Bangladesh Erupts 25 April 2013

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Shahbag Square Mock HangingRecent protests in Bangladesh have raised old questions and challenged new leadership.

A Storm Gathers

Bangladesh erupted in a mass protest in February 2013. People gathered in Shahbag intersection in central Dhaka. The numbers swelled from hundreds to thousands. They were united by a single, all resounding chant, filling the air with an electric energy, “fashi chai… fashi chai”.

Despite the temptation to compare the two, Shahbag is no Tahrir Square. This is no ‘South Asian Spring’. The chant of these thousands was no call for righteous government. Instead they chanted “hang them all”.

The story does, much like the Arab Spring, begin with colonisation. When the British Raj left Hindustan, it was divided into two nations, Pakistan and India, separated upon mainly religious lines. Pakistan itself was no homogenous nation. There was East Pakistan and West Pakistan. The two halves were united by a common Muslim faith, but divided upon linguistic and cultural lines. Soon these divisions led to war, and East Pakistan fought for independence, becoming Bangladesh in 1971.

The Bangladeshi War of Independence was as bloody as any other war in the twentieth century. Mass killings were part of the tactics used by Pakistan against the Bangladeshi population with the help of local Bangladeshi recruits, and other crimes included rape and torture. Estimates of how many died during the killings vary from 300,000 to 3 million. Whether called East Pakistan or Bangladesh, the country has suffered from poor infrastructure and it is unlikely an accurate number will ever be ascertained. Regardless, the scale of killing was dramatic, substantial and inhumane.

The separatist leaders within Bangladesh came primarily from the Awami League, a political party that was in favour of Bangladeshi Independence from its establishment. The former leader of the Awami League is often called the father of Bangladesh – Mujibur Rahman. Many of those within Bangladesh who argued, and indeed fought for, unification with Pakistan were from Jamaat-e-Islami. Inspired by the late Maulana Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi, Jamaat-e-Islami is one of the largest grassroots networks in Bangladesh. Motivaed by Islamic teachings on social justice, they provide substantial welfare services to the population. Allied with the Jamaat in Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami felt that Bangladesh could maintain its cultural and linguistic identity without independence, which itself would weaken the nation and invite further discord.

Jamaat-e-Islami, despite being a political party, focus more on addressing the welfare and spiritual needs of the Bangladeshi populace. It is the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) who have been Awami League’s main opposition, and by arguing against Awami League secularism, the BNP have often had the tacit and sometimes overt support of religiously-confident Jamaat-e-Islami.

Since independence, the Awami League and the BNP have both held power at various times, with the electorate flipping between them every few elections. The parties are as much about personality as politics. The current leader of the Awami League and Prime Minister of Bangladesh is Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of the late Mujibur Rahman. Likewise, Khaleda Zia, the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh (leading the BNP) is widow of the party’s founder, the late Ziaur Rahman. Both Ziaur Rahman and Mujiibur Rahman were assassinated. Politics in Bangladesh is violent, bloody and the cult of personality is paramount.

There were attempts, immediately after the war of independence, for those guilty of war crimes to be tried and punished. The trials themselves proved to be farcical, with very little evidence or information forthcoming, and many accusing them of lacking both impartiality and the necessary procedures to establish guilt. They were soon abandoned. Despite the open wound of the war, establishing the guilty from the innocent was well beyond the young Bangladesh’s means.

Recent Developments

Thus the issue was laid to rest for nearly four decades until the International Crimes Tribunal of 2010. The Awami League, currently in power and led by Sheikh Hasina, had promised in its election manifesto that they would establish courts to try those guilty of war crimes during the war of independence. Many were sceptical of whether this was even possible, given that forty years had passed and with it much of the evidence needed. Nonetheless, Awami League won the 2008 general election and the war tribunals began.

Many of the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party stood accused of war crimes. The leaders had certainly opposed independence and fought against it, but fighting against independence is not a crime in Bangladesh, general amnesty was given to those who had fought in favour of unification soon after the war. The only crimes punishable were war crimes, genocide, rape, torture, the killing of civilians. It was clear the Pakistani army was guilty of many of these, but the native recruits from Bangladesh who assisted were never identified.

The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) then began trying men who had fought against independence for war crimes. Almost all of these individuals were leaders either of Jamaat-e-Islami or the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party. The Awami League had much to gain from arresting and trying the same people who would be challenging them for votes in elections.

The process behind the ICT was also called into question. “Given the historic importance of these trials and the possible application of the death penalty, it is vitally important that all defendants before the Tribunal receive a fair trial,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul.

Knaul argued that there were a number of concerns about the impartiality of the judges and indicated the relationship between the ICT and government precluded a fair judgement.  Also of concern was what she described as “an atmosphere of hostility, intimidation and harassment” that faced witnesses and lawyers for the defence.

