In a joint press-briefing given by the Indian and Bangladeshi foreign ministers in Dhaka on February 17, playright-diplomat Salman Khurshid and physician-diplomat Dr. Dipu Moni made a common cause of saluting the energised crowd of young revellers in Shahbag road-junction. A leading Bengali newspaper of Kolkata, Ananda Bazar Patrika hailed “India’s salute” to Shahbag generation.
On February 18, leading English newspaper of Delhi, The Times of India reported:
“Bangladesh’s parliament, meeting demands of protesters thronging the capital, amended a law on Sunday allowing the state to appeal any verdict in war crimes trials it deems inadequate and out of step with public opinion.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators jamming central Shahbag Square for the 13th day burst into cheers amid driving rain as the assembly approved the changes.
The protesters have been demanding the death penalty for war crimes after a tribunal this month sentenced a prominent Islamist to life in prison in connection with Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
“Lawyers said the amendment sets a timetable for the government to appeal against Mollah’s sentence and secure a retrial. The previous law did not allow state prosecutors to call for a retrial except in the case of acquittals. Adoption was quick — less than a week after the amendment was approved by the cabinet in the overwhelmingly Muslim country of 150 million.
Opposition benches were empty as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the BNP) of former premier Begum Khaleda Zia and its allies have been boycotting sessions almost since her arch rival, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, took office in 2009. On Sunday (February 17), BNP leaders and activists held a rally outside the party’s central office in the capital.
“The government is trying to use the protests over the war crime trials to divert attention from critical national issues such as our demand for election under a caretaker authority to ensure a clean and unbiased vote,” BNP’s acting Secretary-General, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, told the rally.
“Bangladesh has shut down a blog site after it was linked to the murder of a anti-Islamist blogger who helped organize protests against the leaders of the largest Islamic party, officials said on Sunday. Blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, 35, was hacked to death near his home in Dhaka on Friday night.”
Thus “India’s salute” to Shahbag generation in Dhaka may not be finding space to reverberate in the Indian media very much. Indeed, as with cry for capital punishment for hated offences like rape in India itself, the cry for hanging of “crimes against humanity” in Shahbag is beginning to raise eye-brows amongst sober people in India like in the West. Western governments and human right activists have already made their reservations well-articulated in the media over the faulty process of trial and an earlier verdict of capital punishment accorded to an accused in absentia in the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh.
Visiting Senior State Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth office, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi made it clear to some media men in Dhaka on February 18 that Europeans do not support the cry for capital punishment. “Bangladesh can work towards exposing the war criminals instead of demanding death penalty for them as this could make martyrs out of the war criminals instead of letting them serve their time in prison,” Warsi said. She further said Bangladesh should focus more on productivity rather than allow partisan politics to influence their ethics.
In India itself, debates online and on TV screen are seriously questioning the merit of capital punishment. The “jubilant flash mob” in Shahbag is hardly obtaining any resonance or empathetic response from the social media in the West or even in India.
Shubham Ghosh in a news.oneindia.in feature lamented, on the contrary, how the contagion of a fever for “retributive justice” was clouding “collective conscience” of young people both in India and Bangladesh. He wrote:
“Two recent incidents in the Indian sub-continent proved beyond doubt that no matter how much we claim ourselves as democracies, at the end of the day we are nothing but a poor people who vent their frustration through sadistic instincts. Democracy in this part of the world, is turning out into a festival of the mob where the freedom to execute is justified in the name of ‘collective conscience’ and used abundantly without regretting.
“While in India, the government executed a Kashmiri named Afzal Guru after convicting him in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and did not even allow a chance to the man’s family to meet him before sending him to the gallows, in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, thousands of citizens protested after the war crime tribunal spared Abdul Quader Mollah, a right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami leader convicted of rape, torture and murder, was spared death penalty by the country’s war crime tribunal.
“Why is this sudden clamour for death penalty? Why instead of looking forward, these post-colonial states are expressing intent to turn back? Why can’t the vocabulary of the state machinery be made free from words like revenge, retaliation and retributive justice? No criminal act can be supported but does that mean we continue to execute just a few men to apparently undo a shameful piece of history? It is indeed encouraging to see that an entirely new generation is identifying itself with the sentiments of the liberation war fought over four decades ago but isn’t reason being knocked out by passion there, something which doesn’t augur well for law. The demand to ban Jamaat in the name of secular democracy is also incredible, particularly when both of the country’s main political parties work on dynastic principles.
“(Guru’s) sudden execution and the subsequent imposition of curfew in Kashmir and gagging the local media gave a message to the local people that the Indian state still thinks about that part in rigid terms.
“Both the opportunist political establishment and sensationalist media demonised Guru and only circumstantial evidence was found to be enough for his elimination.
“Kashmir proved to be a security concern more for the Indian rulers than a political one. A police state didn’t allow a chance to democracy.”
Hopefully in Bangladesh, the crowd in Shahbag may be beginning to lose momentum, and “collective conscience” is getting feedback from the grassroots to abandon partisan passions and focus more on “productivity” and “ethics.”