Shahbag: Religion and Politics in Dhaka’s Public Square

Protestors at Shahbag Square wave the Bangladesh flag, February 6, 2013. Image via Wikicommons. Photo credit: Kabir Hossain

Protestors at Shahbag Square wave the Bangladesh flag, February 6, 2013. Image via Wikicommons. Photo credit: Kabir Hossain

In the first of a series of posts on religion and politics in Bangladesh, Nayma Qayum looks at the emergence of a new religious politics following the sentencing of leading politicians in the country’s International War Crimes Tribunal.

By Nayma Qayum

On 17th September 2013, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court sentenced to death Abdul Quader Mollah, leader of the Jama’at-e-Islami (JI), Bangladesh’s leading Islamic party.  The Supreme Court found Mollah guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war, when the region sought secession from West Pakistan. Earlier this year, a special International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) had found Mollah guilty of five out of six alleged war crimes and handed him a life sentence. However, a national backlash to this verdict prompted the Bangladeshi government to amend ICT laws and permit a retrial. The Supreme Court found Mollah guilty of the additional charge and sentenced him to death.

The trials have left Bangladeshis with a new problem. They have permitted a new grassroots religious force to emerge and challenge the country’s prospects as a secular democracy. Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country and Jama’at-e-Islami has a massive following, especially in the rural areas. The ruling Awami League has created new divisions with the trials targeting leaders who belong to the Jama’at and its ally, the leading opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

In early February, the ICT’s verdict prompted a mass people’s movement in the capital of Dhaka. The protest is now referred to as Shahbag, after its central location at Dhaka’s Shahbag Chottor (Shahbag Square). On 6th February, the Bangladesh Online Activists and Bloggers Network instigated this massive protest that initially drew ordinary citizens, activists across political parties, and nonpartisan groups, including activist non-government organizations (NGOs). As the movement grew, protestors demanded the death penalty for all war criminals. Their posters, slogans, and banners said, “rajakarder fashi chai” (we demand the hanging of war criminals). Their calls for the death penalty echoed citizens’ frustrations with a 42-year old struggle for justice and an ineffective legal system, where criminals often go free following changes in government.

Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah following his conviction for war crimes. February 5, 2013. Image via Reuters/Stringer/Files.

Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah following his conviction for war crimes. February 5, 2013. Image via Reuters/Stringer/Files.

But earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement claiming that the trials had violated international standards as outlined in the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR). Although HRW has long sought trials for the 1971 war crimes, they also advocated for due process. On 17th February, when Shahbag was at its peak, the government amended the ICT law which allowed the prosecution to appeal the tribunal’s verdict, even in instances when the sentence did not involve acquittal. The legislation permitted the Supreme Court to overturn the ICT’s verdict and retry Mollah’s case. HRW argued that retrial based on a retroactive legislative amendment violated international fair trial standards.

The trials have also added a religious dimension to the existing division in Bangladeshi politics; they have intensified existing tensions between the ruling Awami League (AL) and the opposition JI -BNP alliance. Since 1991, Bangladesh has implemented a two-party political system in what is theoretically an electoral democracy. However, both ruling parties have practiced oppressive politics; they have repressed the opposition, allowed extrajudicial killings, amended laws at will, and engaged in electoral violence. Parliamentary walkouts are common, as are opposition-held protests in the form of hartals – strikes or nationwide shutdown of all commercial activity.

Since early 2013, the trials have led to numerous episodes of violence. Even before the ICT had delivered its verdict for Mollah, JI activists had gone on a nationwide rampage along with its student wing Shibir. One news outlet reported JI’s acting secretary as saying “Don’t push the country into a civil war by delivering one-sided verdicts against our leaders. If anything happens against Kader Mollah, every house will be on fire.” As the Shahbag movement spread across the country, the ruling AL expressed its support as the opposition stood by their ally Jama’at. Initially standing alongside Shahbag, the AL has since condemned the movement. The opposition BNP has also claimed to support the war crimes cause as long as trials were fair and the government did not use them as a tool to target the opposition.

Both groups called a series of strikes and counter strikes; in many instances, JI-instigated violence targeted Shahbag supporters. On 15th February, blogger and Shahbag activist Rajib Haider was found dead, strengthening the movement’s momentum of the Shahbag movement. In early March, police recovered the body of the 17 year-old son of a man who led the Shahbag movement in Narayanganj, a small town on Dhaka’s outskirts.

Shahbag square, Dhaka, during mass protests earlier this year. Image via Washington University Political Review. Photo credit: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo.

Shahbag square, Dhaka, during mass protests earlier this year. Image via Washington University Political Review. Photo credit: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo.

On 21st February, a group within the Shahbag movement came up with a six-point list of demands which included arrest of Rajib’s killers, and the banning of extremist organizations and affiliated organizations. In the meantime, the broader movement was developing its own cracks and fissures. Many Bangladeshis remained conflicted over the issue of the death penalty; some voices in the social media amended their call to reflect maximum penalty for war crimes instead of the death penalty.

But it not enough to appease the opposition. An Islamic group calling themselves Hefazat-e-Islam marched through Dhaka city in what one news outlet called the biggest-ever showdown by any Islamist group in recent times. The Dhaka Tribune reported that hundreds of Hefazat supporters entered and vandalized the city. In the middle of the night on 5th May, police forces stormed the streets of Dhaka city’s Motijheel area to contain the Hefazat. Sources remain conflicted over the events of that night. Hefazat supporters and their allies claim that government forces killed thousands of their people and disposed of the bodies.  In the following days, a number of videos circulated within the social media showed bodies strewn across floors; however, the authenticity of these videos cannot be verified. The true number of Hefazat supporters killed that evening may never be known. Over the coming months, clashes continued between Jama’at-Shibir-Hefazat supporters on the one hand, and government and ruling party forces on the other.

