Towards partisan politics: #Shahbag and the politics of revenge

Protests at Shahbag that call for the death penalty for Abdul Quader Mollah have been hailed as a move beyond 'partisan politics' in the spirit of the Arab Spring. Clear government backing puts this, and the nature of the justice being meted out, in doubt.

There is much that is new in Bangladesh of late—mass protests inspired to resemble Tahrir Square for one. But there is also much that is old—like the government’s political calculation behind closed doors on how to use popular sentiment to move towards an autocratic state by executing opposition leaders in time for the next election.

Currently, Bangladesh is nearing the conclusion of very controversial domestic trials, misleadingly named the International Crimes Tribunal.

The trials are meant to be about trying, ascertaining guilt or innocence, and punishing individuals responsible for war crimes committed in 1971. However they have been marred by the fact that only the leadership classes of the main opposition parties are on trial, a number of whom were ministers in the last elected Bangladesh government.

Necessary trials

No one can doubt the enormity of the crimes committed in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, and it is shocking that nothing has been done until now to end the impunity of the perpetrators of war crimes. Even conservative estimates have the death toll at several hundred thousand, although the government’s claim of 3 million, bandied about in several international media outlets, has no scholarly credibility.

Yet it is figures like these, etched through repetition by local media into the minds of a new generation now baying for blood in Bangladesh, that are symptomatic of an emotive and irrational campaign for (in)justice in Bangladesh.

Let me clearly state that I feel that war crimes trials need to take place, but fair ones, under international auspices. Currently, in the light of a harsh media campaign in Bangladesh that has lasted for years now, the chances of a fair trial seem next to impossible. Indeed The Economist recently uncovered collusion between the government-prosecution side of the trial and the judiciary. In addition, the unrelenting media campaign has meant that Shahbag protesters have made up their minds regarding the guilt of those in the dock, regardless of the evidence of a doctored trial.

Judicial murder paving the way for autocracy?

Unless fair trial standards are upheld, this tribunal will go down in history as a political kangaroo court and perpetuate the poisonous politics that Bangladesh has engaged in since its very inception. So far Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have been among the most vocal internationally recognized critics of the current tribunal, and they have both been calling for fairer trials which they see as necessary for Bangladesh to come to terms with the past.

That there are war criminals in all the political parties is widely recognized within Bangladesh, but the targets of this tribunal have been exclusively from the coalition of parties that formed the last elected government, namely the Islamist BJI (Jamaat) and the BNP (Bangladesh National Party). Bangladeshi independent politician and famed war hero, Kader Siddique, has been one of the few leaders calling for genuine rather than targeted ‘accountability’. In an ironic twist of fate that illustrates the complexity of the war crimes issue, he is himself recorded as committing war crimes in the presence of international media in 1971.

Not to be mistaken for Tahrir

But returning now to the protests: these are popular protests with numbers in the tens of thousands if not more; but unlike the Arab uprisings, the present government is basking in them, trying to utilize them to liquidate their political opposition, and with it, their prospect of ever being out of office.

Sadly, the Tahrir narrative is so internationally attractive it appears to have taken hold. Even as important a liberal outlet as the Huffington Post has blog contributions which appear to support the calls for the death penalty which are the primary cause of this protest. In this case, it would be particularly tragic, as there is seeming unanimity among international observers that these highly politicized trials are not fair by any stretch of the imagination.

Besides the calls for the death penalty, the Shahbag protests are calling for the wholesale banning of a political party, banning of few newspapers and TV channels, and shutting down banks and Business. Now, one doesn’t need to  be terribly sympathetic towards Islamists, progressive sensibilities should be preventive enough from practicing any sort of censoring of free political expression, even in forms that one finds particularly disagreeable.

Liberals and progressives could be forgiven for loving what appears to be the manifestation of another Tahrir Square-like movement that is calling for political change. But we should look a little closer before we throw our lot in with this particular movement, as its values are suspect; and if its demands are met, the consequence for Bangladesh’s future do not seem particularly democratic.

A Bangladeshi blogger’s comment

I close with the illustrative remarks of one Bangladeshi blogger who is more circumspect about these protests:

The most distressing development over the past week has been the name calling one has had to witness on facebook and twitter. It seems that anyone with doubts about the value of these protests is a Jamaat sympathiser at best, or a Rajakar (traitor) at worst. For years, those of us who wanted the 1971 war criminals to face trial were told that any trial would become a name-calling exercise. Jamaat sympathisers would look at us condescendingly and say with a smile, “But brother, whoever disagrees with you, you label a traitor”. The facebook/twitter discourse over the past few days have validated that point of view. I used to think liberals welcomed dissent and challenges to their view. Intolerance and takfir were hallmarks of right wingers like Jamaat. The last week has opened my eyes.

About the author

Mohammad Nakibur Rahman is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Economics, Tulane University, and PhD Candidate at the University of New Orleans. Research interests include Political Economy, International Trade and Risk management. He is the son of an opposition leader standing trial at the ICT.