Bangladeshi Police Attack Garment Workers’ Protest


By K. Ratnayake

21 May, 2013
WSWS.org

Police fired rubber bullets on tens of thousands of protesting Bangladeshi garment workers in the Ashulia industrial belt near Dhaka yesterday, injuring at least fifty.

Workers were protesting to demand higher wages and safe working conditions. They were also demanding the death penalty for the owner of the Rana Plaza clothing factory that collapsed on April 24, killing 1,127 garment workers, according to official figures.

Police sources said 20,000 workers joined the protest yesterday, blocking the main highway in Ashulia. Ashulia is the hub of Bangladesh’s garment industry, where 300 factories are located, producing thirty percent of the country’s garment exports.

Workers are demanding a $US100 monthly basic wage. They now receive a paltry monthly wage of $37, the world’s lowest pay for garment workers.

Ashulia workers have continuously mounted protests since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in the nearby Savar area. Workers organised demonstrations demanding pay hikes, benefits and workplace security.

Though permission had only been granted to build a five-storey building, the Rana Plaza owner illegally added three more floors. Five factories were located in the building. Though cracks were appearing on the walls on the previous day, the building owner insisted it was safe and factory owners compelled workers to go to production lines. Beyond the huge death toll, over 2,000 workers have been maimed for life from this disaster.

Terrible working conditions are not limited to Rana Plaza but are rampant in all garment factories. Despite the Rana Plaza factory collapse, US-based apparel maker VF Corp. confirmed that work is continuing at Liz Apparels, one of its Bangladeshi suppliers, even though a May 12 factory inspection found cracks in the Liz Apparel building. Liz Apparel makes Wrangler shirts for VF, whose brands include North Face, Timberland, and Nautica.

After a four-day shutdown starting Monday of last week, garment factories reopened on Friday. Factory management told workers they would be paid for Friday work because it was holiday but that they would not be paid for other days on the basis of “no work no pay.” This further angered the workers.

Prior to opening the factories, the owners and ministers including Labour and Employment Minister Rajiudin Ahmed and union leaders met and discussed how to control the workers. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) president Atiqul Islam said, “The government assured us of all assistance of maintaining law and order in the factories.”

After the disaster, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other government leaders feigned sympathy towards the workers. However, by deploying the police to crack down on protests yesterday, the government has shown that it will seek to ruthlessly suppress opposition among workers.

The deaths in to the building collapse have exposed the super-exploitation of the working class in the Bangladesh garment industry. Only six months before, in November, a fire at the Tazreen factory burned 112 workers to death.

The chief responsibility for poverty wages, unsafe conditions and suppression of democratic rights lies with the western clothing retail transnationals. In the face of growing militancy among workers, the retailers’ main concern is how to maintain Bangladesh as a cheap labour platform. They are extracting 60 to 80 percent profit margins from the garment trade, demanding that Bangladeshi factory owners and businesses keep wages at rock-bottom levels.

After the exposure of the disastrous conditions that they have played the key role in creating, the retail giants are moving into damage control mode.

The international trade unions have come forward to support them. The Swiss based UNI Global Union, the IndustriALL Union and several NGOs took an initiative with German officials to discuss a fire and building safety accord with European retail giants such as Carrefour, Benetton, Marks & Spencer, PVH and Calvin Klein. They are promising to spend a paltry sum of US$60 million over the next five years to improve factory conditions. They have also agreed to make periodic inspections of safety conditions.

Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer company, Gap and several other US companies have opposed even this completely inadequate agreement, saying that if they signed such an agreement, they would be vulnerable to legal action.

Some companies are also seeking to shift production to other locations, leaving Bangladesh so as to escape scrutiny of the deadly sweatshop conditions upon which they rely. In an interview with the Financial Times, Karl Johan Persson, the CEO of the Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), said that the company is looking for locations in Central and South America or in Africa.

The Hasina government faces a massive political crisis as working class opposition deepens. It is desperately trying to deflect discontent among workers and maintain cheap labour conditions. About 3.7 million workers, mostly young women, work in garment factories. Bangladesh has become the world’s second biggest garment manufacturer after China, deriving 80 percent of its export income from garment exports.

The Hasina government and the BGMEA are terrified that workers’ unrest could result in the cancellation of orders or in retailers withdrawing from Bangladesh.

Last week, in an attempt to buy time, the Bangladeshi government announced the formation of a panel to make recommendations on salary increases for workers. The workers were told to wait until this committee made its proposals.

It also proposed possible changes to labour laws, such as allowing the formation of trade unions. Allowing trade unions in the garment sector would be a shift of government policy, reflecting the view that unions will help control workers and to keep low wage conditions in line with the requirements of garment manufacturers and retailers. In Bangladesh as in every country, the ruling elite is well aware of the trade unions’ role in thwarting working class struggles.

Retailers, manufacturers, and the Bangladeshi government’s main concern is the unrest building up inside the working class. The New York Times commented, “Garment manufacturing makes up a fifth of the economy in Bangladesh and four-fifths of its exports, which means that one of the world’s poorest, most densely populated countries is desperately dependent on continued export orders to stave off soaring unemployment and possibly further political unrest.”

 

Fast fashion, fair wages: Vietnam’s lesson to Bangladesh


AFP, May 2, 2013 

Relations hit a sour note: Fashion brand Mango placed orders for clothing items this year at one of the factories housed in the now collapsed building in Bangladesh.

Relations hit a sour note: Fashion brand Mango placed orders for clothing items this year at one of the factories housed in the now collapsed building in Bangladesh. Photo: AFP

 

From factory fires to slave labour, the growth of mass manufacturing in South East Asia has not been problem-free, but having shed its “sweatshop” reputation, the region could have lessons for Bangladesh.

The building collapse near Dhaka last week that left 550 dead and missing has unleashed global consternation over conditions in the factories that produce fast fashion — cheap, catwalk-inspired clothes — for top global brands.

Amid talk of consumer boycotts, Bangladesh needs to reform its industry before fashionistas wonder “if they should be wearing blood-stained dresses”, Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity told AFP.

Communist Vietnam — which produces clothes for disposable fashion industry giants Zara, Mango and H&M — shows it is possible to have “extremely strong” labour laws, fair wages and a healthy garment industry, experts say.

“It is not a race to the bottom here,” Tara Rangarajan, program manager of the International Labour Organisation‘s Better Work project in Vietnam, told AFP.

“Sweatshops are part of a short term, immediate payback, low cost strategy. (Vietnam wants to) be competitive in the long term on something besides just cheap labour,” so it is trying to enforce and improve its laws, she added.

Buyers are attracted to Vietnam — where wages are some three times higher than Bangladesh — if “they have reputations they are trying to maintain”, she added.

Garment exports, worth $3.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, were up 18.3 percent year on year. The government’s “number one priority” is boosting technology, Vietnamese legal expert Nguyen Dinh Huan told AFP.

In contrast, Bangladesh has “specialised in low cost production” and embraced the sweatshop model rather than investing in technology and upgrading, said Nayla Ajaltouni coordinator of the Collectif Ethique sur l’etiquette.

“The industry has grown very quickly, (which) is why we’re seeing this concentration of chronic health and safety issues,” she told AFP.

Outrage over the recent building collapse could prove a turning point, she said. Minimum wages were increased in Bangladesh in 2011 “not for philanthropic reasons but because protests were starting to disturb the supply chain”.

“It is a bit cynical but this disaster is also a critical point where brands can be pushed to move forward — by the media, by citizens,” she added.

In Thailand, standards in factories improved significantly after a fire at a toy factory killed 188 people in 1993, although activists say conditions particularly in smaller factories can still be problematic.

In Cambodia, where the garment industry developed in the 1990s, avoiding the “sweatshop” label was a conscious strategy, with the country embracing an ILO Better Factories program — which union leaders say has only been minimally effective.

Several thousands of garment workers marched in the capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday to mark May Day and demand better pay and working conditions.

But Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of the Exporters Association of Bangladesh, said that Bangladesh “already has world class factories… some buyers just avoid placing orders there to maximise their profits”.

The trouble is “consumers are never really presented the real relationship between cheap clothes and labour abuses and health and safety standards, because of marketing, branding,” said Anne Elizabeth Moore, an award-winning author.

“In this set-up, buyers really aren’t motivated to care about labour issues unless they’re going for the altruism dollar, which is a long shot,” Moore, who has written extensively on the global garment industry, told AFP.

But attention on the recent accident in Bangladesh “is pressuring all companies, whether they were in that building or not, to tighten their supply chain — which is good,” said one Hong Kong-based manager with a global fashion brand who did not want to be named as her company policy bars her from talking to the media.

“But ultimately buyers cannot go in and change the system in Bangladesh. (The government) needs to take responsibility,” the manager added, pointing out that unlike Vietnam, Dhaka neither imposes a standard annual minimum wage increase nor allows garment workers to unionise.

Unless standards improve, Dhaka also needs to realise that its cash-cow industry — which accounts for some 80 percent of export earnings — is at risk, she said.

“A lot of buyers are looking into Myanmar, Kenya, Ethiopia. They don’t see Bangladesh as a long term hub anymore… there are too many problems.”

Mango has been recognised for revolutionising the global fashion industry, alongside brands such as Zara and Top Shop, by providing fast, affordable and accessible fashion to the masses. Mango shifts about 30,000 pieces of clothing an hour in stores across 109 countries.

But the national manager of Ethical Clothing Australia, Simon McRae, criticised the concept of ”fast fashion”, saying it put additional strain on garment factories already under pressure in developing countries and increased the chance of more disasters like the one in Bangladesh.

More than 300 garment factory workers were killed in factory fires between 2006 and 2009, and a further 79 workers died in 21 separate accidents in 2010, a report by the Clean Clothes Campaign showed. More than 100 were killed in a factory fire last November.

Michele O’Neil from the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia said Bangladesh was the world’s most dangerous place to work for a clothes maker.

”Western clothing brands have the ultimate responsibility for the conditions their stock is made in,” she said.

”The companies are really looking for the cheapest labour force in the world.”

 

bur-ceb/ao/dwa

Whose side are you on?


 

By Javed Anand

Leaders and the led from a host of rightwing Indian Muslim organisations – Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JEI), All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, All India Milli Council, All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, West Bengal Sunnat Al Jamaat Committee included – have not been sleeping well in the last several weeks. Their angst is on two counts. One, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) set up by the ruling Awami League in 2009 to investigate and prosecute suspects for the genocide committed in 1971 by the Pakistan army and their local collaborators, Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Two, the “atheist conspiracy” to banish Islam from Bangladesh that is supposedly behind the lakhs who have been thronging Shahbagh. 

So far, nearly a dozen men including nine currently top-ranking leaders of the Jamaat, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, have been held guilty and served stiff sentences. According to the sleepy-heads, the ongoing trials are a sham, a mere cover for the ruling Awami League’s “vendetta politics” against the Jamaat and its youth wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir. That the Jamaat had any hand in the genocide is news to them.

“Islamists are the most principled, pious, god-fearing and kind people on the earth… It’s far beyond their high moral standards to rape or kill someone,” claims a JEI spokesperson in an email. This is news to me. Are the Jamaat-Shibir supporters in India ignorant, wilfully blind, or do we smell theological affinity here to a totalitarian ideology parading as Islamic?

Keep the genocide of 1971 aside for the moment and take a look at what the “most kind” have been up to in recent years.

April 26, 2011: “A judicial commission has concluded that over 200 Hindu women were raped following the 2001 parliamentary election, forcing many terrorized families to flee the country. The acts were allegedly committed by cadres of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami who won the 2001 polls, the report said, citing the involvement of many top leaders and lawmakers of the alliance that is now in the opposition… It lists 3,625 incidents of major crimes, including killing, rape, arson and looting”. (IANS report from Dhaka published by the Muslim news portal, Two Circles).

 September 26, 2005: Syed Najibul Bashar Maizbhandari, international affairs secretary of the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) resigns from the party protesting “the government’s failure to act” against the Jamaat-e-Islami (part of the then ruling coalition) which he said had direct links to terrorist activities across the country. The Daily Star published from Dhaka, quoted police records that the over 100 militants who were arrested during 2005 in connection with the bombings (including the simultaneous bomb blasts at 459 spots in 63 districts across Bangladesh on a single day – August 17 – aimed at establishing Islamic rule in the country) either belonged to the Jamaat or its various wings, or had worked with them previously.

November 24, 2005: The BNP expels one of its MPs, Abu Hena, from the party for blaming a section of his own government and party for patronising militants. What’s more, he charged that two ministers “are doing everything for the militants”. Hena further alleged that the Jamaat was directly involved in the emergence of the outlawed Jamaatul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh. His expulsion notwithstanding, BNP’s standing committee member and former minister Oli Ahmed and BNP whip Ashraf Hossain also spoke out, implicating the Jamaat-e-Islami in the rise of militancy in the country.

March 6, 2013: “Over the past week, individuals taking part in strikes called by Islamic parties have vandalised more than 40 Hindu temples across Bangladesh. Scores of shops and houses belonging to the Hindu community have also been burned down, leaving hundreds of people homeless… Survivors told Amnesty International that the attackers were taking part in rallies organised by the opposition Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JIB) and its student group Chhatra Shibir. JIB has publicly denied any involvement in violence against the Hindu community”. (A press release by Amnesty International)

April 20, 2013: “Despite High Court directives to the government to protect religious minorities and their places of worships, criminals continue their attacks on minorities across the country. In the latest such crimes, a group of criminals torched a 200-year-old Hindu temple in Rajoir upazila of Madaripur (on April 19)… at least 94 attacks were carried out in March (2013) on minorities, mainly on the Hindus. In total, 187 houses, 162 businesses and 89 temples were attacked and looted and 133 idols were vandalised, according to the statement of a writ petition jointly filed by six rights organizations”. (Daily Star, Dhaka). As always, the JIB will no doubt deny any role in the recurrent targeting of Hindus.

As for “atheist conspiracy”, an entire galaxy of maulanas affiliated to the Imam Ulema Somonnoy Oikyo Parishad, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (Bangladesh) and other religious bodies in Bangladesh have publicly alleged that the Jamaat-Shibir is linked with terrorist Islamist organizations. “People who believe in Wahabism and Moududism (Maulana Abul Ala Maududi was the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami) are enemies of Islam as they misinterpret Quran and Sunnah”, thundered Ahle Sunnat (Bangladesh) secretary general Syed Muhammad Masiuddoula at a Sunni Ulema-Mashayekh Conference on March 17. (Daily Star).

On one side are the Jamaat which has never polled more than four per cent of total votes and extremist Islamist outfits dreaming of an Islamic state andshariah law. On the other side is the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshi Muslims love “their Islam” but would like it to stay far away from politics. It’s as simple as that. That’s what Shahbagh is all about.

Whose side are you on? The question is addressed in particular to Indian Muslim supporters of the violence-promoting Jamat-Shibir outfits in Bangladesh as much as to the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, both of whom seem to have granted to local Muslims the right to hold the state to ransom as often as they please.

(Javed Anand is co-editor, Communalism Combat, and General Secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy).

Bangladesh SC uphold death penalty to 2 army officers


30 April 2013

Press Trust of India

DHAKA, 30 APRIL: Bangladesh‘s Supreme Court today upheld the death sentences of two fugitive junior military officers awarded by a local court for killing four top national leaders, including the then acting president Syed Nazrul Islam, inside the Dhaka Central Jail in 1975.

“The appeal is allowed,” ruled Chief Justice Mozammel Huq, who headed a six-member Bench of the Appellate Division, turning down the 2008 High Court judgment in this case.

The High Court had acquitted sacked junior commissioned officers Marfat Ali Shah and Abdul Hashem Mridha in 2008. The state attorneys submitted a petition challenging the acquittal of several accused five months ago.

The two accused, who are on the run, are believed to be hiding in India. New Delhi has assured Dhaka of sending them back if tracked them down.

The four leaders ~ Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, AHM Qamruzzaman and Captain Mansur Ali ~ were brutally killed inside the high security Dhaka Central Jail in captivity by a group of army men.

Islam was the acting President and Ahmed performed as the Prime Minister of the then government in exile in India while two others were senior ministers of the interim administration to steer the 1971 Liberation War in absence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was in captivity in Pakistan at that time.

They were gunned down inside their prison cells by a group of army personnel months after the killing of Sheikh Mujib along with most of his family members in August 1975.

