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.