Bewildered by Bangladesh


I began hearing grumbling last February from Bangladeshi friends complaining that the world’s news media were ignoring a game changing event in Bangladesh. “Why then when the Shahbagh story is unfolding before the world’s eyes,” wrote one young Bangladeshi blogger, “[is] the international media looking away?”

Bangladeshis by the hundreds of thousands, including many young people, went the story, were gathering at Shahbagh Square in central Dhaka to demonstrate in protest. I heard that an Occupy Shahbagh movement was unprecedented and held within it the possibility for a Bangladesh Spring.

Wrote that same blogger: “Many experts even state that the gathering in the heart of the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka is a ‘social revolution akin to the French Revolution’.”

Good. I thought. About time people rise up to protest the gridlock that has blocked Bangladesh’s political process for decades.
The crowds, it turned out, were not protesting that gridlock. The movement was based mostly on a demand for the death penalty for Abdul Quader Mollah, an assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison by Bangladesh’s International War Crimes Tribunal on February 4 for murder and rape 42 years ago. He is both an evil and inconsequential figure (I had met the man twice at the home of a friend in Dhaka) for whom life in prison would pay for his crimes. Mollah, evidently relieved he was not sentenced to death, foolishly gave a V (apparently for victory) sign to his supporters after the verdict, igniting the protests.
The demonstrations are hardly the game changer that was the case in 1990 when Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina and even Jamaat joined in street protests to oust H.M.Ershad from the presidency. The Shahbagh movement instead turned ugly. A blogger critical of Jamaat, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered. The end of February, the court sentenced Mollah’s colleague, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a remarkably popular preacher, to death. Jaamat supporters went amok. At least 80 people died and by some estimate, 2,000 were injured all over Bangladesh. The killings stretched the already thin fabric of Bangladeshi society.
Mollah and Sayeedi may be more significant than I realize. The killers of 1971 are important in Bangladeshi history, yet in the scheme of things what Mollah and Sayeedi represent are secondary against the contemporary genuine ills. Why don’t the young protest against their duopolistic leaders, absurd parliament, the corruption in their system, or lack of genuine representation of the people? Those issues and the persistent deadlock between Khaleda and Hasina are far greater obstacles to a better life for Bangladeshis, and much more significant as targets of youthful protest. We learned in 1990 that Bangladesh has the capacity for a “people’s power” change.” I amazed that young Bangladeshis don’t see that, and bewildered.
I’ve gone through this sort of thing with Jews who can’t let go of the Holocaust. The wisest rabbi I know, who lost his entire family in Poland and barely escaped from the Nazis with his own life, has counseled time and again for Jews to free themselves from the muck of bad memories and get on with building a stronger contemporary life.
I’m obviously missing something in this Shahbagh episode but find little commentary or reporting to enlighten me. I’ve asked friends and appealed to others who know much more than I to explain what is positive in this episode. Several have tried to ease my bewilderment.

For example, a friend in Dhaka I have known since his childhood wrote:
“The trials of those who did what they did in 1971 are the crux of the matter, they must be held responsible and Shahbag is not just about Mollah but about the trials in general. The response of the Jamaat and those who are backing them has been disgraceful. Since when are they entitled to burn cars, trains, attack Hindus, kill people and generally cause mayhem as a response for the 1971 crimes, genocide and rape some of their leaders were involved in.”
Another friend, whom I saw counting bodies at the Dhaka University campus on 26 March 1971, wrote this to me:
“I am a little surprised to see that you do not believe in coming to terms with history. As one who was present at and involved in the creation of Bangladesh I know how history hangs heavily on our current political landscape. I feel the young generation has raised the issue of unfinished revolution of 1971. They were not instigated by Awami League – in fact the League was taken by surprise . We can discuss whether this is the best way to finish the unfinished revolution. The trial triggered this reaction among the young who were not born in 1971 and they are not blood thirsty. They may not be guided wisely and as usual in all such movements elements with different agenda may have joined the movement I am not saying that the movement would not fritter away but It has generated violent reactions among the Jamaat because
they are afraid that they have not any place in resurgent secular Bangladesh.
Jamaat… has unleashed a reign of terror, murdering Hindus and raising the war cry that Islam is in danger.’This was exactly the slogan of the anti-independence Jamaat in collaboration with Pakistan in 1971 The history is being reenacted. They want Banglastan ie Bangla-Pakistan for the defence of Islam.”
A well-intentioned Bangladeshi whom I have not met, tried to set me straight:
“…if you…want the revival of the spirit of liberation war of ‘71, you may please stand by the ‘Gonojagoron Manch’ at Shahbagh. Hanging of the persons convicted of crimes against humanity during our war of liberation is essential for a final closure of a dark chapter, 42 years old!
It is also necessary because Bangladesh has to come out of the culture of impunity, which had taken effect since the murder of Bongobondhu, even when the murderers were not in state power, the impunity persisted. This culture of impunity gave rise to impunity in other fields, including corruption. People in power looted national wealth and walked free. Why not? If murderers can walk free why not the corrupt! Shahbag is not about hanging A, B, or C only, it is about rekindling the spirit of liberation war of 1971 which was to develop an equitable, just, secular, corruption free, peaceful democracy, where all people will live in peace and be the masters of their own future.”

