Shahbag Movement in World Media

Philip Hensher writes in the London based The Independent  on the Shahbag movement. The article titled ‘The war Bangladesh can never forget’ published on 19 February 2013. Philip Hensher writes, Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka is a noisy, exciting city, full of energy and argument. The massive chaos of its constantly stationary traffic is often riven by protests, strikes, marches. These can be on any number of grievances. But this is a country driven by a national agony at its creation which has never been fully addressed. The protest now happening outside the national museum is of an unprecedented nature, and on an unprecedented scale.

Since 5 February, Bangladesh has been transfixed by this ongoing, immense protest.

Hundreds of thousands have occupied Shahbagh Square in protest at a verdict passed by the International Crimes Tribunal on war crimes committed during the genocide which preceded the founding of the country in 1971. One of those found guilty, Abdul Kalam Azad, was sentenced to death. Another, however, Abdul Quader Mollah, the assistant secretary general of a Muslim party which collaborated with the genocidaires, the Jamaat–e-Islami, was given life imprisonment. The protests which followed, and are still continuing, are led by intelligent and liberal people; they are, however, calling with great urgency for the death penalty to be passed on Mollah and other convicted war criminals.

The genocide is still too little known about in the West. It is, moreover, the subject of

shocking degrees of denial among partisan polemicists and manipulative historians. Before 1971, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, detached from the main body of the country. The founders had believed that the unity of religion would bind it together. Over time, however, the incompatibility of secular cultures had grown overwhelming. Parts of the Pakistani rulers regarded the Bengalis with open racist contempt.

In his 1967 memoirs, General Ayub Khan wrote that “East Bengalis…have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races … their popular complexes, exclusiveness and … defensive aggressiveness … emerge from this historical background.” This common hostility towards an immensely rich secular culture reached a tipping point when the leader of the nationalist Awami League, Sheikh Mujib, won a national election. He was imprisoned, and the Pakistani forces began a genocide which lasted from March to December 1971.

Pakistan has never accepted responsibility for what happened. Moreover, historians and

journalists have come perilously close to genocide denial, or have seemed motivated by a

desire to minimise the numbers involved. The official Pakistani estimates were originally only 26,000 dead and 2 million refugees. A recent Oxford historian whose methodology was savagely criticised declared that there were no more than 50,000 to 100,000 dead from all sides in the war.

If this were true, the Pakistani forces would have fallen short of their ambitions. At a meeting on 22 February 1971, the Pakistani President General Yahya Khan is recorded as saying in fury: “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands.” Ten million fled to India; 30 million left the cities and went to the villages.In the first phase of the war, young men and Hindus, Awami League members, intellectuals, students and academics were targeted for murder. In the second phase of the war, women were singled out. It is thought that at least 200,000 women were raped by the Pakistani forces and their collaborators – 25,000 victims found themselves pregnant, so that is not implausible. There are eyewitness accounts of “rape camps” set up by the Pakistani forces.

The numbers, and the names of rape victims, remain disputed. Sheikh Mujib, the first leader of Bangladesh, ordered the destruction of lists so that the shame would not follow the victims all their lives.

In the last week of the war, when Pakistani defeat was inevitable and a new nation was

clearly about to be born, a concerted effort was made to kill as many intellectual leaders as possible, many between 12 and 14 December. The names of potential leaders of the future nation to be murdered were found in the diary of at least one Pakistani officer.

Bengali collaborators in the form of armed vigilante groups, Al-Shams and Al Badr, took the lead in these murders, only two days before the war came to an inevitable end.

It is impossible to know the real death toll. The historian R J Rummel, who has looked as

deeply into it as anyone, concludes that the “final estimate of Pakistan’s democide to be

300,000 to 3,000,000, or a prudent 1,500,000.” The numbers became politically important in the decades following. As the scholar Bina D’Costa points out, for the Bangladesh government, an upper figure gave the new country greater legitimacy; for the Pakistanis, to scoff and diminish allowed them to demonstrate an ongoing distrust. Whatever the final figure, tens of thousands of those killed died as cruel and appalling deaths as anyone has ever devised. Out of thousands of episodes, one should read the evidence to this trial given by an extraordinarily brave woman, the single survivor of her family. She told how she saw her parents, her two sisters and two-year-old brother killed in front of her before she was raped by 12 soldiers. She was 13 years old. That was 40 years ago. The Pakistani perpetrators of the war crimes have never been brought to trial – after independence, Pakistan said that if a single one of its soldiers were

tried in the new country, no Bengali then living in the Western half would be given permission to leave. Nor, until very recently, have the Bengalis who collaborated with the genocidaires.

