Shahbag protests: For a secular Bangladesh

Hundreds of protesters, mostly youth, both men and women, gather everyday to demand death penalty for those who committed war crimes during the 1971 war of independence.

Updated: Mar 04, 2013, 10:07 AM IST

Dhaka: "Joi Bangla!", "Mulla barir Rajakar, ei muhurtey Bangla char (Islamists leave Bangladesh)" , "Jamaat mandir jalachchey, Hinduder ghor bhangchey.. aita ki hotey debo? (Can we allow Hindu temples and homes to be burnt and destroyed?)".

The chants are kept up on a mike as the large group of young protesters swells with the approach of evening at Shahbag intersection - dubbed Bangladesh`s Tahrir Square. Hundreds of protesters, mostly youth, both men and women, gather everyday to demand death penalty for those who committed war crimes during the 1971 war of independence.

And, like the protesters in Egypt`s Tahrir Square, the ground zero of its popular upsurge for democracy that became the global metaphor for such mass protests, the Shahbag protesters are a connected lot - on Facebook, Twitter and blogging forums.

They are demanding a Bangladesh free of Razakars, the Islamists who sided with the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War in identifying and killings hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis fighting for creation of a new country. Thousands of women were raped by the Pakistani Army men and Razakars.

The Razakars were mainly members of the Muslim league, Jamat-e-Islami and other Islamic groups and factions.

The Jamaat-e-Islami called a two-day strike in Bangladesh - a nation of 150 milllion people that was carved out of Pakistan after a wounding India-Pakistan war in 1971 - from March 3, coinciding with the visit here of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. They are protesting last Thursday`s death sentence handed down to their leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee by the war crimes tribunal and a life term slapped on Abdul Qader Mollah.

"Agami kaler hartal, garir chaka cholbey (The strike tomorrow will see cars moving)," the Shahbag protesters chanted on Sunday evening, to tell people not to obey the Jamaat-called bandh which has left shops shut and roads mostly deserted.

"These people are burning down temples and the homes of Hindus.. Should we let this happen?" asked Imran Sarker, the fiery leader of the Shahbag protesters. "Na, na (no, no)," the crowd shouted back. `Sarker is spokesperson of Ganajagaran Mancha and convener of Blogger and Online Activist Network.

The Shahbag protests were triggered by the Feb 5 war crime tribunal judgement, convicting 65-year-old Mollah, known as the Butcher of Mirpur, to life imprisonment.

Mollah, secretary general of the Jamaat, smiled and gave a victory sign to waiting journalists after the sentence was handed down to him Feb 4, triggering a groundswell of anger among people who were hoping he would be hanged. He was convicted of beheading a poet, raping an 11-year-old girl and shooting 344 people during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence.

Online anger spread, and quickly rallied thousands to Shahbag to demand death for Mollah and other Jamaat accused of war crimes. A Facebook page dedicated to ridding Bangladesh of Razakar`s is called "Rajakar Mukto Desh Gorai Shobai Egiye Ashun (Come forward to make our country free of Razakars).

The dislike for the Islamists grew after a young blogger, Rajib Haldar, was killed - his throat slit Feb 15 for his anti-Islamist blogging.

With the media, especially electronic media, beaming the protests live, and the online networking among the youth, thousands turned up at Shahbag intersection, dubbed Shahbag Square, to demand the war crimes accused be hanged. The intersection is located close to Dhaka University. The protests are the largest the country has seen in two decades.

On Sunday, the demonstrators held a rally at Shahbag, also called Projonmo Chattar, to protest the Jamaat-sponsored countrywide hartal. In a pointer to the secular nature of the Shahbag protests, one of the prominent slogans is "Surja Sener Bangla, shahider Bangla, razakarer nei kaaj (In a Bangladesh belonging to Surja Sen and other martrys, the Razakars have no place)".

Surya Sen was an Indian freedom fighter against British rule who led the famous 1930 Chittagong armoury raid The Shahbag protests, seen to be supported by the ruling Awami League, has dented the opposition Bangladesh National Party`s clout among people to a large extent. The Jamaat is a part of the BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance. The Islamist party was part of the ruling alliance when the BNP came to power in 2001.

BNP chief Khaleda Zia called off her scheduled meeting with the Indian president. Her party has called a hartal on Tuesday.

"The people are angry with the Jamaat, they want justice (for the war crimes). The Shahbag protests have helped to turn the people`s attention away from other issues, like price rise and corruption," said Mujibur, a driver, echoing popular sentiments.