Ever since the crowds came pouring out on the streets of Tunis in December 2010, the world has begun to take notice of large, combustible crowds of young Muslims with a certain awe as well as a certain apprehension. Tunis signalled the birth of the Arab Spring, a phenomenon that overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and later Egypt. The spectacular throngs at Cairo’s Tahrir Square gave way to a less electrifying and bloodier campaign in Libya and finally a civil war in Syria. In Pakistan, young men began to gather on the streets, notably around Imran Khan’s banner. The youth bulge of the Muslim world was announcing itself on the streets.
It was heady stuff but it was also worrying. Whether in Libya or in Egypt or even in Pakistan, the wild idealism of the early crowds soon gave way to the staying power of the organised Islamists. Would that heady combination of youth and democracy — or even the beginnings of democracy — in the Islamic homelands of Africa and Asia inevitably lead to conservative and, in some cases, extremist Muslim political forces winning power?
Till the final weeks of February 2012, there was only one empirical answer to that question. Then Shahbag Square happened. From a geographical name in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, the country with the fourth largest Muslim population in the world, Shahbag Square became to some people the locale of an alternative template. A young generation of Bangladeshis set out to recapture the legacy of their country’s birth and reclaim the narrative of 1971, taking ownership of an event that occurred well before this generation was born. Young Muslims came out on the streets, angry and impassioned. They were not advocating or emerging as the vanguard for Islamism; they were opposing it.
By 21 February, the protest at Shahbag Square had already reached its 17th day. On this day in 1952, Pakistani soldiers had shot and killed seven young Bengalis at Dhaka University. Those killed were protesting against the imposition of Urdu as a compulsory language in the erstwhile East Bengal. Just five years after East Bengal and West Punjab had come together to become the kernel of Pakistan, a nation of Muslims, the notion that Muslims were one indivisible collective, united by nothing but faith, was being challenged. Language, culture and ethnicity were staking their claim. In a sense, 21 February 1952 was Shahbag Square before its time. No wonder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of the country and father of its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, insisted on calling the then eastern part of Pakistan “East Bengal”. Today, of course, this is Bangladesh.
Every year, since 1952, and particularly in the runup to the liberation war of 1971, Ekush (21 in Bengali, for 21 February) became the iconic event for the incipient Bangladeshi identity. This year, it found an entirely new resonance with a new generation — often described, even mocked, as the Facebook generation. Young men and women, most of them in their 20s and some with political inklings and some completely apolitical, came to occupy the main intersection of Dhaka. With a huge green and red flag of Bangladesh flying over their heads, they shouted slogans from the liberation war of 1971: “Joy Bangla” (Victory to Bengal); “Tumi ke? Aami ke? Bangalee Bangalee” (Who are you? Who am I? Bengali). They even added some of their own: “Amader ek hi dabi Razakar er fashi” (Our one demand, hang the Razakars); “Jamaat-e-Islami made in Pakistan”.
Shahbag Square is what you make of it. The world is calling it Bangladesh’s own Tahrir Square, some are claiming it is part of the Arab or Muslim Spring, Indians want to know if the Anna Hazare movement is an inspiration. In part, it is an assertion of secular values and an assault on religious fanatics; in part, it is the resurgence of nationalism among the youth.
Ask the ordinary young Bangladeshis who occupied Shahbag and they will tell you there are only three basic demands: death sentence for the perpetrators of the war crimes committed during the liberation struggle of 1971; a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, the Islami Chattar Shivir, both involved in war crimes against the Bengali population; and boycott of companies controlled by the Jamaat. The goal is the isolation of Jamaat; secularism or pluralism are incidental byproducts that may or may not occur.
Thirty-five percent of Bangladesh’s voters are in their 30s or younger. They see it as important to get a closure on their history. They see it as important to identify those who opposed freedom for Bangladesh, plotted in conjunction with the military junta in West Pakistan and oppressed their own people. They see it as important that these men, part of the Razakar militia that was an ancillary to the Pakistan Army, be punished. They see it as important to remove the stranglehold of the Jamaat-e-Islami from politics, economy and society. To be sure, these are not the only young people in Bangladesh, but at Shahbag they seem to be the only ones who count.
By some accounts, more than 30,00,000 Bengalis, including students, writers and public intellectuals, were killed by the Pakistan Army and, in many cases, by the Razakars. The Jamaat had actively aided Pakistan in its action. Post-independence trials began to prosecute many of these war criminals, but came to a stop after the assassination of Mujib in 1975.
Zia-ur-Rahman, the military ruler of Bangladesh from 1977 till his assassination in 1981, rehabilitated all the members of the Jamaat accused of war crimes. In turn, the Jamaat became a major ally of Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It shared power with Khaleda Zia, the BNP leader today and Zia’s widow. Zia-ur-Rahman was a hero in 1971, a high-ranking military officer in the Pakistan Army who switched allegiance to the nationalist cause. His truce with the Jamaat constituted the first break with the vision of Mujib and began a process of re-Islamisation in Bangladesh. It began a debate within the country that had never quite been settled. Shahbag has taken the argument further, given it a new twist.
Over the years, the Jamaat has expanded its role from being just a political party. Today, the Jamaat controls many things, including banks, hospitals and educational institutions (Read Jamaat faces a crisis of faith ). This gives it influence far beyond the 4 percent of the popular vote that it commands.
To the Jamaat, the commemoration of Ekush was a direct assault on their concept of the oneness of the Ummah and the effacement of national and ethnic identities. It was a reminder of their collaboration with Pakistan 42 years ago. This year on 21 February, the slogans at Shahbag had a trance-like feeling to them. When 28-year-old medical graduate Imran H Sarkar, convener of the Blogger and Online Activists Network, the group that initiated the movement, stood up to speak that evening, nearly a million people had reached Shahbag Square to participate in the protests.
How did it all start? On 5 February, the War Crimes Tribunal instituted by the government of Bangladesh to conduct trials of 1971 war crime accused, announced its second verdict. Abdul Kader Mollah was indicted on five counts, including rape and mass murder. Mollah, an assistant general secretary of the Jamaat, is infamously called the “Butcher of Mirpur” for killing 344 of his fellow Bengalis. Freedom fighter and current vice-chancellor of Jahangirnagar University Anwar Hossain was present in court that day: “As three judges were reading out their deliberations, I typed an SMS to my son. ‘Death pronounced. 12.08 pm’. It was still 12.07 pm. We were so sure he would be hanged.”
Before Hossain could send the text message, the judges left the courthouse stunned. They announced a life sentence instead of death. “Look at the audacity of that man, he started giving a speech in the courtroom immediately after the verdict and flashed a victory sign,” says Hossain. The news of the verdict and Mollah’s ‘victory’ speech spread like wildfire. Yet, what started at Shahbag Square from 3 pm that day was something neither Hossain nor the government or any political party had expected.
Four bloggers — Imran H Sarkar, 28, Mahmadul Haq Munshi, 26, Maruf Rosul, 24, and Amit Bikram Tripura, 26, created a Facebook page inviting their friends and acquaintances to join the protest against the verdict near the National Museum, just adjacent to Shahbag Square and not far from the Racecourse Ground where the Pakistan Army had signed the instrument of surrender to Gen Jasjit Singh Aurora, leading the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini.
Within an hour, nearly 1,000 people, including Ahmed Rajib Haidar, the blogger who was later killed, allegedly by Jamaat activists, confirmed their participation. These young men and women, under the banner of Bloggers and Online Activists Network, sat down on the pavements outside the National Museum demanding a death sentence for Mollah and other war criminals. The Shahbag movement had just begun.