Guest post by RICHA JHA
This morning, I changed the ‘sleep’ in the heading of this article to ‘slept’. I woke up to the news that Bangladesh’s nearly twenty days long mass uprising was now getting a structured exit. The most moving and visually spectacular part of the Shahbag movement was coming to an end. India, of course, slept through most of it. The past tense, suddenly, paints our selective insularity in even starker shades.
Ever since that arrogant grin and a victorious ‘V’ flashed by the 64 year old Abdul Kader Mullah outside the war crimes tribunal in Dhaka on February 5, Bangladesh has been in the throes of a revolution. The court awarded the Mullah, better known as the Butcher of Mirpur, a life sentence for his heinous acts during the 1971 Liberation War. Angry crowds spontaneously took to the streets challenging the verdict, demanding death sentence for him and for eleven others being tried for war atrocities.
Not many among us born in or after the 70s will know that independence for Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from Pakistan came at an enormous price. In the events leading up to the independence, millions of Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis were raped, burnt alive, chopped, butchered, massacred, both systematically and arbitrarily, by the Pakistani army and the Urdu-speaking pro-Pakistan supporters, or Razakars (volunteers) as they were called. The much detested term ‘Rajakar’ has since come to stand for traitors in the Bangali parlance. For years, the people have been riled up at the sight of seeing a bulk of these Rajakars thriving in the political arena; Abdur Mullah is the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the two largest opposition parties in the country. To most, this life sentence seemed too lenient a punishment for their crimes.
Millions of men, women and children, regardless of the religious faith they follow, continued to spill into the city’s Shahbag Square for nearly three weeks, making it the largest social awakening for the nation since its birth. It was history in the making for Bangladesh. Until a couple of days ago, few in India were even aware of this near tectonic shift within a country we share more than four thousand kilometers of land border with.
I have lived in Bangladesh. My love and admiration for the country is an open secret. A quarter of my friends on Facebook are Bangladeshis. It is through their eyes that I have been seeing the unbridled passion that this movement has infused in their collective conscience, as much as it is their unyielding rage that fuelled this movement. I’ve been listening to their cries, calls, exhortations, jubilations and feeling a sort of visceral connect that is difficult to explain. Ten days ago, when I updated my status as, ‘Of all the places I have been associated with, I would feel proudest to be known as a Dhaka-ite,’ I meant every letter and every unsaid pause in it.
But I am an Indian. And an Indian loves no one but himself. And so, my pro-Bangladesh sentiments have become a bit of a joke all around. Not that it has ever disturbed me. But what has disturbed me is the appalling lack of initial interest by the Indian media, both print and TV, in covering this movement.
I began writing this piece a few days ago. The first draft came out as a passionate plea to my country-people to wake up and look east. I gave the history behind this outrage and the details of the protest. It found no takers. It may have come across as a mad woman’s meaningless rant. So for my second draft, I did a thorough online scan to see if I had missed spotting news items covering the uprising. As I had suspected, there was pittance of a coverage by mainstream media in India (barring The Hindu). This was on Tuesday (Feb 19), and the protest was just entering its third week. I found little that could be called substantive news bytes. So I posed the question to a few editors and news-persons. I was informed that a reporter-photographer team from the Indian Express was due to reach Dhaka on Wednesday morning, while the Times of India had ‘just’ sent their diplomatic editor to Dhaka to ‘step up the coverage while the crisis folds out’. A beginning, was it? It had taken us two full weeks to even acknowledge that the events happening next door merited attention.
I tried to make sense of our silence, our blindness and our casualness. Surely it couldn’t be just the preoccupation with ‘the major news developments in India itself, including capital punishment for Afzal Guru and then the helicopter scam,’ as Monideepa Banerjie of NDTV put it; a view shared by Unni Rajen Shanker, executive editor of the India Express (he mentioned the Delhi rape and the chopper scam). Surely it also couldn’t be just the media’s reluctance to get drawn into a debate over capital punishment all over again, coincide as this movement did with Afzal Guru’s hanging. To me, it seemed more like we don’t care. Or if we do, we don’t care enough. As someone who has keenly followed the Indo-Bangladesh dynamics, I have always sensed the media’s indifference towards most of the news coming from Bangladesh. Hina Rabbani Khar and Bilawal Bhutto’s affair from across the western border, or even Khar’s handbags, get more attention.
Death sentences remain a much contested topic the world over. Human rights watchers are expressing their reservations at the unfairness of the hurriedly done trials at Dhaka’s war crime tribunals. Many are aghast at the supposed bloodthirstiness of the Bangladeshis. A smart move by Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena, say the political pundits. She had promised action against war criminals in her election manifesto. She now has a galavanised people waiting for the severest possible retribution. President Zillur Rahman bowed before the popular sentiment and signed the amended International Crimes Tribunal law on Monday. This will allow the state and others to appeal against the tribunal’s verdict in the apex court. In effect, it could also pave the way for banning the Jamaat-e-Islami party,.
A Jamaat-free Bangladesh will be good news for India, much as it will be a happy twist in the Awami League’s rule. The Jamaat has been instrumental in partially soiling the otherwise secular social fabric of Bangladesh. The growing influence of the Jamaat politics along religious lines during Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP rule saw a sharp rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the country. And both these parties are vocal about their mistrust for India. With the Awami League coming in, we saw a slight shift in that perception (the AL is seen as having more pro-India sentiments). Even if one were to disregard not wanting to empathise with the mass sentiment as a possible reason, India cannot choose to look the other way at a movement that will decide the fate of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
With those arguments when I first sent off my piece, I received a caustic reply from an editor who said: “…I find the lack of reflection on a crowd’s part demanding death penalty, even for bona fide fascists, very disturbing. I am personally very disappointed with the Bangladeshi left, and their utter lack of political imagination… kind of populist stupidity, which I see in the pious, and I have to say, bloodthirsty, authoritarian, Awami League apologist secularists of Bangladesh…”
I read this mail, shut my eyes and tried to recall the bone-freezing first hand accounts of some of the family members of my friends to have survived the pogrom. I reopened chapters of some of the books I have read on the Liberation War and relived the unspeakable agony of the millions who perished. I tried to refresh my disturbing, gut-wrenching memories of going through the photographs at the Liberation War Museum and wondered: If something like this had happened to my people, would I have remained mute at Mullah’s life sentence?
My answer to myself was loud and clear. So I sat up all night to work out a third draft of this article. I wanted it to be my story of India’s embarrassing refusal to look beyond itself. To make it my story of the millions of stories that I feel Indians should wake up to and want to know. Today we may choose to look the other way, but we cannot erase the common history that the people of Bangladesh and we shared for centuries until August 14, 1947. Every single one of those butchered had once belonged to us, and the rivers still flow in the same directions as they always did.
The majority of this crowd who participated in the movement weren’t even born when the atrocities were perpetrated. But the undeterred spirit of the millions who rallied behind this call for justice en masse was stunning. Day after day, the atmosphere at the gatherings remained charged, inspired, selfless, unified, graceful, festive and peaceful – all at the same time. It has been, for lack of a better word, one of the most beautiful mass uprisings in the world in recent times – even through its darkest moments. On Feb 15, an online activist Rajib Haidar with vocal anti-Islamist views was hacked to death by members of the Jamaat. One instance of a retaliatory violence by the Shahbag protestors, and the entire movement was in danger of coming undone.
That evening, my Facebook wall’s update roll streamed at a frenetic pace. ‘We cannot let this go wrong now,’ cried sane voices urging people to show restraint in the face of such blatant provocation. Update after update I saw the swift dissemination of information through social media urging people to not fall for this trap to incite a bloody backlash. By next day, instead of a gory retaliation that had been feared, the world awoke to by far the most stirring image this movement has thrown up: thousands of protesters marching with the coffin of this national hero, stretching themselves to touch it for an oath to continue the protest peacefully. And millions others uttering it in sync: ‘This is my promise to continue the movement until the capital punishment of the war criminals is reached and Jamaat politics is banned. Till death we shall continue our protest…’
We slept through it; yes we did, with our couldn’t-care-less attitude.
The Shahbag movement has been an unprecedented collective call for justice for a nation’s healing. Through these four decades, the horror tales have hovered; the wounds have remained visible in their shadows; and the desperate need for a meaningful closure to the memories has haunted the nation. Theirs is not just a demand for the lives of twelve war criminals; and indeed, there were thousands more assisting these twelve, any way. But the Butcher of Mirpur has come to stand for the monumental betrayal that the Bangladeshis witnessed in the hands of its own people. In demanding death for him, the people are trying to look for a means to purge their grief and their loss. India, the least we could have done was to have turned our ears towards our neighbours when they needed to be heard the most.
We woke up, but woke up late. But it is still not too late. We may or may not support this mass appeal for the noose, but we could at least listen up and be aware of how a nation is moving towards its second birth.
(Richa Jha is a writer based out of Lagos, Nigeria. She has edited Whispers in the Classroom, Voices on the Field, an anthology of school stories (Wisdom Tree). She is also the author of a picture book for children. She brings together the world of Indian and international picture books on her website Snuggle With Picture Books.)
- Solidarity vigil for Shahbag in Delhi
- Kalyani Menon Sen: What a time to be in Dhaka!
- Jyoti Rehman: The Jamaat factor in Bangladesh politics
- Naeem Mohaiemen: Shahbagh – The Forest of Symbols
- Nagesh Rao and Navine Murshid: Lessons from Delhi and Dhaka
- Subhash Gatade: The Muslim right and Bangladesh
- More on Bangladesh in Kafila archives