Reclaiming Ekattur: fashi, Bangali

By Rahnuma Ahmed


EVEN THOUGH I was dying to, pressing work — to do with other activist engagements, the Tazreen factory firecommunal 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,, 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.

New Questions

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.

Old answers

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 keTumi 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

Two Kinds of Death and the Unattended ?National Wounds?

By Saydia Gulrukh

For the past few months, I have been preparing for an almost meaningless exam, one which graduate students in the US have to take, called ?comps? (short for comprehensive/PhD candidacy exam). During moments of sarcasm, we also call it the intellectual boot camp. While preparing for the exams, I have created a bubble around me, a self-imposed isolation, as if the Atlantic Ocean between me and Dhaka is not vast enough. Inside this carefully constructed bubble, I allow myself to read Bangladeshi newspapers or reply to emails only during periods of protracted procrastination. Friends? requests to read their pieces pile up. The news of a launch capsizing on the eve of Eid-ul-Azha, news headlines of RMG workers? awful plight remotely catches my eyes ? shamefully so. I rapidly read emails, I quick-read news from home and elsewhere, whether good or bad, I don?t have moments to react and reflect. It is in this privileged insulated life of mine, that I get an email from Rahnuma that Jashim Uddin Manik, the ?alleged? rapist, has died of cardiac arrest in Italy.

In the next few days, I get many emails, all from old friends from the anti-rape movement. In 1998 the students of Jahangirnagar University took to the streets for two months protesting against campus rape, and demanding punishment of the rapists, many of whom were Bangladesh Chhatra League activists. These emails bore witness to those nights when we sat in front of the university?s administrative building shouting, ?Amar boner apoman shojjho kora hobe na, dhorshonkari jei hok bichar take petei hobe? (We will not tolerate our sister?s dishonor, the rapist must be punished, whoever he may be). I would not read the letter but only its subject heading, and flag it to read later. An email from Jashim Uddin Manik?s friend incidentally landed in my mail box, forwarded by a friend. It expressed shock and grief at the untimely death of a close friend. It contained routine details which follow such news. Jashim Uddin Manik died in Padova, Milano at around 10:30pm local time (which I guess, on the basis of email exchanges, would be January 5). His body lies in a morgue while his Italian friends are making arrangements to send his body back to Bangladesh. Manik?s wife took the news very badly, she?s still not herself. In the email, Manik?s friend writes how hard it is for him to stop his tears, he urges everyone (the recipients of his email) to pray for the departed soul. In a way, there?s nothing striking about this email. A grief-stricken friend is breaking to others the news of the death of a close friend. Yet, the ordinariness of the news sends a chill down my spine.

In 1998, during the anti-rape movement in Jahangirnagar University, Manik had been identified by the disciplinary committee (fact-finding committee) as having been one of the rapists. We knew of him as the Chhatra League cadre who was said to have distributed sweets to ?celebrate? his 100th rape. I re-read the last line of his friend?s email ? please pray for the departed soul. I stumble at each word, did the man who committed many rapes, if not a hundred, one who had the heart to celebrate it, have a soul? But it?s for a few seconds only, and I close my email window.

I try to thicken the bubble around me. I must pass this exam.

My indifference towards Manik?s death makes me start thinking about death. Any news of death is supposedly saddening. But here I am, sitting in front of my laptop, recollecting the details of his sexual offences, and flinching. His crime had been proven in front of the university administration. He had been punished for what they had termed ?misconduct?; his studentship had been cancelled. However, no legal case had been filed against him. I remembered those days when many of us, those for whom the anti-rape movement in Jahangirnagar University had been a political turning point, had shared hours of rage as we had read news of Manik fleeing/flying to Italy. In those shared moments of rage and despair, we had learned to recognise the gendered nature of the university, and of our legal system. Since the movement ended, in the decade that has gone, the rage which we had felt has presumably turned into indifference.

