|Volume 7 | Issue 03 | March 2013 ||
Dilemma of the Surrealistic Shahbagh Movement
SYEED AHAMED attempts to answer some challenging questions that emanated from the Shahbagh movement.
The spontaneous rise of the Shahbagh movement and the unprecedented momentum that it created caught many by surprise. It has not only been unique in many ways, it has also been the most surrealist political movement of our time.
Think of the contradictions that are being juxtaposed here, to name a few -- a non-violent movement with frenzied call for death penalty; crowd chanting 'fashi chai' ('we demand hanging') while singing and reading poetry in festivity; the movement that began against the government's perceived compromise with Jamaat is now being supported by the government; a movement that was supposed to bring together the human rights activists against the heinous war crimes of 1971 is now bringing division among them on issues of capital punishment; and a non-partisan movement at the risk of getting not only political, but highly politicised as well.
The first dilemma this movement brought among the human rights activists is regarding the call for capital punishment. The loud and clear demand for hanging the war criminals brought much discomfort to many human rights activists with anti-capital punishment stance. Meanwhile, the government has already paved the way for post-verdict appeal by amending the law for International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Now some also fear that a post-verdict campaign to alter the verdict not only displays hunger for vengeance, it also doesn't support justice. To address this dilemma, it is important to know two things -- why there is a call for capital punishment; and when a convicted person can smile and show victory sign just after being sentenced to life in prison.
Capital punishment is the highest level of punishment allowable under the state law, and when the highest level of punishment was not given to Quader Mollah -- who was found guilty on five charges, including for slaughtering a female poet; collectively 'launching attack on civilians and unarmed village dwellers that caused mass killing of 344 civilians; for ordering and leading an attack where a man and his wife was slaughtered to death, where their daughter aged 11 years was gang raped by Mollah's 12 accomplices and was then slaughtered to death, and their son aged two was also killed by dashing him to the ground violently -- the general understanding was that the verdict was compromised. So the message of the verdict was clear: Mollah's proven guilt was not severe enough for the highest level of punishment! But this cannot be true since the tribunal itself handed down capital punishment in a similar case prior to this.
That's not the only reason why Mollah showed the victory sign after the verdict. It's not so common in Bangladesh for criminals with political ties to walk away from justice with Presidential pardon. Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, opposition parties have been winning national elections and with only less than a year left for this incumbent government, Mollah knew that his freedom will only require the current opposition, its political ally, to come to power after this year. Hence, demand for capital punishment also came as a symbol of assurance for the campaigners of the Shahbagh movement.
There are a few conspiracy theories that tried to explain why a lesser sentencing was awarded to Mollah for such gruesome crimes. This included possibilities such as the government fearing unmanageable backlash from Jamaat-e-Islami which vowed to cause civil war if the verdict goes against their leaders; and a possible political compromise by the government to create fraction among the opposition alliance. Whatever the reason was, it came as a shock to the new generation who realised that a post-genocide justice has not only been delayed for four decades, it has now been denied. So the movement came as a means to pressurise the government to revert back to its original promise of delivering justice. Here, the call for capital punishment should be seen as a call for highest level of punishment for the highest level of crime against humanity.
Anti-capital punishment campaign also never got any traction in Bangladesh, not because of lack of popular support, but rather for the lack of enthusiast campaigners and leaders. Capital punishment, though only happened a few times, never really attracted much criticism from rights activists. Following the Shahbagh movement, some human rights activists are now calling for 'justice, instead of vengeance', and 'truth, instead of death'. But their voices are now lost in the counter campaigns of right wing activists who have all along been opposing any trial of war criminals and are now also taking the camouflage of anti-capital punishment stance. This has only made the lives of rights activists harder.
Those who have been arguing for 'truth, not vengeance' should be happy that this campaign is actually bringing out the truth of 1971 in the most unconventional ways. The genocide of 1971 remained one of the least publicised yet horrific genocides of the past century. Partly because it failed to capture official recognition of the west since United States (and China in the East) were on the wrong side of this war. Similarly, this time the world media, that goes crazy with anything that goes on Tahrir Square, remained silent about Shahbagh Square. But slowly Shahbagh managed to attract the eyes of the seemingly ashamed world media. With that, the history of one of the most horrific genocides is also coming into world literature. Even most prominent national dailies of Pakistan are also covering the movement, and urging its government to bring out the truth about 1971. At home, part of the young generation who never got to know much about the history of 1971, are getting inspired and engaged with the history as a result of this movement.
The other dilemma came with the leadership of the campaign, where some pro-government and left-wing leaders were seen on the front stage of the movement. The movement began with a non-partisan approach under the elusive leadership of some online activists. However, at the initial stage, it was hard to find any visible or traditionally hierarchical leadership. Spontaneous groups were independently creating small gatherings at Shahbagh and were chanting their own slogans. Even on the third day of the movement, a clueless senior TV journalist was seen running around Shahbagh asking the campaigners -- 'who is your leader'? Later on, a loosely defined leadership became apparent under the banner of Blogger and Online Activist Network (BOAN). However, the campaigners declined to form any formal or hierarchical committee. As impossible as it might sound, it was the demand, not leadership, that united people in this most spontaneous and massive movement of our time. Yes, it is possible to find political affiliation of a few bloggers and activists, who are coordinating this movement. But isn't it only natural that a politically conscious person who would come as a forerunner of such movement will have prior engagement either with political parties, blogs or other networks? And the question of pro-government and pro-left leadership is pointless, since the main opposition has been the main alliance of Jamaat and is apparently against the war crimes trial.
But this brings us to an even greater dilemma as the movement is evidently coming to the government's benefit. The movement has helped the government to distract the people from ongoing issues such as the opposition's demand for restoring caretaker system of government, the Padma Bridge fiasco and other socioeconomic uncertainties. The government seems to be enjoying the fact that it is the only political party that has the 'ability' to come to power through election, and is 'willing' to try the war criminals. The other left-leaning political parties have the willingness, but do not have the proven ability to win the national election; while all other right wing political parties that can come to power have not only shown apathy to the war crimes trial, but have in many ways rehabilitated and facilitated the accused war criminals. With only a few months left before the next election, the young generation has no way other than to keep the incumbent government under pressure to expedite the trial process. If that comes as any disadvantage to the opposition, then it's on the opposition to think how they failed to understand the pulse of the new generation. On the other hand, this pre-election momentum can be used as a pressure on the government to keep it on its toes and deliver the demands within a reasonable time.
There have been calls from different quarters to make better use of this movement -- some are asking to address more issues; some are trying to shift its focus from war crimes to religious vs. atheist war regardless of the religious affiliation of most activists; some are questioning the non-aggressive festive nature of the movement and calling for stronger actions; while others are complaining about the violent nature of its slogans and asking for more rigorous and politically correct slogans.
Yes, Shahbagh could be about a thousand more things and the slogans could be more politically correct. When I see the history of complex politics of complicated civil society that failed to touch the hearts of common people, I feel proud to witness such an uprising!
Syeed Ahamed is a blogger at Sachalayatan.com.
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