matter what may happen in the future, that much has been established beyond doubt, which is more than we had achieved in all the preceding decades.

The Shahbagh movement has many detractors. Some have no logical reasons behind why they disapprove of it, which makes one suspect that their only problem with the movement has something to do with how it demands the highest possible punishment for war criminals. Others have somewhat more admissible reasons, but this is how I look at the issue. No individual or movement is perfect and above criticism. The Shahbagh movement involves many people, not all of whom we have to like or even agree with. The movement may even have had aspects we are not totally on board with. However, it is important not to lose sight of the forest because we are so intently looking at the trees. Regardless of however many differences, all of us do have one overwhelming thing in common – we want to see the war criminals pay their dues in full. Now we can choose to nitpick about all the little things we differ on, or agree to stand united in that one common demand. Care must be taken in such a choice, because our enemies don’t nitpick. They stand united in their hopes of someday fulfilling their designs of destroying this nation and all that it stands for.

I am sure a lot could be alleged about the Shahbagh movement. But to me it seems that we must not lose sight of the one big thing it has given us – for the first time I remember in my life, everyone took an interest in our history. For the first time I remember, siding with Jamaat and war criminals is being publicly regarded as a shameful thing. The teenagers of 2013 are entering a world where 1971 is not just a number, but a proud heritage that they wish to know more about. Unlike many of us who grew up in darker times, they will not be unaware of their roots. If nothing else, Shahbagh has reminded this nation, clearly and unambiguously, who its heroes were, and who its villains are.

Source: Bd news24

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