I mean no disrespect toward his grieving family and friends. I am sure it is an irreplaceable loss for them. His death matters to me only in the larger historical context of Bangladesh. What does this particular fate of the alleged serial rapist tells us about the legal system? How does it write the history of violence against woman? If I remember correctly, many national dailies printed headlines during the movement that the incidents of rape on Jahangirnagar University campus are for us a matter of ?national shame? (jatir kolonko). I cannot help but wonder what is the state of national shame when known rapists are never brought to justice? When the sexual harassment policy on Jahangirnagar University campus still remains not enacted, officially?
The clock ticks away? my exam is only a few months away. I try harder to thicken the bubble. I succeed but only for two and a half weeks.
On January 28, the convicted murderers of Bangabandhu, five former army men, were hanged at Dhaka Central Jail, after midnight. They were proven guilty of killing the country?s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and all but two members of his family, on August 15, 1975. And yet again, emails overflowed my mailbox. A friend called a number of times, finally, leaving a Facebook message: ?I see that they executed Sheikh Mujib?s killers. It must be a good thing? It was weird going to his house and seeing the blood stains and thinking they were still about.?
Her question leaves me perplexed. More than a week after the event, I visit the online archives of daily newspapers to retrieve the issue of January 28. I watch ATN news clips posted on the Daily Star website. Most of the reports try to walk us through the execution night, covering each moment of waiting at the jail gate between 11:00pm to 3:00am. As I read along, I feel uneasy at news of the celebratory chants, and the flashing of V-signs. Members of the public had gathered at the jail gate, they had chanted slogans as the serial executions had been completed. I think, what would have been an acceptable response to the execution of the death penalty of Sheikh Mujib?s killers? Amnesty International has condemned the executions for being ?hasty? while a European Union delegation to Bangladesh has found the trial ?respectable? (New Age, January 29), but it added a twist. The EU statement said, it was, in principle, opposed ?to all death penalty in all cases and all circumstances? (New Age, January 29). Their principled opposition to death penalty, interestingly enough, excludes cases like Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali. In the final months and days of this trial, a debate on death penalty had surfaced, but I don?t want to engage with that debate today.
Colonel Jamil?s widowed wife?s narrative of August 15 reminded me that at issue was not only the healing of the surviving daughters of Bangabandhu, but that there are others too, who had faced similar losses, had equally waited for the execution (Daily Star, November 19, 2009). For a split second, I thought about the emotional wound and the healing of the family members of Siraj Sikdar. Is it time to talk of other extrajudicial killings? To talk about Cholesh Richil? But, maybe, I am moving too fast, in both directions, past and future. Let me dwell on the present ? on the night of the execution, the chants and the flashing of V-signs.
I go to blogs which I have not dared to visit the last couple of weeks or more, may be months. Activist bloggers and Facebook friends express similar discomfort at the celebration, the flashing of V-signs. Involved debates trace the missing pieces to reconstruct the political context which had led to the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. A friend who had gone to the jail gate had posted a video clip on Facebook. I watch it a few times to see what people had chanted ? ?ajker ai dine mujib tomay mone pore? (On this day, today, we are thinking of you Mujib). A comment on the video-post caught my eyes, ?Shouldn?t Henry Kissinger have been somewhere in there?? Implicit in this question is the alleged ?foreign involvement? in the coup. I remember reading in Willem Van Schendel?s History of Bangladesh (2009) that ?by the spring of 1975 the Indians knew about the possible coup and warned Mujib about it? (p 182). I believe, by ?Indians?, he had meant the Indian intelligence, the government. The fact that a neighbouring state knew suggests that the coup of 1975 had involved far more political stakeholders than those who had been convicted, and hanged. The execution of Mujib?s killers may have healed the trauma of his family and followers but the ?national wound? is far from being healed. Imperial links with the assassination of Sheikh Mujib remains undisclosed. It remains outside the circle of our political concerns.
We have been witnesses to two kinds of death, one was natural, the other unnatural. The wounds to the nation in both cases remain open. Unattended.
Saydia Gulrukh is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), USA and a faculty member of Pathshala, The South Asian Media Academy
Published in New Age February 11, 2010

I can kill any Muslim

Year end play: The Nuculier God
Theatre: The World
Set Design: Tony Blair
God: George Bush
Sacrificial Lamb: Saddam Hussein
Slaves: Saudi Royal Family and cohorts
Extras: The United Nations
Theme song: I can kill any Muslim
I can kill any Muslim
Any day I choose
It?s all for the cause of freedom
I can kill any Muslim
Wherever I choose
It is cause we?re a peace lovin? nation
So we egged him on
When he attacked Kuwait
And the trial may have been harried
So we supplied him arms
To gas the Kurds
With him dead, that?s one story buried
Violence in Iraq
Has been on the rise
The US can hardly be blamed
Our interest was oil
And we stuck to our goal
Why must my cronies be named
Saddam?s emergence
As Arab resistance
That wasn?t part of the plan
Had Amnesty and others
Kept quiet when it matters
We?d have quietly gone on to Iran
Asleep I was
When he hanged on the gallows
Well even presidents need to sleep
Oblivious I was
When the planes hit the towers
I had other ?pointments to keep
More Iraqis dead
More ?mericans too
OK they warned it would happen
Why should I listen
When I rule the world
No nation?s too big to flatten
The Saudi Kings
They know their place
At least they?ll know by now
Muslim?s OK
If you tow the line
Out of step, off you go, and how
Tony and me
We keep good company
Dictators know when it matters
Regardless of crimes
And religious inclines
Safe if you listen or its shutters
I can kill any Muslim
Wherever I choose
I choose quite often I know
I can kill any Muslim
Any day I choose
I did it so now they will know
Similar to Rumsfeld’s concern that the Abu Ghraib pictures coming out, and not about the events themselves, the Iraqi government worries about the footage of Saddam being taunted, getting out. The fact that the taunting took place doesn’t appear to be an area of concern. With the US government stifling Al Jazeera, and increasing censorship in mainstream media, citizen journalism appears to be the only way people can get past the PR camouflague.
With all political parties of Bangladesh, as well as most Muslim leaders around the world, choosing to remain silent at the execution of Saddam Hussein, it is left to human rights organizations to remind us, that despite his atrocities, Saddam will be remembered for his defiance. The butcher of the Kurds will go down in history as a victim of flawed justice. The guns are now clearly turned against Iran, but the Saudi rulers, as well as the Egyptians and the Jordanians would do well to ponder, ?Who is next??