People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 08

February 24, 2013




Spring Thunder Sounds Loud from Shahbagh Square


Nilotpal Basu


SOMETHING unprecedented is happening in Bangladesh. A mass movement, truly of gigantic magnitude, is sweeping across the country. The nerve centre of the movement is the Shahbagh Square in the middle of Dhaka. As if to underline the largely youthful participation, the square has been rechristened as the Generation Square. And observers already have started likening it to the now famous Al Tehrir square in Cairo which symbolised the Egyptian struggle for democracy to dislodge the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Al Tehrir or not, the Generation Square has come to denote the ushering in of the Bangladesh ‘spring.’


But there is a crucial difference from the Arab Spring. Unlike the Egyptian experience where Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood played a prominent role, the Shahbagh Square is resounding with war cries against the Razakars who later on regrouped themselves, largely to form the core of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh. So the Islamists are the main target of the agitationists. And, unlike Al Tehrir, the movement is supported by the Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government. However, it must also be pointed out that it is truly a people’s movement and by no means sponsored by the state. 




Why this eruption for punishing those who had committed crimes against the people, in a way against humanity, during the liberation struggle in 1971? It is more than four decades after such outrageous crimes were committed. 


The legendary American folk singer Joan Baez sang in solidarity with the Bangladesh liberation struggle. Her lyrics ran:

Bangladesh, Bangladesh, Bangladesh, Bangladesh

When the sun sinks in the west

Die a million people of the Bangladesh

The story of Bangladesh

Is an ancient one again made fresh

By blind men who carry out commands

Which flow out of the laws upon which nation stands

Which is to sacrifice a people for a land.”


And it went on:


“Once again we stand aside

And watch the families crucified

See a teenage mother's vacant eyes

As she watches her feeble baby try

To fight the monsoon rains and the cholera flies

And the students at the university

Asleep at night quite peacefully

The soldiers came and shot them in their beds

And terror took the dorm awakening shrieks of dread

And silent frozen forms and pillows drenched in red.”


It is such imageries which remained in layers of embedded memory of a nation of 160 million people. The genesis of the nation building process really started from 1947 itself. The British colonial vivisection of the Indian subcontinent and the recognition of Pakistan as an independent country, accepting the obnoxious notion of religion as the basis of nationhood, was patently flawed and was destined to fail. The Pakistani leadership’s official policy of imposing Urdu on the population of East Pakistan, along other forms of discrimination against its Eastern people, was never going to be acceptable. The two territories of erstwhile Pakistan, separated by 1800 kilometres, could never be tenable. Thus, with the language movement of 1952 when the people revolted and then the killing of students on February 21, the obituary of the post-partition Pakistan began to be scripted. The Bengali language became the rallying point for the genesis of the Bangladeshi nationhood. 


For the next almost two decades the struggle continued against brazen violation of the political and other rights of the Bengali speaking people. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the Awami League to a massive poll victory but it was denied a chance to form the government of East Pakistan, it proved to be the last straw.


In the course of the liberation struggle, about 2.5 million to three million people, as officially recorded, were physically eliminated by the Pakistani military junta in their effort to drown the surge for freedom in blood. About three lakh Bengali speaking women were dishonoured and raped. This inhuman barbarity of the Pakistani military was carried out in collaboration with some who were of Bengali nationality. These very rabidly communal and fundamentalist henchmen of the hated General Tikka Khan, the military head of Pakistan at the time, were called Razakars. They perpetrated most of the atrocities which are now being protested.


These very Razakars, subsequent to the birth of the new nation state, regrouped themselves as the basic core of the Jamaat-e-Islami. This rabidly fundamentalist force further gathered strength from the funding from Saudi Arabia and the larger movement of political Islam. Amid the political instability and the weakening of the democratic process after the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, the Jamaat spread its wings and later teamed up with Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The alliance of BNP and Jamaat assumed office in the 2002 elections, and still continues. In such favourable circumstances, the erstwhile Razakars, in their new garb of Jamaat-e-Islami, prospered and spread tentacles into the world of business and finance. Obviously they have also got strong financial muscles. However, till now, they have gone unpunished for their crimes in the wake of the liberation struggle.




Before the 2008 elections, as a part of its electoral commitments, the Awami League had promised that it would bring the culprits of mass killings and other atrocities to book. In fact, an International Tribunal Act for trying these war criminals was enacted in 1973 itself when Mujibur Rahman was still alive. As a part of the redeeming of its election commitment, the Awami League government constituted an International Crime Tribunal for trying the anti-humanitarian crimes.


The tribunal tried nine of the main criminals charged with such crimes; one of them continues to remain absconding. After the first tribunal, a second tribunal started working on March 22, 2012, with the case of Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar. Within ten months, on January 21, 2013, he was served with a death sentence. This received tremendous appreciation from the people across the nation. In protest, the Jamaat called for a nationwide strike against the tribunal’s verdict.


The tribunal came up with its second verdict on February 5. While finding the Jamaat’s deputy general secretary, Qader Mollah, involved in all the crimes, the tribunal served a life sentence upon him.