The post coup administration installed by the putsch leaders had put them behind the bar as they declined to support the “illegitimate government” and eventually killed just ahead of a counter-coup that ousted the August plotters.

The then self-proclaimed president Khandker Mushtaq Ahmed, however, had constituted visibly a “show case” enquiry commission to investigate into the carnage, though prosecution evidence suggested he himself had ordered the assassins entry inside the prison to kill the four leaders.

The SC, however, ordered immediate surrender of two absconding army officers as it allowed government to file the appeal more than three years ago.

The Metropolitan Sessions Judge’s court in October, 2004, originally sentenced to death three fugitive former military personnel and life term to 12 others for the jail massacre while it had acquitted four politicians and another former military officer.

Several of the suspects of the jail killings, however, were convicted and already executed under a separate judgment in Bangabandhu Murder Trial four years ago.

But the family members and the prosecution lawyers were not satisfied even with the lower court verdict in the jail killing trial as the belated trial began in 1996 alongside the Bangabandhu Murder Case. The two trials began simultaneously after Awami League‘s returned to power in 1996 general election after 21 years of political wilderness and scrapped an infamous indemnity law, which until then protected the killers from justice.

Loud and clear: Bangladeshi youth choose their platform


 Dhaka Tribune, April21, 2013

The next generation has found its voice through the Internet


  • Photo- DhakaTribune

I never knew how active Bangladesh, as an entire country, was virtually until the Shahbag story broke out on social media this year. You can have your opinions about the movement, be dismissive or inspired, but one thing few can argue is that online activists played a critical role in using the Internet to organise and spread the story, and got thousands of young Bangladeshis to work together.

The role technology is playing in current events in Bangladesh is revolutionary. It was Bangladeshi online activists and bloggers who first protested Kader Mollah’s verdict, demanding the death sentence, used social media to spread the word, and staged sit-ins. That set off the series of events which have brought us to the present day. The recent crackdown on bloggers confirms the power online activism enjoys.

The participation of women in this movement is also unique. Many attribute this to the fact that women in Bangladesh have been organising at the grassroots level for decades. Seeing female leadership in Bangladesh is not really something new to us, despite our patriarchal cultural roots. We have managed to have women in major leadership roles across the board. The Arab Spring may have showed the world how to use social media to build one’s political platform, but this generation of Bangladeshis showed the nation, and the world, how to use the Internet to try to finally gain closure from a bloody Liberation War from which the nation is still struggling to fully recover.

The view from abroad as a Bangladeshi was electrifying. Almost immediately my Facebook and Twitter feeds became consumed with the word “Shahbag.” It did not take long to figure out what my fellow Bangladeshis were talking about, or reach across the oceans and find one another.

As the “Western media” grappled with why thousands of youth were pouring into Dhaka’s streets, and holding images of the hang-man’s noose, Bangladeshis from Dhaka to Dallas were tweeting one another, connecting online, and reaching out to Bangladeshi writers around the world to ensure accurate coverage of Shahbag in the mainstream media.

In the first few weeks of the Shahbag story, my posts were a direct result of the information I received from my social media contacts. Those who reached out to me did so to get the word out on a story that was largely being overlooked and misinterpreted. People I had never met were emailing me links, articles, and pictures to tell the world that the youth in Bangladesh would not sit idly by, while politicians paved their future without their participation. Bangladeshis, in Dhaka and across the world, were creating uproar on the streets of Dhaka and in the pathways of the Internet. The energy was palpable, and I felt an instant patriotic connection with my fellow Bangladeshis, a majority of whom were people I had never met.

Although millions of people organise nearly millions of causes every day online, I had never experienced this camaraderie amongst my fellow countrymen. I grew up being told that my generation was passive and uninterested in the future of our country. As our parents recovered from 1971, we grappled with a Bangladesh in many ways at war with herself.

What the Shahbag movement showed me, as a Bangladeshi not living in Bangladesh, is that my generation is informed, politically aware, protective of its history, and is online. It showed me that we are not apathetic about the future of Bangladesh. We may have fallen into a coma spanning four decades since 1971, but the youth of Bangladesh, across the world, are awake. Barriers that separate Bangladeshis across social customs, class and gender all seemingly disappear online. When “Internet trolls” harassed female writers online, myself included, fellow Bangladeshis I had never met came to my defence. Sometimes groups even organised online to stand up for us, and defend our work.

So, while what is being done is nothing new, what is exciting is that Bangladeshi youth are doing it, too: Using the Internet to connect and communicate so as to cultivate a better path for the future of this country.

This generation of Bangladeshis understand the power of online organising and is using it. Call me idealistic and naïve, but it is so electrifying and inspiring that it makes me believe and want to work for the kind of Bangladesh whose dream we keep nestled deep in our hearts.

By positioning themselves at the forefront of these protests, Bangladeshi women and Bangladeshi youth are using their voices, and breaking an age-old myth that this generation is voiceless when it comes to our country’s politics and future. Shahbag changed all that. The voice of the new generation of Bangladeshis is informed, organised, aware, active and online. The question is: Are you listening?
Anushay Hossain is a Bangladeshi born-Washington based policy analyst. She writes the blog, Anushay’s Point (www.AnushaysPoint.com)

 

Bangladesh -Jamat-e-Islami misguiding international human rights bodies


Thursday, 07 March 2013 20:28by Farooq Sulehria , viewpointonline.com

The Communist Party of Bangladesh or Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dol (Socialist Party) have been unwavering in their commitment to the war criminal trials

‘Sadly, the Awami League has not fully restored the 1972 constitution – the present constitution is a strange chimera – it has Islam as state religion and also says that that the republic is secular, at the same time !,’ says Garga Chatterjee.