Eyewitness reports suggest that the Hefazat activists were mostly children and young adults. The march had one single call – “Nastik blogger der fashi chai” – death penalty for atheist bloggers, reminiscent of the death penalty demands of Shahbag activists. The Hefazat launched a 13-point set of demands, which included punishment for allegedly ‘atheist’ Shahbagers and the banning of secular traditions. A new dichotomy emerged in Bangladesh’s urban politics as the JI started to address Shahbag’s leaders as “anti-Islam”, and supporters of the Shahbag movement increasingly calling the JI-BNP alliance and its supporters “anti-liberation”. Dialogues in the media and blogosphere suggested that the average Bangladeshi citizen, too, felt compelled to take a side.

This dichotomy is deeply rooted in the history of Bangladesh’s liberation war. Bangladesh became independent in 1971, following a brutal and bloody war of secession from East Pakistan. When the Indian subcontinent won independence from British rule in 1947, the founding fathers split the region into two countries – India and Pakistan. Contemporary Bangladesh, then the province of East Bengal, was bordered by India on three sides and the Bay of Bengal in the South. However, despite lying adjacent to India, the province was partitioned with Pakistan as based on the common Islamic identity of the two regions. From 1947 to 1971, East Bengal became East Pakistan. During the-24-year existence of unified Pakistan, the central government in West Pakistan drained the east of resources. The state directed all development efforts – investments, foreign aid, and profits from the east’s flourishing industries – to West Pakistan.

In 1971, East Pakistan’s struggle against the west culminated in a violent, 9-month war of secession. JI leaders historically opposed this war citing the common religious identity that bound the two Pakistans. During the war, the Pakistani Army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale, along with the paramilitary units Al-Badr and Al-Shams and collaborators from the Bengali side. Although there is some contention regarding numbers, estimates of loss of life range from 200,000 to 1.5 million; an estimated 200,000 women were subject to rape and sexual abuse.

Following independence, domestic politics took precedence over the war crimes issue. In 1972, the constitution of Bangladesh established a country based upon the foundations of secularism, socialism, and democracy.  In 1973, Bangladesh elected an AL government with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Prime Minister. The very same year, Sheikh Mujib banned all religious politics. Earlier in 1972, the government had passed a law to try all collaborators in a tribunal and took 30,000 people into custody. In 1973, the domestic International War Crimes Tribunal Act 1973 demanded the trial of both Bangladeshis, and members of the Pakistani Army who “participated in, helped commit, or incited to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1971.” The same year, the government revoked the citizenship of known war criminal and JI leader Gholam Azam, along with 38 others. The exiled leaders sought refuge in Pakistan.

However, in November 1973, the AL government declared amnesty for the arrested, with the exception of collaborators who had already been charged with a crime. The amnesty came in the aftermath of the Simla Pact between India and Pakistan, released arrested Pakistanis in an exchange for Indian and Bangladesh Prisoners of War in Pakistan. In 1975, a violent military coup resulted in the assassination of Sheikh Mujib and many members of his family. General Ziaur Rahman became President of Bangladesh in 1977 and established his own political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the leading opposition party.

In 1977, President Ziaur Rahman amended Bangladesh’s constitution to remove secularism as a state principle. The move reflected a larger effort to seek a leadership position for Bangladesh in the Islamic world. By 1979, the JI had re-emerged as a political party. Bangladesh’s military regime gradually civilianized throughout the 1980s under President H.M. Ershad; the JI participated in all subsequent elections as a political party. In 1990, the JI joined a massive coalition of over 25 parties, including the BNP and AL, to overthrow the military regime of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad and install parliamentary democracy.  Since then, the JI has allied with both leading parties and enjoyed a steady following among the population.

Almost two decades later, AL leader Sheikh Hasina promised to bring back the trials as part of her election manifesto. At the same time, the JI amended its constitution to remove anti-liberation sentiments. In an effort to win elections, the party revamped its manifesto to simultaneously uphold the values of liberation, Islam, and democracy.  The JI’s alliances with both parties at different times and adoption of a seemingly progressive and pro-liberation agenda signal the party’s emergence as a key political force.

The trials have left Bangladeshis with mixed feelings. They now face a major dilemma regarding the kind of justice that they seek. The trials have been inundated with irregularities even before Mollah’s retrial fiasco. Witnesses have disappeared before they were due to appear in court. The opposition has claimed that the trials targeted leaders of their coalition partner JI, but not other alleged war criminals who were allied with the ruling party. And yet, the wounds from the war – having occurred less than a generation ago – are still fresh and deep enough that for many, the outcome matters more than the process. The Economist blog reports findings from an opinion poll by AC Nielsen in April 2013, where nearly two thirds of respondents found the trials to be unfair or very unfair, but 86% wanted them to proceed regardless. Bangladeshis have watched as these alleged war criminals have escaped justice and held leadership positions in the government. The trials offer some closure for their wounds.

These events have also provided an opportunity for new political forces that seek a role for religion in politics. They may very well have provided an opening for the kind of religious politics that Bangladesh’s secular political system is unprepared for. In a country where major parties win elections based not on programmatic differences but on past histories and legacies, the JI-Shibir-BNP camp could win over rural, impoverished Bangladeshis with their new programmatic platform.

Nayma Qayum is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and served as Adjunct Faculty at City College, CUNY, and Rutgers University.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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