The Shahbag Generation of Bangladesh
It is important to note that the post-1975 ruling elites—civil-military bureaucratic complex had presided over a large-scale Islamisation process in the country. The secular provisions of the Constitution were deleted and history text books had been revised on a number of occasions to woo the anti-liberation forces. The state-sponsored Islamisation measures were designed to facilitate the rehabilitation of the anti-liberation forces who in return offered much needed civilian support base for the successive military regimes. Bangladesh’s post-1971 generation had been groomed in such a socio-political environment. Therefore it is heartening to see that the young Bangladeshis have embraced the fundamental ethos of the independence struggle. The 1971 war was fought against the religious fanatics and their followers who violently resisted the birth of a nation on the basis of language.
However, a section of the international media misinterpreted the Shahbag phenomenon. A Bangladeshi observer has questioned, “The biggest story of an organic movement so resoundingly choose secularism over Islamic extremism is happening in one of the world’s largest democracies. So why is the world not acknowledging Shahbag?” Some Western analysts decried the youthful exuberance exhibited at Shahbag—renamed as Projonmmo Chattor (Generation Roundabout). Referring to the popular slogan of the demonstration site—“Fashi Chai Fashi Chai” (Let him hang), a number of international human rights activists criticised the protesters for what they called “Baying for blood”. One of the primary objectives of the Shahbag activists was to generate mass consciousness about the impending danger the polity has been facing—resurgence of Islamic militancy. The anti-liberation groups maintain close ties with the radical Islamic outfits aided and abetted by the external forces. They pose direct threat to political stability, peace and security of the young South Asian state. But it is surprising that a section of Western analysts refrained from appreciating the historic role played by the Shahbag activists or the resilience of Bangladesh’s civil society that was once more well demonstrated.
The Shahbag campaigners also urged the countrymen to boycott all commercial, industrial, financial and charitable organisations associated with the Jamaat. The party’s influence over a predominantly Muslim society can not be ascertained from the number of seats the party won in the successive Jatiya Sangsad elections. The fundamentalist party runs a variety of institutions which provide crucial link between Jamaat and the people of Bangladesh. These institutions include bank, real estate companies, education and health organisations, transport and tourist enterprises, media outlets etc. The Shahbag activists called the people to boycott “Islamist owned” institutions that give funds directly or indirectly to Jamaat. Some of the short listed institutions run by Razakars or collaborators of the Pakistan Army in 1971 are—Islami Bank, Ibn Sina, Focus, Retina and media groups like Diganta Television, Islamic Television, Daily Naya Diganta, Jamaat mouthpiece Daily Sangram and Sonar Bangla Blog.
At the same time, the media organisations owned by alleged war criminals and opposition BNP incurred the wrath of the ruling AL for their relentless attacks on the government. On May 3, 2013, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission under an order issued by the Information Ministry stopped the transmission of two private channels—Diganta TV and Islamic TV for alleged “irresponsible’ reporting. These two channels are owned by noted war criminal and member of Jamaat’s Standing Committee, Mir Quasem Ali. The ICT has already detained him on the charges of committing crimes against humanity in 1971. The media baron has been facing trial since then. Another pro-opposition daily Amar Desh identified by the Shahbag protesters for boycott, was earlier closed down by the government. On April 13, its editor Mahmadur Rahman was arrested. He was charged under certain provisions of the Cyber Crime Act and Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006, for publishing a leaked Skype conversation between Mohammad Nizamul Huq, an ICT judge and an external legal consultant. The incident generated huge controversies and human rights groups criticised the AL government. It was also alleged that the government tried to co-opt the movement for future electoral gains. The BNP cautiously welcomed the movement but warned the government not to politicise it. Some quarters accused the government of appropriating the political space created by the mass upsurge.
The Sheikh Hasina government endorsed some of the demands raised at Shahbag. On February 17, 2013, the government passed an amendment allowing the tribunal to punish any organisation whose member committed crimes against humanity in 1971. The amendment also gave prosecutors the right to appeal any of the tribunal verdicts. The ICT also indicted Jamaat as a political party while sentencing its top leader Ghulam Azam on July 15. Mean while, in a landmark judgment in August, Bangladesh’s High Court cancelled Jamaat’s registration with the Election Commission and disqualified it from contesting elections as its charter was not in conformity with the secular provisions of the Constitution.
These significant developments took place against the backdrop of the Shahbag movement. The mass upsurge has to an extent succeed in making inroads into the polity in terms of pushing the war crimes trial issue that had taken a back seat because of the bitter power struggle waged by the two contending political formations. A vast majority of Bangladeshi youth blamed the mainstream political parties including the AL for playing “deceptive politics” over the question of trying people involved in one of the worst human rights abuses. The protest at Shahbag was a sudden outburst of accumulated grievances and growing frustration of the youth towards the ruling elites’ repeated failures to bring the war criminals to justice. People from all walks of life irrespective of age, gender, religion and occupational background promptly responded to the cause as it was directly related to their national identity. The common people had been questioning the integrity of the politicians especially their nationalist credentials. They deeply resented the fact the war criminals were being patronised for narrow political gains. Some of the noted war criminals became ministers in independent Bangladesh whose creation they firmly resisted in 1971. The first military ruler of country, Ziaur Rahman, floated the idea of “Bangladeshi nationalism” over Bengali nationalism. The former attaches more importance to the distinct religious background whereas the Shahbag activists tried to uphold the later that emphasises the linguistic identity of the people. The dichotomy of identity is a highly emotive issue in Bangladesh. The war crimes trial campaigners at Shahbag have made an intervention which is of historical significance. A Shahbag activist has put it succinctly in the following words, “We have touched the soul of the nation”.