He is a political commentator on the sub-continental issues. His articles are regularly published from newspapers and magazines in Lahore, Mumbai, Kolkata, Dhaka, Sri Nagar, Delhi, and Kathmandu. By profession, he is a brain scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Read on:

You were recently in Dhaka. Tell us about the unrest that has gripped the country of late.

I was in Dhaka recently when the protests at Shahbag were going on in full swing. The protests started when one of the war criminals of 1971, a Bengali killer-collaborator called Kader Mollah, was handed down a life sentence. The initial protest organizers, sort of an informal alliance between a network of bloggers and certain secular and left student organizations, snowballed into a continuous protest against the verdict. People from many walks of life, especially women and youth, joined in. People who have seen protests in Dhaka before told me that they have not seen anything this big since the pro-democracy protests against General Ershad. Some say this even dwarfs that. Soon enough, the demands on the protesters went beyond asking for death penalty for Kader Mollah. This finally coalesced in to the 6-point demand from the ‘Projonmo Chottor’, which is the informal name for the Shahbag demonstration – which roughly translates as the Generation Campus/Square.

The 6-points are:

1. Maximum penalty for all war criminals including Kader Molla.
2. Ensuring equal legal rights of both defendant and prosecution, ensuring 3-month time limit on all trials, abolishing clemency power of the state for these trials.
3. Banning Pakistani aggressor force’s allies Jamat-Shibir and all communal parties for resisting Bangladesh liberation and committing war crimes. Immediate arrest and justice for activists of Jamat-Shibir for threatening a civil war by identifying through television and print media pictures.
4.  Bring all the political parties, forces, individuals and organizations who are trying to safeguard these war criminals, resisting the trials and conspiring with them to justice.
5. Arrest and bring under ICT Trials all the war criminals who were either convicted or undergoing trial till their release on December 31, 1975
6.  Ban all the business, social and cultural organizations like Islami Bank, Ibn Sina, Focus, Retina Coaching, etc. Block all the local and foreign sources of income of Jamat-Shibir. Shut down war criminal owned media organizations like Diganta TV, Daily Naya Diganta, Daily Amar Desh, Daily Sangram, blogsite SonarBangladesh.com , etc.

The last point is significant because Jamaat and its cohorts run one of the largest business networks in Bangladesh.

Also, solidarity protests have been held beyond Dhaka in almost all parts of Bangladesh. I myself saw protests in Barisal being held in front of the Ashwini Dutta Town Hall. Certain progressive-left cultural troupes like Udichi are taking a very active role in organizing these- through singing songs of Liberation war and also Bangla songs of Robindronath, Dwinjendro Lal Ray and other stalwarts.

There are extempore paintings being done by local artists. In Shahbag, at any point, 2-3 film screenings, 4-5 street theatres and numerous small gatherings (jotlas) were happening side by side with the central assembly. The atmosphere was electric – nothing like what I have ever seen before, and being from Calcutta, I have been to many protests, including the much talked about Delhi rape protests.

It is being commented that people are asserting the secular identity of their country. Why this stress on war crimes. What is the link between the secular identity and the war crimes?

People in Shahbag are indeed asserting the importance of secular politics. This is evident in their slogans and in the absence of informal obeisance to this religion or the other, which take place in many other ‘secular’ scenarios. Apart from brief Namaj [prayer] breaks, I noticed nothing that had any particular stamp. What was interesting that most of the assemblies were not talking of ‘true Islam’ or ‘true Hinduism’ but of a politics bereft of the use of religion. I am not sure whether Shahbag’s strand of hard secularism is representative of Bangladesh as a whole, but Shahbag is a political act and in that, it aims for a change, rather than simply reflect what is. So Shahbag’s secularism is derived partly from the present polity but also is trying to project a political programme. Interestingly, this separation of religion from politics is something that is enshrined in the 1972 constitution, which the military rulers removed. Sadly, the Awami League has not fully restored the 1972 constitution – the present constitution is a strange chimera – it has Islam as state religion and also says that that the republic is secular, at the same time!

The question of war crimes is central to this movement. The 1971 Liberation war is the central defining event that resulted in the nation-state of the people’s republic of Bangladesh. That central fissure, of those for and those against the idea of Bangladesh, remains unresolved – as those against the idea have retained considerable clout in politics. They have tried to systematically distort history. The War crimes are important because in spite of all the distortion, except a few religious cranks, no one really disputes that they really happened. The war criminals represent a festering wound – of the kind few nation-states have. Imagine having the butcher of Jallianwalabagh being a minister in post-British Punjab! Then you start getting an idea of what we are talking about. The war crimes trials are a short-hand for historical justice, but also for many, something that needs to be resolved so that those who opposed independence violently can be delegitimized in politics.

The link between secular identity and war crimes is important. The war crimes happened in the name of preserving the unity of the Islamic state, Pakistan. The Hindus of East Bengal were victims of war crimes in disproportionately high numbers. Even in 1971, the pro Liberation forces were touted to be anti-Islam for being pro-Bengali. In this nation-state, Muslims form a progressively stupendous majority. So, the demand for war crimes trial, also is part of the demand the calls for a return to the ‘ideals of 71′ – which, in theory, is not communal.

Do you think there are lessons for other Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, in this movement?

