Shahbagh: A festival left hanging

A plump girl with a pony tail, not more than seven years old, is singing into the microphone. In her blue dress and high pitch, she could very well be a contestant in a kids’ talent show. She is in the middle of a sea of people listening to her with rapt attention as she sings, “Baba, ami juddhey jabo/ juddhey jabo/ ami deshkey bhalobashi” (Father, I’ll go to war/ go to war/ I love my country).

The crowd roars with approval the moment there’s mention of war and as soon as the girl finishes her performance, she is wrapped in the Bangladeshi flag. She returns to her proud mother sitting in the crowd with a bandana tied across her forehead that reads: ‘Razarkar-der phansi chai’ (Hang the collaborators [with Pakistan in the 1971 War of Liberation]).

Since February 5, when the International Crimes Tribunal set up under PM Sheikh Hasina delivered a life sentence to one such collaborator and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Qader Mollah, the square of Shahbagh in central Dhaka has been seeing enraged Bangladeshis of all hues gather in growing numbers demanding one thing: that the sentence be overruled and those accused of war crimes, including Mollah, be hanged.

But this is a strange kind of anger being hurled from a strange kind of platform. The atmosphere is of a mela. Hawkers are making brisk business not only by selling roadside snacks, but also Bangladesh national flags along with those strips of shiny cloth with slogans calling for war criminals to be hanged. Both the flags and the bandanas — tied across the head by young people, housewives, kids — cost 10 takas a pop. There’s also candy floss and Angry Birds balloons being sold the evening before Bangladesh’s Bhasha Dibosh — Language Day — the day when the 42-year-old nation remembers its martyrs who gained a country on the basis of language and destroying Jinnah’s religion-based Two-Nation thesis.

A bunch of young boys in their best clothes are dancing and pumping their fists to another emotive performance accompanied by drumbeats. A young woman in a green salwar and a purple dupatta is rapping away: “Baaper mola-ke kobor ditey/ Ei mujaheddinkey kobor ditey/ chalo rey chalo rey!” (To bury these sons-of-bitches/ To bury those mujaheddins/ let’s go let’s go!). The crowd roars to the incantation as if a hanging is taking place before them. The chorus becomes a roar with everyone joining in when the woman shouts in time, in beat, “Phansi! Phansi! Phansi!” (Hang! Hang! Hang!)

Shahbagh is the epicentre of an unprecedented war being fought by a large section of Bangladeshi society against the Islamist politics of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its lumpen wing, the Jamaat Shibir. Rifat Munim Dip, a young journalist with Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper Daily Star, insists, “Shahbag would have happened even if Mollah was not given a life sentence and even if he hadn’t flicked a victory sign after the court’s decision which infuriated the people.” This is Bangladesh engaging in something that Pakistan has never been able to do: stand up and resist its religious fundamentalists.

For a mass demonstration that shows no sign of weakening, punishing those who collaborated in genocide in 1971 has become enmeshed with something larger, far less specific.

Giant billboards and cloth signs surround Shahbagh as the festival continues. 'One nation one roar. Hang the bloody Razajars" reads one hoarding above the premises of Red Ribbon European, Thai, Chinese Restaurant and California Fried Chicken & Pastry Shop. For a mass demonstration that shows no sign of weakening, punishing those who collaborated in genocide in 1971 has become enmeshed with something larger, far less specific. A man takes the microphone to announce the just-arrived news: "We have just received the news that Bangladesh has beaten China 3-2 in the World hockey League in India! Bengalis are coming back! We want to tell the hockey team that they too are playing their role to get these razakars out."

In the happy-angry swirl of Shahbagh reverberating with chants, songs and slogans, one sees the mob - in a democracy, the people - baying for blood. And the kids and their parents here are, at least for the time being, doing something that not too many others have been able to do: bring real fear into the hearts of religious fundamentalists. Merely by being there and by being loud.


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