The youth of Shahbagh: A Bengali spring?

Dhaka has been witnessing a youth uprising against Islamism in Bangladesh. The UK is also witnessing daily events in solidarity with demands to end to Islamist politics, and punishment for those responsible for war crimes committed during the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971

Young bloggers in Bangladesh are calling it the "Tahrir Square of Dhaka". In actuality it’s called Shahbagh, a busiest intersection in Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh. Bloggers have been commenting that this can be another Tahrir Square.

On the other hand many on the internet have begun naming the area as “Projonmo Chottor” which in English translates into “Young Generation” square. The reason behind the naming is that the movement was started by the young and is being led mostly by  youths since. Veteran freedom fighters of the Bangladesh War of 1971 who appeared at Shahbag square said that they had the same spirit in 1971 when they were youths. “It's all possible if youths come forward. And today, they have.”

The current youth uprising started after the verdict of an Islamist leader Abdul Quader Mollah, Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami’s Assistant Secretary General, accused of war crimes during Bangladesh War of 1971. Protests have grown since Abdul Quader Mollah was given a life sentence on 5th February for crimes including torture, murder and rape during the 1971 independence war. Protesters say Mollah deserves much more severe punishment for his crimes.

Bloggers and Online Activists' Network first gathered at Shahbag square demanding capital punishment for Abdul Quader Mollah shortly after the Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal sentenced him to lifetime imprisonment for crimes against humanity. The activists, along with many more people from blogs and social networking sites, rejected the verdict and started protesting it since Tuesday 5 Feb 2013 afternoon.

Many feared that weeks of violence aimed at the police by Jamaat-e-Islami cadres across the country had exerted enough pressure on the judges. But within 24 hours of the verdict, a network of bloggers called on their followers to gather at Shahbagh.

On 12th Feb, in its eighth day, the occupation had become one of the biggest protests in the country's history and the first triggered by social media. Protesters in their tens of thousands are pouring into the Shahbagh intersection, demanding maximum punishment for all convicted war criminals, including Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah and a ban on Islamist politics.

Shahbag square is now full of people from all classes, gender, religion and professions. There are students from schools, colleges, universities and medical colleges; teachers from different institutes as well as general people of all age and profession.  Cricketers, musicians, performers and many other people with no involvement in politics have also appeared at Shahbagh protest and expressed their solidarity with the young people. The Bangladesh National Cricket Team joined the protest at Shahbagh on 9 the Feb.

During the Bangladesh war in 1971, there were widespread killings of the civilians and other atrocities were carried out by the occupying Pakistani forces and their local collaborators.  Towards the end of the war, sections of the intellectual community were murdered, allegedly by the local Bengali collaborators of the Pakistani army. The Bengali collaborators mostly belonged to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islam. During the war Jamaat-e-Islam actively collaborated with the Pakistani military junta, by creating their own militias, the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams. The Jamaat-e-Islam activists were responsible for killing of secular Bengali Muslims, Hindus, and the intelligentsia, rape of Muslim and  Hindu women, destroying of infrastructure and forcing thousands to flee their homes.

According to Bangladesh government sources, Pakistani occupation forces and their local collaborators killed three million innocent Bengalis. Some 250,000 were raped and sexually violated. Thousands of localities in rural and urban areas were destroyed. Killings and destruction unleashed by the Pakistani army led to the exodus of 10 million people to neigbouring India for shelter and safety.

In the final days of the war between 2-16 December, the Pakistani army and the local collaborating auxiliary forces, in particular the Al Badr group http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Badr, reportedly tortured and killed hundreds of members of the Bengali intelligentsia, particularly university teachers and journalists.

Soon after independence Bangladesh government had initiated process to investigate and bring the perpetrators of this gross human rights violation, committed at the very founding of Bangladesh, to justice.

Unfortunately the legal process of war crimes prosecution was stopped by the military junta of Ziaur-Rahman, who came to power in 1975 following the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, the independence leader. Successive military juntas, autocratic regimes and sectarian right wing parties have exploited religion to strengthen their grip on power.

The current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who came to power in a landslide victory 2008 has made prosecuting war crimes a key goal of her government.

