Bangladesh at the cross­roads

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Ravi Menon

DID it all be­gin with that in­fa­mous vic­tory sign? Ab­dul Kader Mollah steps out of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh on the af­ter­noon of Fe­bru­ary 4 af­ter be­ing sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment, waves tri­umphantly to the crowd wait­ing out­side and flashes the ' V' sign be­fore be­ing whisked away to jail. Or was it the ral­ly­ing cry of Joi Bangla (vic­tory to the Bangla lan­guage) at Shah­bag Square in Dhaka that has fa­thered one of the most re­mark­able mass move­ments seen in re­cent times?

Both events drip with irony, weighed down by the bur­den of his­tory and not just for Bangladesh, but for the en­tire sub­con­ti­nent. For a man sen­tenced to life to be ex­ul­tant is odd, but not if you are some­one de­monised as the Butcher of Mirpur by his foes. Even stranger is the case of the an­them - Joi Bangla - which is em­bed­ded in Bangladesh's in­de­pen­dence move­ment; Mollah and his fol­low­ers de­cry it as pro­fane.

Forty-one years ago, the Dhaka race course res­onated to the chants of this very same song as Bangladesh was born, since then it has been moth­balled. Are we there­fore wit­ness­ing a par­a­digm shift; is the coun­try re­claim­ing its sec­u­lar past? Is cul­ture and lan­guage tri­umph­ing over re­li­gion?

The move­ment at Shah­bag has cen­tred on the death penalty for Mollah, but it goes be­yond a call for re­venge for his al­leged crimes com­mit­ted dur­ing the war of lib­er­a­tion. There are de­mands hark­ing back to the sec­u­lar con­sti­tu­tion of 1971 for­mu­lated by Shaikh Mu­jibur Rah­man, the found­ing fa­ther of the na­tion. Th­ese de­mands are anath­ema to Mollah and his Ja­maat-e-Is­lami (JeI) party; they fer­vently be­lieve the con­sti­tu­tion should be an­chored to Is­lamic tra­di­tions.

The two prin­ci­pal po­lit­i­cal par­ties - the Awami League headed by Shaikh Hasina and her ri­val Khal­ida Zia's Bangladesh Na­tional Party - have largely been by­s­tanders to this move­ment. Both were sur­prised by the groundswell of sup­port for this protest which was dis­missed as a fringe ac­tiv­ity by the blog­ging com­mu­nity; the rest­less youth look­ing for a cause. Since then with Mollah's ' V' sign and the mur­der of one of the blog­gers, the ag­i­ta­tion has mor­phed into a mass move­ment.

Sadly, how­ever, th­ese protests - non-par­ti­san and peace­ful - are now spi­ralling out of con­trol with the lat­est ver­dict on Di­lawar Hus­sain Sayedee an­other prom­i­nent leader of the JeI. Bangladesh is in cri­sis!

The mo­men­tous na­ture of th­ese demon­stra­tions can be truly grasped only when his­tory is re­wound. Dhaka and Shah­bag are piv­ots to the par­ti­tion of un­di­vided In­dia; it was here in 1906 for the first time that a de­mand was put forth for a sep­a­rate home­land for Mus­lims. It was also here that in March 1948 the Quaid-e-Azam, Mo­ham­mad Ali Jin­nah stated un­equiv­o­cally that Urdu would be the state lan­guage for Pak­istan and un­wit­tingly al­lowed Ben­gali nationalism to rear its head. The Ben­gali lan­guage move­ment of 1952 in Dhaka which was the pre­cur­sor to the lib­er­a­tion war of 1971 is very much a part of the nar­ra­tive that cul­mi­nated in the cre­ation of Bangladesh.

His­tory has in­deed come more than a full cir­cle! What do th­ese events por­tend for the rest of the sub-con­ti­nent? It would be wise to tread care­fully know­ing the tur­bu­lent past of this re­gion. Com­mu­nal­ism has been a pu­trid wound vis­ited on the body-pol­i­tics of In­dia, Pak­istan and Bangladesh and there are ever con­stant re­minders that th­ese is­sues still an­i­mate the ci­ti­zens of th­ese coun­tries. Iden­tity pol­i­tics con­tin­ues to frame most dis­courses. In try­ing to un­der­stand the wider im­pli­ca­tions of th­ese un­usual hap­pen­ings in Dhaka, it has to be said that the pro­ceed­ings of this trial process have been far from per­fect. Se­ri­ous ques­tions have been raised about the In­ter­na­tional Crimes Tri­bunal (ICT), which was set up to in­ves­ti­gate and bring to trial the sus­pects ac­cused of war crimes dur­ing the 1971 war. No doubt, both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Na­tional Party had no di­rect role in the Shah­bag Square protests, but the de­ci­sion to form a tri­bunal was not born out of a con­sen­sus be­tween the two, much to the con­trary. It was a con­tentious is­sue right from the be­gin­ning and it is only in 2008 when Shaikh Hasina came to power that se­ri­ous moves were ini­ti­ated to con­sti­tute the ICT against the wishes of BNP and the JeI which has been an ally since 2001. It is ob­vi­ous that the Awami League sees the ICT's find­ings as an elec­toral weapon to at­tack the BNP. Now that the flash mobs at Shah­bag have joined is­sue, it will spare no ef­fort to push the op­po­si­tion into a cor­ner. How­ever, all this is small pota­toes com­pared to the more de­bil­i­tat­ing charge against the ICT.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.