Bangladesh at the crossroads
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.