Letter from Shahbagh: Kalyani Menon-Sen

POWER_OF_LIGHT_orgGuest post by KALYANI MENON-SEN: Ever since I came back from Dhaka on 12th April this year, I have been opening my mailbox every morning with a feeling of excitement and anticipation, confident that there will be a mail from  Bangladesh with the latest news from Shahbagh. Just brief snippets – a slogan, a comment, a moment captured in a cellphone photo – but they are enough to bring back the   feeling of being there, feeling the excitement and the energy, sensing the emergence of a new kind of political space – chaotic and confused, yet alive with radical possibilities.

But last Sunday, 12th May, came a brief one-liner from Habib: “The police have dismantled Projonmo Chottor. Will keep you informed of further developments.” 

I already knew about the chaos on the previous day – another “long march” by Hefazat-e-Islam, an angry crowd of 70,000 “peaceful Islamic activists” blockading Dhaka, burning buses and looting shops, attacking women reporters and political activists, ransacking the offices of political parties until the police finally stepped in and used force to subdue the protestors and clear the streets. More than 20 dead, many hundreds injured, allegations that the police fired to kill, that the rioters were Awami League workers who had infiltrated the supposedly peaceful march.

Speculation too about the motivation for the police action against the Shahbagh protestors. Not unexpected, say most people – after the violence dished out to the Hefazatis and the Jamaat, the Awami League government is trying to win over the moderate Islamists by trying to prove that it is impartial.

Of course most newspaper readers and TV watchers in India are completely unaware of happenings in Shahbagh. While disasters like cyclones and the collapse of the Rana building in Savar get some coverage, our national media has largely ignored Shahbagh.

The Shahbagh movement started in February this year, around the demand of death penalty for war criminals – razakaars and members of the Al Badr militia who collaborated with the Pakistani army during the Liberation War in 1971. The Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal, set up by the Awami League government in 2009, nearly four decades after the country became independent, has so far taken up 12 cases. All the accused are associated with the rightwing Jamaat-e-Islami party. All twelve  have denied the charges and have claimed that they are being victimised for their political affiliations. Four sentences have been handed down – three men have been sentenced to death (one in absentia since he is said to be hiding in Pakistan) and one – Abdul Quader Molla, Assistant Secretary General of the Jaamaat – to life imprisonment.

Molla flashing v-sign (1)On 4 February, newspapers and TV channels were dominated by images of Molla flashing the V-sign to his supporters as he left the court after sentencing. Molla, who led a razakaar squad during the war and is known as the Butcher of Mirpur, had good reason to rejoice –  he had been expecting the death sentence, sitting silently as witness after witness came forward to testify to his crimes – raping an 11-year old girl, beheading a well-known poet and shooting 344 people in the Mirpur area.

Molla’s triumphant response to the verdict infuriated those who had been waiting for justice for 42 long years. A storm of protest started on blogs and on national TV.  The same evening, a small group of young political bloggers started a sit-in at the Shahbagh intersection near Dhaka University, a traditional venue for both protests and celebrations. The news spread quickly on blogs and social media, and others joined in, mostly young people and students, but also veterans of the Mukti Bahini, members of progressive organisations and others (like the Ekatorrer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Samiti) who had long been demanding justice for war crimes.

Encouraged by this response, the protesters, under the newly-created banner of Gonojagoron Moncho[1], called for a public protest meeting at Shahbagh on Friday 8 February.  An estimated five lakh people gathered in the square for the day-long event,  the biggest demonstration the country had seen in recent years. By the end of the day, the young organisers took an oath that they would not leave the square until all those accused of war crimes were brought to justice and given the death sentence. Shahbagh Square was dubbed Projonmo Chottor[2], a Twitter hashtag (#Shahbagh) appeared –  and the movement was born.

A call for three minutes of silence on 12 February drew a nationwide response – human chains were formed from end to end of the country, traffic in Dhaka came to a standstill, a premier league cricket match was stopped, even policemen on duty bowed their heads.

But no one expected this high level of enthusiasm to last – the organisers had in fact decided to organise events every day from 3 pm to 10 pm every evening, so that people could gather for a few hours after work. These plans became irrelevant on 15 February when Ahmed Rajib Haider, one of the bloggers who started the initial protest, was hacked to death outside his home, allegedly by the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Haider, well-known for his blog against  fundamentalism, had been dubbed an atheist by the Jamaat and had been facing online threats, including a “death warrant” posted on a Jamaat website.

Haider’s death electrified the protestors. His body was brought to Shahbagh and more than 3 lakh people came to pay homage. The demands crystallised – death to war criminals, banning of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its front organisations, a social and economic boycott of razakaar-owned business enterprises – and a 10-point letter of demands was presented to the government.

Throughout March and April, an estimated 5- 10 thousand people were present in Shahbagh every evening  – students, professionals, teachers, musicians, writers, human rights activists, NGO workers,  activists from the women’s movement, veterans from the Mukti Bahini, old soldiers, ordinary people who had suffered and lost loved ones during the war. Many thousands more joined the marches – the numbers at the lathi marches led by young women, the march by cultural groups, the student rallies were estimated in lakhs. The night marches in particular were spectacular – thousands of people walking in silence with blazing mashaals and candles held aloft, rivers of light flowing through the streets and pooling into Shahbagh in a sea of brilliance at the end.

Those unforgettable Shahbagh nights! As evening drew near, the 50 or so protestors who held the fort through the day would clean up the stage and set up the sound system. The slogans would start, at first drowned by the traffic, slowly gathering force as more and more people arrived: students first, then the cultural groups, then office-goers. Old men with henna-stained beards and the black bruise of the namaazi on their foreheads, streaming out of the mosque at the corner after the evening prayer. Men in jeans dangling motorcycle helmets, men in trousers and neatly tucked in shirts, men in sweat-stained working clothes, heading first to the vendors selling jhal-muri and chola-bhaja and then finding a vantage point for a good view of the stage. Flags everywhere – fluttering round the square, draped on trees, tied to telephone poles and cellphone towers, wrapped around the shoulders of the activists, held aloft in children’s hands. Three or four old men in lungi and fatua always there, draped in the national flag, huddled near the stage, listening intently. Others sat wherever they found space, squeezing up to accommodate the late arrivals, joining in the songs and slogans, listening intently to the reports of the day’s activities and the announcements for the next day, waiting for the star performers of the evening.

A huge photo of Jahanara Imam dominates one side of the square – many refer to her as Shaheed Janani, the mother of martyrs and the inspiration for the movement. A writer and political activist, her sons (both Mukti Bahini fighters) and husband were tortured and killed by the Pakistani government. Outraged by Ziaur Rehman’s action in lifting the ban on the Jamaat and opening the door for its entry into politics, she formed the Ekattorer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Samiti[3] and organised  public tribunals and mock trials of Jamaatis whose razakaar pasts were well known. Her name is frequently mentioned by the speakers.

At the other end of square, near the police barricades that block the traffic, is a bamboo gateway and a huge mosaic of flowers and colours, an artist’s tribute to the 3 million people who were killed during the war. Volunteers working furiously nearby, painting posters and making placards. Small tents on both sides of the road – first the empty bloggers’ tent (all the bloggers having gone underground after arrests and death threats), then the book stalls, music stalls, first-aid station, stalls with free food packets and water, stalls selling everything from sports shoes to jholas and backpacks, clothes and plastic toys, even a tailor pedalling away furiously at his machine, stitching headbands and scarves in the colours of the national flag (these are in huge demand).

women's rallyAnd women are everywhere – young girls in jeans and tops, cheekily defying the Jamaat strictures on “shameless dress”; women in well-starched handlooms and women in faded and patched hand-me-downs; women in burqas with lace-edged salwars and elegant high heels peeping out at the bottom; women lugging bags of shopping; women with heads covered and women with large bindis (another cheeky defiance of the Jamaat dress code).  Old women clinging to someone’s hand, carefully guided to safe seats on the road dividers. Little girls in their sparkly Sunday best perched on men’s shoulders, even littler ones riding on their mother’s hips.

Everyone with any connection to progressive politics has come to the Shahbagh stage – veterans of the Liberation war, teachers, poets, writers, theatre artists, musicians, film and TV stars. Many of the older people echoed writer Zafar Iqbal, who saluted the youth of the nation and asked them to forgive him for misjudging them. “I used to say that this generation is only interested in Facebook and guitars” he said “But you young ones have taught us lessons in politics.” Famous singers have come back again and again to perform, great actors have recited poetry, read from Jahanara Imam’s book, read letters written to their loved ones by Mukti Bahini fighters. Children have come on stage to read stories and poems about their dreams for the country. Thousands of people have lighted lamps in memory of their loved ones who died in the war, and for the thousands of unknown and unnamed victims.

Some visitors have been chased away with boos and a fusillade of plastic water bottles – Sheikh Hasina’s chief advisor and a women leader of the Awami League were among them. Others got harsher treatment – stones and slippers were hurled at people suspected of being Jamaatis and BNP workers who were trying to infiltrate the crowd and create trouble. More than once, organised attacks by the Shibir and Hefazat-e-Islam have been resisted by lathi-wielding activists as people flee the square in terror and the police watch silently.

Hefazat-e-Islam is an obscure group founded by a 95-year old preacher from Chittagong, practically unheard of before the Shahbagh movement. It has announced a 13-point charter of demands – changing the Constitution to ensure adherence to Islamic values and the Sharia; repealing of the women’s policy and all laws that violate Koranic injunctions; an end to “shameless acts” such as secular education and public mixing between women and men; conversion of all primary and secondary schools to Islamic schools;  and death for atheists and those who insult Islam and the Prophet. Hefazat-e-Islam cadres – mostly  madrassa students from impoverished backgrounds – have twice marched on Dhaka in huge numbers to put an end to “the atheist movement in Shahbagh”.

The day after the first “Long March” and siege of Dhaka by Hefazat on 6 April, the demand for the death penalty was overtaken (although not drowned) by the call from Shahbagh for a ban on the Jamaat-Shibir and Hefazot-e-Islam, and an end to the use of religion as a political tool.

An open declaration of war against religious fundamentalism, perhaps for the first time in the subcontinent:

Action, action, direct action –

Jamaat-shibirer birudhhe – direct action!

Dhormer byabshayider birudhhe – direct action!

Judhho apradhider birudhhe – direct action!

[Direct action – against the Jamaat-Shibir, against those who trade in religion, against war criminals]

Talibaner aar ek naam – hefazat-e-Islam!

[Hefazot-e-Islam is just another name for the Taliban]

Amader astana – Podda Meghna Jomuna – Pakistan hobena!

[Our home, our rivers – Padma, Meghna and Jamuna – we won’t let them become Pakistan.]

Amader maati, amader maa – Pakistan hobena!

 [Our land is our mother – we won’t let it become Pakistan.]

Jamaat shibirer astana – bhenge dao, pudiye dao!

Dhormer byabshayider astana – bhenge dao, pudiye dao!

[Destroy the roots of the Jamaat Shibir, destroy the roots of the merchants of religion.]

And the refrain, repeated every few minutes, to the delight of the small group of old men near the stage,  who leap up and hurl their fists in the air at every long-drawn-out cry of “J-o-o-o-o-y Bangla, joy joy Bangla!” and “Jalo, jalo, aagun jalo! Muktir aagun, abar jalo!” [Light the fire, light the fire of liberation once again]

The huge cartoons on the walls of the University library are a reminder that the demand for the death penalty is still at the core of the Shahbagh movement – vivid depictions of the twelve accused, surrounded by the blood-stained evidence of their crimes, some stuffing skeletons into their mouths as they are dragged to the gallows, some spewing out the dismembered bodies of their victims as they hang upside down screaming for mercy. Brilliantly rendered, alive in their gruesome detail – one quick look is enough to turn my stomach and keep me from looking that way again.

It is the demand for the death penalty that has kept many feminists from plunging whole-heartedly into the movement. For a short time, some women’s groups had even set up their own protest on the margin of the main gathering, explaining their opposition to the death penalty, asking for recognition of women’s contribution to the liberation struggle, protesting the silence about the rapes and violations taking place in Bangladesh today. Indigenous people’s groups criticised the exclusionary form of nationalism reflected in slogans like “Ami ke, tumi ke? Bangali, Bangali!”.

The protestors are responding quickly to some of these issues.  Women veterans of the Mukti Bahini have been sought out and invited to speak to the crowd. The speakers and those who lead the slogans now make frequent references to the fact that millions of women fought and died for freedom, but have been failed by successive governments who have refused to secure their rights. A new slogan – “Ami ke, tumi ke? Adibashi, Bangali!” – is now frequently heard. Indications perhaps that conversations are happening, that the organisers are persuading and being persuaded.

But there are other questions and criticisms that cannot be so easily addressed. Many people say that  not all Jamaatis are razakaars and not all razakaars are Jamaatis – many of those who are now with the Awami League also have razakaar pasts. A retired army officer pointed out to me that most of the Awami League leadership were safely hiding abroad while army men like him joined the Mukti Bahini and fought and died for freedom. Several people feel that the Shahbagh organisers are taking money from dubious sources including real estate companies whose logos are stamped on the food packets and water bottles being handed out.

Many questions are also being raised about the functioning of the tribunal itself – in one case (that of Abul Kalam Azad, who is absconding and has not been arrested) a death sentence has been handed out without hearing a single witness for the defence. In another, a key defence witness was abducted by armed men from the door of the courtroom, and has not been seen since. There is a general feeling that the Awami League is using the Shahbagh movement as a convenient excuse to eliminate their political opponents before the next elections. One friend from a Left party was dubious about the fact that the movement has no designated leader, and is therefore vulnerable to political hijacking – others argued exactly the opposite.

Yet, there is general acknowledgement that the Shahbagh movement, politically immature and leaderless though it may be, has rekindled the commitment to the ideals of the Liberation struggle, and has united people in hope for renewal. It has forced the Awami league to take a public stand against the Jamaat-e-Islami – no mean feat in a country where the Jamaat, despite its minuscule presence in Parliament, is courted by both sides and has played a deciding role in the formation of almost every government since independence. It has exposed the fragility of the BNP’s support base and has given the Awami League a wake-up call as well.

Most of all, Shahbagh has united the country behind the issue of women’s rights. A meeting – Protibadi Nari Gono Somabesh (Women’s public protest) – called by a platform of more than 100 women’s groups, NGOs and cultural organisations on 11 May, is being called the biggest political gathering of women in  Dhaka’s recent history. The meeting (originally planned for 27th April but postponed after the Rana Plaza building collapse) was addressed by a number of well-known feminists and leaders of women’s movements, as well as by representatives of progressive groups including Dr. Imran Sarker, the spokesperson  of the Shabagh movement. Along with a demand for a total ban on religion in politics and exemplary punishment for those who deliberately violate women’s rights, the 10-point charter adopted at the women’s meeting also endorses the call for death penalty for all war criminals. A strategic move to build a common front? Or a reflection of a lack of consensus even among feminists and women’s movements?

Many seasoned feminists and rights activists are choosing to engage with the movement despite their reservations  because they feel it has generated the energy needed to disrupt the political status quo and break the inertia that has gripped the country for the last decades.

Everyone I spoke to in Shahbagh – including several of the Gonojagoron “stage managers” at Shahbagh – insisted that they were opposed to the death penalty in principle but wanted death for these twelve unrepentant killers. They spoke of the failure of successive governments to act against war criminals and the fading hope of ever getting justice or even closure for their grief and suffering. One man, a mulla from a village near Faridpur, told me that his wife had killed herself after being gang-raped by Pakistani soldiers. Another wept as he described how his 10-year old daughter was picked up and taken to a military camp a few days before the end of the war and has never been found. A woman told me how her 18-year old brother, a Mukti Bahini fighter, came home one night to see their ailing mother and was betrayed by a neighbour – a razakaar beheaded him with a sickle as he was eating the meal she had cooked for him. They all had the same thing to say:  It has taken 42 years to bring these men to justice, we will not be cheated of our dues any more.

There is universal agreement that if the BNP comes to power in the next election, all those who are before the Tribunal today will be freed to continue spreading their poison. “The only way to end it is to hang them” said one young man. “Once these 12 are hanged, we will march on the streets to ask for an end to capital punishment. Don’t talk to us about it until then.”

Kalyani Menon-Sen is a feminist activist and independent researcher who happened to be in Dhaka and experienced Shahbagh at first hand for a fortnight in April this year.

[1]  People’s Awakening Forum

[2]  Place of the New Generation

[3]  Translates as “Committee for punishment to the criminals and collaborators of ’71”.


2 thoughts on “Letter from Shahbagh: Kalyani Menon-Sen”

  1. Its true that feminists in India did not want death penalty for even gruesome sexual Assault; but we have nothing to measure the anger of Bangladesh women still distressed about the ‘war crimes’ of the Razzakars. The partition experience is not a fit parallel. Probably the fear of being banned from public spaces by the likes of Jamat-e-Islami may also be driving them to demand death. I think its best not to insist on our opposition, but to gently remind from time to time, That may make it easier to talk about other women’s rights issues to women who are clearly in a mobilized state.


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