It was from that day, February 5, that this movement started. As soon as the tribunal announced a life sentence for Qader Mollah, a few hundred persons gathered at the Shahbagh Square demanding death sentence for him. The Bloggers and Internet activists’ network helped in this mobilisation. Since then, this spark spread like a wildfire and gripped the imagination of Bangladeshis --- not just in Dhaka but throughout the country. For the last 15 days, crowds have been swelling in all major towns and the demand of Qader Mollah’s death has become the war cry --- and a rallying point for the people who are demanding the speedy trial and execution of all Razakars guilty of crime against humanity.


Though the movement started by young people who are active on social networks, this has rapidly transformed into a huge coordinated movement, calling itself the “Platform of Mass Awakening.” The Shahbagh declaration, adopted at the square, has outlined their charter of demands. Among other things, they have demanded that the murderers involved in mass killings in 1971 should be regarded as the initiators and not just associates. They have demanded the publication of lists of culprits and trial of all of them by the tribunal. They have also demanded that the Tribunal Act should be suitably amended to ensure appeal for amending the life sentence to a death sentence. And, most importantly, they have claimed that all financial business run by the war criminals --- and those which have played a role in the expansion and reinforcement of the Jamaat network --- must be identified, blocked and taken over by the government.


These demands are today reverberating across the country and drawing people from all walks of life. The movement has also spread among the Bangladeshi diaspora across the globe – in North America, Europe, Australia and, of course, other parts of the Asian continent.


As a result of the huge mass movement, the government, which is in any case supportive of the demands, has facilitated the passage of an amendment to the International Tribunal Act in parliament on February 17, enabling an appeal for conversion of a life sentence into death penalty.


The movement continues with the Shahbagh Congregation coordinating the nationwide and global activism, claiming that it will not be halted unless other demands are met. Meanwhile, the struggle against killers and their collaborators during the liberation struggle days has also transformed itself into one against the fundamentalist politics of the Jamaat. The Jamaat, which responded to the judicial process by calling for a strike, and the opposition have largely attempted to disrupt the movement by appealing to the religious sentiments of the people. But the Shahbagh movement has appropriately and adequately responded by distinguishing between religion and fanaticism.




The contemporary process of globalisation has witnessed emergence of the divisive dimension of identity politics as its major spin-off. This is quite conspicuous in different parts of the world and more so in West Asia and the Middle East. The emergence of Islamists has been a major feature of contemporary politics. But in spite of its initial pretensions, it is becoming increasingly clear that eventually the Islamists are coming into closer relationship with the imperialists. This trend has been most pronounced in Libya and now Syria. Even in Egypt, there is a greater convergence between the policies pursued by the Muslim Brotherhood led government and the policy of imperialist driven globalisation.


In the context of the current movement in Bangladesh, it will be pertinent to note that the Jamaat activities draw large funding from Saudi Arabia and some other emirates. Their main objective is to undermine the secular tradition and basis of the post-liberation nation state of Bangladesh by the spread of religious fanaticism.


But the current movement has taken this Islamist offensive head on and managed to forge broadbased national unity, drawing from diverse sections and classes.


It is difficult to fully assimilate the amazing depth and sweep of the Shahbagh movement unless it is contextualized in the history of the country. In fact, the Shahbagh movement has emerged as an important sequence of the nation building process in Bangladesh. The process, which started with the language movement of 1952 and blossomed to achieve the liberation in 1971, has now reached its third critical milestone.


From the content of the movement, it is quite clear that it bears the legacy of the earlier milestones. In this phase, it is clearly attempting to divorce the politics and institutions from the Islamist influence which not only conflicts with the secular character of the nation building process but also strongly undermines its democratic aspirations. Therefore, the current movement has been able to articulate the interconnection between Pakistani military intervention and the growth of fanatic politics in the country. As in the earlier phases, language based nationalism is the recurring ideological theme.


Three distinct features characterise the Shahbagh movement. And these underline its contemporary nature.


To start with, its largely youthful character is getting reflected in its vibrancy and resilience. This, again, is related in the second feature --- the major role the social networks have played in galvanising the people. It was, therefore, no mere coincidence that the movement was triggered by the internet activists. This is also resulting in its rapidly widespread character including among the diaspora. Finally, the movement has displayed a fascinating imaginative and creative dimension in articulating and spreading its message. There has been an explosion of poetry, music, posters, messages, paintings, videos, and websites which has, on the one hand, crystallised the positions of the movement on the broad theme and its specific positions on particular issues, and is, on the other, countering the disinformation of the Jamaat camp.


It is because of these special features that the movement, though overwhelmingly middle class in its participation, has managed to draw multi-class support.




Till now the Shahbagh movement appears to be not only sustaining but also gathering further momentum. Striking is the assimilation of the history of nation building into the theme of the movement, which draws upon a rich legacy. The present Awami League government is largely supportive of the movement because its thrust and direction strengthens the League’s political platform. Therefore, the government is not unduly perturbed by the call of the movement to stay clear from any specific political affiliation.


The Left in Bangladesh is fully supporting the movement. In particular, the Left oriented student and youth organisations have been fully participating in the movement.


It will be interesting to watch whither the movement heads from here. Its national, democratic and secular nature is well recognised. But it is equally true that the Islamists too have their international backers who, in turn, have their own relations with imperialism. This combination would be keen to intervene and thwart any logical enrichment of the content and direction of the movement which can adversely affect the neo-liberal direction of policy making currently in vogue in the country.