Opinion

Bangladesh’s ‘Arab Spring’ against radicals

PRATIM RANJAN BOSE | Updated on March 07, 2013


The “V” sign indicates triumph in war. Abdul Quader Molla, nicknamed ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, would not have anticipated that his gesture would trigger an unparalleled uprising — in the history of Bangladesh, as well as that of the subcontinent — against radical Islamists in Bangladesh.

On February 5, A. Molla, a senior functionary of right wing radical Jamaat-i-Islami, was sentenced to life imprisonment for mass murder and rape. This was at the instruction of Pakistani Army during the 1971 liberation war ( Muktijudhhyo) of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan).

The order on Molla order came two weeks after the tribunal delivered the death sentence to another Jamaat activist for similar crimes. The long pending trial (of estimated 1,600 war criminals) was initiated as part of Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government’s election promise in 2008.

While leaving court, Molla flashed ‘victory’ sign to his supporters. Many Young Bangladeshis, expecting him to be sent to the gallows, interpreted the order as an attempt to pacify the radical forces.

Considering Bangladesh’s patchy history in upholding social justice, Molla, they felt, would be allowed to walk free with a change of regime. Jamaat is a key ally of League’s archrival, the moderately right wing, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Within hours, a 90 per cent Muslim majority nation was divided between the liberals and the radicals. A huge crowd, mostly young men and women, has been holding on at Shahbag, a Dhaka park that has been witness to many non-violent and cultural movements in the past, against the radicals.

Initially, death sentence (maximum punishment in Bangladeshi) to Molla and his accused party colleagues was on top of the agenda. But, as the movement gained strength, protestors stepped up pressure on the Awami League government to ban radical forces.

Twitter and other social networking sites are flooded with cries for secularism and minute-to-minute update of the movement.

With their existence threatened, radicals are now playing the religious card, widening the divide further.

Traumatic past

Once known as East Bengal, this strip of land — sandwiched between East and North East India — became a part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, following the Partition, in 1947. However, there was little in common — except the religious demographics — between the two parts of the same nation, located on either side of India.

After two decades of cross-cultural conflicts, the trigger for a civil war was set in March 1971 when the Islamabad-based military dictatorship launched a crackdown on a popular nationalist force in the East.

The nine-month long war — fought for ethnic, cultural and political identity of Bengali speaking East Pakistan — ended in December 1971, following Indian intervention.

But it inflicted deep wounds on Bangladesh. Rape, it is often told, was used as a considered weapon to terrorise the masses in this conflict.

According to the Hamoodur Rahman commission, set up by Pakistan after the war, 26,000 people were killed in the conflict. Unofficial estimates vary between 200,000-3,000,000 dead and 200,000-400,000 raped. Millions ran for safety to India — the second major displacement in the region, since 1947.

In a span of two-and-a-half decades, Bangladesh underwent the dual trauma of the Partition and civil war.

A case was strong in favour of a trial in the lines of Nuremberg. But that did not happen.

Fragile democracy

Having started off in 1972 as a secular democratic republic — on the back of highly polarised Cold-War age geopolitics and near-complete destruction of democratic institutions during the army rule during 1947-71 — Bangladesh was weighed down by too many problems, too soon. To make things complex, radical Islamic politics — that was never popular in terms of vote share — always found a place in the right side of power.

The first Prime Minister and the national hero in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Awami League, was killed along with most of his family members in 1975, by the Army.

And, since then Bangladesh has been slipping in and out of army control. Though the democracy has stabilised somewhat since 1991, the smooth transition of power to elected bodies is often punctured by army-backed interim governments.

The constitutional status of the Republic also changed from ‘secular’ to ‘Islamic’ before resorting to secularism again, under the existing Awami League regime.

The major casualty of this political volatility was: Justice to the war victims. While the prisoners of war were handed over (by India) to Pakistan, the focus was on the local collaborators — loosely referred as r azakars — of this crime. Mujibur took the initial steps under the International War Crimes Act, 1973. But that was the beginning and the end of it. To the frustration of many Bangladeshis, those accused ended up as power centres in the nation’s political structure.

Shahbag beacon

It is often said that Sheikh Hasina was surprised by the popular support in favour of her promises in the 2008 election.

What is most important, she couldn’t anticipate the current spate of protests. Her government only swung into action, in due course, to capitalise on it.

Such was the force of the movement that even BNP once sympathised with it, till the widening divide between radicals and liberals forced the party to stand by Jamaat, citing lapses in the trial proceedings.

And that is the silver line for Bangladesh.

No one knows where the Shahbag protests will end. It can take Bangladesh towards a decider, as in 1971. Whatever the outcome, it will have a lasting impact on not merely Bangladeshi politics, but also on the politics in the subcontinent.

Says a Dawn blog by Tahir Mehendi: “(The) fundamentalist narrative of Islam has come to dominate the lives of Muslim world for over half a century now …..Can Shahbag be seen as a step to take the debate to the populist realm?"

Published on March 07, 2013

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