By Rupak Bhattacharjee
The trial of suspected war criminals has been a central theme of public discourse in Bangladesh since the Awami League (AL) government initiated the process in 2010.
The party led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina endorsed the long-standing popular demand of trying the alleged war criminals and collaborators of the Pakistani forces during the election campaign in 2008.
However, the convictions of several top Islamist leaders sparked violent reactions from the youth activists of Jamaat-e-Islami, and the seemingly irreconcilable antagonism between the orthodox religious groups and secular-nationalists revisited Bangladesh. The trial has in fact sharpened the dichotomy.
No other tribunal judgment has created so much furore in the country as the case of Abdul Quader Mollah. He was the second senior leader of the fundamentalist Jamaat convicted for committing crimes against humanity during the 1971 war. Mollah was found guilty of five out of six charges brought against him. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)-2 sentenced him to life imprisonment on Feb 5, 2013. According to the prosecution, Mollah beheaded a woman poet, brutally murdered a student, ordered the killing 11 members of a family and collaborated with the marauding Pakistani forces in the slaughtering of 344 unarmed civilians.
Mollah earned the nickname “Butcher of Mirpur” for the brutalities he displayed during the country’s Liberation War. The prosecutors said Mollah had slit the throat of a woman poet named Meherunnesa for sympathising with the cause of independence. A number of prosecution witnesses who testified against Mollah mentioned that he had started attacking the supporters of independence even before the Pakistan Army launched an offensive against the Bengalis on March 25, 1971. He led the killing squad Al-Badr which had unleashed a reign of terror in the Dhaka suburb of Mirpur. In 1971, Mirpur area was inhabited by thousands of “Biharis” and Mollah organised many of them into Islamic militia groups under his own command.
Mollah was a Dhaka University student leader of Islami Chhatra Sangha (ICS) and Al-Badr — an Islamic militant outfit specially trained by the Pakistan Army to eliminate the freedom fighters and Bengali intellectuals. Mollah joined the ICS when he was a college student in Faridpur. Subsequently, he became a member of the student body’s central executive committee.
Mollah was arrested on July 13, 2010 and the prosecutors filed formal charges against him on Dec 18, 2011. The tribunal indicted him on May 28, 2012 for six war crimes charges, including mass murder, murder, rape, arson and looting.
Immediately after the announcement of ICT-2 verdict, thousands of youths gathered at Shahbag and opposed the ruling terming it “too lenient”. The Gano Jagoron Mancha (National Awakening Stage), which organised the movement, had been vociferously demanding death penalty for all war criminals. The AL government conceded the Shahbag activists’ demand and appealed to the Supreme Court seeking death penalty for the 65-year old assistant general secretary of Jamaat.
On Sep 17, 2013, a five-member panel of the Appellate Division headed by Chief Justice M. Mozammel Hossain revised the tribunal verdict and awarded Mollah capital punishment. He was executed on Dec 12 last year. Mollah was the first war criminal to be hanged. The Jamaat dubbed the execution as a “political murder” and vowed to take revenge while the Shahbag activists celebrated it as victory of their movement.
The gathering at Shahbag — renamed as Projonmo Square, was the biggest mass mobilisation Bangladesh witnessed since the anti-Ershad movement of 1990. Local reports suggest that nearly 60,000 internet activists consisting of students and young professionals hailing from urban middle class background had been mobilised against war criminals and Islamic fundamentalism.
Thanks to the Shahbag movement, the issue of religious extremism emerged as the focal point of public debate and discussion that was unthinkable in the recent past. The protesters’ demands included banning of Jamaat as a political party and to do away with religious fundamentalism. The Shahbag campaigners also urged the countrymen to boycott all commercial, industrial, financial and charitable organisations associated with Jamaat.
One of the primary objectives of the campaign was to generate mass awareness about the impending danger the Bangladesh polity was confronting — resurgence of Islamic militancy. The civil society of the country is seriously concerned over the future of Bangladesh’s secular fabric.
Young Bangladeshis were strongly motivated by Bengali nationalism — a rare sight to watch against the backdrop of post-1975 socio-political developments. Following the violent political changeover of 1975, the new ruling elite — civil-military bureaucracy, had presided over large-scale Islamisation process in the country. The secular provisions of the Constitution were deleted and history text books revised several times to modify drastically the nature of the polity that the first nationalist regime of Sheikh Mujib tried to erect in the initial years.
Bangladesh’s post-1971 generation had been groomed in such a socio-political milieu. It is heartening to see that they have embraced the principal ideals of the independence struggle. The 1971 war was fought against the dogmatic religious leaders and their followers who violently resisted the formation of a Bengali nation.
The Sheikh Hasina government accepted some of the demands raised at Shahbag. On Sep 17, 2013, Bangladesh’s Jatiya Sangsad passed an amendment allowing the tribunal to punish any organisation whose members committed crimes against humanity in 1971. The amendment also gave prosecutors the right to appeal any of the tribunal’s verdicts. A bill was placed in the parliament on Sep 16, 2013, to bar those convicted under the Collaborator Order-1972 and International Crimes (Tribunal) Act of 1973, from becoming voters.
The mass upsurge at Shahbag has to an extent succeeded in making inroads into the polity in terms of pushing the war crimes trial issue which had taken a backseat because of the bitter power struggle between the two contending political formations. A vast majority of Bangladeshi youth blamed the mainstream political parties, including AL, for playing “deceptive politics” over the question of trying people involved in one of the worst human rights abuses. The protest at Shahbag was a sudden outburst of accumulated grievances and growing frustration of the youth towards the ruling elites’ repeated failure to bring the war criminals to justice.
The debate of Bengali versus Bangladeshi nationalism has been there in the polity since the late 1970s. The first military ruler Ziaur Rahman floated the idea of “Bangladeshi nationalism” that attaches more importance to the territorial aspect and distinct religious background, whereas the Shahbag activists have tried to uphold the linguistic identity of the people. This dichotomy of identity is a sensitive issue in Bangladesh. The campaigners at Shahbag have made an intervention which is of historical significance.
(Rupak Bhattacharjee has worked as Senior Research Fellow at Kolkata’s Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies and New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management. He can be contacted at [email protected])