‘No Tahrir, no Tahrir,’ shouted the young protester at Shahbag Square. Sporting a flag of Bangladesh painted on his cheek, he explained why the protests swelling in Dhaka since February 5, are not like the Arab Spring, as many have written.
The point was better explained by blogger MM Parvez, “The Arab spring in general, and Tahrir Square protests in particular, fought dictatorial regimes, but ended up benefiting religious extremists, and bringing them to power. In Shahbag, we are fighting religious extremists of the Jamaat-e-Islaami (JI), we want them out of politics once and for all,” said Parvez.
The size and tenacity of the 5 lakh angry, yet peaceful, protesters — students, poets, actors, and ordinary Bangladeshis, have taken everyone by surprise.
In contrast, JI and its student wing Chhatra Shibir protested violently against the prosecution of their leaders for war crimes with 80 people killed within days of the second JI leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, being sentenced to death, with a third, Abdul Kader Mollah, given life imprisonment.
JI mobs have also attacked Hindus and Buddhists in Chittagong and desecrated more than 40 temples. Sheikh Hasina’s government, that is clearly rooting for the Shahbag protests, but is not yet a part of them, has pressed in police with rubber bullets.
Most surprising is the reaction of the international (western) community with human rights agencies holding the Hasina government responsible for the state of affairs, constantly criticising the war crimes tribunal’s workings. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US State Department have all issued notes of caution.
Surprisingly, the same institutions that have ignored, dismissed or even criticised the Shahbag protests were at the forefront to celebrate and encourage the Arab spring. What has upset them, suggests journalist David Bergman, is the demand for the death penalty, without worrying about what he calls, a flawed trial.
I ask Shahbag’s protesters why a movement built by students and artists has such bloodthirsty messages. Cries of “phanshi chai phanshi chai” (we want them hanged) repeat for hours, even by the youngest kids. A young activist explains that while the demand is violent, it is also a rejection of the violence that protesters feel the Jamaat has carried out for decades. “No Bangladeshi family was untouched by what happened,” says journalist Saif Kamal.
“Remember, for us, liberation was also a second partition, in terms of the killings, and everyone knows what each of these Razakars did.” Jamaat leaders, or Razakars have been accused of siding with Pakistan’s army during excesses that included an estimated 3 million deaths and 250,000 women raped.
Next came the assassination of the nation’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with 15 members of the family by army officers staging a coup in 1975. Over the next two decades, the army propped up the JI, and eventually ushered in Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government in partnership with it.
The two parties also held close links to militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh or JMB. A Crisis Group Asia Report in 2010 shows how the militant group drew cadres from the Jamaat, and sent its men to campaign for the BNP-JI combine in the elections. Shortly after the JMB was banned in 2005, they carried out a dramatic attack: setting off 500 synchronised bomb blasts across Bangladesh.
It is this sort of violence that serves as the backdrop to the current round of protests in Bangladesh, heightened by the brutal killing of founder blogger Rajib Haidar by suspected Jamaat supporters.
At funeral prayers held at Shahbag, protesters touched his coffin and swore to have the Jamaat-e-Islaami banned, and to ensure that leaders convicted of war crimes, like Abdul Qader Mollah, (found guilty of raping an 11-year-old, beheading a poet, and killing 300 people), are given the death penalty.
Unlike the West, India has no need to be ambiguous about the situation in Bangladesh. After all, groups like the JMB had proven links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and many of its members were protected from prosecution by JI-BNP. In contrast, Sheikh Hasina shut down the JMB as well as anti-India HuJI training camps and handed over more than 20 wanted terrorists.
The BNP now plans to use her concessions to India as an election plank to paint her as a “sell-out”, thus explaining Khaleda Zia’s snub of cancelling a meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee during his recent visit.
Finally, the movement to push for the harshest punishment for the 1971 war criminals is part of an effort to heal wounds that have been left open far too long. One of Shahbag’s activists echoes Dr Haing Ngor, the Cambodian made famous in the film Killing Fields, when he says, “How can we let this go? Our memories will never forgive us.”
With a leadership role in the region, India must help that process, and also counter the western narrative, that seeks to portray the JI as the victims of the current conflict, turning a blind eye to the violence that continues to mark their methods.
Suhasini Haidar is senior editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.