In case it slipped our mind, it is the month of February, and there is resolute chanting of streams of young Bangladeshis in Shahbagh. Around the corner, the thunderous voice of a by-gone time still vibrates in the ethers of the Suhrawardy Uddyan to be heard again, and the mighty wavelets from the long-ago unfurling of a Red-Green-Yellow (RGY) flag still ripple in the corridors of a historic campus to palpitate a beleaguered nation, lost for a direction, mired in contradictions and confusions. It was then a war of liberation from the oppressive intruders; it is now a jihad of emancipation from dilapidated politics and governance.
Back in 1971, the nation had a crystal clear purpose etched in blood dating back to 1952, namely, sanctity of life and liberty (in all senses of the term, linguistic, cultural, political, economic, religious, etc.) for the 75 million people and their future generations. It was to be a country with unfettered freedom of expression, exalted human rights, thriving representative democracy, symphonious communal discourse and equitable economic opportunities for all. It was to be the Shonar Bangla, the melodious abode on earth, all Bangalis will be proud to claim as their domicile and/or emotional home. It was this dream home that the RGY flag of 1971 embodied, the freedom fighters made the ultimate sacrifice for, and the untold millions saluted with "Joy Bangla" greeting the hail of bullets, the blade of bayonet, the pain of diabolic mutilation, the agony of uncouth violation and the darkness of captivity. Alas, over the next 40 plus years, the red of the RGY flag became littered with the blood of the country's once cherished leaders, decorated war heroes and countless ordinary citizens, caught in vicious wrangles of governance power, escalating turf wars, and ever increasing crime and violence against ordinary citizens across the land, despicably including children, women and minority members. Even the shine of the miraculous economic achievements failed to claim the glow of the dream home, the boisterous land full of life and liberty blooming in all their dimensions was never to be. While the RGY flag was changed to the current Red and Green only flag in 1972 for purely pragmatic reason (the map of the country in yellow was not easy to copy truthfully), the departed glow of the life and liberty of 1972 would never return over the next 40 years.
Compared to 1971/72, the country is richer, more literate and healthier, more connected internally and to the external world, amenities abound, basic physical needs are no more an issue, and yes, the Bangladesh Tigers have become a world class cricket team. Why is the country then in a worse state than in 1971/72 in most other dimensions? Unlike the experience of our neighbor and ancestor India, and other Asian and western democratic states, why the rising physical standards in Bangladesh are not accompanied by improving human rights and freedom of expression, lesser violence (political and general) and more pervasive rule of law, unbiased, expedient and efficient delivery of justice for all, maturity in political and parliamentary discourse, non-corrupt, accountable and transparent governance for all of citizenship (not just for party followers), and marginalization of ultra-extremist (religious, socio-economic) political forces? While myriads of explanations may and do exist, the single most consequential reason is moral bankruptcy of the major political parties. It is this slippery slope that led to the total loss of trust and confidence of the mass in the words and actions of the parties, in position or in opposition.
People are gathering en masse at the Shahbagh Moar believing that the Quader Mollah verdict is unjust. Given that the war crime activities of the indicted war criminals were so widely known (like common knowledge), there are three probable reasons for the verdict to be unjust: (a) failure of the government prosecution to provide sufficiently convincing evidence, (b) pitfalls in the special amendment under which the crimes are being prosecuted, and (c) the trials (amendment and prosecution) and the verdicts are rigged/manipulated. Note that in any case, the unjust verdict reflects the failure of the ruling regime to deliver long-awaited justice for the victims of 1971. If the reasons are (a) and/or (b), the injustice might be unintended, although it still borders an incredulous scenario of government inefficiency. The reason (c), on the other hand, means that the efforts of the government are less than genuine in obtaining befitting punishment for the heinous crimes. The fact that this is happening under the watch of the historic party that led the Liberation War is rather troubling, justice denied now will perhaps never be served again, and this is what finally enraged the ordinary citizens enough to congregate at the Shahbag Moar.
