On May 5th an anti-government protest took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, followed by an overnight sit-in. It was met with extreme brutality by the government's security forces. Organised by Hefazat-e-Islam (Protection of Islam), an apolitical group drawn from the independent conservative religious establishment, the rally was a response to, and in some ways mirrored, the Shahbag spectacle that began in February. The latter provoked the ire of the religious establishment when some of its leaders were accused of defaming Islam, the faith of up to 90% of their fellow citizens. Despite a state clamp down on media coverage, and the government’s denial of casualties, evidence of a massacre on May 5th has emerged. The ruthless violence that met the demonstration raises serious concerns for Bangladesh's moderate image and future.
The Dhaka sit-in
Hefazat responded to Shahbag initially with a nationwide protest on 22nd February, during which they were fired upon by police, and then with 13 demands around which they rallied in a Long March to Dhaka on 6th April. Hefazat’s Long March impressed many for its organised and largely peaceful nature, in spite of provocation from pro-government thugs and a nationwide transport lock-down. The march culminated with a rally around the Shapla roundabout in Dhaka’s Motijheel business district, and promptly dispersed at 5pm, setting a precedent for orderly mass protest.
There was no reason to believe that May 5th would be any different. Hefazat’s leader, Allama Shafi, made multiple statements affirming that the protest would be non-violent; giving strict instructions to his activists to resist provocation by reciting the names of God. Although Hefazat leaders instructed activists not to bring minors, many brought along children and students intending and expecting a peaceful protest.
On the day however, clashes broke out around the national mosque, Baitul Mukarram (House of Honour). While the official transcript speaks of Hefazat-led violence aided by the opposition student group Shibir, witnesses have reported unprovoked attacks from police aided by openly armed ruling party thugs. Many protesters were beaten and killed in the violence over the afternoon, and a row of religious bookshops were burnt.
After fleeing from Baitul Mukarram, the protesters gathered at Shapla Square where it was decided they would stage an overnight sit-in. That evening, electricity was cut off in the area. Press were not permitted to enter and the two opposition TV channels, Diganta TV and Islamic TV, who were covering the rally live, had their offices raided and transmission shut down. At around 2:45am an estimated 10,000 armed personnel of the police, border guards (BGB) and the infamous Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) attacked crowds of unarmed protesters. Most Hefazat activists were sleeping or praying during the raid; as live Diganta TV coverage showed prior to being taken off air and as eye witnesses confirm. These men were political novices, unarmed, mostly rural people sleeping under the stars in an alien city and tired from street conflicts with police and ruling party youth earlier in the day. The operation was carried out in the dark, and in a heavily built up area as the city slept. Everything from rubber bullets to live ammunition, sound grenades, water cannons and tear gas were employed to ruthlessly clear the crowd.
The government and security chiefs immediately denied any state inflicted casualties from the night raid. Given the facts that have been possible to garner, this was a blatant lie. If nobody was killed and nothing shameful happened, why cut off the lights and shut down broadcasting media organisations?
Human rights group Odhikar observed: “It was obvious that they [the government] wanted to hide the brutality of the operation and the numbers of dead and injured.” Odhikar have since written an extensive investigative report on the rally and massacre. The Bangladeshi establishment’s cover-up makes assessment of the massacre’s scale difficult. Two reporters attempting to cover the operation were beaten by officers and admitted to intensive care. The following day a Section 144 was imposed, forbidding gatherings of four people or more. The Home Minister has subsequently imposed a month long ban on political gatherings and the government has announced restrictions on the Internet, particularly social media – a crucial medium for dissenting voices exposing the Hefazat rally massacre.
Reporting through the information blockade
Leaked footage swiftly began to appear on social media, still images and videos, along with witness accounts and reports from rights groups not beholden to the government. They tell a disturbing story of extreme and open brutality. Footage shows unarmed and terrified men running for their lives amidst merciless firing, young and old bodies strewn across the ground, and police brutally beating the wounded, convulsing and dying.
Amid state denial of casualties the issue of numbers has dominated the discourse. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) termed the operation a ‘massacre of demonstrators’ suggesting the possibility of 2,500 deaths. Odhikar reported a “killing spree” by security forces assisted by armed ruling party men; their investigations to date confirm the names of at least 61 killed. Even European diplomats estimated a death toll of 50, while The Economist of London wrote of a massacre. Hefazat have given an estimate of over 2000 missing and feared dead and 15,000 injured, with 200 madrassa students reported missing from a single town.
A surviving activist* present at the operation and in contact with this writer has reported witnessing an estimated 300 dead bodies and having heard the sound of trucks from his place of hiding in a garage. Another survivor fleeing the scene reported seeing garbage trucks being loaded with bodies – dead and wounded – and driven away. Grassroots political activists known to this writer have reported discussions with police who admit to deaths in the thousands. Whether the death toll is in the tens, hundreds or thousands, it is clear a massacre took place in the dark and in cold blood.