The current trials have operated under constant threats of violence from a still active

Jamaat-e-Islami. Some war criminals fled abroad. As long ago as 1995, the British authorities had their attention brought to alleged war criminals living in London by a Channel 4 documentary directed by the Dhaka journalist David Bergman. One, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, who has been working as an NHS administrator, is only now beginning to be brought to justice.

The shabby series of amnesties and diplomatic effrontery that has left some of the cruellest mass murderers of the century enjoying a peaceful retirement was often challenged by activists, without success. An attempt by the author and national heroine Jahanara Imam to promote war crimes trials in 1992 did not succeed. The International Crimes Tribunal was finally established only in 2008. Its work is slow, and everyone feels that it is achieving what it can before the government changes at the next election. There is no faith at all that Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition and, it is often asserted, an ally of the Jamaat-eIslami, would allow the Tribunal’s work to continue for a day, or let its sentences stand.

The rage of the crowds at the life sentence given Mollah is that they know, as so often

before, that Sheikh Hasina’s government has not achieved what it could, and a change of

government will almost certainly lead to a pardon of imprisoned war criminals. It has done so often in the past. Hence the call for the death penalty, as the one punishment that no politician can reverse.

The calls for the death penalty are the counsel of despair. These are people who believe

passionately in the rule of law, and justice. They have seen too many times that justice is

only done at the bidding of politicians, and may be undone. But the chaos of the Mollah trial has stirred great concern from observers, and from thoughtful Bengalis. The pressure of the Shahbagh protests has encouraged Sheikh Hasina’s government to intervene, proposing the possibility of prosecution appeals, in the interests of securing the death penalty. More intervention in justice by politicians; more judicial murder; more martyrs. It is important,above all, that democratic states reveal themselves to be better than the brutes who murdered and raped, and did their utmost to extinguish a people. And yet the probability that some of the worst war criminals in history will never face justice, and the worst of their collaborators will only have to face a year or two in prison, drives the protesters to despair.

What is the solution? Serious doubts have been raised about aspects of the trials, and the

death penalty cannot be the right solution. But life imprisonment in Bangladesh for the mass murderers commands no respect.

There is one further possibility: the Liberian war criminal Charles Taylor was not imprisoned in Liberia, but under the provisions of the ICC in The Hague. The intervention of international law-makers ought to be desirable, and to take murderers out of the control of national politicians. That might permit, too, the trial of the main war criminals, and not just their Bangladeshi collaborators.

The Bangladesh atrocities are too important to go on being manipulated when a government changes. It seems as if this convulsive national exorcism, if it is to achieve justice, must take place in the eyes of the world, and with the world’s input. For the rest of us, we have averted our eyes for too long. We have a duty to learn about this forgotten genocide, and face our own responsibilities squarely – not to shelter murderers, not to ignore, not to forget.

‘Butcher of Mirpur’

Abdul Quader Mollah, the assistant secretary-general of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, sparked protests when he emerged from Bangladesh’s Supreme Court on 4 February having been handed a life sentence for his role in the atrocities committed during the 1971 war for independence. He was clearly happy with the ruling – giving a victory sign to supporters outside the court. But critics of the so-called “Butcher of Mirpur” – who was convicted of of beheading a poet, raping an 11-year-old girl and shooting 344 people – have been left fuming over the sentence, and are calling for him to face the death sentence, like fellow accused Abul Kalam Azad.

Globe and Mail published an article on 19 February titled ‘In Bangladesh, a generation turns its politics to the angry past’. Owen Lippert lives in Dhaka where he has served as head of two US AID democracy projects. He was senior policy adviser to the CIDA minister in 2007-08.

Owen Lippert writes, In Dhaka the other day, I saw children dancing in the streets, swinging nooses like festive streamers.

Bangladesh, a country of 160 million, is currently experiencing a “Bengal Spring.” Hundreds of thousands of young people have responded to text messages and online bloggers and gathered nightly in Shahbag square in downtown Dhaka and elsewhere around the country. Their demand is that Abdul Kader Mullah, a leader of the Islamic political party Jamaat-I-Islami, be hanged.