To understand the culminating outrage, it is worthwhile to cite a few instances that represent years of contradictions, confusions, deceptions and betrayals by the major political parties. The historic party that led the Liberation War once formed political alliance with many of the same collaborators that it is now prosecuting. The party that was established by a legendary freedom fighter is now allied with the same very organizations whose political aspirations could not be farther from the ideals of the Liberation War. Time and again, the parties promised to make judiciary independent of the executive branch of the government, but have consistently reneged once in power. Worse, law enforcement and judiciary have been used by whichever party is in power as an extended arm of the party itself, vigorously harassing and punishing the opposition and non-political critiques including the media and the civil society. Repeatedly, the leading parties have supported the transitional caretaker Government system for conducting elections, but only to vehemently oppose the same system when in power.
With the leading parties in power alternatively, Bangladesh has become a country that proudly proclaims to be secular and to disavow extreme religious fundamentalism, but continues to retain the majority religion as the official religion in the constitution, and continues to rely on huge amounts of grant, finance (to oil its economic machine) and wage remittance from some of the most fundamentalist countries on earth. It has become a country that risks dismantling vital economic relationship with long-term development partners on the basis of a differential interpretation of what constitutes a graft crime, that cannot build a $3 billion vital infrastructure (Padma Bridge) but signs a $1 billion arms deal and a $2 billion nuclear plant deal with a country with the most disastrous nuclear incident. Bangladesh has become a country that tries to displace its only Nobel laureate from a Nobel winning institution using little used rules, that continues to allow the creation of more private banks, and yet it connives for more government control of the most acclaimed banking institution when governance failures at its large nationalized banks have permitted massive banking frauds.
Under the leadership of the leading political parties, Bangladesh has become a country where convicted murderers are pardoned and convicted criminals are escorted from jail. At the same time, the murderers of ordinary citizens like Sagar-Runi, and countless others remain untraced long after the brutal crimes, many citizens disappear without a trace, many innocent girls are raped without severe penalty for the perpetrators, and minority victims like those in Ramu keep waiting for the real culprits to be indicted. Bangladesh is a country where violent political activists roam the streets with impunity and even when there is decisive evidence, as in the case of Biswajit murder, the authorities routinely dare to deflect party association and responsibility that unpardonably slows down the wheels of justice for the hapless families of the non-descript victims. Last, but not the least, it is paradoxical of the highest order that the War Crimes Tribunal has handed out capital punishment to a defendant, Abul Kalam Azad, who is absent (it is unfathomable how this defendant escaped from Bangladesh to Pakistan, reportedly) and life sentence to a defendant, Quader Mollah, who is in custody.
In summary, the people of Bangladesh have every reason to be skeptical about anything their ruling and opposition parties say or do. In pursuit of petty political expediency and convenience, the leading political parties and their alliance partners have lost their credibility all together to speak on behalf of the people. Unlike 1971/72, the interests and aspirations of the political parties have drifted fatally apart from those of the people. The instruments of blame game, threats of unspecified conspiracies, and the mechanics of rotating governance through contradiction, confusion and deception, all of it needs to end, and could be nearing the end if the Shahbagh Protest is not hijacked by the political machineries like all the other times before. The protests cannot, however, afford to veer off or be politicized into the agenda of the political parties that wish to eliminate legitimate freedom of expression and political association for citizens who believe in an active role of religion in state governance. Not only that is unconstitutional, it also defeats the 1971 ideals of the promised land of liberty, in all senses of the term, for all Bangladeshis. The widely shared and cherished end of keeping away religion based governance from the seats of power must not be achieved by the fascist means of banning religion-based political organizations. After all, if these parties are to be banned because of the violence committed by their activists, then by the same argument, the major parties and their student organizations should have been banned a long time ago. For the Shahbagh Moar cause to remain viable as the cause of justice for the victims of 1971, it is imperative that the foundation and the greater cause remain the ideals of the Liberation War.
To conclude, the Shahbagh Rise of February, 2013, 'The 2/13' is easy to be interpreted as a spontaneous emotional protest against a single verdict and/or a single group (the religious right). But deep down, it is the struggle of an effectively disenfranchised people to regain its long-lost franchise and to reclaim the spirit of the RGY flag and eventually the promised land of 1971. At least, that is the earnest hope of this author and perhaps many others.
Mo Chaudhury is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.