What could we call the strange sequence of events that happened in Shahbag in the tumultuous days of February in 2013? A popular protest demanding the death penalty for the war criminals in Bangladesh! Does it sufficiently denote the sense arising from the occasion? Perhaps not! Can we then call it a mass movement mobilized by the younger generation to rectify the situation created by the International Crimes Tribunal's announcement of a guilty verdict and a comparatively light sentence meted out to Quader Mollah, one of the convicts of crimes against humanity in Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971? Maybe not!
What we call popular protest or mass movement often involves some degree of violence and is motivated to overthrow the government. But the Shahbag protest was completely free of the frenzy of violence as is usually noticeable in similar cases. How could we then define this unique storm of protest in Bangladesh staged by the youth of the present generation? Words fail me while I go to assess the magnitude of such an unprecedented event. But what's in a name? The popular protest in Shahbag sure went down in the annals of Bangladesh history. People of Bangladesh were witness to similar events not many times-they saw it once in 1969 mass uprising in the streets of Dhaka, and thence on March 7, 1971 in Racecourse Maidan when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered his historic speech, and then in the anti-autocracy movement of 1990. In the recent times, the Tahrir Square (Egypt) rally can bear a resemblance to this Shahbag event. But Tahrir rally was an uprising against the government and involved the element of violence which Shahbag protest was free of. As a matter of fact, the Shahbag event was completely a unique kind of mass gathering. It was a non-violent resistance rally launched by the youth of today, and attended by people of all ages and sections against the common enemies of the independence of Bangladesh.
On 7 February 2013, Shahbag had become a melting pot of the Bengali folk. Every inch of the Projonmo Chattar (Generation Square) was thronging with people from all walks of life carrying placards and banners demanding that Quader Mollah and other war criminals be hanged. The most striking feature of the demonstration was that it had turned into a great occasion of festivity. Though an agitation, it stayed cool, calm and collected. Day in day out, no matter what the weather was like; the demonstrators were tirelessly waving banners, chanting snappy slogans and rocking backwards and forwards to the rhythm almost round-the-clock. The streets were filled to overflowing with the crowds ranging from nonagenarian old folk to newborn babies. At night the crowd assumed an uncanny look in the flicker of the flaming torch which spoke of a firm conviction that it was time for the younger generation to herald the beginning of a new liberation war (a war of nerves) in their beloved motherland - Bangladesh with a view to reviving the secular democratic spirit of the Great Liberation War (1971)! This was a reawakening of the secular ideal of our Independence War, which cost us very dearly-the loss of three million lives! It was amazing that the rally had continued for about a month and deserved a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for largeness, continuation and non-violence. It was a glorious resurrection of the true spirit of Bangladesh's Independence that emerged forty-two years after the Liberation War (1971).
Although the people were very many, the demand was only one - the hangings of the war criminals! But quite naturally and expectedly to this basic demand were added some more dimensions which were pregnant with equal urgency and seriousness. The protesters had justly realized that the hanging of a few culprits would only scratch the surface of the problem. In order to resist the ugly outbreaks of the anti-liberation forces in Bangladesh, their life force, which is lying hidden in communalism, should be destroyed root and branch. As a matter of fact, communalism is the nucleus of all extremist beliefs and behaviour such as dogmatism, sectarianism, fanaticism and militancy which are hindering us from making sustainable national progress, and their dyed-in-the-wool supporters are threatening our socio-political and cultural existence. The youths have awakened to the realization that Bangladesh's largest extreme right-wing political party Jamaat-e-Islami is possessed of all these obnoxious behaviour and practices. It is that political party, which overtly opposed our Liberation War, and aided and abetted the Pakistan occupation army in genocide, rape, arson, plunder perpetrated against the innocent civilians in wartime Bangladesh. Most of the accused war criminals are the top brass of that party. So the Shahbag protesters were also demanding to impose a total ban on their politics in Bangladesh. This is a very cogent and timely demand. Jamaat-e- Islami is a constant thorn in the side of Bangladesh's independence. Its extremist ideologies and fanatical supporters are socially, culturally, and politically incompatible with the secular democratic ideals of our Independence and its benign supporters. Besides the party was banned in the newly independent Bangladesh and remained banned until Mujib was assassinated in August 1975, and the reactionary anti-liberation forces usurped the power in its wake.
What were the causes and effects of that sudden mass upsurge? It was not simply a knee-jerk reaction to a tribunal verdict. Although growing spontaneously, it was launched conscientiously and had been carried out thoughtfully and considerately by the conscious representatives of the youth of the present generation. The way the anti-liberation forces were rehabilitated, fostered, and empowered to have ascendancy over the pro-liberation people; the way they enjoyed life with impunity, climbed to the corridors of power, flew the national flag in their cars was very disgraceful for the pro-liberation side. The social conscience seemed to be in hibernation. However, the youngsters of Bangladesh - the Facebook generation, the bloggers and online activists, who had earlier developed a strong aversion to the modes of contemporary politics suddenly woke up and smelt the coffee. They became a magnet for both the older and younger generations. The smouldering discontent among them at the highhandedness of the anti-liberation forces pushed them beyond the bounds of tolerance especially, perhaps, seeing Quader Mollah's showing the V-sign holding up his hand after the announcement of his earlier sentence.
The historic Shahbag rally had, to my thinking, far-reaching effects. It was a clarion call for national unity against the antinational forces forty two years after the Liberation War. It would sure keep people alive to the dangers of Jamaat-Shibir politics for at least another forty-two years, and help prepare grounds for similar future move(s) if needed. It had also established the spirit of Liberation War as an essential criterion for the political parties in Bangladesh both in theory and practice. It would teach them a crucial lesson that they should not make any compromise on question of our dearly bought Independence, nor should they be on the side of the anti-liberation forces for electoral gain. The wave of the movement was so strong that all pro-liberation parties expressed solidarity with it and many others jumped on the bandwagon to save face.
Like other mass movements in the world, the Shahbag movement too had not been a bed of roses. The protesters had to bite the bullet in different ways, because they were meeting with very ferocious opposition. One of the protesters-Rajib Haider, had been put to the sword. Many were and still are receiving death-threats from the right-wing groups. Apart from spreading life-scare, the vested interests conducted ugly smear campaign online to put vicious slander on the rally's good name by distorting facts and twisting figures. They launched the cyber war along with other acts of violence and vandalism. But the protesters were not the ones to grin and bear it. They also fought back unmasking the pseudo-religious hypocrites of their enemies and earned public trust.
This was the power of the new generation's protest that without any obvious party leadership or support it worked miracles. This is the power of the young generation! The political parties in our country may find it tough to organize such a gigantic and spontaneous rally. They tend to increase the size of their rallies with people on hire. But the size of Shahbag rally was increasingly expanding. Its waves were sweeping over the whole country and touching the expatriate Bengalis across the globe. It was the politics of passion, not politicking which our parties are used to doing to drum up support for themselves only to win an election. It was the politics of one's love of their motherland and the feeling of sharing the travails of her birth. It was the politics of selfless service to one's own country and people. Opposed to the parochialism of the anti-liberation communal politics, this inclusive young generation politics was emotionally and cerebrally oriented towards the country's real well-being-not towards any personal aggrandizement. Though the organizers themselves might not come to power, they sure could empower the powers that be. The younger generations did that politics of passion and love in Shahbag and they should keep doing it for now and always. It is because of them that we see light at the end of the tunnel, and hope against hope that our beloved Bangladesh would always be left in the care of right hands.
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]