Four decades after the “war of liberation” from Pakistan in 1971, ending in the birth of Bangladesh, the government has set up a special war-crimes tribunal to prosecute sympathizers with Pakistan who committed “crimes against humanity.” The tribunal has found Mr. Mullah guilty, as a young student political leader, of committing serious crimes that warranted life imprisonment. Rather than accept Mr. Mullah’s sentence as justice too-long delayed, the crowds demand his execution.

After four days of Shahbag demonstrations, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina pledged to pursue a death sentence, only to discover that the legislation establishing the tribunal allows the government to appeal a verdict, but not a sentence. The problem has been solved: the government will amend the legislation to enable an appeal of the verdict to the Supreme Court. Few doubt that Mr. Mullah will hang.

The Bengal Spring raises key ethical issues in the prosecution of war crimes, in defining the rule of law and the nature of democracy itself.

Since independence, a combination of political crises and religious conservatism blocked the prosecution of Mr. Mullah and other Jamaat leaders. In 1975, the first prime minister, the secular and socialist Sheikh Mujib, was assassinated. That government was followed by the military dictatorship of General Zia Rahman, who in turn was assassinated. Finally, in 1990, the army retired to the cantonment. A hotly contested election in 1991 pitted the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by Gen. Zia’s widow (in an alliance with Jamaat), against the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina.

For two decades these two women have dominated Bangladeshi politics, effectively sustaining the bitter hostilities of 1971. Each has enjoyed two terms in office, each one dogged by corruption, which prompted the most recent military intervention in 2007. Finally, in 2008 Sheikh Hasina won a resounding majority and proceeded with war-crime trials.

That her government in 2009 created a domestically controlled war-crimes tribunal rather than engage the International Criminal Court reflects the country’s suspicion of the West. Conveniently for the government, virtually all those prosecuted have affiliations with either Jamaat or the BNP – the two opposition parties.

Inexperienced judges and lawyers have led international observers (most notably The Economist) to question the integrity of the process. Still, despite procedural flaws, the trials have not been outright “drumhead justice.” The second verdict, Mr. Mullah’s, displayed a certain judicial desire for reconciliation. He received life imprisonment. Then he flashed a “V” sign as he left the courtroom – a bad move. Protests by elderly intellectuals began, but it took the bloggers to put thousands into the street.

One might expect to hear a lawyer or a human-rights activist object to retroactively changing the law in order to please the street. So far there has been silence, though in fairness events have moved quickly and unexpectedly.

What of the tribunal judges themselves? They clearly have limited independence. This appears to be a war-crimes tribunal that can issue only one verdict, guilty, and one sentence, death.

Bangladeshi political culture places great faith in mass protests, the tactic that Gandhi invented to end the British raj, and that Sheikh Mujib copied leading up to 1971. For forty years, all parties have relied on violent street demonstrations. The parliament plays a marginal role. On the one hand, the youthful composition of the crowds in Shahbag and their determination not to be suborned by any political party symbolize a refreshing rejection of politics as usual. On the other hand, their demand – death for those who fought with the Pakistani army – is a continuation of the politics of violent confrontation.

The media have proclaimed the rebirth of the “Spirit of 1971.” The movement must be welcomed if it leads to a more liberal and less violent polity. But will it? Will it go beyond settling old scores?

And herein lies the dilemma. The new leadership of bloggers and youth in Shahbag have not been calling with anywhere near as much fervor for safer conditions for garment workers, better schools, better health care, less corruption; rather, they have committed themselves to inflict deadly vengeance upon the old men of Jamaat.

A youth movement seeking death sentences regardless of the law carries within itself the germ of their parents’ politics. It is Lord of the Flies writ large. The goal should be to move beyond a four-decade-old civil war towards genuine democratic reform within the rule of law. Put away the noose.

Yakoob Khan, the Chairperson of the History Department at Forman Christian College, Lahore writes an article on The Express Tribune, published from Pakistan. The article titled ‘Shahbag Square will haunt us‘, published on 19 February 2013. He writes : On February 16, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy pointed out in an article, in this newspaper, that some students he was speaking to did not know about Shahbag Square. Coincidentally, when I asked my students the same question a few days ago, I got the same blank looks. The question, of course is, first, why is our media not covering the events in Dhaka, but more importantly, why, even after knowing about the event, we still do not care and don’t want to care.

