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.
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.