Though the state may seek to deny bloodshed, its use of detainees to manipulate the story gives observers little reason to trust its public presentation of events. On May 6th Allama Junaid Babunagari, the Secretary General of Hefazat, was arrested and placed on prolonged remand, a term that suggests interrogation but is widely recognised as custodial torture. He has since been presented at court, visibly ill, and conveniently stating that opposition party men joined and funded Hefazat, came armed to overthrow the government and committed atrocities. Contesting this, Allama Shafi issued a statement asserting Babunagari’s “confession” was forcibly coerced, demanding his freedom and reissuing his 13 points. Babunagari has since been admitted to hospital intensive care and is fighting for his life, with one leg to be amputated following infection. The authorities have hurriedly granted him bail, a move Hefazat states is designed to abdicate state responsibility should he not survive.
The nation has not just witnessed a massacre of immense gravity, but an equally shocking suppression of reporting on it. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have called for independent investigations, while an investigative report by Al-Jazeera – the only international news agency to attempt deeper scrutiny – indicates that there is indeed an active government cover-up. Shortly after Hefazat’s April 6th Long March, editor Mahmudur Rahman was arrested and tortured in police custody and remains in detention, burdened with a fresh stint in remand. Even his elderly mother, now acting editor of his paper, Amar Desh (My Country), has been sued along with editor of opposition newspaper, The Daily Sangram (Movement). This is in addition to the arbitrary closure of Diganta TV and Islamic TV in the early hours of May 6th.
In response, on May 19th sixteen media editors, including editors of leading pro-government papers, condemned these actions in the name of press freedom, demanding the release of Mahmudur Rahman and the reopening of the TV channels. A council of editors has since been set up to protect press freedom. The Information Minister and head of the National Socialist Party, Hasanul Haq Inu, lashed out at this rare act of professional solidarity, warning that standing up for Rahman and the others was “not in the best interest of the media”.
Press freedom, journalistic integrity and freedom of conscience lie at the very roots of a thriving and healthy democracy. These repressive actions are symptoms of the absence of democratic values amongst the power elite and its dependants in Bangladesh. What compounds the inhumanity is the active ignorance, disinterest and misrepresentation of the international press and the collusion of the local press with the state in the cover up.
Dehumanising the messenger
Both Hefazat and its demands, several perfectly reasonable and some debatable, have been misunderstood and misrepresented by gatekeepers in media and politics: painting a picture of backward, intolerant religious fundamentalists challenging their plural and progressive society. One pro-government paper claimed Hefazat was coming to Dhaka with arms, aided and abetted by the opposition, in an article that may as well have been drafted in the ruling party headquarters. Reference to the “Taliban” was carried with glee on social media by pro-government and pro-Shahbag groups. This narrative was then uncritically recycled by the international press for whom images of non-white, bearded Muslim men as “extremists” and “fundamentalists” sell well. A preoccupation with “blasphemy law” rhetoric emerged, a term Hefazat did not even use or call for but were billed for regardless. The press, both in Bangladesh and abroad – including Jason Burke at the Guardian – were quick to frame a misogynistic and marginal organisation that sought to prevent women from work, much to the dismay of female garment workers.
Such dehumanizing and denigrating language laid the groundwork for the massacre of protesters in Dhaka. It is alarming that rather than address this massacre, our press has been sneering at supposed “blasphemy laws” and plying “fundamentalist” labels. This is a narrative that maligns victims as villains, distracts the world’s eyes just a few weeks after the worst industrial disaster Bangladesh has known, and manufactures consent for massacre to take place with minimal accountability. A few of Hefazat’s demands are challenging, but discomfort with people’s demands should not diminish the principle that they have a right to express them and organise in a democracy, nor take precedence over the inherent sanctity of human life and the rights to dignity and security. Journalistic priorities lie not in garnering an Orientalist horror of the “barbarisms” of the east amongst our “enlightened” western – or westernized – audiences. They lie in searching out and disseminating the balanced truth, and lifting the salient from the petty.
Against female economic participation?
Ruling party leaders have claimed Hefazat would force women to stay at home and hinder their advancement. However, nowhere in Hefazat’s public demands are such things indicated; with point 4 of their 13 demands stating:
"For the betterment of the country there is no other alternative to empowering the women. To achieve this we must ensure security, education, health, safe job environment, honourable living, and fair wages for the women."
Furthermore, garments sector union leader, Nazma Akhter, made clear that Hefazat and its demands were not a concern to them. As Hefazat’s own statement, and the commentary of the respected feminist, Farida Akhter, has noted, the organisation is in fact calling for safer and fairer working conditions for women. In a context of garment industry disasters, with over 1100 deaths in the Rana Plaza collapse alone, where women form the bulk of a long-suffering and exploited workforce, such demands are crucial. Hefazat goes on to call for an end to sexual harassment, a rampant concern in factories, and the economically debilitating dowry culture many Bangladeshi women are victim to. Farida Akhter noted that, had the demand been put forward by a non-Islamic organisation, all would have united behind it.
This is quite a telling reality. Women often present a convenient tool used to malign the religious. Not only does this appear a deeply disingenuous strategy, but in a context in which the state routinely exploits women to the extreme in a garments industry owned by many of its ministers and supporters, it also appears hypocritical and opportunistic.
A fundamentalist menace?
Whilst some have sought to malign Hefazat as extreme and religiously intolerant, a cursory glance at their heritage proves otherwise. Hefazat has roots in the Darul Ulum (Abode of Knowledge) movement of Deoband in India, an educational institution established in 1866 on apolitical grassroots values, sustained by communities and rejecting state or corporate funding. Hefazat draws on a network of seminaries that continue this tradition in Bangladesh. Hefazat’s founder Allama Ahmad Shafi was a student of Deoband’s Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani. During the British occupation Madani proposed the pluralistic political concept of Composite Nationalism; that a nation is built on a geographical area composing of several identities and communities rather than a single identity. It is from this Islamic theological tradition, which sought a plural society over the “two-nation theory” which precipitated in the partition of India, that Hefazat hails.
We must also observe that although the Islamic establishment is usually apolitical, its voice and power emerge at critical points in greater societal and moral strife. Hefazat’s emergence over the recent months speaks volumes about the depth and extent of social injustice in Bangladesh.
Joining the dots
Where Bangladesh’s future lies now is uncertain. Just before the Hefazat massacre came the Rana Plaza disaster, claiming at least 1,127 innocent lives. This was yet another product of state corruption, callous disregard for rule of law and corporate cronyism. Many of the victims were women; whilst the inherent misogyny of Bangladesh’s garment’s industry, particularly within the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), remains unscrutinised. Protests by Rana Plaza survivors since have been met with state brutality, leaving at least 50 wounded. Workers’ protests for higher wages and safety have spiked in the industrial district of Ashulia in recent weeks. Met with characteristic state brutality, at least 30 are wounded from police fire. Tea plantation employees have also been protesting for higher wages. The political opposition continues to face brutal suppression, leading them to act with increasing desperation. In recent weeks, Delwar Hossain, leader of opposition student group Shibir, emerged from 52 days on remand in a state of physical collapse, carried to court in clear agony; apparently now paralysed from the waist down. A newly elected leader of hundreds of thousands of students nationwide, such abuse has provoked anguish and outrage.
The discredited International War Crimes Tribunal, (ICT) continues in spite of another scandalous revelation: a crucial defence witness, Shukhoranjan Bali, of the now convicted Delwar Hossain Sayedee, has been discovered in an Indian prison. Bali had been abducted by Dhaka police at the court gates upon arrival to give testimony in November 2012 and been disappeared, feared dead. The police and state denied involvement, even alleging ‘self-hiding’ but Bali has now confirmed their role in his abduction, despite the BBC Bengali service’s best efforts to discredit him. Human Rights Watch has demanded Bali’s protection given the danger to his life should he be repatriated. The ICT verdict of Prof Ghulam Azam, the 91 year old retired leader of opposition Jamaat-i-Islami, is expected at any time; his case too is riddled with astounding irregularities and reasons for doubt.
Dear Bangladesh, where do we go from here?
The government’s oppression of the opposition has been on-going for years. Opposition leaders are locked away and tortured, leaving families living in constant fear and an anguished and frustrated following without the guidance and hope that leadership provides. This writer has interviewed several young and talented opposition women who have been incarcerated without charge in appalling conditions or have family behind bars and tortured. The Motijheel massacre is a political landmark in the extension of this oppression to the usually apolitical Islamic establishment. With tensions boiling over, the night-time massacre of Hefazat demonstrators, followed by the cover-up, denial and now justification raises serious concerns for human endurance and the path of moderation itself. Injustice is a terrible corrosive, and challenges the humanity and spirituality of the broken-hearted and marginalised.
The Bangladesh issue is no longer a local issue with local actors to be brushed aside. We must not sleepwalk into political segregation. We must act with courage to prevent the debilitating hold of indifference. If a sense of humanity alone does not force the international community to intervene to hold Bangladesh’s government to account, common sense and prudence at the very least should.
*Identities protected for reasons of security