Surge of hope

Print edition : March 22, 2013

The Maha Samabesh on February 21 in Dhaka. Photo: Pavel Rahman/AP

Protesters release balloons with letters addressed to the martyrs of the 1971 war, on February 18. Photo: Pavel Rahman/AP

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her Cabinet approved an amendment that will enable the government to appeal against the sentence on Jammat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quadar Mollah. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Jammat-e-Islami members at a rally in protest against the Shahbagh demonstrations, in Dhaka on February 12. Photo: ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS

Shaheed Minar on International Mother Language Day, observed in memory of the 1952 language martyrs. Photo: Pavel Rahman/AP

Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah on February 5, after the International Crimes Tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment. Photo: REUTERS

Women turning out in large number is one of the things that made the recent protests remarkable. Photo: Pavel Rahman/AP

Ahmed Rajib Haider. The young blogger was found murdered outside his home in Dhaka on February 15.

A mass uprising in Dhaka sees the young generation swearing by a democratic society where religion is a private pursuit.

WHEN THE CALL WENT OUT IN CYBERSPACE ON FEBRUary 5 for a protest demonstration in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square (now lovingly renamed Projonmo Chottor, meaning “new generation square”), no one thought that the outpouring that followed would develop into the most striking mass movement in Bangladesh in recent memory. The call, made by the Blogger and Online Activists Network (BOAN), came hours after the International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh), or ICT, found Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

The protesters demanded capital punishment for Abdul Quader and all war criminals charged with atrocities during the 1971 liberation war. Among their other demands is a ban on the Jamaat by March 26 and an investigation into the sources of funding of the Jamaat and into its institutions and business interests.

The peaceful protests at the sprawling Shahbagh Square, progressively growing in numbers until they culminated in the “Maha Samabesh”, or Grand Meeting, on February 21 (Mother Language Day in Bangladesh), were attended by men and women of all ages, cutting across party lines, and including large numbers of young people born after the 1971 war, all committed to a vision of a democratic Bangladesh where religion is a private pursuit. The coordinators of the agitation as a team are being called “Gana Jagaran Mancha” (Platform for Popular Uprising).

Amid enraged criticism from the opposition Jamaat, which has been carrying out a violent agitation for the past couple of years for the release of its leaders on trial for war crimes, and an uneasy silence from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Awami League government moved swiftly in response to the predominant popular sentiment.

On February 11, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Cabinet approved an amendment to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973, whereby plaintiffs will be able to appeal in the Supreme Court against verdicts pronounced by the tribunal. If it is passed by Parliament, this amendment will enable the state to appeal against the sentence given to Quader Mollah.

The “Maha Samabesh” started at 3-30 p.m. with readings from the Quran, the Gita, the Bible and the Tripitok (Buddhist religious texts). This was followed by the singing of the national anthem (“Amar Sonar Bangla”, My Golden Bengal, a Tagore song) and a popular song commemorating the martyrs who died in police firing at a language rally in Dhaka on February 21, 1952. Tens of thousands of people gathered there joined in the singing. Many of them wore bands around their heads saying “Rajakarer Panshi Chai” (Death for the Rajakar). It was at this meeting that a six-point charter of demands was presented by the movement’s coordinators.

“The uprising of the masses cannot go in vain. The Projonmo Chottor will always be awake,” the convener of the Shahbagh uprising told the massive rally.

The day before, on February 20, protesters released thousands of balloons, at Shahbagh and also in all corners of the country, containing emotional letters to the martyrs of the 1971 war. The timing, 4-13 p.m., was chosen to commemorate the historic surrender of the Pakistani forces on December 16, 1971, in Dhaka to the joint command of the Mukti and Mitra Bahinis.

Apart from the scale of the protests spread over 17 days, their mode and manner were also remarkable as the protesters refused to be drawn into violence and used networking and social media sites to fight hostile propaganda accusing the demonstrators of being anti-Islamic. “The media houses run by the anti-liberation forces are circulating false and fabricated stories, but the people have rejected them,” Imran H. Sarker, convener of the movement, said. On social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, activists repeatedly warned that fundamentalist groups were trying to plant imposters in the movement so that it could be dubbed anti-religion.

Meanwhile, BOAN lost one of its members, Ahmed Rajib Haider, 26, on February 15 when he was found hacked to death outside his home. He had been a professed atheist and was known for his blog posts against Islamist conservatives. The Maha Samabesh conveners called on the government to arrest his killers within seven days.

Whither now?

The question now is what direction the movement will take from this point. The Gana Jagaran Mancha has chalked out a plan of action, which was published in the Dhaka-based daily Prothom Alo (First Light), envisaging a month-long agitation in the run-up to the March 26 deadline for banning the Jamaat.

The Mancha has announced plans to hold rallies everyday during this period, at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, at different venues in Dhaka and then also in the headquarters of all the districts. Its members have called on all right-minded citizens to join these rallies. The Mancha has also lined up a signature campaign in support of its six-point charter of demands. It has also promised a rally at Shahbagh Square the day before every verdict on the war criminals is announced by the ICT.

A rally is planned at Rayer Bazar Martyred Intellectuals’ Memorial in Dhaka in honour of the hundreds of Bengali intellectuals killed by Jamaat-led killer gangs in 1971, and a grand rally at the historic Shuhrawardi Uddyan where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave his historic March 7 speech in 1971 and where the Pakistani forces surrendered in December that year. Special prayers are planned in mosques and also at churches, temples and pagodas seeking rest for the souls of those killed in the 1971 war.

An important question is how long this movement will last. Supporters of the Jamaat would say the Shahbagh protests will die out soon. The “Islamic people” of Bangladesh will not tolerate such a movement “blessed” by the present government and instigated by India, the big neighbour, according to them.

However, the present mood in the country does not seem to bear out such views. The protesters have demonstrated their faith in a country where the state belongs to all people, regardless of religion.

Participation of women

The participation of large numbers of women also makes these protests remarkable. This is unusual in a society where girls are generally unsafe. Yet the voices of young girls from remote areas, shouting slogans and leading the movement in their own villages, have breathed life into the movement.

A special mention must be made of Lucky Akhtar, a final-year student of English at Jagannath University, who has been with the agitation from the beginning and is already something of an icon. This has made her a target of the Jamaat-Shibir and its allies. Nothing, she says, will keep her away from Shahbagh.

Monti Bosnab, a cultural activist, has made Shahbagh Square her home for three weeks, singing revolutionary songs on the stage and motivating the protesters. Aninda Saha, another cultural activist, fainted twice during the protest, but has refused to go home. According to Joinab Binte Hossain, a blogger, the mass awakening would not have been possible without the active participation of women. Ridma Jahan, a protester, said: “I really want to thank the men who have been supportive of and respectful towards women at Shahbagh.”