Reclaiming Ekattur: fashi, Bangali
By Rahnuma Ahmed
EVEN THOUGH I was dying to, pressing work — to do with other activist engagements, the Tazreen factory fire, communal attacks in Ramu — forced me to stay away the first few days from the youth uprising which began at Shahbagh on February 5. The spontaneous sit-in, rapidly gathered into its fold hundreds of thousands of people who, driven by a deep sense of injustice, have felt compelled to go to Shahbagh to ‘right’ the wrongs of history committed in post-independence Bangladesh: war collaborators of 1971 have not only been unpunished in the ensuing four decades but have been reinstated politically, financially and socially at the national level.
The youth uprising quickly generated massive popular support, both in Shahbagh itself, where people have flooded to, and continue to do so, and also outwards, as protests modelled on Shahbagh rapidly spread across the country.
As the uprising gained ground, Shahbagh was dubbed Shahbagh Square by some, a la Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but as a blog commentator, expressing the feelings of many, pointed out, we got rid of our military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad more than two decades ago, “so no point in comparing us to them.. .. this is a different battle.. a battle to heal a wound festering for 42 years” (nafisabuet, CNN.com, February 7, 2013).
May be it is this “festering” wound of several generations which led Shahbagh, a very busy traffic intersection in central Dhaka, to soon be renamed Projonmo Chottor — Generation Square, by those who speak for the uprising.
Only hours after the Bloggers and Online Activists’ Network gathered at Shahbagh that historic Tuesday, February 5, 2013, to protest against the International Crimes Tribunal’s verdict of life imprisonment for Abdul Quader Molla, writer Faruk Wasif called me, spread the word, tell everyone to join us. Even though I wasn’t there in person for the next couple of days, Arup Rahee, Mushrefa Mishu, Shipra Bose, Udisa Islam, and many other dear friends, kept texting and ringing: the turnout’s huge, people’s anger is boiling, the verdict is a betrayal. We will not tolerate any more betrayals.
Nothing, however, had prepared me for the sea of humanity that flowed into an ever-expanding Projonmo Chottor from Matsya Bhaban in the east to Katabon in the west, down Chobir Haat in the south to Hotel Ruposhi Bangla in the north — when I joined last Friday’s moha shomabesh (grand rally), called at 3 pm. Since then, I have repeatedly gone back to Shahbagh, to the street theatres, the protests songs, the chants, the candle light vigils as nights falls …, well, because simply put, it is impossible to stay away.
The youth of this country have taken up Jahanara Imam’s baton, they have energised us, one is proud to be part of the non-partisanal but cracklingly sharp political will that they have generated. I salute them! They have shown us the way.
Shahbagh has now been transformed into a liberation square where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children gather, braving the traffic jams for which Dhaka city is notorious, undoubtedly worsened because of the Shahbagh protest, its liberatory character more apparent to women for, as many of us have puzzled, if women and girls cross over into New Market close by, or any other thronging public space in the city, they are likely to be sexually harassed, but here, no, not even in the middle of the night. It is true that security has been generously provided by the government, police barricades have been set up, uniformed and plainclothes police mingle with the crowds, more recently, CCTV cameras have been set up, but the answer lies elsewhere, it lies in the liberatory character of people’s protests, for, the streets of Dhaka city had been similarly welcoming of women, for many days and nights on end, when general Ershad had been toppled from power in late 1990.
Every revolution generates new questions on one side or another, said Talal Asad, when asked about Tahrir Square after his return from Cairo. It is intrinsic to every revolutionary situation (“The suspicious revolution,” The Immanent Frame, SSRC, August 3, 2011).
This leads me to ask, is the Shahbagh protest giving birth to new questions? If so, what are they?
The biggest question of course, was formulated by the verdict on Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary general, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, at the International Crimes Tribunal. The first verdict had found Abul Kalam Azad (Bacchu Razakar) guilty, he was given a death sentence. Molla too, was found equally guilty of war crimes, but he was given life imprisonment. Is the pronounced disparity in the two verdicts in any way connected to Bacchu not being a Jamaati, and therefore, is it indicative that the ruling Awami League is secretly using the ICT verdicts to negotiate a deal with the Jamaat, in order to break its alliance with the opposition BNP, and thereby, to ensure another term of office for itself? Further, is that why — as many patriotic dissenters have repeatedly asked — the ICT was formed not drawing upon the country’s best judges, lawyers and prosecutors, but on the basis of mindless allegiance and loyalty to the AL?