Supporters of Mollah’s party, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, in their defence say Mollah is the victim of a political vendetta. Ten others are on trial, including eight other Jamaat-e-Islami members and two members of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one a former minister. They are all accused of atrocities during the 1971 Bangladesh war. The Bangladesh authorities say the defendants opposed the independence war and fought as member of auxiliary forces alongside or actively supported the West Pakistan authorities.

Mollah is the second defendant to be found guilty by the special tribunal. Last month, former Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abul Kalam Azad was sentenced to death in absentia.

The BBC's Anbarasan Ethirajan in Dhaka says there has been an unusual outpouring of feeling. People from all walks of life, with doctors, professors and even sports personalities taking part in what is described as the biggest protest march in recent years, he says. Shahbagh Square in Dhaka has a festive look, with people holding various cultural events as part of the protest.

CNN reported a student asking, “If a murder's verdict is death sentence, then how can a person involved in over 300 murders can be sentenced to lifetime imprisonment instead of death sentence.” Even rickshaw pullers from surrounding areas showed their support for this protest as they carried many passengers from nearby areas to Shahbagh for free. Online news agency banglanews24 reported that many rickshaw pullers declined to take any money from passengers who came to protest the verdict. “This shows that a simple rickshaw puller has patriotism and hate for war criminals in his heart,” commented many people who had to insist the rickshaw pullers to take money.

The protest has been spread across the country with many more sit-in demonstrations at different cities in Bangladesh including in cities of the world with large Bengali population. The UK is also witnessing daily events in solidarity with Shahbagh.

 Friday, 8 Feb, saw Bengali Muslim secularists battling it out with Islamists in East London. A number of London based apolitical Bengali young bloggers had called for a peaceful gathering on Friday afternoon in Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel  in solidarity with Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square movement to seek justice for the victims of Bangladesh War and a ban on Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami.

When the young bloggers went to the park for their pre planned demo they found to their surprise that the UK Jamaat-e-Islami activists had come out of East London Mosque soon after Jumma prayer and forcefully occupied the sacred Shahid Minar, a Bengali monument in the park, with Tower Hamlets Council’s assistance according to the bloggers. The bloggers also complained of Tower Hamlets police cooperating with the Islamists by cordoning bloggers into a small area of park while allowing the Jamaat-e-Islami extremists to occupy the entire park including the Shahid Minar.

Bengali secularists battling it out with Islamists in Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel,
East London, February 8th. Photograph by Syed Anas Pasha. All rights reserved.

There was an eight hour standoff between the bloggers and Jamaat-e-Islam. During and at the end of the event Islamists pelted the secular gathering with eggs and stones, abused the women folk  and physically attacked a number young bloggers and hospitalised them. No arrests by the police followed.

The Jamaat-e-Islam in the UK operates under various charities and religious organizations. On Friday 8th they came under the banner of Save Bangladesh!  Soon after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 some of the alleged Jamaat-e-Islam war criminals fled Bangladesh and took refuge in the UK.  A Channel 4 Dispatches programme, made by Gita Sahgal, aired in 1995 exposed such three  alleged war criminals. These  Islamists have gradually positioned themselves as spokespersons of the Muslim community and enjoy partnership work with various UK institutions and authorities including the police.

Despite the attack last Friday, British Bengalis have vowed to support the movement in Bangladesh and continue to hold activities in support of Shahbagh in towns and  cities of the UK including Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester.

Protesters at Shahbagh have also vowed to continue their movement, saying that Jamaat-e-Islami could not stop the people's movement by exploding bombs or carrying out attacks. On 12 Feb, Bangladesh’s Daily Star reported, minutes after the Jamaat-e-Islami men attacked law enforcers at different points in the capital, the protest venue reverberated with slogans like "The movement cannot be stopped by threat" or "The movement cannot be stopped by bomb attack".

The movement that began on February 5th, soon after a war crimes tribunal sentenced Mollah to life term in prison for crimes against humanity during the 1971 war has now turned into a mass movement. The movement has also spread to other parts of the country, and other countries where Bengalis reside, with the call for maximum punishment for war crimes.

Meanwhile, demonstrators in Dhaka have urged all to celebrate the Pahela Falgun, the first day of Bengali spring, with the spirit of "struggle".

About the author

Ansar Ahmed Ullah is a community activist who has lived and worked in the East End of London since the 1980s. He has worked as a youth, social and community worker and has been an active anti-racist campaigner. He is currently involved with the Nirmul Committee, a campaign group set up to challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism