Lessons from Delhi and Dhaka: Nagesh Rao and Navine Murshid


Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

In the early hours of Saturday morning, a secret execution was carried out by the Indian government. Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri, was put to death for his alleged involvement in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Afzal’s family in Kashmir were cruelly denied a last visitation. They were informed that the Indian President had rejected his mercy petition, and of his imminent execution, by mail—the letter reached Afzal’s wife Tabassum two days after he was executed and buried in an unmarked grave inside Tihar Jail.

Meanwhile, across the border in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis from all walks of life have occupied Shahbag Square near Dhaka University, outraged that a notorious war criminal might walk free after having been spared the death penalty by the Bangladeshi International War Crimes Tribunal. Abdul Quader Mollah, leader of the right-wing Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami, and convicted of multiple counts of rape, torture and murder, was photographed flashing a victory sign as he left the court.

The bloodbath of 1971 and the birth of Bangladesh

The occupation of Shahbag Square is nearly a week old, and shows no signs of abating. By far its loudest message, and one that has shaped the public discourse on it, is a call for the death penalty. Demonstrators are demanding that Quader Mollah be hanged, and that all the other accused war criminals be tried and executed as well (there are ten others awaiting trial). That so many thousands would take to the streets with the singular demand of capital punishment seems difficult to understand unless we recall one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the Subcontinent, the bloodbath unleashed by Pakistani (then West Pakistani) armed forces in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971.

When the government in West Pakistan nullified the results of the 1970 elections—which would have brought the Bangalis of East Pakistan to power in the country—it triggered a mass uprising that soon developed into a struggle for an independent state. In response, the West Pakistani army launched  “Operation Searchlight” on March 25, 1971: a brutal, genocidal campaign that involved mass murders, mass rapes, and torture. The Pakistani army found willing collaborators among the Jamaat-e-Islami, who set up fascistic counter-revolutionary groups such as the razakars, Al Shams, and Al Badr, a killing force that “carried out planned murders of intellectuals.” While the number of people killed is disputed, as is often the case in such instances, it is estimated that between  300,000 to 3 million people were killed by the rampaging Pakistani forces and these Islamist, collaborationist militias. According to feminist author and activist Susan Brownmiller, 200,000 to 400,000 Bangali women were raped in these few months.

For reasons having little to do with the rights of ordinary Bangalis, the Indian military entered into the conflict as a seeming champion of their national aspirations. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani forces surrendered, and an independent Bangladesh stepped onto the world stage with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, as its first president. But with the Pakistani army defeated, the Indian state did little to bring their generals to court for war crimes. Instead, Pakistani prisoners of war, despite having committed war crimes, were sent back to Pakistan.

Four decades of stalled justice

Mujib succeeded in banning the Jamaat and four other groups that had collaborated with the Pakistani forces, and passed ordinances such as the Collaborators Order and the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act to bring them to trial. However, he was unable to paper over the factionalism within the newly-formed Bangladeshi armed forces. In 1975, a military coup overthrew Mujib’s government, assassinated him, scrapped the Collaborators Order, allowed the hitherto banned groups to resurface, and permitted leading perpetrators of war crimes to return to the country.

Men responsible for rape, torture and murder were thus given free reign to operate as legitimate political actors, and many of them have since climbed political ladders to wealth and fame, courted by mainstream political parties, particularly the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia, which now sits in opposition. As Jalal Alamgir wrote in 2010:

The biggest sin in our post-1971 politics was not the dictatorial decisions made by the earlier leaders, but the choice by all major parties to politically collaborate with alleged genocide collaborators when convenient. These partnerships, after the country had become a democracy, gave war criminals the kind of political legitimacy that no military dictator could have offered.

The stalled quest for post-colonial justice was restarted in 2010, when the current International Crimes Tribunal was formed. Abdul Quader Mollah is only the second person to be convicted and sentenced by the Tribunal, but the first to be convicted while in custody in Bangladesh. He has been convicted of the murder of the poet Meherunnesa, her mother, and two brothers; the murder of Hazrat Ali, his wife, and their three children; the rape of Hazrat Ali’s 11-year-old daughter; the murder of Pallab and Khandoker Abu Taleb, both civilians; and the mass killing of 344 people in Albudi village in Mirpur.

After forty years it is understandable that Bangladeshis are clamoring for justice. It is understandable too that many progressives have joined the chorus of voices calling for the death penalty, for they have little faith that subsequent governments will uphold a life sentence. Predictably enough, opposition leader Khaleda Zia, of the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has rejected the verdict. Many at Shahbag Square see the ruling liberal Awami League Party as opportunists as well, and share the sentiments expressed by the president of Krishak Sramik Janata League (Peasants, Workers, and People’s League) (KSJL), Abdul Kader Siddiqui: “The government has handed down life sentence to Quader Mollah as they compromised with Jamaat to return to power.” In short, Bangladeshis fear that one way or another these war criminals might walk free if they are not sent to the gallows right away.

The spirit of Shahbag and the quest for justice

The remarkable thing, however, is that the occupation of Shahbag Square looks less like a mass lynch mob, and more like a “festival of the oppressed”. The 2013 protests have taken on an artistic expression whose parallels can be found in earlier Bangali protest movements. The walls and streets have been turned into canvases: massive caricatures and cartoons of war criminals, alponas (street art) everywhere one looks, and beautiful installations with candle-lights and flowers. Occupiers on Sunday enjoyed an impromptu concert with popular rock bands such as Miles, Cryptic Fate, and Artcell. Awrup Sanyal captured the mood in the Square in a Facebook update Sunday evening:

The crowd swells by the minute: students, office goers, families, old and young; zillions of signatures are being scribbled on long strips of cloths; a retail economy thrives selling food, beverages, water, flags, headbands and all kinds of wares; big screens have come up playing old patriotic films and TV plays; multiple pools of candle light vigils, accompanied by slogans, drum beats, songs rattle and hum; mock trials and mock hangings are enacted on a special set created for the purpose; every surrounding surface is draped with banners and posters; OB vans, camera cranes and newsmen abound; the police and the RAB watch in ‘attention.’

The center island of the Shahbag intersection has become the main stage from where slogans, speeches, songs and call for justice pour out relentlessly. Joy Bangla, Mujib’s iconic slogan, till now Awami Leagues’ property, has been reclaimed by the people. Calls for boycott of all Razakar businesses and establishments are being made.

Thus the spirit of Shahbag seems to be expressing something that goes beyond the execution of a few men, a hope for justice that will lead to a renewal of Bangladesh’s political culture.

Not everyone at Shahbag is clamoring for the death penalty. Some have argued against it on the grounds that it would make Bangladesh look bad in the international arena. But justice is not about validation, and Bangladeshis need to consider alternatives not because of “what others might think” but because they owe it to themselves to get meaningful justice, not revenge. The question has yet to be answered: what would constitute a restorative, rather than retributive, form of justice in Bangladesh today? Will the execution of a handful of men put to rest the traumas of a genocide? To quote Jalal Alamgir once again:

The Pakistani ringleaders are safe by treaty. Their American supporters, like Henry Kissinger, are safe by sanctuary. Just a few local collaborators will be tried. The only way to consider such partial justice morally legitimate is by adopting a principled commitment to allow the truth be told, untainted, uncensored… Capital punishment, while entertaining some trigger-happy activists, will only derail us by refocusing attention on the verdict rather than the proceedings.

To allow the truth to be told; to make public the actual record of the horrors of 1971; to demand reparations for the victims of the war and for the survivors of the genocide; to seize the assets of the Jamaat, use it to establish a trust to compensate survivors and their families, and neutralize these reactionaries financially; to secularize school curricula and end the historical amnesia surrounding 1971: these would be essential steps towards restorative justice. In the final analysis, meaningful justice would be achieved with the realization of the promises of national liberation that have proven to be elusive for most Bangladeshis: an equitable and just distribution of wealth, the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, access to food, healthcare and meaningful employment, and a state and judiciary that are accountable to the people. This is the potential that we see in the Shahbag demonstrations, a potential that is easy to overlook amidst the clamor for the death penalty.

The death penalty and a travesty of justice: The case of Afzal Guru

Quader Mollah and his ilk deserve no sympathy; the world would indeed be a better place if he were locked up for life or executed. But a glance across the border reminds us of the impunity with which capital punishment can be used by states. To Kashmiris, Afzal Guru’s hanging has come as a stern and somber reminder of their status as an occupied people. Since the execution, Kashmir has been under an indefinite curfew. Indian occupation forces have fanned out across Kashmir, arresting and detaining activists and leaders in a bid to quell protests. At least five people, including two teenage boys, have been killed at the hands of police and paramilitary forces and dozens more have been injured as of this writing. Meanwhile, in Delhi, protesting Kashmiri students were attacked by a mob of Hindu-nationalist Bajrang Dal activists, and politicians and media pundits alike have been complaining that the execution did not take place sooner.

To be sure, leading Indian activists like Arundhati Roy have spoken out against the killing of Afzal Guru, and editorials in The Hindu, a leading national newspaper, have condemned it as well. But these voices are few and far between. The leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), Sitaram Yechury, for instance, seemed satisfied that the “law of the land had finally been completed.”

The media are referring to Afzal Guru as the “plotter” (Wall Street Journal) and “planner” (the Pakistani newspaper Dawn) of the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, in which 12 people (including the five attackers) lost their lives. Yet, there is little disagreement that the case against Afzal was a flimsy one. In an atmosphere charged by the 9/11 attacks, it was hastily cobbled together in a matter of days. Afzal had little by way of legal representation, and the evidence against him was circumstantial. A former member of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, Afzal had surrendered to the Indian authorities in 1993, but his political and national identity no doubt worked against him as the Indian media began to bay for blood in the aftermath of the attack. He was convicted not of direct involvement in the attack but of conspiring with those who carried it out, all five of whom had been killed during the attack itself. While the evidence against Afzal was unconvincing, the Indian Supreme Court blandly asserted in its ruling that “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender,” and thus imposed the death penalty in the name of a bloodlust that it imputed to the “collective conscience” of Indian society.

This “collective conscience” of India must now come to terms with what was obviously a travesty of justice, and take a hard look at the impunity with which this government metes out death, whether in prisons like Tihar Jail or on the streets of Sopore and Srinagar. Protected by the ignominious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), and now well-versed in the techniques of counter-insurgency and military propaganda, the Indian state continues to suppress Kashmiris in the name of “national security,” to occupy their land, kill them at will, and then paint the struggle for azadi (freedom) as the work of “terrorists.”

For many in India, the actual conduct of the Indian state in Kashmir seems remote from their own daily existence. What they learn about this conduct comes filtered through layers of media obfuscation, so that protesting Kashmiris cease to appear human at all; they are seen as petulant malcontents that need to be brought in line, and are typically written off as irrational anti-national “secessionists.” (The term is ideologically loaded. A territory that is annexed and held by force does not seek “secession” but liberation.) These Indians see the killing of Afzal Guru as a necessary sacrifice at the altar of (India’s) “national integrity.” His actual innocence or guilt is to them irrelevant, as the law seems to have taken its course.


Those who have taken to the streets in Delhi in recent weeks to demand the death penalty for rapists would do well to heed the lessons of Afzal Guru’s execution. He was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and was executed and buried in utter secrecy with little regard for his or his family’s rights. An opportunistic political class, a deeply flawed judiciary, and a bloodthirsty and sensationalist media environment killed Afzal Guru. We now know—if there were reason to doubt it earlier—that we have a well-oiled execution machine in this country. What good would we do ourselves by giving it further license to kill?

Likewise, the demonstrators in Dhaka, Chittagong and elsewhere must reckon with the consequences of boosting the credibility of the state’s machinery of death. For Shahbag shows the potential for embracing a broader vision of social change. The call-and-reply slogans asserting national identity — “Ami ke? Bangali!” (Who am I? Bangali!) — have been joined by the terms naribadi (feminist), shongrami (revolutionary), bidrohi (rebel) and pahari (ethnic non-Bangali). In the struggle to reclaim history and renew Bangladeshi society, these are signs of hope and promise that the calls for executions must not be allowed to obscure.


As we write this, news is trickling in that the goon squads of the Jamaat and its student wing, Shibir, have launched protests against the Shahbag demonstrators, and provoked clashes with the police. In the coming days, the international media will no doubt parrot the Jamaat’s lie that Shahbag is a “government-sponsored” phenomenon and that the Jamaat is the aggrieved opposition fighting against the verdict of a compromised Tribunal. The struggle against the razakars is entering a new phase, on whose outcome rests the future of secularism, justice, and freedom in Bangladesh.

(Nagesh Rao is Associate Professor of English at Galgotias University. Navine Murshid is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colgate University and a Visiting Fellow at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

See also:

See also:

27 thoughts on “Lessons from Delhi and Dhaka: Nagesh Rao and Navine Murshid”

  1. There are many sides to these stories, as you very beautifully demonstrate. It’s difficult, perhaps, to always do what is right, and what is right in some situations is wrong in another, but when it comes to capital punishment and the culture of impunity, it gets murky as people start talking about the absence of absolutes and relativism. And then we have the culture of mobs (and mob violence), the anger that has not been dealt with on a mass scale, and the demand for justice – all of which put together leaves us with a fire waiting to erupt. For the sake of the youth on the streets, and for those aghast at Guru Afzal’s execution, I hope peace will prevail even during these difficult times.


