We in Bangla-desh have never stopped living in interesting times. Some of these have come to define our history. It is such a moment perhaps that we are passing, with the commonly heard refrain from all those who want to see a peaceful atmosphere prevail in the country — now what?
Every time we look back on our history, which has been fraught with turmoil, we have to agree that perhaps no other time has been so laden with uncertainty than now. Going by the anarchy that we observed in the three days of hartal, and days immediately following Sayedee’s verdict, there can be no other conclusion than that the country is willy nilly on a collision course. And some are trying to establish a causal link between Shahbagh and the violence that Jamaat has perpetrated, and the loss of lives that has resulted from the violence.
Shahbagh is much more than merely a forum for demanding the maximum punishment to the war criminals, but perhaps unbeknownst to the organisers, it is becoming bigger than itself. Shahbagh was a protest against the culture of impunity, against a culture of compromise; it was a manifestation of resentment at seeing a convicted war criminal handed down lesser degree of punishment than one with greater degree of crime than his. But accretion in the list of demands of the Moncho have somewhat diluted the gravity of its demands.
If facts had been proved beyond reasonable doubt then we are not aware of the mitigating factors that led to the court awarding the verdict of life term. And that there has been an attempt by the government to compromise has been articulated by the 14 party alliance members in the Parliament following Quader Mollah’s verdict. Perhaps the AL did not foresee a backlash in the form of Shahabagh and for them joining the youths in Shahbagh was the better part of valour. Unfortunately, it took a Shahbagh to make the government realise the lacunae in the ICT law which was eventually rectified, but not before its intention being brought to question.
Let us now address the “Now what?”
It has become impetrative for the government to stem the violence without further bloodshed. There is a very fine line between terrorism and the violence that Jamaat is perpetrating. And there is deliberate attempt to exploit the sensibilities of the Muslims in the country, and some of them did fall prey to an outlandish claim of Sayedee’s face appearing in the moon.
Semantics dishonour the dead. Whether it is a hundred dead or one, whether it is mass killing or genocide, it is the blood of the Bangladeshis that is being shed. The number of people killed in police firing (between 40 and 45 killed in one single day) is odiously high. Equally reprehensible is the comparison of casualties in violence during past regimes. Past killings cannot justify nor validate present actions.
It is also imperative for the government to demonstrate to the people that what Jamaat is doing violates the teachings of Islam. And that should be done through engaging the public and not through bullets.
Shahbagh or not, the nature of things to come was hinted at by Jamaat leaders who threatened violence even before the February 28 verdict was announced. Has the government pondered as to why the Hindus are being targeted? While it is important that the perpetrators be identified, let us not overlook the fact that a majority in one country is minority in another. And the dubious aim of targeting the Hindu community in Bangladesh is perhaps to ignite a backlash against the minority community in the neighbouring country, and reap the “benefits.” And when the administration has admitted that the violence has been severe in only some pockets in the country, why did it not take adequate measures in those pockets where Jamaat’s influence predominates?
It is imperative for the government to also make the Shahbagh organisers comprehend a few essential elements that underline the issue. And this should have been done long ago, before the announcement of the Sayedee verdict. Nobody could agree more with the gono-jagoran-mancho and their demand for the severest punishment to the war criminals. But our leadership, while empathising with them, should also have made it clear that the matter relates to judicial process, which can neither be circumvented nor abridged. Neither can the government face a situation where the detractors would find it easy to label the future verdicts as being influenced or even coerced.
As for the BNP, it must seriously consider whether it was not time to part ways with Jamaat. It was most disappointing not to find any mention of the desecration of the national flag or Shaheed Minars in Begum Zia’s March 1 statement at the press conference. And it was puerile to suggest that violence against the Hindus is being engineered by the government to spite the BNP and Jamaat face. BNP is validating Jamaat.
And most importantly, now is the time for the two big political parties to sink their differences and come together to prevail over the situation for the sake of the country, for once at least.
The writer is Editor, Op-Ed and Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.