It is a question that hangs in the air, best summed up by veteran journalist ABM Musa, when he, in a private TV channel’s talk show, requested Shahbagh’s protestors to ask why Molla’s verdict was as it was instead of demanding fashi (hanging). Musa turned to the other discussant, a BNP leader (I’m afraid I’ve forgotten his name), smiled impishly and said, when election time comes, let’s say I decide not to vote for the Awami League but for the BNP, but when I see Jamaat peeping from behind, firmly lodged on your back, well, obviously, I retreat. The BNP leader had fallen silent.
An answer to this quandary has been beautifully provided by blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who reportedly said in a media interview, actually, we want the ruling party to be pro-liberation, we want the opposition party to be pro-liberation, we want that every political party, every political leader, every organisation, every school, college, madrasa, university, all business organisations, civic organisations, everyone in the country, should be pro-liberation.
Not a tall order but rather basic when you think of it, for, after all, it is the liberation war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.
The second question, much more difficult than the first, has been raised by several courageous freedom fighters and patriotic dissenters. I salute them as well.
Should we be demanding fashi, at all? Lubna Marium, freedom-fighter, dancer, writes, the Shahbagh movement should be about banning Jamaat from politics, it should not be about blood-thirsty calls for death. Taking another life does not bring peace, she says, as she writes of the never forgotten pain of seeing dead muktijoddha friends lined up on the ground. Of the pain of having her 15 year-old brother Nadeem – a muktijoddha who had seen other muktijoddhas gouge out the eyes of a Pakistani soldier — later commit suicide (“Shahbag should be about banning ‘religion in politics’, not death,” Alal o Dulal, February 12, 2013).
Another blogger, who has spent the greater part of the week at Shahbagh, who is gratified at the “abject rejection of the BNP-Jamaat and JP [Jatiya Party] narrative of 1971” stirringly writes, and I quote:
“I will never agree on the death penalty for anyone…If it is handed down for a convicted war criminal, I’ll continue to work so that it is commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or Presidential clemency. Confiscate their property and compensate their victims, and let their children find their way out of the public humiliation and shame brought upon by the exposure of truth..Let us be better than them. I will continue to be there in Shahbagh even if I’m the last man standing, and I share this belief with millions of my brothers and sisters across our land.” (greaterboka, “A Week in Shahbagh, ” Alal o Dulal, February 14, 2013).
The first question needs to be strengthened, for, all major political parties have in some form or the other, aided in the rehabilitation and reinstatement of the Jamaat/war collaborators; we not only have to stigmatise Jamaat/war collaborators to extinction, we also have to work towards dismantling the ‘for’ and ‘anti’-liberation war dichotomy (Asif Mohiuddin) so that political parties can no longer electorally cash in on being pro-liberation. As for the second, maybe now is the time, difficult as it may seem because of the pentup fury and anger, to slowly initiate discussions over capital punishment. It is tied to the first as well, for the cries of fashi for war criminals which ring at Shahbagh, while apparently referring to the highest punishment awarded by the legal system, in terms of the emotive anger displayed, feed on long years of betrayal, both manifest and hidden, by political leaders, by the military establishment, by civilian bureacrats and business elite, by intellectuals, academics, writers and artists.
The revolution at Tahrir Square was not “all pre-arranged and carefully thought out as a revolution” says Asad. People just discovered that they had “some power they didn’t think they had.” Disagreeing with the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany who had likened being in Tahrir Square as “like being in love” Asad says, “it’s more like a religious experience.”
Possibly more so, at Projonmo Chottor, I think, as I listen to the almost jikr-like chant, “Fashi, fashi” chanted by young sloganeers, amplified by the large sound system, as I listen to the crowds roar back “fashi chai (Hang, hang, we want him hanged).
Old muktijuddho slogans have made a comeback, Ami ke? Tumi ke? (Who am I? Who are you?), questions answered by thousands of voices roaring back in unison, “Bangali, Bangali” — day in, day out, night in, night out.
By providing old answers, they re-draw the lines of ethnic exclusion, possibly forgivable in 1971 because Punjabi chauvinism had been countered by Bengali chauvinism, but now, forty-plus years later, after a recognition that ethnic minorities too had suffered and fought in the war of liberation, after the military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, after no peace being in sight despite a peace accord having been signed more than a decade and a half ago, and the everyday chauvinism suffered by all ethnic minorities, topped by the Fifteenth Amendment which un-recognises their distinct ethnic identities — it is absolutely unforgivable.
Let the young at Projonmo Chottor reclaim Ekattur, let them lead but without repeating the mistakes made by their elders.
Published in New Age, Friday, February 15, 2013