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Photo courtesy: Arif Hafiz

On the 11th day of the Shahbag Movement, one of its leading activists and blogger was murdered.The Movement, which began as a protest against the International Crime Tribunal’s verdict to sentence war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah (assistant secretary-general to the Jamaat-e-Islami party) to life imprisonment, has been the largest uprising of the common people in two decades in Bangladesh. Every day, some 200,000 to 500,000 people gather at the intersection of Shahbag to chant slogans demanding death sentence for Mollah and subsequently, justice for other war criminals. The death of the blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, added new momentum to the Movement — their convictions and cause strengthened.

The murder was not necessarily unprecedented. The Jamaat-e-Islami, right-wing Islamist party in alliance with the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been on the common agenda for a while. Their collaboration with a major political party and subsequent influence in state affairs in spite of being proven guilty of perpetrating the 1971 Liberation War through counter-revolutionary fascistic groups (namely razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams) gave them a kind of political legitimacy unacceptable to the common people. Their student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir has been notoriously involved with bombing, murder and vandalism of public property. Therefore, when Shahbag evolved to an epicentre demanding the banning of Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Chhatra Shibir, the brutal murder of the activist-blogger posed as just the kind of violence characteristic of the aforementioned groups.

Contrary to the impression created across progressive international media, the Shahbag Movement is not about a bloodthirsty mob seeking revenge. The people of Bangladesh have waited for justice to be served for over four decades during which conversations of reconciliation and impunity were not uncommon. The records from the 1971 genocide carve a bloodbath of cold-blooded mass killings and rape – an act disdainful enough to deserve capital punishment. The collaborators of the Pakistani (then West Pakistan) armed forces did not stop with murders of innocents. On the last few days of the war, they unleashed a planned manhunt for intellectuals who would serve as leaders and visionaries for a liberated Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). To wipe a nation’s most progressive minds would not only cripple the journey towards independence; but also permanently damage any form of economic and intellectual growth that a free nation needs to experience to shape its democracy.

If history does not validate the execution of war criminals, their role as political actors after independence builds just as strong a case. The Jamaat-e-Islami is fundamentally an extremist group, responsible for several atrocities upon civilians. The 2003 court order for the murder case of Gopal Krishna Muhuri sentenced four Islami Chhatra Shibir cadres to death penalty. Meanwhile in November 2008, they were found organizing protest rallies against cultural activities at Rajshahi University. Between 2000 and 2012, they were involved in multiple clashes against the Bangladesh Chhatra League (the student wing of the Awami League) and the police leading to the death of innocents in crossfire (the latest of which occurred on the backdrop of Shahbag Movement in Dhaka). Having proven on numerous occasions of spreading philosophies of militant fundamentalism in the name of religion, the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing have long violated the rule of secularism established in the 1972 Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Although secularism was dropped from the Constitution through the Fifth Amendment; in July 2010, the Supreme Court ruled the Fifth Amendment as illegal – hence re-establishing the democracy of Bangladesh does not permit the use of religion for political purposes.

Therefore, what may seem as vengeance is in fact the common people’s fight and rights against fundamentalism. An apolitical gathering, rare for a country that is succumbed with dynastic partisan politics – the Shahbag Movement signifies a long awaited revolt against political violence and political expediency in the judicial system. The demand for death sentence of Abdul Quader Mollah is justified on several counts, at least one of which predicts his release the moment his party or its allies come to power. Two weeks before Mollah’s verdict was announced, the International Crimes Tribunal sentenced Abul Kalam Azad (“Bachchu Razakar”) to death penalty on counts of rape and murder of Hindus in the war. Mollah, who was convicted of the murder of some 344 Bangalis and rape of an 11-year old girl, thereby on no account should receive life sentence unless the proceedings have been tampered with – which reinforces speculations of his release in coming days. If the recent amendments to the 1973 International Crimes Tribunal Act raise concerns for a fair judicial system, questions must also be raised on the fair trials of war criminals, and whether the International Crimes Tribunal can be strictly apolitical with its verdicts.

Yet, criticisms surface around the issue of capital punishment. While it is a constitutional right of the state to try criminals and sentence them to death penalty, the international media and human rights advocates have questioned its validity – and Shahbag’s unwavering quest towards achieving it. Drawing from the Nuremberg trials, the first international war crimes trial held in 1945, 11 of the 22 defendants received the death penalty. In the Eichmann case, the German Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960 and brought to trial in Israel; later found guilty and hanged in 1962, which was years after the Third Reich was defeated in 1945. In 2012 alone, the United States sentenced 43 inmates to death penalty for murder and crimes against humanity. Just across the border on 9 February 2013, Afzal Guru was executed for conspiring and attacking the Indian Parliament resulting in 18 deaths. In each of the unconnected incidents, the convicted were charged with felony against the state that led to mass killings – and if acquitted or sentenced to life imprisonment, will not be aptly penalised for their crimes.

