The Shahbag Generation of Bangladesh
The young people especially the student had been the driving force of social change in Bangladesh. The student had always remained proactive throughout the country’s turbulent political history. The young Bangladeshis were the first to raise their voice against the oppressive regimes and emerged as the saviour in hour of national crisis. During the long independence struggle starting with the Language Movement of 1952 culminating in the birth of a Bengali nation through a protracted and bloody Liberation War, the young brigade of Bangladesh played a historic role. The recent Shahbag movement is to be seen in the light of the country’s historical and socio-political background. The gathering at Shahbag was the biggest mass mobilisation Bangladesh saw since the anti-Ershad movement of 1990.
On February 5, 2013, about 400-500 young people assembled at Shahbag, a busy intersection near the Dhaka University—the nerve centre of the country, to protest the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) judgment that awarded life sentence to noted war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah. Many Bangladeshis expected a harsher punishment—a death sentence for Mollah who earned the nickname “Butcher of Mirpur” for committing heinous crimes such as murder, mass murder, rape, arson and loot in the 1971 war. Among other crimes, the ICT held him responsible for beheading a poet, raping an 11-year girl and killing 344 people during the war period.
The protest was initially organised under the banner of Blogger and Online Activist Network (BOAN) immediately after the announcement of the judgment on Mollah. Soon, thousands of people gathered at the square and began shouting “Death for Quader Mollah”. The crowd was mobilised mainly through social networks, blogs and mobile phones. According to local estimates, nearly 60,000 internet activists consisting of students and young professionals hailing from urban middle class background had been mobilised against war criminals and Islamic fundamentalism. The protesters were joined by scores of media persons, celebrities, social activists and eminent civil society personalities. Several of them used to assemble at the Gano Jagaran Mancha (Mass Awareness Platform) staging rallies and vigils. The local media termed the Shahbag movement as “Bangladesh Spring”. Such apolitical rallies were hardly witnessed before and most of the organisers and participants remained staunchly nationalists. In fact, the Shahbag movement was an expression of secular nationalism over religious fundamentalism. A 23-year old girl involved in the protest candidly said, “We want to establish a society based on a Bengali identity.”
Thanks to the Shahbag movement, the issue of religious extremism emerged as the focal point of public debate and discussion which was unthinkable in the recent past. The Shahbag protesters’ demand included banning of Jamaat as a political party and to do away with religious fundamentalism to prevent Bangladesh from becoming “another Pakistan”. The religious bigots and radical Islamic groups made concerted efforts in the last two decades to roll back Bangladesh to the Pakistani framework---preponderance of religion in the polity through issuing fatwas and terrorist acts. The civil society was seriously concerned about the future of the country’s secular fabric and organised several rallies to bring the perpetrators of violence unleashed in 1971 to justice. Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee for Uprooting the Collaborators and Killers of 1971) led by Saheed Janani Jahanara Imam campaigned relentlessly in the early 1990’s to initiate the long pending trial of war criminals. The Shahbag movement drew its inspiration from such movements and kept her portrait at the centre stage. A 32-year old blogger said, “We want a country free of fundamentalists and that is what we are fighting for”. The Shahbag activists submitted their list of demands to the speaker of the parliament.
The uprising that began at Shahbag on February 5 had rapidly spread to other regions of the country like wild fire. A series of sit-ins and demonstrations had been organised in Chittagong, Shylhet, Barisal, Khulna, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Sunamganj, Noakhali, Narsingdhi and several other places. The non-resident Bangladeshis soon joined in across the globe and extended their full support to the movement. At 4 pm on February 12, the entire nation responded to the call of the Shahbag campaigners and observed “three-minute stand-up and silence programme” to express their solidarity with the sprit of the movement which was demanding death penalty for all war criminals. In capital Dhaka, traffic was stopped as thousands of people converged in the streets to form human chains and stood in silence.
The Shahbag phenomenon was unique in other respects too. Tahmina Anam, a noted Bangladeshi writer has pointed out the active participation of young and educated women in the movement. This particular aspect assumes significance in the context of a traditional society like Bangladesh where women are not generally seen to occupy the centre stage of a mass gathering despite the fact that the country’s two leading political figures are being ladies.
Another notable aspect of the gathering at was its non-partisan character. The movement did not take place under the banner of any particular political party which otherwise is a common practice in the highly politicised environment of the country. The organisers and supporters in their efforts to distance themselves from party politics unequivocally stated that they did not like “politics and political leaders”. Not a single political party or its leader was allowed to take stage by the organisers. Instead, they called the freedom fighters and pro-liberation socio-cultural personalities to share their opinion.
The Shahbag uprising had drawn wide international media attention. The foreign observers were surprised to see the leading role of the young bloggers and social network activists who were born in the post-independence era. The activists belonging to the age group between 20 and 30 years did not have the practical knowledge of the horrendous crimes committed by the religious extremist forces during the war of independence. The
foreign observers were probably under the impression that Bangladesh’s post-1971 generation would be indifferent to the country’s violent past. But contrary to their perceptions, the young Bangladeshis were strongly motivated by Bengali nationalism --- a rare sight to watch in the light of post-1975 socio-political developments in the country.