Our media has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade or so and is now largely free — rather notoriously. However, with ‘free’ also comes the word ‘fair’ and unless the media acts in both a ‘free and fair’ manner, its freedom is essentially hollow. The events at Shahbag Square and the creation of a tribunal by the Bangladesh government relating to the crimes of 1970-71, are incidents which are directly related to Pakistan and so, deliberately ignoring them is not only unfair, it is unethical. I hope that even now, the torchbearers of the ‘free and fair’ media take cognisance of this absence of coverage and rectify it.

That said, the real problem is that, as a people, Pakistanis are unwilling to deal with the events of 1970-71. It is as if not recognising what happened then and disengagement with the events will make them go away. No, sorry, this won’t happen. History is an important subject not only because it repeats itself or that it has important lessons, it is also important because deliberate disregard and disengagement with historical events adversely affects the national psyche of the country concerned and keeps it hostage to events of the past. Just as we are still hostage to 1947 and its events and still refuse to deal with them, we have not even begun to deal with 1970-71. The result of not engaging with 1947 means that we have a nonsensical approach towards India, cannot tolerate the advancement of Indian Muslims (from what we have been taught, we ‘have’ to call the Muslims who have advanced in India as “not really Muslim”) and within the country, we have perpetuated the intolerant and separatist nature of the demand of Pakistan, clearly seen through the constant attacks on Ahmadis, Shias, Christians and Hindus.

Similarly, refusal to engage with the events of 1970-71 has resulted in us remaining uneasy about our constituent provinces and stops us from being proud of their identity. We feared that Sindh was about to secede only because its people wanted their language to be at par (not replace) with Urdu; we launched a military operation in Balochistan mainly because its people want to run their province themselves; we are uneasy about letting South Punjab and Bahawalpur become a separate province and hopefully develop; we refuse to deal with the upheaval on the Frontier and we do not want to give the people of Gilgit-Baltistan full citizenship rights — most of these are ghosts of past events that we do not want to engage with and hope that they will miraculously disappear by themselves.

Recently, I asked all of my students why they thought they studied the same Pakistan Studies curriculum for over four years in the Pakistani system. After all, since it was mainly a repeat of things year after year, why was it being done? Only a few students figured out that this was done simply because repetition leads one to get irritated and bored by the subject matter and one eventually ends questioning it. That is why, one student noted, all Pakistan Studies answers are the same!

However, if history could be simply whitewashed by a repetition of lies and its repercussions conjured away, I would not have a job and history departments would shut down.

It is high time that the Government of Pakistan officially accept that atrocities were committed against its own people in East Pakistan, agree that it will open its archives to a truthful uncovering of facts, bring the people still alive and accused to justice and publicly declare that we, as a nation, are sorry for what we, yes ‘we’, collectively did in 1970-71.

Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis, our former fellow citizens and Muslim brethren, are still in Shahbag Square, waiting to hear our reply.


1 Comment

Filed under Bangladesh liberation war, Crimes against huminity

One response to “Shahbag Movement in World Media

  1. – I have close family members living in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at the present moment. You have the best intentions in mind and want to see truth prevails. Your assertion is some what lop sided. Yes Biharis were killed after 1971 and it was a reaction to mass killings of couple of million Bengalis. My family came and settled in Bangladesh before 1947 from India and my parents still do live in Bangladesh. I speak English, Urdu and Bengali at a native speaker level. Pakistani army committed genocide against the Bengali populace, it is a fact. Your comparison is like Jews killed few German as a reaction to the Holocaust that was committed against them during World War II, so you are willing to hold the innocent Germans killed and 6 million Jews who disappeared in the Holocaust at equal par.Yes killing of Biharis were wrong but Bengalis suffered almost 25 years of economic and social discrimination at the hands of feudal Punjabi.
    Let me be clear, I am a shia minority in Bangladesh, though living in US for the past 18 years and we have never been treated badly in Bangladesh, majority actually respect us. The neutral perspective [URL=’’] Online Fashion Store [/URL] I bring to this blog can hardly be matched by anybody here, unless they can tell me that have very similar background like mine. Pakistan is reaping what it sowed quarter century ago, that is the seed of hatred and extremism. Please do some introspection

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