The curious case of Abdul Quader Mollah is clear. If he does not receive the death sentence, the overdue trial of the war criminals will incidentally fall apart – and allow the greatest perpetrators to the liberation of Bangladesh walk free. Evidently, if Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir are not banned, it will allow reign of fundamentalism and push back the country’s vision for democratic secularism 20 years behind. In the course of the Movement, a select delegation of activists submitted a six-point-charter to the speaker Abdul Hamid of the Bangladesh Parliament that outlined the protestors’ demand of fair and apolitical war trials and the subsequent banning of fundamentalist groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and its direct organisations. Consequentially, the newly amended laws in Bangladesh not only allow petitioners to challenge a sentence if it appears to be less than what is due, these laws also make way for swift execution of death sentences and enables the prosecution of any and all organizations involvement in the 1971 war crimes. In a nutshell, regardless of the controversy, the Shahbag Movement signifies justice finally in motion for a country that deserves nothing less than redemption for the genocide that marked its birth.

A way forward, the Shahbag Movement paves towards a turning point in the political and social identity of Bangladesh – and gives its new generation a much-needed direction in identifying themselves as secular and proud Bangladeshis. The separation of the judicial and political system is at stake, and fair trial of war criminals is the first step toward achieving it. Shahbag matters because for very long, the voice of the people were left unheard and the Movement stands as a testament to the true philosophy that led to the country’s birth 42 years ago.

Sabhanaz Rashid Diya is a writer, entrepreneur and social activist, and a reporter at Star Campus, The Daily Star.

10 Responses to “Why Shahbag matters”

  1. Karim

    We do not accept the disturbing of any Islamist fasist organisations. Jamaat Shibir are so much harmful and they think Islam will be achieved within sword. They do not belive any free thinkings. They do not believe our flag.

  2. Shabbir A Bashar

    In any other country, the writer would be sued for making claims without any concrete proof. While any citizen of a democratic society has every right to like or dislike someone, party or ideology, it is very dangerous when people start making claims murder without any proof.

    It is extremely sad that one of bloggers was murdered. Regardless of whatever anti-religious views he has been alleged to have held, under no circumstances does that justify silencing him forever by killing him. But so far I have not seen a single shred of proof about who was responsible. Police investigators have not come out with any specific allegations against anyone. No one has been charged. We simply don’t know who killed him; we simply don’t know why he was killed. To let our suspicions and prejudices to get the better of us and start accusing people indiscriminately is an extremely dangerous and provocative thing to do. It is simply wrong.

    In stark contrast, Magistrate Desmond Nair in Pretoria spent nearly two hours explaining why he let Oscar Pistoria the South African para-olymian, out on bail even though the police claimed that Reeva Steenkamp, Oscar’s girlfriend was killed by Oscar in a pre-planned and pre-meditated fashion. Indeed, Mr Nair was at pains to ensure that what was at stake was justice; under no circumstances was justice going become the victim of a killing.

    Nelson Mandela who was locked up in Robyn Island for several decades came out of prison following pressure from the international community on apartheid South Africa and went out of his way to seek truth and reconciliation instead of revenge and a blood bath against the minority whites. If any reader of my comments has not already done so, I highly recommend that they watch two movies about the rainbow nation: Cry Freedom released in 1987 and Invictus released in 2009.

    It is indeed time to part with the older generation and their ways. Many of them worked very hard – many had to sacrifice their lives – to give some sense of ownership and equity to the hitherto hapless population of what was known as the hinterland of the British Empire – the eastern part of the state of Bengal of British India. The main reason for the fallout between any two parties is economic oppression of one people upon another. And that is what happened when West Pakistan refused to recognize and respect the rights of those who lived in East Pakistan. It is no different to what is happening in Palestine and Israel – which is not a fight between Muslims and Jews but one between the oppressed and the oppressor. It is a good thing that many Israelis have spoken out and continue speaking out against sponsored terrorism of the zionist leadership of Israel.

    I was a toddler in 1971. My mother along with her siblings went and took shelter in knee deep waters of a lake to escape the bullets of the Pakistani army on the night 27th of March 1971; I am supposed to have been in her arms. My grandfather, a judge, was about to be executed while another uncle was lined up to be shot by the Pakistani army. This is what I grew up being told.

    I was also told that after India got involved and the war ended in December 1971, many Biharis were killed indiscriminately. We ended up living in a government flat; as I was growing up, I remember a Bihari lady used to come and ask for financial help from my parents. She and her husband used to live in that flat; her husband was one of the people was killed after the war ended.

    This is what I have been told. These are what I remember from childhood memory.

    It is incumbent upon my generation to take Bangladesh from being least developed country to a middle income country. It is incumbent upon my generation to ensure that our children have a better life than their what the previous generation had. That is what the war was about wasn’t it?