Heyns and Knaul were not the only individuals to express doubt about whether the ICT trials were fair or impartial. OpenDemocracy noted that often defendants had a restricted number of witnesses, most being disallowed. Witnesses for the prosecution often repeated hearsay and conjecture, and were not present or able to testify directly as to the guilt or innocence of the individual on trial. Human Rights Watch also condemned the trials as unfair and biased. The Economist published a report highlighting a worrying amount of collusion between the presiding judge of the ICT and the team of prosecutors – a collusion that naturally undermines the impartiality of the tribunal itself. Given the severity of the crimes which were being discussed, the concerns that a fair trial was not being offered were serious.

On February 5th 2013, the ICT found Abdul Qader Mollah (Assistant Secretary General of Jamaat-e-Islami) guilty of crimes against humanity, including several murders, mass killings and rape. The sentence was life imprisonment.

It was this sentence that sparked off the Shahbag protests. Shahbag Circle was filled, mostly with the university educated, middle-class, and largely secular youth of Dhaka. They were not content with a life sentence, rather they wanted blood. And so ‘Fashi Chai’ became the rallying call of this movement. It is an ironic juxtaposition – a peaceful protest calling for a violent end. The crowds that gathered had an air of the 1960s American protests against the Vietnam War, and of course were heavily reminiscent of the Arab Spring – yet these were no pacifists.

Later, the ICT found Delwar Hossain Sayeedi (Vice President of Jamaat-e-Islami) also guilty, but this time sentenced him to death. This was met with celebration from Shahbag, and dismay from the international community who had already expressed concern about the ICT. Both Mollah and Sayeedi proclaim their innoncence.

A Bangladeshi Spring?

The Shahbag protests, unlike those of the Arab Spring, seem to be in favour of the ruling government rather than in any opposition to them. Whereas protests organised in opposition to government have faced a brutal, and sometimes deadly, crackdown from the police and pro-government vigilante, international journalists have noted that Shahbag has had police support.

Their demands are also demands that strongly benefit the Awami League. The hanging of those found guilty by the flawed ICT would remove key opposition leaders for the Awami League. Shahbag have also demanded that Jamaat-e-Islami be banned from Bangladeshi politics. OpenDemocracy were particularly concerned with this demand, given the party has had considerable electorate success and always acted within the bounds of law.

Shahbag protests have not been the only protests however. After the sentencing of Sayeedi, Jamaat-e-Islami mobilised their considerable grassroots networks for a two-day strike starting 3rd March, and several hartals have since taken place, following in the footsteps of anti-colonial rule tactics popularised by Gandhi. The government and police crackdown on these protests were swift and brutal, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries to protestors. A second substantial protest was organised on the 6th April against the Awami League, the Shahbag protesters and alleged defamation of the Prophet Muhammad by Shahbag bloggers.

The Shahbag protests have also shown the deep fractures that run through Bangladeshi society. On one level, the conflict is being framed as an issue of secular versus religious. Shahbag protesters and their Awami League supporters are openly secular, and protesters are particularly vocal in their anti-religious and anti-Islamic rhetoric. On another level, this is a class war. Shahbag protesters consist mainly of middle-class, wealthy, city-dwellers. They have been educated at university, sometimes abroad and sometimes in Bangladesh, and have the financial freedom to commit themselves to a long-term protest at Shahbag Circle. Jamaat-e-Islami support is strongly from the working class and rural poor. Jamaat-e-Islami, much like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have often been the ones providing healthcare and education to the nation’s most deprived. Then there is the aforementioned cult of personality – any accusation of tribal politics in the UK pales in comparison to the ferocity of loyalty to Bangladeshi political parties.

Media and reporting in Bangladesh is also anything but impartial. Each reporting agency will represent events according to their bias. The Awami League, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami own newspapers and TV channels. A government crackdown on protests may be phrased as ‘Jamaat-e-Islami led violence’, the Shahbag protestors described as ‘anti-Islamic’ and ‘pro-Indian’, all done to suit the propaganda of the political parties.

Unfortunately for Bangladesh, there is no simple solution. The Awami League and the ICT are unlikely to bring justice to those wronged during the atrocities of the Bangladeshi War of Independence – and it should be noted that the crimes committed during the war certainly require a response. Likewise, the BNP have led Bangladesh during their stints in power by displaying equally shocking levels of corruption as the Awami League.

Bangladesh is unlikely to see a tumultuous revolution, as experienced recently by a number of Arab nations. The situation is far too messy for that and there have been major failures on both sides of the political fence. Instead, any hope for the country lies in the difficult path of reconciliation, bridge building and moral government that can only be achieved by putting aside historical prejudices and really working for the wellbeing of the people of Bangladesh.

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About Shams ad-Din Latif

Shams ad-Din Latif is a Philosophy student in Bangladesh and a freelance reporter and journalist.