  2. ” But with the Pakistani army defeated, the Indian state did little to bring their generals to court for war crimes. Instead, Pakistani prisoners of war, despite having committed war crimes, were sent back to Pakistan.” Which court Mr Murshid, you are referring to? You seem to a literate Bangladeshi, then how do you want India to intervene in a newly born sovereign state? In that case you would have called it aggression of India in Bangla’s sovereignty … Nay?


    1. “how do you want India to intervene in a newly born sovereign state? In that case you would have called it aggression of India in Bangla’s sovereignty … Nay?”

      Nay. India had already intervened. It went to war with Pakistan, remember? It takes credit for having “liberated” Bangladesh. As the victorious party to a military conflict, it could have, at the very least, detained those responsible for atrocities until they could be brought to trial, either in Bangladesh or in international courts. Instead, its post-conflict conduct meant that they were afforded virtual immunity.


  3. I welcome the part of the article that devoted to the ongoing movements in Prajanmo Chattor (the name given by all of us, the protestors, to Shahbag crossings). However, the backdrop of origin of such a movement, now on its 9th day, has been simplified in some cases. Mention must have been made to the movement of the trials of War Criminals was organized in a massive movement under the leadership of Shahid Janani Jahanara Imam in 1993. Ganoadalat (Peoples’ Tribunal) was organized and it had given death penalty for Golam Azam (a key collaborator of the Pakistani Army in 1971 and ex-chief of the Jamat-i-Islami). Although the outburst of the present movement mobilized under the name of ‘Ganojagaran Mancho’ is concomitant to the verdict of life sentence to Abdul Kader Mollah in International War Crimes Tribunal, the movement has been fundamentally mobilized by the youth through social networking sites. Movements on the street and in virtual space have spread in most of the main cities and towns in Bangladesh. In the cities and towns, Ganogagaran Mancha have been established and people are gathering in those spots in thousands and they are staying throughout days and nights. Many scholars have compared the mobilizing strategy of the movements to Occupy Wall Street movements. The movements, till this day, have strictly maintained its distance from the two main political parties that have remained in power after the end of the military despotic reign of Ershad in 1990. Partisan politicians have been permitted only to express their solidarity. In social networking sites, and blogs ‘cyber war’ is going on against the supporters of the war criminals, who have maintained a quarter of paid-experts to tarnish image of the movement and making differential attempts to create rift in the solidarity of the movement. Many of young organizers have called this movement as a beginning of reclaiming out hope and dreams of a non-communal Bangladesh. For me, one of the central aspects of the movement is the participation of school-college-university going girls and boys in thousands who were previously not familiar to the protests on the streets at large scale. I think that the impact of this movement on them will be overwhelming and extremely consequential. The success of the movement has already been ensured by the amendment of the International War Crimes Tribunal. Against the partisans hungry for state power to ensure their narrow individual or partisan ends, we are fighting here to re-claim our dreams. Our success will depend upon the ways in which solidarity among different genres of thinking are maintained in a democratic way.


    1. Thanks for this comment. It is heartening to know that the the movement has thus far remained independent of the mainstream political parties. The involvement of the youth, not just as people who have been mobilized, but at the center of the mobilizations themselves, is inspiring. Mass protests always have the potential to broaden and radicalize the thinking of those involved, so the impact on these youngsters will indeed be consequential.The question on our minds (and I’m sure this is true of many progressives who are following the developments) has to do with the ideas that are circulating among the protesters. We claimed in the article that “Shahbag shows the potential for embracing a broader vision of social change.” Would you concur? I’m sure that the sentiment that you express, about “fighting to reclaim our dreams” is shared by many in Prajonmo Chattor: what are some of the ways in which people are talking about this? Obviously, the question of bringing these war criminals to justice is the main demand, but beyond this, what other ideas/demands are being put forward? Look forward to your thoughts….


    1. ‘Shahbag shows the potential for embracing a broader vision of social change’- it would be extremely optimistic to think in this way at this very moment. Rather, I would like point at the diversity of voices and polemics that is going on regarding these movements both on real ground and in virtual space. That is why, I think, it is to early to postulate the wider horizon the diversified mass could incorporate. However, many of us hope that someday many other issues would also be addressed. This is just a beginning. At the same time, some of us also feel that nothing should be hinted at that would eventually contribute to the losing of focus. I would refer to a link that would, interestingly, show some of the features of the movements (http://storify.com/muktasree/inclusion-diversity-in-shahbag). This write up has brought to fore one of the undercurrents of the movements that could transcend the boundary of masculinist ultra-nationalism. The movements, simultaneously, are helping to tear apart many of the ‘classical stereotypes’ about the definition, mobilization and nature of a movement/movements.


  4. The Shahbag episode is organised and sponsored by Bangladesh government not people.The kids are brought to the spot by exerting pressure upon the managing committee members of the private schools and colleges by National Security Intelligence and other secret services of the military for photo session..
    This is well known around the country.that almost 90% of the families of these kids Never participated in the Liberation War.Nor they experienced the atrocities committed in those days.
    This episode was organised to create a gimmick aimed at showing off the world that their proposed farcical election would be


    1. @ Mohammad, this is an outrageous propaganda that is masterminded by the Jamat-i-Islami and the perpetrators (the political party, the leaders of which has been arrested and who are under trial for War Crimes). I know that many of these kids are from the families in which somebody was involved in the liberation war and/or the families that were affected the devastation. I know many of my students from my university who are participating in the protest spontaneously. Many of the school-college going kids are giving interview to the private TV channel about the reasons for what they are persistent about the objectives and spirit of the movements. Parents are not only accompanying their kinds sometimes; they are also sending home made foods, how much little that could be, for the gathered mass. They were not ‘organized and sponsored’ by any agencies. Yesterdays, candle light vigil by more than one hundred thousands people at Prajonmo Chattor overtly illuminate the spirit and self-motivation of the people who were gathered there. Labeling the mass gathering as a mean of ‘photo session’ is not only a lie; but a part of a planned cyber propaganda organized by the paid experts of Jamat-i-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir (the student wing of the political party that was involved in the killing of intellectuals on 14 and 15 December 1971. They were known as Islami Chhtro Samgha at that time).

      Readers must be aware of these kinds of lies that are being flooded the virtual space. At Shahbag, bloggers and on line activists are trying to counter the propaganda. Although it is difficult to encounter such people who are financed by money from suspicious sources and organizations. They are doing this not necessarily to tarnish the overwhelming impact of the ongoing movements. They aims at diminishing the acceptability of International War Crimes Tribunal to the international communities by spreading lies and rumours, by posting distorted historical narratives about the liberation war of 1971 and by raising issues that are not even relevant to the ongoing processes of trial and the ongoing movements., .


  5. My dear Swadhin,
    Look at here:

    “Post-Trial Amendments Taint War Crimes Process:HRW

    Justice for victims of war crimes and other serious abuses during the
    1971 war of liberation is essential. But a government supposedly
    guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to
    overrule court decisions when it doesn’t like them. The Bangladesh
    government should pause, take a deep breath, and repeal the proposed
    amendments, which make a mockery of the trial process.

    The amendments violate the International Covenant on Civil and
    Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a state party.
    Article 14 of the ICCPR states that “no one shall be liable to be
    tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been
    finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal
    procedure of each country.”

    Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was reported by media as saying she would
    talk to the judges to convince them to take the sentiments of the
    protesters into account in formulating their decisions. Law Minister
    Shafique Ahmed said that the amendment had been drafted to ensure
    equal rights for both the government and the accused. When the bill
    was offered in parliament, the deputy speaker welcomed it by saying,
    “This is the voice of parliament.”

    Full Text:
    imes-process ”

    Do you claim HRW is the arm of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh ?

    Here is another article:

    (Mockery of justice in Bangladesh – ARAB NEWS).

    David Bergman’s article:
    [I am justifiably in contempt of this Kangaroo Court]

    Bergman is the husband of Sarah Hossain the daughter of Dr. Kamal Hossain the Foreign Minister under Sheikh Mujib.



  6. These Indians see the killing of Afzal Guru as a necessary sacrifice at the altar of (India’s) “national integrity.” His actual innocence or guilt is to them irrelevant, as the law seems to have taken its course.

    For the past 3 days, I have been getting into fights with my friends over facebook, whose only response can be summed up by these lines I quoted from the article..


  7. Fail to understand that how an army of around 30000 men could kill,loot plunder and rape at the same time 400000 women and fighting mukty bhani and indian army at the same time.infact sh mujib should not have settled for ruling half the country and should have asked for the legimate rule of both wings which could have saved the people of west pakistan from rulers like bhutto and zia ul haq .support of afghans against russians dictated by usa and backed by the arabs with flow of afghan refugees to west pakistan with drugs and guns and the birth of taliban ,alqaeda consequently is the cause of the bleeding pakistan with an uncertain future.people of East Pakistan were the pioneers in creation of pakistan,infact again why people of west pakistan should have done what is said,written and preached.Even 1947 partition facts are more fabricated stories and less realities as is the case during creation of bangladesh. finally it is the selfish leaders who want to rule by dividing on ethnic,religious or any other basis-and have been doing so since centuries.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s