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 inLibya 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 inPakistan, 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 Squarebefore 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 toBengal); “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 3,00,000 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 ofBangladesh 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.
In three days, the numbers increased multifold. The small community of bloggers was now joined by students from various universities around the city. “School kids started coming after their classes. College-goers were coming in the evening,” says Rosul, one of the bloggers. Soon, youth organisations with various political affiliations started attending the day and night sit-down protest, which had now moved on to Shahbag Square from the pavements outside the National Museum
On the afternoon of 8 February, the protesters organised their first big rally at Shahbag, announcing their demands: Kader Mollah could not be let off; all war criminals needed to be tried, and the guilty needed to be hanged; the Jamaat could not be allowed to practice its toxic politics and must be banned. The demands were extreme and bans are not necessarily democratic. Nevertheless, this was a throng of Muslims undertaking an activism without an Islamist underpinning or script and, in fact, in open hostility to Islamists in the Jamaat. It was a milestone moment.
Suddenly, the Facebook generation, hitherto accused of being disinterested in its country’s future, had taken control of the country’s destiny. “We always thought that the current generation knows nothing about the struggle of their parents and grandparents,” says Arefin Siddique, vice-chancellor of Dhaka University. “But they proved us wrong.” Ziauddin Ahmed, former energy minister and member of the Jatiya Party, an ally of the Awami League, points out that youth have been at the forefront at major points in Bangladesh’s history: “Right from the Language Movement to protests against the autocratic Pakistan government to protests post-independence…”
Though the current generation might not have experienced the liberation war, they have seen the violence in the BNP-Jamaat government years, says Abul Barkat, president of the Bangladesh Economic Association and chairman of the Janata Bank. “All of a sudden, there were militant Islamic groups coming up around the country.”
The game changer, one way or the other, is Bangladesh’s demographic profile and its youth bulge. Imran H Sarkar, the convener of the Shahbag movement, explains that in the 2008 parliamentary election, when the Awami League won a two-thirds majority, there were around 80 million voters. Of these, 35 million were below the age of 35. In the next election, due by January 2014, there will be a further increase in the youth vote. “We could reach a situation,” says Sarkar, “where 55-60 percent of the electorate will be below the age of 40. So all political parties have to take our demands seriously.”
The fact that the government is taking the Shahbag protesters seriously is obvious since Parliament has decided to call for a review of Mollah’s life sentence and also recast the mechanism to try Jamaat members for war crimes. “The youth at Shahbag and we are on the same side,” says AFM Bahauddin Nasim, organisational secretary of the Awami League. “There have always been two streams in Bangladesh politics — one pro-liberation war and the other opposed to it.”
The comment is telling. Whatever its initial motivations, the Shahbag movement is unerringly being sucked into party politics. The first assault came on 15 February when one of the bloggers, Ahmed Rajib Haidar, was killed. A blog containing abusive language about Islam and Prophet Mohammed was said to be the reason for his killing. It was later discovered that the blog was created on the day of his killing and was obviously fake. Some believe it was part of the Jamaat’s dirty tricks
Apprehensions of a massive retaliation and counter- mobilisation by the Jamaat are never far away. Added to this is the fact that there are limits to how far Bangladeshi society can accept the radicalism of youth. FH Khan, a professor at Dhaka University, argues Bangladeshis not ready for secularism at the moment. “Secularism as a term will be too much to digest at the moment. So let’s stick to religious tolerance,” he says. Imran H Sarkar too feels talking about secularism will dilute the movement: “Yes, the original Bangladesh Constitution of 1972 has secularism as one of the four pillars, but this fight is about war criminals of 1971, not 1972. We are clear on what we want.”
Khaleda Zia’s BNP wanted the Shahbag movement to take up various other demands, including a caretaker government before the next election, and began by sending feelers to the young protesters. On being rebuffed, Khaleda swung back to the Jamaat. Does this make the Awami League the natural beneficiary of the Shahbag movement? “Yes, they might benefit if they accept our demand,” admits Rosul. “It is we the youth who voted them to power.”
The natural affinity of many of the protesters for the Awami League is not lost on the BNP. “A happy, prosperous and democratic Bangladesh can’t be built only by seeking execution and slaughter,” protests Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, acting secretary general of the BNP. Mahbubur Rahman, former army chief and now a BNP functionary, is more cautious: “We have welcomed Shahbag. But my personal view is Shahbag should stay apolitical.”
There is another perception that this is not a battle for secularism or pluralism or history at all, but just a calculated attempt by the government and the Awami League to finish off the Jamaat. The government is playing cleric against cleric to target the Jamaat. It is even sending out text messages warning against violence and attempts to provoke people by, for instance, burning the Quran. The Jamaat hit back by calling for a strike and earlier, on 22 February, the day after the Shahbag protests died down, had come out on the streets with an unusual ferocity.
The images from the national mosque in Dhaka — Baital Makarram — horrified the country. Young men, of the same age as those who had gathered at Shahbag, but of a different persuasion, threw stones at the police and mercilessly beat up journalists.
Hasan Jahid Tusher, a senior reporter with The Daily Star, was present at the spot. “Clearly, they basically wanted the police to move inside the mosque to catch the stone throwers and this would help Jamaat to create an anti-government atmosphere,” he says. But the police didn’t move in.
Nevertheless, various parts of Dhaka turned into a battlefield with stone pelting and lathicharges and teargas shelling. In Chittagong, Sylhet and Rajshahi, police stations were attacked and Bangladesh flags burnt. In just a few hours, four people had died and hundreds were injured.
Just when we thought we had seen it all, without any fanfare or announcement, young men and women started refilling Shahbag Square or Projonnon Chottor (New Generation Roundabout). Facebook updates, SMSes, tweets were up on what the Jamaat had done that day. Shahbag Square was once again occupied. “This is entirely a new kind of politics,” says FH Khan. “The youth of Bangladesh have realised that their future is at stake. So they are doing it for their own sake.” If they succeed, they would have given Muslims across the subcontinent a new message. If…by