Dhaka is no stranger to political protests. Not sure how many hartals (an Indian-born term for politically motivated strikes) the city sees on an average month, but it’s quite a few. Whenever there is a disagreement, parties (especially those in the opposition) are more than happy to call for hartal, essentially shutting down a great deal of the city’s infrastructure and public transportations.
But what Dhaka has seen these past days is more than the average strike. For five consecutive days, thousands of people have occupied the intersection in Shahbag, right next to Dhaka University and the city’s large green meeting point, Ramna Park. It’s a diverse group of people – families, students, old ladies and men (and, catering to their needs, an endless amount of street food vendors!).
If the group of people is one of diversity, their message is one. All banners, body paintings, chants, songs, street theaters and graffiti say the same thing: “Qader Mullah must be hanged”. Abdul Qader Mullah, an aged man with thick glasses and a scanty beard (as portrayed in the less-than-flattering caricatures on posters and placards all over Shahbag), might not be well-known outside Bangladesh, but here, everyone knows him. The current assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party, Qader Mullah is one of those Bangladeshis who fought alongside the West Pakistani army during the 1971 liberation war. On Tuesday, the war tribunal set up to try those guilty of crimes during the war sentenced Qader Mullah to lifetime in prison. The charges: murder, torture, rape. Really ugly things. War things.
Several others from Jamaat-e-Islami’s top leadership is waiting to get their verdicts from the tribunal. The party, which was outlawed at the end of the war but allowed back into politics a few years later, has its roots in the period when today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh were united (a peculiar, and ultimately, tragic creation, guided by the usual misguided colonial thinking). The idea of joining two disparate regions, set on either side of the Indian subcontinent and distinct in language, culture and traditions, was of course bound to fail. The exact date of that failure turned out to be 26 March 1971, when growing sentiments in then-East Pakistan over the misrule of then-West Pakistan turned into full-scale war. Jamaat-e-Islami was one of the local groups who supported the West Pakistani army against the rising Bengalis (rebels, freedom fighters, revolutionists, local forces – you know the debate, just pick your choice!).
The war of 1971 was horrible. Today, it’s not as well-known as many other wars of the 20th century, but in terms of suffering it’s a strong contender to any top list ranking. The Bangladeshi government says 3 million died (although some other figures are substantially lower), and as many as 10 million refugees fled the country, many to nearby India (to get an idea of that refugee crisis, read Allen Ginsberg’s magnificent poem September on Jessore Road).
What continues to be horrible about the war – and this is something that’s familiar to so many conflicts – is that for over forty years, no justice has been delivered. Many of those who committed crimes in 1971 have faces no reprimands, no consequences. For people, that makes it difficult (impossible?) to move on. Of course, after a devastating war (and before that, a long period of mis-functioning statehood), one thing that is lacking is an accountable, strong and fair legal system. Right when it’s needed the most, it’s not there.
Therefore, when the war tribunal now finally starts to deliver verdicts, people have high hopes. And the stakes are high. The huge turnouts at Shahbag indicates so, as do the country-wide Jamaat-e-Islami hartals which say the very opposite: that the verdict is unfair on them.
Journalist and editor Afsan Chowdhury primarily blames the country’s political elite. “People don’t feel that politicians are accountable. There’s no sense of justice and trust, therefore both sides see the verdict as unjust.” He puts today’s events in the context of everything that has (not) happened since the war: “What we see today is nothing new. It has been built up during the past forty years. After the war, ordinary people who were guilty of crimes got punished. In the villages, many people were killed. But the leaders, those who were behind the killings, nothing has happened to them.”
At Shahbag, it is evident that people are unhappy with that, and with the lifetime sentence of Qader Mullah. They want to see him punished in the hardest way there is, and in Bangladesh that means capital punishment. An avid opponent of the death sentence (for any crime, in any circumstances), I asked people at the sit-in if they really thought this was the way to go. The answer from Sheba, a young professional: “What would you do if a dangerous tiger came to your village? Feed him or kill him?”. A comparison that halts, to say the least (although very well put, in this land where the tiger is the national symbol). But to ask for something that resembles a just end to the war, that’s not possilbe to dispute.
I’ll leave you with some pictures from the sit-in. All by Karim Mostafa: