Beyond partisan politics: Bangladesh protests for justice

Published : 9 Feb 2013, 01:39 PM
Updated : 9 Feb 2013, 01:39 PM

Shahbagh Square (Shahbag er Moar) in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, transformed into a tangible human ocean this week as ordinary Bangladeshis joined in solidarity to demand the death penalty for the leader of the country's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, well-known war-criminal, Abdul Quader Mollah.

His sentencing earlier in the week to life in prison triggered Bangladeshis to put aside their political differences, and unite as countrymen and women against Mollah who was convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for a series of killings during the country's 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan.

A comment posted on the Washington Post captures the non-partisan spirit and frustration of an entire nation:

We are not any political party. We do not represent anyone except of Bangladesh! It has been more than 40 years we are waiting for this verdict. We are protesting because if we can't punish murderers like "Kader Molla" who has direct charges of killing nearly 400 people, the sacrifice of 3 million martyrs won't worth [sic]. It's not a political issue. It's an issue of every single person of Bangladesh who loves this country…We are not politicians. We are the students, fathers-mothers, and generation of "freedom fighters"! We want justice.

A fellow Bangladeshi journalist and friend in Dhaka further articulates the power of these protests, but warns against the country's War Crimes Tribunals being used for political theatre and retaliation:

…For me, the demons these trials will slay in terms of Bangladesh's own history are far greater than the few they may spawn. Nonetheless, I admit that I'm plagued by fears that the war crimes trials could become yet another source of cheap political polarization in Bangladesh. At Shahbagh though, I saw the opposite. It was ordinary citizens on the streets voicing their demands for justice, and the movement transcended the pedestrian, party-political, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) versus Awami League framework. It was exhilarating to be a part of that consciousness.

Protests continued into the fourth day, gaining strength by the hour.  Although initially started by the Bloggers and Online Activist Network, it quickly became a "people's movement," as ordinary citizens took to the streets.

Trying to gage the emotion, and somehow partake in what is clearly a historic moment in Dhaka as a Bangladeshi abroad is both frustrating and exhilarating. Your friend's Twitter and Facebook feeds keep you updated, yet angers you simultaneously for not being in your country right now. Perhaps like me, you too feel like you are missing out.

Whatever your sentiments, one thing we must not be is dismissive or apathetic about what is happening in Bangladesh right now. When was the last time you saw all Bangladeshis come together for the same cause? I do not think in my lifetime I have ever witnessed people spill onto the streets for anything not somehow related to Awami League or BNP-led michils or hartals. I do not think I have ever seen an on-going protest of this magnitude in Bangladesh ever that was not partisan.

The involvement not only of online activists and bloggers, but of the Bangladeshi youth also speaks volumes, and gives these protests credibility while dispelling myths about the younger generation not having interest in the country's future.

Cynics who laugh off what is happening in Shahbagh as a "wannabe Tahrir Square," cannot ignore the masses. The sheer number of people that have come out cannot be dismissed. When people come in droves like this, you have to listen to what they are saying. You do not have to agree, but you have to hear them. You just cannot ignore the numbers, or the echoing spirit of 1971, as Mili Rahman, widow of Birshrestha Matiur Rahman, told the crowds:

This is another 1971. Today we are united in voicing our single demand. We freed the country in 1971 and today you will free it once again from Razakars…. None can hold us back.

As protests show no signs of dying down anytime soon, let us join together, Bangladeshis in Shabagh and all over the word, to make sure that after waiting for four decades, justice is finally delivered, and the memory of our martyrs is honoured.

Anushay Hossain is a Bangladeshi journalist and policy analyst based in Washington, DC.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher