Bangladesh At The Crossroads
With Shahbag Square erupting with thousands of people demanding capital punishments for the guilty of 1971 war criminals and banning of the JeI, the country’s youths have made their choice clear that they are no longer ready to tolerate the wheeling and dealing of politicians and their cronies
The large gatherings at Shahbag Square in Dhaka demanding capital punishments for the 1971 war criminals and the growing call for banning the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) can herald a new chapter in the history of Bangladesh.
The crowd comprising young men and women, students and professionals, has realised the value of independence achieved at great cost. The most encouraging aspect of Shahbag Square is that the political colour is absent and the national sentiments are in the forefront.
There was a real fear that the war of liberation had become a distant and vague issue in the minds of young generation. No efforts were spared to obliterate the incident when three million innocent men, women and children were killed and around two million women were raped by the Pakistani army, who were assisted by the Jamaat in the form of Al Badar, Al Shams and the Razakars. According to Pakistani army eyewitnesses, these people even misled the Pakistani army to attack and kill old men, women and children. By some accounts, they were more blood thirsty than the Pakistani soldiers. Abdul Kader Mollah was one of them.
What perhaps shocked the youths of Bangladesh was the happenings during the BNP-JeI coalition government in 2001-2006, which have now come under the scanner of the court. Witnesses and indicted officials of that era are beginning to speak out. Fingers are being raised at the BNP chairperson and then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia by no one less than Director General of Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) Brig Gen Rumi. In one of his statements in the court, Khaleda Zia was in the dock of having knowledge on the attempt of Awami League president Sheikh Hasina’s life in 2004. Many other terror-related incidents and plans, involving the BNP and the JeI leaders have begun to surface. Finally, only a few in Bangladesh can forget the August 2005 simultaneous bomb blasts in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. The climate was such that if a man went out in the evening, there was no surety that he would return alive. Terrorist group Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) was simply dismissed by Prime Minister Khaleda as a creation of media imagination. All those denials have come crashing to the ground now.
All these incidents were in the minds of the people gathered at Shahbag Square. No one wants to live under those dark days. Hawa Bhavan in Dhaka, the office of Khaleda Zia’s elder son Tareq Rehman, had turned out the power centre in the country. Political murders and corruption were directed from there as were important promotions and postings in army and bureaucracy.
The routing of BNP and JeI in the December 2008 elections stood as a testimony to people’s resentment. First time voters, around 40 per cent, wanted no more of this political situation where development was brought to a standstill. More first time voters will participate in the December 2013/January 2014 elections this time. They have demonstrated their will at Shahbag Square.
The JeI and its students’ wing, the Islamic Chatra Shibir (ICS) are, however, a formidable force. After their political rehabilitation in 1978 under President Gen Zia-ur-Rehman, they enjoyed an open field to grow unhindered. They built a network of madrassas, schools and technical colleges, hospitals and clinics, banking and financial institutions and NGOs. The Islamic Bank is one of them, which facilitated foreign remittances to terrorist organisations. The Jamat-Shibir cadres are well indoctrinated and trained for violence.
The Jamaet-Shibir’s hit and run tactics is well-known in the minds of the people. Its cadres appear suddenly, do their job and vanish. From all accounts, it is preparing to unleash a bloodbath during to stop the war crime trials and delay elections. The JeI had created some sort of an international support or sympathy against the war crime trials. But this seems to be waning now. All important western countries, including the USA, UK, Germany and France supported the war crime trials recently.
The majority of the people are unhappy with the life sentence on Kader Mollah. They feel that it is too lenient a sentence, given the evidence against him.
Banning the JeI now is a question to be thoroughly debated. If the ban after 1971 was not lifted by BNP founder Gen Zia-ur-Rehman, it was a natural process. The fact is that banning the JeI at this moment needs other considerations. The minds of its cadres cannot be changed overnight.
The JeI’s anti-liberation platform is very much alive. A possible way is to “crush the serpent’s head”. Eliminate the leadership according to law. The government and the leaders must not be seen in any way to be influencing the judges of the two tribunals. The Jamaat’s financial, social and educational establishments must be brought under government’s scrutiny, including the functions of Islamic Bank, Ibn Sina Trust, madrassas.
The BNP, which is the Jamaat’s main ally, finds itself on slippery ground. The party cannot win an election without the latter’s support. Yet, it cannot stand with the Jamaat publicly at this point of time. Two of BNP’s senior leaders are also facing the trials. The BNP, which has supporters and members from a few nationalistic parties, like Dr B Choudhuri, must think deeply to rid themselves of the old Jamaat baggage.
The government, itself, must resist from being carried away by euphoria. It has to prove that it is different and stands for the people. The biggest stigma it carries is the corruption. Can it move against its own members who have brought a bad name to the Awami League, including the Padma Bridge case, or the Destiny case? At times, ruthless action is demanded. This is no time for filial piety!
The post-liberation history of Bangladesh is well documented but without critical examination. Some journalists have written critical pieces, but not enough. Historians must go much deeper and unravel what really made the narrative post-1971. If the Awami League made mistakes, like the one party BAKSAL, it must own it. The actions of some of the military freedom fighters must be looked into. Were they genuine freedom fighters, or did they “act” as freedom fighters as they were caught in a war zone of East Pakistan? What did Zia-ur-Rehman do after 1971? The Mujibur Rahman’s assassination, rejuvenation of the JeI, judicial killing of Col Abu Taher, plum posts to Mujib’s killers- all demand answers.
The move to break away from Pakistan was visible as early as 1948. Muhammad Jinnah’s demand that Urdu must be the language for Bangladesh too, had indicated to its population that they had been betrayed and their language and culture would be held inferior to West Pakistan. The birth of Bangladesh belied Pakistan’s claims that religion was the binding factor between East and West Pakistan.
No one in Bangladesh can forget “Ekushay February” (February 21, 1952), when young Bengalis were martyred by the Pakistani administration for demanding Bangla language as the mother tongue for the province. This martyr’s day or the language movement led to the birth of Bangladesh finally in 1971.
Every year on February 21, one can hear the song Amar Bhaiyer Roktey Rangano Ekushey February, Ami Ki Bhulitey Pari (Can I ever forget the 21st of February, soaked in blood of my brothers). This hymn to the martyrs is heard all over the country. Garlands are placed at martyrs’ memorials to commemorate the event.
It is a coincidence that Shahbag Square happened in February. It is, however, not a coincidence that young Rajib Haider, a leading blogger who encouraged the people to gather at Shahbag Square, was stabbed to death in front of his house on February 13 by Jamaat and Shibir cadres. Rajib is the new icon for the youths in Bangladesh now.
By Bhaskar Roy