There are important lessons for other countries with large Muslims majority populations. The Shahbag protests are quite different from the other iconic protest of recent times- the Tahrir Square. Unlike Tahrir, in Shahbag Islamists were not part of the protests. So beyond superficial comparisons, Shahbag is quite different – in composition, in political direction, in participation and leadership of women ( leading some pro-Jamaat groups and clerics to call Shahbag a den of vice and prostitution!). Shahbag also underlines the role of long-term political organizing in Muslim-majority societies that may be missed in the ‘spontaneity’. Make no mistake about it, without the student and youth organizations of the political left, there would be no Shahbag. I remember a cartoon by Sabir Nazar that was printed in The Friday Times, where he shows the successive destruction of ‘minorities’ in Pakistan – Hindus, Ahmadis, Sunnis and then a bullet coming towards the Sunnis. In Bangladesh, this politics of ‘purification’ is something that was countered, albeit incompletely, during 71. Given the devastating effects of finding the one pure faithful befitting Pakistan, Shahbag, in its prioritizing the issue of genocide and war crimes of 71, brings to front, what solution such ‘purifying’ politics leads to. In all places, where minorities are living a threatened existence, Shahbag should act as a political message. From Shahbag, there have been slogans that venerate Surya Sen and Pritilata Waddeddar. These ‘Hindu’ freedom fighters from 80 years ago were centre of mass slogans by an assembly that was largely Muslim. Can Pakistan conceive of a politics where Bhagat Singh can have a similar status? These are issues that need to be reflected upon.

Jamaat was feared in Bangladesh. It seems that fear is disappearing. Your comments.

This is something I heard at many places. Many said, if Shahbag has done one thing, it is this – earlier, in many places, the ‘commoner’ would criticize Jamaat in a low voice. Now they swear openly at it.

The Jamaat and its associates are a marginal but significant political force in Bangladesh. The silence was due to their terror techniques. Especially notorious is their student wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir. The similarity with the IJT’s terrorizing of campuses in Pakistan is striking.

Has Jamaat-e-Islami been on the defensive? Is it true that JI members have been killed by Awami League? Or is it the case that Jamaat has been targeting opponents. In Pakistan, Jamaat is propagating that their members have been killed by Awami League activists?

If the 6 demands of Shahbag are fulfilled, then Jamaat will be severely compromised politically – though their strand of politics will find other outlets. So for JI, this is a battle for political survival. They are fighting back on all fronts. In any case JI cadres are brain-washed to believe that they are perennially besieged. They are doing online propaganda, trying to misguide international human rights organizations, and on the streets, they are doing looting, killing and arson. Very recently, they have been targeting Hindu and Buddhist temples, homes and businesses to create a riot-like situation. The state forces of Bangladesh have come down in a heavy handed manner – so it is incorrect to say that Awami League (AL) is killing them now. It is true that AL, BNP and Jamaat have been involved in murderous clashes. The student and youth wing of the Awami League has been particularly violent in the last 2 years – but most of it has been feuds between AL factions. The student wing of the Jamaat however is the most notorious, having earned the terrifying epithet of ‘rog-kata’ or ‘muscle/tendon cutters’.

What has been the role of Awami League and other mainstream parties during these trial? Also, what about the left: its stand and level of participation?

The AL has been formally supportive of the trial. This was one of their elections manifesto pledges. They have however mismanaged the trial but nominating a bunch of loyal but worthless lawyers in the prosecution side. Also the tribunal does not have much resources. This has led many to question whether AL really wants the trial and prosecution of war criminals. AL has earlier made underhand deals with many powers, including the Jamaat. However, this time, the tenor of the struggle on the ground is different.

The left organizations, like the Communist Party of Bangladesh or Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dol (Socialist Party) have been unwavering in their commitment to the war criminal trials. They have been trying to follow a line of tactically criticizing the AL to keep it in line with its election manifesto commitments on the war trial issue. The AL smells election benefits of Shahbag, if it can channelize the youth vote, which is an increasingly large part of the electorate. At the same time, AL knows that the widespread support and participation in Shahbag has happened as it was no explicitly partisan. It is a case of the goose that lays the golden eggs. AL wants to steal the eggs – however, it also knows that trying to do that too brashly, will kill the goose.

Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.

Bangla young crusaders on a song at ‘ carnival’ of protests


By, TNN | Mar 13, 2013,

DHAKA: It’s a carnival that’s rocking the entire nation. Quite literally. The Shahbag Movement — fuelled by music, art, blogging and the sheer spontaneity of youth — is teaching a new way of protest to a country ravaged by vengeance and violence for over four decades.The teenagers leading the movement have the natural confidence of youth. Violence and death threats do not deter them. For they have seen the vision of a new Bangladesh. Rarely in history has a ‘carnival’ engineered social change as here.

The young crusaders put it very simply — they are “tired of strikes, explosions and goonda raaj”. “Violence can’t be a solution. Look at the youngsters at Shahbag Square — they are singing, painting. But they are more powerful than the fundamentalists,” said Safiqul Islam, a middle-aged autorickshaw driver, who is caught up in the energy of the movement.

His profession brings him face to face with various sections of the society every day. And over the past month, he noticed that all roads led to Shahbag Square. “Finally, overcome by curiosity, I decided to take a look,” says the native of Brammanberia district. He is now a convert. Age no factor.

“Every day, I visit the square at least once even though I sacrifice some of my earnings. Initially, I was a bystander. One evening, a young girl asked me to join in their song. I can’t read or write. I hesitated. But they cheered me on. Now I even compose songs and sing them,” said Safiqul.

He is now ‘mama’ (uncle) to all us youngsters, say like Lucky Akhter and her journalist friend Roksana Amin. Lucky, a native of Noakhali, studies in Dhaka Jagannath University. Her father was a liberation fighter. “I grew up with the stories of the Liberation War. Ours is a war for the entire nation — to ensure justice for the martyrs,” says Lucky, who has been with the movement since the first day and is loved for coining powerful slogans.

