Are the Dhaka war tribunal protests morphing into a wider ‘Bengali Spring’?


Guest post by Rashad Ullah

News reports on the mass demonstrations in the heart of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, now in their fourth full day, dutifully report that Bangladeshis are protesting the verdict of a war crimes tribunal, but they may be missing the larger story — the genesis of a wider social protest movement in the world’s eighth-most populous country.bangladesh flag icon

At face value, the demonstrators are protesting the lighter-than-expected life sentence delivered earlier this week to Abdul Quader Mollah, an alleged war criminal — protestors who favor the death penalty held up signs of “ফাঁসি চাই (“Hanging Wanted”).

The verdict came as a result of a war crimes tribunal prosecuted by the Bangladesh government to bring to justice atrocities committed during the country’s independence war in 1971.  Quader Mollah, a leader of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (বাংলাদেশ জামায়াতে ইসলামী), the country’s largest Islamist party, which opposed the liberation of what was then East Pakistan in 1971 from Islamabad’s control, and Quader Mollah has been accused of masterminding killings against pro-independence intellectuals and perpetrating institutional violence against women.

In recent years, Jamaat-e-Islami has joined a government coalition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (বাংলাদেশ জাতীয়তাবাদী দল), one of Bangladesh’s two major parties, from 2001 to 2006, and serves in opposition to the current government headed by the more progressive, secular, and historically pro-Indian Bangladesh Awami League (বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ), which promised a war crimes tribunal during its victorious 2008 election campaign.

Although the demonstrations were initially organized on Tuesday by a group called the Bloggers and Online Activist Network, thousands of people have joined the protests at the Shahbagh intersection (the area separates “Old Dhaka” and “New Dhaka” and historically a site of major demonstrations). By now, it has become clear that the demonstrations are no longer simply about this particular verdict in this particular tribunal.

Moreover, the quickly congealing Shahbagh movement is as much a national soul-searching as anything else.

The vast majority of participants in the social media-fueled protests are young people who weren’t even alive in 1971, and the energy of the protests over the past four days has made for some odd contrasts — the demands for Quader Mollah’s execution (including mock nooses) are suffused into a carnival-like atmosphere complete with face paint,continuous singing,  and even a monument of paper flowers.  Although outside observers may find the death imagery a somewhat abhorrent reaction of a bloodthirsty mob, it’s important to keep in mind that the protests go directly to the heart of the events that brought the Bangladeshi state into being.

The Bangladesh war crimes tribunal, flawed though it may be, is an attempt to bring justice and closure to the rape, torture, and killings of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of civilians that are quite rightly seen as the original sin that accompanied Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in ten brutal months during 1971.

Pakistani military leaders, common soldiers, and paramilitary militias composed of razakar (originally Urdu for ‘volunteer,’ but now a term used in Bangladesh to mean ‘traitor’) all share culpability for the wave of terror, atrocities amply documented by international journalists at the time.  U.S. government cables, some now declassified, even use the term “genocide” to describe the 1971 events.  So while there’s no doubt of the scope of the atrocities, equally shocking, perhaps, is that Bangladesh’s leaders have never taken successful action to document exactly what happened or to bring any kind of restorative or retributive justice in the name of the victims of the violence.

As the late Jalal Alamgir, a Bangladeshi academic and political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston eloquently wrote in a June 2010 essay (very much worth reading in full): “In Bangladesh, convenience and immorality combined to breed rounds of injustice out of the collective trauma of 1971.”

Although Bangladesh attempted to initiate war crimes trials immediately after independence in 1971, for the most part, the Pakistani army simply retreated back into Pakistan, and the leading razakar Bengali collaborators either fled to Pakistan (though many returned to Bangladesh later and reorganized into the Jamaat-e-Islami movement), or otherwise disappeared into the chaotic fabric of post-war life.

Western powers (most notably the United States, allied with Pakistan throughout the Cold War and which preferred the BNP historically to the more leftist Awami League), the People’s Republic of China, and the larger Islamic world all turned a blind eye to the war crimes — after all, the issue was geopolitically unimportant to the larger powers, from whom the fledgling new Bangladeshi nation sought legitimacy, and the war crimes issue was a stumbling block for diplomacy and moving forward with the business of developing a governing apparatus for the new country.

Ironically, many who opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan — and who even allegedly committed war crimes — became Bangladeshi political leaders, mainly through the Jamaat-e-Islami.  With the vicissitudes of Bangladeshi political history — brutal assassinations, military coups, and the hegemony of Bangladeshi’s two major parties, ruled more by familial vendettas than either their surface-level differences over ideology or statecraft — the various Islamist leaders who once collaborated with the Pakistani occupying army were never forced to provide a full account of their actions.

To get a sense of the delicacy surrounding Bangladeshi independence, it’s worth noting that history books in Bangladeshi schools in the 1980s and 1990s did not even mention ‘Pakistan’ by name in recounting the independence war.  An entire generation of students — the bulk of those marching today in Dhaka — did not learn the full story of how their country came into being, and now multiple generations of Bangladeshi carry that tremendous burden, with neither a reckoning of truth and reconciliation nor the hard-eyed imprisonments or executions that, in the eyes of many Bangladeshis, would be the only suitable justice for the still-unpunished crimes of 1971.

The mass movement that’s quickly gathered in Dhaka, then, is also an outcry for social justice in the broader sense.  As one observer, Maha Mirza, reported this morning on Facebook (translated from the original Bengali and used with permission):

The media reports keep saying the protestors demand the hanging of Quader Mollah. But those who spent two nights at Shahbagh, they saw that every line of marchers, every slogan here has gone far past ‘Hang Quader Mollah!’  That system, that mechanism which does not conduct a speedy trial of the war criminals, which keeps it alive only for the purpose of the (upcoming) election, that false politics that rehabilitates the razakars, that false politics that drags on the razakar issue for several decades and plays wholesale electoral games using it and makes a farce out of the trials— it is that dirty politics that Shahbagh angrily rejects.  The spirit of Shahbagh is not merely the spirit of rounding up the razakars and hanging them. This spirit is the spirit of standing up against all crooked politics in the future. Shahbagh is the sign of future mobilization against all injustices.  It will be seen at Shahbagh.

Naeem Mohaiemen, another Bangladeshi activist and blogger yesterday fully disclaimed the protest movement’s demand for the death penalty for Quader Mollah.

As the protests enter their fifth day in Dhaka, it seems they are starting to be less about demanding retribution for one man’s crimes in 1971 and more about demanding social justice for all Bangladeshis today and tomorrow, bringing about hopeful and rapturous comparisons to the February 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Rashad Ullah is a research linguist of the Bengali language and an active member of the Bangladeshi-American community in Washington, D.C.

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