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.