- Posted March 7, 2013 by
Iowa City, Iowa
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The Shahbag Movement of Bangladesh: A Voice against War Crimes and Terrorisms in the Name of Islam
On the 5th of March, the young bloggers, online activists, college students and hundreds of people alike woke up at the first light of dawn. They have been sleeping on the streets for the last one month, since the day they occupied Shahbag- a busy intersection of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The movement has been given many popular names including ‘Shahbag Square movement’ and ‘Occupy Shahbag’ in line with the famous popular uprisings in Tahrir square and Wall Street. However, the protesters do not care much about what people call it. They demand for trials of war criminals of 1971 war and the ban on the Islamic party ‘Jamat-e-Islami’, demands that have stirred up debates in many countries of the world. Of course, a Muslim-majority population demanding ban on Islamic extremists is not something that happens every day.
Bangladesh is a populous tropical country in South Asia, about the size of the state of Iowa and home to a population of over 160 million people, almost ninety percent of whom are Muslims. Gaining liberation from Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1971, it is one of the youngest countries in the world. In 1947, Bangladesh became a privince of the newly formed Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But soon afterwards, the linguistic, cultural and ideological incompatibility of these two people became evident. These differences eventually caused the separation of these two regions through the nine month long bloody war that claimed millions of Bangladeshi lives. The actual statistics of war casualty is much debated, but most researchers have put the estimates between 1 and 3 million. Also, as many as a quarter of a million women were raped and brutalized during the period.
Since then, the Bangladeshi authority has been demanding the formal apology from the government of Pakistan for the genocides and also trial of the army officers who led these atrocities. At the same time they have been trying to bring the local war criminals to justice, a process that has been interrupted time and again by the volatile political circumstances. The local allies to the perpetrators mostly belonged to Jamat-e-Islami, the religious right wing. This political institution served as an auxiliary force to the Pakistan army in the war and many of its leaders were directly involved in the genocide. Four decades after liberation, the present government finally stood up to the task of trying the war criminals that form formidable opponent considering the immense international support they enjoy from mostly middle-eastern Islamic countries. Soon, the government seemed to succumb to the political pressure both from within and outside the country. They started to linger the procedures. When asked, the lawmakers would give circumlocutory answers. Many started doubting where the trial process was going and there was an increasing lack of trust among people. This growing dissatisfaction reached its threshold when arguably the most vicious of war criminals Kader Mollah was found guilty of murdering 344 civilians during the war and sentenced to a life-term in prison, a sentence that Mullah rejoiced by flashing the ‘victory’ signs to the awaiting mob- seemingly celebrating his escape of the death penalty. A life-term in Bangladesh amounts to some 14 years in prison, but the political history of Bangladesh has seen such verdicts overturned with the change in political scenario and convicted criminals freed and allowed to resume politics as before. Many believed that Mullah would be freed within a year or two, if the right-wing comes to power again.
Therefore, some bloggers and online activists called for a peaceful procession demanding death penalty for Kader Mollah on 5 February, the day the verdict was given. Soon this call echoed through blogs and social media like facebook. In a matter of hours several hundred people took streets in front of the National Museum of Shahbag. The next day, people poured down and soon the numbers were beyond any imagination. The roads in the surrounding area were closed and the spot was named ‘projonmo chattor’ meaning the New Generation Square. On one weekend, the number of people in the gathering reached over one million which surpasses any previous account in any popular movement in this part of the world. The protesters demanded the necessary amendments to the War Crimes Act to prevent accidental acquittal of the war criminals as well as a complete ban on Jamat-e-Islami. The ‘Shahbag Movement’ has been going on unabated since then. There people chant slogans, sing patriotic songs, recite poems, draw paintings, organize live acts, build sculptures and discuss the history of the liberation war. People from all classes, generations and political beliefs have poured in and expressed their solidarity with the movement.
The movement has already achieved much. The government amended the War Crime Act enabling the war crime tribunal to try political organizations as well as individuals for war crime charges and also allowing the state to appeal against the verdicts, a right that was previously enjoyed only by the convicted. In the light of this modified war crime act, another notorious war criminal Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi has been sentenced to death. Sayeedi, like many other war criminals is a central leader of Jamaat-e-Islami and an internationally renowned spiritual leader. As expected, this verdict sent shockwaves through international Muslim communities including those of Middle-East, Europe and United States. In Bangladesh itself, the supporters of Jamat-e-Islami have taken streets with primitive weapons like knives and swords as well as firearms and home-made bombs. They have been clashing with police and other law enforcing agencies since the day the verdict was given. In some places the religious minorities have been massacred. Several cops have also been killed in different places. This has claimed nearly a hundred lives already and destruction of millions of dollars’ worth public property. The government of Bangladesh, whose term ends in ten months, is trying its best to bring the situation under control and prevent the possibility of a civil war. On the other hand, the Shahbag protesters rejoice the verdict. The movement itself is growing and is not localized anymore. It has reached out to all the major cities in the country as well as the major cities of Europe, US and Asia that have significant numbers of Bengali populations. Bangladeshi students of many US universities have expressed solidarity with the movement. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before this non-violent movement will come under attack of the extremist groups. It is hard to predict how situations will evolve if that really happens.
Bangladeshis as a nation have always stood against religious extremism. The people are mostly performing Muslims, but they have always rejected religious discriminations and the culture of violence in the name of religion. In 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman promised the people a free, sovereign, secular democratic state ‘Golden Bangla’- a dream that resonated all over the country. Till date people of Bangladesh refer to that idea as ‘the dream of golden Bangla’. I see this movement as an endorsement that that dream is still alive and that it resonates through the hearts of millions. I see this movement as a categorical rejection of religious violence.
The political scenario of Bangladesh is in turmoil to say the least. It is almost impossible to predict what future will bring. But this is probably a struggle a nation must face to bring about the much desired changes to ensure religious, racial and cultural harmony between people all across the societies. As a Bangladeshi, I see this as the imminence of the birth of a secular democratic country which will serve as an example of how to reconcile Islam with democracy and secularism.