Roksana feels it is the duty of all Bangladeshis to join the movement. She quit her job to join the Shahbag army and is now organizing a ‘squad’ of protesters in the name of the legendary Jahanara Imam, mother of a martyr.

Imran Firdaus from Rajsahi, a student of linguistics at Dhaka University, confesses he “just couldn’t stay away”. In the past month, Shahbag Square has given birth to several little magazines and newspapers. And Imran, a freelance filmmaker and researcher, writes for them as if his life depended on it.

Shahbag Square has turned into a must-stop for millions of people. Sanatan has his hands full meeting business targets for his private firm but ensures that his first stop from office is always the protest platform. “I spend at least three hours here as an expression of solidarity,” said Sanatan. It’s the same with college lecturer Amita Chakraborty.

The Jamat-backing outfit Hefajat e Islam has threatened to stop the mass meeting of Shahbag protesters at Chittagong on Wednesday, but the crusaders have laughed it away. “We won’t give up. We will definitely hold our meeting in Chittagong,” said Imran H Sarkar, convenor of the protest forum.

Showing a thumb to the fundamentalists, it’s an open forum for girls. The Shahbag revolution has brought a message of gender and class equality. Boys and girls stay in the square till late night or often the entire night. Shahbag is the bridge between the age of Liberation and its third generation. “The spontaneity of the people has made all the difference,” says Shah Asif, one of protesters. “People are pulled here by an inner urge, melting in the wave of protest…”

Lucky’s firebrand slogans, Rokasana’s songs, someone’s painting, colours, grief, joy and tears melt into “Notun Diner Notun Daak. Shahbag Shahbag (Call of a New Day, Shahbag-Shahbag)”.

Bomb attack at press meet

Activists of the Jamat-backing outfit Hefajat-e-Islam hurled bombs near the Dhaka Press Clubwhere Shahbag Movement campaigners were holding a press conference on Tuesday evening.

No one was hurt in the attack but it triggered fears of violence in Chittagong on Wednesday since Jamat has called a strike on the same day as the Shahbag crusaders plan to organize a rally.

Tuesday’s press conference was called to give details of the proposed march in Chittagong when Hefajat men attacked with bombs, police sources said.

The Shahbag campaigners, who have floated the Gana Jagaran Mancha, have been getting threats to cancel their Chittagong march but they have vowed not to be cowed down.

 

Bangladesh moves Supreme Court for #deathpenalty to Abdul Quader Mollah


PTI Mar 3, 2013,

DHAKA: Bangladesh government today moved the Supreme Court seeking death penalty for Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah, who escaped with life imprisonment from a court here for committing “crimes against humanity” during the country’s independence war in 1971.

The attorney general’s office submitted the 484-page appeal to the section concerned of the apex court in this morning.

Attorney general Mahbubey Alam said his office will now file an application in the chamber judge of the Appellate Division for fixing a date for hearing the appeal at a regular bench.

In its petition, the government asked the Supreme Court to award Mollah, Jamaat assistant secretary general, capital punishment considering the gravity of his crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War.

The verdict delivered on February 5 by a war crime tribunal convicted 65-year-old Mollah for five wartime criminal offences out of the six he was charged with, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

In two of the five acts of crimes against humanity, at least 350 people were killed and a girl was raped.

Mollah was also sentenced to 15-year imprisonment for his complicity in three other criminal offences in which six people were killed. He was acquitted of the charge of killing hundreds of people at Keraniganj in Dhaka as the charge was not proved in the tribunal.

The life imprisonment for Mollah angered thousands of secular protesters, mostly youths, who have been demonstrating at Shahbagh Square here since February 5 to press enhancing his punishment to death sentence.

Mollah’s party colleague and Jamaat vice-president Delwar Hossain Sayedee was last week sentenced to death for setting ablaze 25 houses in a Hindu village and aiding the killing of two persons.

The court found him guilty of helping a pro-Pakistani armed group which abducted three Hindu girls and raped them and forced 100 Hindus to convert.

In January, former Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad was sentenced to death on similar charges.

The government’s moving the apex court to seek death for Mollah came on a day when Jamaat and its student wing Islamic Chhatra Shibir attacked civilians and clashed with police across Bangladesh, leaving 14 people dead.

 

Shahbag: Story of two hangings; differences in their dynamics #deathpenalty


 

The name Shahbag will not evoke much recognition from the Indian pretenders to ‘global citizenship’. Dhaka is the city many Indians believe that ‘they’ liberated in 1971. Shahbag is one of the main street intersections of Dhaka where the events taking place as I write may have historic consequences. If you walk from the Science Lab intersection in Dhaka and hear passionate slogans from the young and old shaking the ground beneath your feet, you are at Shahbag.

After the 1971 Liberation war of Bangladesh, the governments of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh reached a tripartite agreement. One of the despicable results of this was the granting of clemency to some of the worst perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the last millennium. Some Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan forces indulged in mass-murders and rapes that have few parallels in recent memory. They have never faced the judicial process, until now.

The International War Crimes tribunal in Bangladesh has been pursuing some of the biggest leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Razakar, Al-Shams and Al-Badr militia — a process that has stupendous public support. One of the most hated of these characters, Kader Mollah, has been handed a life sentence and not a death sentence. This resulted in a protest assembly started by a bloggers and online activist network that was quickly joined by progressive and left-wing student organisations.