    Yet every aspect of life in Bangladesh is focused on politics instead of productivity. In a globalized world, it will be the productive nations that survive while those who squabble will perish. That is the law of nature.

    All that being said, many of the claims made by the author are simply untenable from a moral point of view. The author talks about secularism: what does that mean? If it means banning religion, then I will strongly oppose it as it violates my democratic right to practice any religion of my choice. If on the other hand it means, the state in its execution of its laws and administration will be blind to the faith of its citizen, then I will whole-heartedly support it. Absolutely no one, but no one has the right to dictate upon me what my faith should or should not be provided my practices or the lack thereof does not impinge upon the right of a fellow citizen.

    The new generation should be focused on ensuring that people do as they say and say as they do. They should NOT be focused on who supports what ideology, what their religion or gender or educational qualification happens to be. All that is absolutely irrelevant. What is important is nation building. What is important is coming together and working together.

    Yes war criminals MUST be punished. But that must be done in a manner that is acceptable to all. And that means the courts should not be dictated to by anyone but the strict interpretation of the laws alone. Justice should be blind; justice is what is of paramount importance. There can be no short cuts. I was amazed and mesmerized by the reasoning given by the South African magistrate I mentioned earlier in the case of Oscar Pistorius. The new generation must ensure that the judges go to pains to rule by the law.

    If the judges act in a questionable manner, then everything falls apart. Everything becomes diluted, convoluted. Common ground is lost. Acceptability is lost.

    We cannot have Skype conversations that cast major doubts on the independence of judges. We cannot have one person being given death penalty and another given life imprisonment when they are said to have committed the same crime. THAT is what I believe was the main reason behind the Shahbag protest.

    To bring in all this hatred against opposition political parties undermines the very objective of a fair justice system.

    Everyone has the right to hate Jamat, BNP, Awami League, Jatya Party and what have you. But don’t forget that they are citizens of Bangladesh and they all have a democratic right to co-exist.

    Shahbag – let your essence be the quest for values and let those not be sabotaged by myopic, incredulous, often ignorant and extremist politics of a stubborn bygone generation which is not in tune with a brave new world where facts, free flow of information and a greater sense of tolerance will win the day.

    It’s about values – not of colour of skin, religion, gender, age, education or wealth. Its about skills; its about survival in a competitive world.

    • Sabhanaz Rashid Diya

      Shabbir, well said. A couple of notes, just for clarification.

      I never, in any part of the article claimed or stated that the blogger was murdered by Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islami Chhatra Shibir or any political/non-political party. I mentioned how the murder wasn’t necessarily unprecedented in a chaotic environment as such, and that Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Chhatra Shibir have been known to commit murders or heinous crimes in the past. The same allegation is true for Chhatra League in the Bishwajit killing (THAT is a claim). There is no reason to put the two together as my opinion because that clearly is not my opinion or conclusion.

      Secondly, in no part of the article I mention religion should be banned. I mentioned a specific party’s EXTREMIST political ideologies are concerning, and the protestors at Shahbag have claimed it to be banned (with reference to the six-point-charter). My focus, from beginning to end was the fair trial of war criminals who, over the past 42 years, have also become important allies in our political environment. What I touched upon is this sense of collaboration which legitimizes their role as “leaders” in our country, especially since they were opposed to our independence, and later opposed our constitution. A party or person’s political and religious ideologies are certainly their own – the concern comes when these ideologies are misused for greater, less moral gains. The concern comes when somebody uses something as peaceful as religion to justify murder, something as democratic as politics to get away with crimes against humanity. THAT is what my article essentially pointed out, nothing against religion or politics. It drew upon political expediency that hinders justice, and justice that should be above all and exclude no one.

      That being said, while writing this piece, I went through a large volume of materials, some of which I used as direct reference for it. The materials presented themselves as background research for this article. A version (with links to my references) of the piece is in my blog – feel free to read it.


      And the fact I don’t think secularism means religious intolerance is something I clarified through another piece I wrote for The Daily Star (http://www.thedailystar.net/campus/2013/02/04/extra.htm).

    • bangalee

      Excellent analysis Shabbir. I totally agree with you. No wonder why Bangladesh is still on the bottom of the list of countries in terms economic conditions!

  3. bha

    I want a country for people of every religion, every faith. I want a country where i can keep my head high.

  4. Mostofa Kamal

    Yes we demand justice. Yes we want Quader Mollah and other war criminals brought to book. Make it happen.

  5. Bashir

    Shahbagh is the platform of the youth. The youth who dream of a Bangladesh free of Razakaars and religious fanatics.

    Thank you Ms Diya for an extremely well written article.

  6. Mozammel Haque

    Shahbag gathering shows one thing- some public has no faith on the legal system of the nation and if this continues- where we will reach- the future will tell.

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