Anushay Hossain, a young Bangladeshi blogger whose family I have known for more than 40 years, wrote:
“What we are seeing in Bangladesh right now is not about capital punishment. The world needs to understand that. It is wrongly labeling all Bangladeshis as bloodthirsty people…..But the Shahbagh movement goes beyond both these points. I resent people dismissing this as a movement for capital punishment when what is happening in Bangladesh right now is much more complex…”
She does not explain the complexity in her blog. I asked her to explain. She responded:
“You know….currently I am just as bewildered as you. At the time when I wrote those lines, I resented people dismissing or oversimplifying Shahbag as just Bangladeshis protesting for capital punishment. Of course if you want to be dismissive, it’s easy to label it off as that. But clearly it is about more than just hanging people. To speak very broadly, it is about closure and the journey many Bangladeshis are still on, to heal the wounds from 1971.”
So I remain even perplexed. For example, my new, well-intentioned Bangladesh friend above went on to remark:
The rift between Sk.Hasina and Khaleda Zia is a well-known fact and there is no foreseeable solution to this. Since there is a personal hate factor involved in this the people don’t really know when and how this impasse can be overcome. These things are unique in our country and we probably have to live with it.
That rift is at the heart of Bangladesh’s ills and deserves more than a dismissive “we probably have to live with it”.
I had long ago given up hope that Bangladesh’s young were sufficiently moved to create a politically better state. I recall that after the 1991 election that I covered the defeat of the Awami League and the emergence of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party prompted predictions that a new generation has taken control.
But a new control never happened. Power seesawed between the AL and the BNP, each led by a cantankerous woman seemingly more interested in putting down her rival than in advancing the good of the nation.
More than 25 years ago, I wrote an essay for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review bemoaning the lack of a critical Bangladeshi history, suggesting that too many Bangladeshis had too much to hide about their conduct during the 1971 to contemplate unadorned history.
That raises the question of what today’s young people know of their country’s history. As is the case in many countries, Bangladesh historical accounts have become wrapped in myth, often self-serving.
One example is the long-standing feud between Khaleda and Hasina over which leader, then Major Zia-ur-Rahman or Sheik Mujibur Rahman first declared Bangladesh independence. Another deals with the number of those killed during the 1971 conflict, from 300,000 to 3 million, the latter apparently pulled out of the air.
A third example deals with the accounts of Sheikh Mujib’s celebrated speech in Dhaka (then spelled Dacca) on 7 March 1971. Last March, the speech was hailed officially as a call for Bangladesh independence.
I covered the speech that day on Paltan Maiden. The closest Mujib came to independence that day was his remark in Bengali, “This time, the revolution is for freedom; this time, the revolution is for liberation….” or, as it also has been translated, “This time the struggle is for freedom, this time the struggle is our independence…”
What I remember most about that speech was the deep disappointment among many Bengali nationalists, particularly the young leadership (ask Tofail Ahmed) that the Sheikh did not unilaterally declare independence.
To refresh my faded memory, I went back to a history, Bangladesh: Constitutional Quest for Autonomy, published in 1976 by Moudud Ahmed. He is now a politician in opposition to the Awami League who as a prime minister, vice president and justice minister has both served virtually every administration in Bangladesh and has been jailed or threatened with jail by almost every one of them. His genuine legacy will be the brace of books he has written as a participant in virtually every turn of present Bangladesh history. More than 36 years ago, Moudud wrote, confirming my recollection:

Although Mujib’s speech was disappointing for those who expected a unilateral declaration of independence, it made a tremendous impact in the prevailing context…
How much of what the young of Bangladesh know about their country is genuine or myth?
Yet, despite its erratic leadership, Bangladeshis have done surprisingly well. In much the same way of a slightly older nation, the United States, people have overcome the vagaries of their leaders (imagine a stranger lineup of presidents:, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush).
Readymade garments is an example of an industry, started by private entrepreneurs without the help of government, that has really prospered; Bangladesh is second in the world only to giant China as a producer of readymade garments. Not only has the industry creating billions of dollars, it’s helped to establish an economic foundation, spreading wide social change through the employment -low wages notwithstanding- of nearly 2 million women workers in a society where women were not always valued as producers.
One young entrepreneur I’ve known cheerfully explains that he does well by bribing both major political parties to leave him alone.

Pakistanis beset with the struggles in their own domestic scene look with envy at what Bangladesh has managed to achieve since its independence.And amidst my bewilderment, there may even be a positive side to the struggles at Shahbagh Square. Several of my friendly correspondents have mentioned secularism as a key to a Bangladesh future. In an era where violent extremists seem to be gaining traction, Bangladesh may be one of the first countries in the Muslim world to push back against Islamic absolutism. That contribution may well transcend cries for the death penalty. If so, I would be bewildered no longer.