India Slept Through a Revolution in Bangladesh: Richa Jha

Guest post by RICHA JHA

Dhaka, Bangladesh. 18th February 2013 -- A woman shouts on a microphone. -- A demonstration for the death penalty to be given to war criminals, is continuing at Shahbag crossroads, and has reached its fourteenth day,.
Dhaka, Bangladesh. 18th February 2013 — A woman shouts on a microphone. — A demonstration for the death penalty to be given to war criminals, is continuing at Shahbag crossroads, and has reached its fourteenth day,.

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.)

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40 thoughts on “India Slept Through a Revolution in Bangladesh: Richa Jha”

  1. The picture accompanying this article is the strongest proof of the slumber: The woman shouting on the microphone is not just “a woman”; she is Lucky Akhter. She deserves to be named given her importance in this movement.


    1. You are right, Brishti, given that Akhter the ‘slogankanya’ has come to symbolise the voice of Shanbag…


  2. Frankly speaking i don’t give a damn to your fondness for bangladesh……..all i know is they should be happy we helped get independence from pakistan and yes did not infiltrate our people post-1971.At the end of the day Taslima nasreen was kicked by these very people…….and an Islamist nation will never be friends of India.SO now Buzz off.


    1. first off, i’m Bangladeshi, and im very grateful that india helped us in the independence war, but you are wrong in saying that we will never be friends precisely because this protest goes to show that the public in my country do NOT want extreme Islamic politics. we are pretty secular to be honest, and we need your help to keep these extremists at bay, before they gain a foothold in our country like the Taliban did in Afghanistan/Pakistan. even if u don’t give a shit about us, think about it this way, if we become another Pakistan, you’ll have one more country to worry about! so at least out of self-preservation, you might want to help this movement.
      im not even in Bangladesh at the moment, and I left because I was tired of religious persecution cause im an atheist. if this movement is successful and those jamaats are rid once and for all, i’d be happy to return home!!


  3. Thank you for bringing up this topic. I completely agree with the basic argument of the article. And I think its so relevant that it is highlighted. We are are so preoccupied with ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge the striking developments in Bangladesh.


  4. I shall first quote my own comments to establish the level at which I feel connected with the Bangla citizenry on present issue. Following were the comments I scribbled on Mr. Tarek Fateh’s article in TorontoSun titled “No one sings Bangladesh anymore”:

    “West is blind. This is historic moment not only in the history of Bangladesh but also world. Citizenry of Bangladesh has reconfirmed and announced that they still adhere to the supremacy of Ethnic (or nationalistic) Identity and should there be a clash with religious (Islamic) identity, citizenry would see to it that ethnic/nationalistic identity emerges as outright winner. Gents, this is the very spirit that Pakistan lacks.”

    “That is the difference Sir, Bangladeshi Muslim community rescued itself from extremists who were imposing supremacy of an Islamic Identity over their Bangla Identity in 1971. Attacks came from every side, even language (plan to phase out Bangla and replacing it with Urdu). The bias you talk of, provides west enough headroom to continue cold war legacy programmes such as funding Pakistani army. If western citizenry were to know that their hard earned money is being spent on funding what results in 9/11 kind massacre every other week, wouldn’t they ask questions ? So, the greatest service west could do is first to stop warming pockets of extremists, be it a nation or a covert organization.”

    Now, coming to the issue of Indian indifference, I believe it has been a blessing in disguise and perhaps “mistakenly but correct approach”. I say so for following reasons.

    1. At a time when Indian MSM as well as political establishment is all out to purchased colored glasses be it Green or Saffron, while ignoring the fundamental seriousness of radicalization with in the Republic, the whole nexus would have made a mockery out of courageous steps that our Bangla brothers & sisters are taking. The language, content, philosophy, as well as thinking process of the editor who wrote you personally (as you reiterate in your essay) is a hard piece of evidence of attitude towards such issue. Hence, Indian MSM & Polity rather saved themselves an embarrassing episode and Bangladesh citizenry the hurt they would have caused otherwise.

    2. It would be a matter of only speculation whether AF got more than it bargained for, or this (bringing 71’s culprits to the table) was a well calculated step. I’d put my money on the former, nobody and NOBODY would have seen this coming. Now, BD Govt has been compelled to amend Laws to accommodate what could have been a final judgement. In such a serious matter, Indian rant would have seen as undue foreign intervention in sovereign matters of BD. Hence, again a mistake pays-off.

    3. If one could relate to what those two comments I’ve quoted in para 2 & 3, the current development in BD (e.g. the reaffirmation of single Bangla Identity) could be a complete game changer. Hence BD can do very well without “unwanted helping hands” of Indian fringe elements with soft corner for Jamat. A nuatanki by Indian MSM & Politicians could have been a source of education and potentially encouragement for the said “unwanted helping hands” to actively sympathize with Jamat. Hence once again a mistake pays-off.

    Lastly, a growing, focused and peaceful neighbor is rather rare for India, so please let BD be the master of its fate and let this movement bind their citizenry in an eternal bond. Lets not invite moronic Indian MSM and Politician to poison such a beautiful constellation that BD is observing.


    1. I hear you, Ajay! ‘A beautiful constellation that BD is observing’ – equally beautifully articulated!


  5. ” 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….”. True, but the problem is that the butchers also ‘once belonged to us’. The tension between linguistic and religious factors of culture in South Asia still prevail. Having said that, though I have always been against the death penalty, I think that for the young protestors of Bangladesh, this is not the major issue just now. They are fighting against religious fundamentalism as facism; and they are doing it for the whole subcontinent. More power to them.


  6. Thanks for your article Richa..i am a Bangladeshi and we did hold a protest demo in front of Bangladesh High Commision in Delhi and very unfortunately not a single media representative understood the gravity of the situation and turned up to cover this issue.Utter ignorance I must say


  7. Frankly speaking it is good that “India slept through a revolution in Bangladesh”. Interference would have unpredictable consequences. At the time of liberation of BD, India had to involve for its own interests besides compelling reasons on humane grounds.


  8. really happy about that the bangla deshi people are going to get justice after a long time which has been ignored for long …. I am a Bengali Indian and originally from west bengal , kolkata and now in delhi (JNU) for some years but I always feel them as my counterpart (of being a bengali ). Though I ws following present news updates regarding this and undoubtedly this article deserves appreciation… very well done Richa ….


  9. For those who can read bengali, a quote below from Kabir Suman, MP of Trinamul Congress. He was there at the protests. If by India sleeping through you mean Indian government, well then let me remind you that they did not fare any better at Delhi Protests.

    বিমানে উড়তে তিরিশ মিনিট/এতো কাছে তবু দূর/বিলকুল নেই পাসপোর্ট ভিসা/সীমানা চেনে না সুর।
    সীমানা চিনি না আছি শাহবাগে/আমার গীটারও আছে,/বসন্ত আজ বন্ধুরা দেখো/গণদাবী হয়ে বাঁচে।
    – কবীর সুমন


  10. It is utterly strange – the MSM’s non coverage of the movement. It is probably unfair to single out one person, but I cant help but point out that NDTV’s star reporter went to Libya to cover the civil war as also the protests in Egypt. One is really not sure what fresh perspective an Indian reporter can bring to an event in the far-off Middle East which was anyways well-covered by the global media. OTOH, she has no time to spare for BD which as an Indian, she is much better placed to cover and provide insights on. I wonder if it represents a slavish mindset which thinks only those issues which are covered by the Western media are of “international” importance.


  11. ..This is not the first time the self centered Indian media has looked the other way by choice, its more like ignorance is bliss….what goes on outside the boundaries of this country, is nothing to be concerned about, moreover it is indeed demeaning to see the what is published as “NEWS” from the country…..They still manage to write and publish pages of stuff with…The fact that it takes 3 drafts and so much of writing or the next door media & people to take notice, is something “we” as a ‘neighbor’ shouldn’t be proud…. @ well done Richa


  12. A very beautiful, and accurate piece. As a historian I think the movement at Projonmo Chottor (Shahbagh) will take its rightful place among non violent movements for a democratic secular society. As the writer points out far being ‘blodthristy’ the demand for death sentence is a cry for justice and closure to the genocide chapter in the nation’s history.Pls get your history before making rash comments. Pls see the picture of the candle light vigil and feel the stirring within. Now the ‘leftist editor’ who made that drogatory comment about ‘boodthirsty’ Bangldeshis and the AL govt should take a minute off to look at India’s track record in Kashmir maybe- the peaceful?, lyrical? scenario there? We are too engrossed fighting for our own secular democracy to pay heed to whats happening in N India but just thought I would mention it to those who have made such demeaning ad dismissive comments about this movement . We are not a mighty country so the media is turning its gaze away. But gandhi would have been proud had he lived to witness Shahbagh, I think. Anyhow at the end of the day does it matter. Perhaps its a blessing that we are fighting our own battle without vested interests joining in – things are complicated enough as it is.
    Richa Jha as a Dhakaite ( who is always grumbling about this chaotic traffic consumed city) you made me feel so proud. Thank you very much.


  13. As a Bangladeshi I congratulate Richa Jha for this wonderful piece. It’s not only India, but the almost the entire world slept through the Shahbagh Sqaure Movement. The youth of Bangladesh is trying to take back the country to its root, the path to secularism. It’s a watershed moment in the history of Bangladesh – we did not expect such enthusiasm, such passion from a generation who we deemed apathetic. It is a proud moment to all of us. If India was not so obsessed with Pakistan (or with itself), if India was really that great nation, it would have followed what was happening to its east. The Indian youth could have learned a thing or two from it. It is a pity that the world decided to ignore Bangladesh and for this the world is so much the poorer. I thank Richa Jha again.


  14. A nation which allowed so called “butchers” to reach the status one of the most powerful political force in the country does need to do a lot of soul searching. This was no revolution, just a lot of city junta protesting. Let us see, if the Bangladeshis take it to the next level.


    1. ********
      A nation which allowed so called “butchers” to reach the status one of the most powerful political force in the country does need to do a lot of soul searching.

      India needs to do a lot of soul searching too then?


  15. I am seventy plus, retired. I am a Bangladeshi Bangali. I don’t think I can write thread through all the comments above and a little of mine own. First I must thank Richa Jha for her very accurate yet passionate description of the event in Bangladesh that is still very fluid. We have to wait to say the last word. I am very sorry about the Indian Editor who it seemed decided negatively about the newsworthiness of the event and about Jha’s write up. But I understand the average Indian Editor about being concerned about what the average Indian newspaper reader would be interested.One has to read a lot about what happened in “INDIA” from about 1930s, the background of the partition and the scar left by the partition on both sides. Chapter One. Chapter Two is about the separate path we here in Bangladesh followed right from 1948 and our struggle for our own place under the Sun culminating in the Liberation War in 1971 and the very traumatic experience we had, as a nation. In a way I would agree that not publishing the Shahbag in Indian newspapers is a blessing to the movement.However, news is information, information leads to knowledge, and knowledge gives you the ability to act wisely. The enlightened among the Indian readers, I am sure, would like to know what is happening and be able to judge for themselves.

    A state is governed by certain laws either inherited or enacted by its legislators. Some laws are termed good laws, some are termed as bad laws. Death penalty in one context may be judged excessive, but in another context not enough. In the context we are talking about, the crime against humanity, we have provision for death penalty. One may term it a bad law, but our legislators thought it prudent to keep it. If any of you are interested in the full version of the judgement against Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, I would be happy to send it so that you may judge for yourself.

    India as a state must look after and protect the rights and interest of its citizens. That is what Bangladesh must also do, as a state.Where we are bound to share common resources, dictated by Geography, we are bound to have problems. We have problems with India regarding Water Resources, Maritime Boundary, and still unresolved boundary demarcation, including the problems of enclaves. We do not expect that these problems would go away easily, and there would bee friendship at state level. However, there are different levels of friendship that we can, should, would and are cultivating I am sure a lot of us get hurt at the way we perceive the “Indian” response to our problems and issue, just as, I am sure, the Indians are shocked at the way they perceive the way we respond to their problems and issues. But I think we can live with that.

    The creator, WHO has created the Indians, the Bangladeshi Bangalis, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians, the Buddhists, the leftists and the rightists, WHO is also the preserver and the destroyer, only HE knows why diversity and antitheses is key to progress.


  16. The above poster who referred to the butchers who have been allowed so much power, is quite astute. The 1971 liberation movement should have settled the matter, about the place of Islamic terrorists and the military. Alas, it did not. Those entities have reared their heads over and over again in the last 40 odd years. This latest chapter should be the last one. Bangladesh should be secular and pluralistic, taking pride and inspiration from its Hindu-Buddhist past, as well as its moderate Moslem one.


  17. India is a corrupt and arrogant country.
    Politicians, Administrators, Police, Army, Judiciary, Business group, Main Stream Media – all are focused on swindling the common man and amassing wealth. Where is the time to worry about revolution in Bangladesh or genocide in Tamil Ellam.
    If China gives sufficient bribe money, they can easily buy the whole India instead of waging a war.


  18. Thank you so much for your beautiful words. I have never seen such a nice article written in favor of my country. I wish you could be there. Photos, Facebook status cannot tell you how amazing the actual atmosphere was. It is an experience you will not be able to describe in words. You need to feel it, you need to be a part of it. Many Bangladeshi expatriots flew back home to take part in the protest. I felt so proud of my country. After Shahbagh protest, I am sure, no matter what happens, we will never let our country fall into wrong tracks. Whenever our country is in crisis, we will be there; just as the generations of 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s have been there.

    Western media show so much concern about secularism, human rights, but they always maintain strict silence about the genocide of Bangladesh. They repeatedly remind us about the genocide of World war II. But what about genocide of 1971? In World War II, Nazis took 5 years to kill 6 million Jews, BUt Pakistani Army didnt take even a year to kill 3 million Bangladeshis! The world media always remains biased against Bangladesh. All the negative news of BD become headlines, but our shahbagh protest have not even got a place in the scroll of any international news channel. On the 4th day of Shahbagh protest, when more than half a million people gathered at Shahbagh, I was checking BBC, CNN, AlJazeera, NDTV. I was so astonished to see that a small gathering in some other country at the death of their opposition leader, was getting a big coverage. There was no metion about our protest! And Alas! finally BBC made reports on Bangladesh after 3 weeks. But you know what, this time their report was in favor of Jamaat e Islami! When some fundamentalist hooligans were killing police, making attack on the institutions of our nation; BBC presented it as a protest of people to save their beloved “innocent” “oppostion leader” from the conspiracy of the govt. They even interviewed one from those fanatic hooligans in order to establish that the public opinion was in favor of Sayeedi ! Still no mention of Shahbagh protest in that report! Since then I have stopped watching BBC , CNN. No point of wasting my time watching their biased reporting.

    Everywhere I see citizens of other countries trying to belittle Bangladesh, exaggerating her shortcomings. So, thanks again for your beautiful words and thanks for loving Bangladesh. :) But she is worth to be loved, no?


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