The result has been an unprecedented mass assembly that has been going on almost continuously since February 5 with people from all walks of life joining in. If the Anna protests in Delhi were a stove-flame, Shahbag is a veritable volcano. It was briefly called off after February 21 only to start again a day later.

As I stand in Shahbag, soaking in this immense human energy, I cannot help compare this to another such urban assembly I was recently witness to, where too, calls for hanging (something I am personallyopposed to, under any circumstance) were the primary chant. These were the India Gate protests after the Delhi rape and murder case. At India Gate, Kavita Krishnan and others tried their best to inject sanity into the folks demands for death and castration. There the political was trying to reason with the expressly ‘apolitical’. Here in Shahbag, from the very outset, it was very political. However, it was not partisan. The difference showed. In Shahbag, the politicised students and youth mood that bordered on uber-nationalism was blood-lust was interrogated, at the square itself, by mass chants, that challenged simplistic understandings of nation, nationalism and revenge.

The slogan Tumi ke, ami ke, Bangali, Bangali (Who are you, who am I? Bengali, Bengali) was often changed to Chakma, Marma, Bangali to include other ethnicities in the state of Bangladesh. The former two ethnic groups were involved in a long-armed insurrection with the government. This is not easy, especially in a nation-state formed primarily on the basis of an exclusivist ethno-linguistic nationalism.

Imagine saying the K-word or the N-word as different from ‘Indian’ in the Delhi chants. But Dhaka could, and they could precisely because Shahbag is political. The media covers Shahbag, it does not dictate it. It does not repeat the word ‘apolitical’ like a ghost-busting mantra as those in Delhi studios did as soon as the ‘Damini’ protests started. In Shahbag, it was demanded that whole organisations that were involved in rapes and murders be banned. In the Indian Union, can we even dare to name the organisations and agencies to which the highest numbers of alleged rapists are affiliated?

The amateur flash-in-the-pan nature of Delhi protests showed when it was all but broken but a Lathi-charge. The brutal murder of one of the organisers of the Shahbag protests, blogger Rajeeb Haidar, only strengthened the resolve of the square. In Shahbag, the government is trying hard to appropriate the movement for justice.

At the India Gate, the Delhi Police meted out instant justice of another kind. Shahbag is also a call for a different political direction — the youth wanting to resolve issues that happened before their birth. This bursts the myth that today’s young only react when things affect them directly. The hip metro youth of India, are still sadly, in a state of political infancy in this regard.

I stood mesmerised by the slogan-chanting figure of Bangladesh Chhatro Union’s Lucky Akhtar, who has now been nicknamed ‘slogankanya’ by Shahbag itself. Lucky has been hospitalised multiple times, once after being pushed by ruling party operatives keen to capture the stage.

Whenever Lucky led the sloganeering, it was hard to separate the aesthetic from the political. And why should one? In this assembly for justice against crimes that also includes innumerable rapes, there were thousands who were there not as somebody’s mother, daughter or sister, but as politically inspired women. And it matters. And that showed.

 

 

Bangladesh amends war crimes law, mulls banning Islamists


By Anis Ahmed

DHAKA (Reuters) – DHAKA | Sun Feb

Feb 17 (Reuters) – Bangladesh‘s parliament, meeting the demands of protesters thronging the capital, amended a law on Sunday allowing the state to appeal any verdict in war crimes trials it deems inadequate and out of step with public opinion.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators jamming central Shahbag Square for the 13th day burst into cheers amid driving rain as the assembly approved the changes.

The protesters have been demanding the death penalty for war crimes after a tribunal this month sentenced a prominent Islamist to life in prison in connection with Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

The life sentence pronounced on Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant Secretary General of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, for murder, rape and torture had stunned many Bangaldeshis.

The amendment will “empower the tribunals to try and punish any organizations, including Jamaat-e-Islami, for committing crimes during country’s liberation war in 1971″, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said after the change was approved.

Lawyers said the amendment sets a timetable for the government to appeal against Mollah’s sentence and secure a retrial. The previous law did not allow state prosecutors to call for a retrial except in the case of acquittals.

Adoption was quick — less than a week after the amendment was approved by the cabinet in the overwhelmingly Muslim country of 150 million.

OPPOSITION BOYCOTTS PARLIAMENT

Opposition benches were empty as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the BNP) of former premier Begum Khaleda Zia and its allies have been boycotting sessions almost since her arch rival, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, took office in 2009.

The BNP accuses the prime minister of using the war crimes tribunal as a weapon against its opponents. Hasina denies the allegation.

In its first verdict last month, the tribunal sentenced a former Jamaat leader, Abul Kamal Azad, also an Islamic preacher, to death in absentia for similar offences.

Eight other Jamaat leaders, including its current and former chiefs, are being tried by the war crimes court that Hasina set up in 2010 to investigate abuses during the 1971 conflict. Three million people were killed and thousands of women were raped.

The government is facing growing pressure from the protesters to ban Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party, and groups linked to it.

Students and teachers throughout the country hoisted the national flag and sang the national anthem simultaneously to support the demonstrators’ call to put war criminals to death.

Law minister Shafique Ahmed told reporters the government was considering such a ban.

Jamaat activists have called a country-wide strike for Monday, but demonstrators and many shopkeepers have pledged to resist any attempt to enforce such a stoppage.

Demonstrators have shown new resolve after the killing on Friday of one of the protest leaders, a popular blogger.

Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British rule in 1947 but broke away in 1971 after a war between Bangladeshi nationalists, backed by India, and Pakistani forces.

Some factions in what was then East Pakistan opposed the break with Pakistan. Jamaat denies accusations that it opposed independence and helped the Pakistani army.

(Editing by Ron Popeski)