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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tryst with past and future - Dhaka’s Shahbag at independence day crossroads ASHIS CHAKRABARTI

Tryst with past and future

- Dhaka's Shahbag at independence day crossroads

Dhaka, March 25: Tomorrow is anything but another day for Mohammed Alamgir Hossain. Or for Abdul Mansoor. Or for the tens of thousands of young men and women who had flocked to Shahbag Square in the heart of the old city and stayed on for more than a month demanding death for the "war criminals" of Bangladesh's liberation struggle of 1971.

Alamgir has been at Shahbag every day since February 5, when he first went there along with thousands of others, dividing his time between Shahbag, his office and home. Like most of the others, he isn't a political activist. But, like most of them, he is a "blogger", as members of the new, young generation here like to call themselves. They had all gathered at Shahbag responding to appeals made by bloggers, much like the protesters at Cairo's Tahrir Square or the ones in Washington's Occupy Wall Street movement.

Tomorrow is a day of reckoning for the Shahbag protesters not because it is Bangladesh's 42nd independence day. "I have seen independence days come and go," says the 25-year-old Alamgir, "but they were mostly matters for the government of the day, political parties or the countless social and cultural organisations. I never felt drawn to them personally."

It's so very different this year. Shahbag is almost deserted as I meet Alamgir and Mansoor at the stall where they are busy collecting "mass signatures" in support of the movement's six-point charter of demands, including death by hanging for the war criminals of 1971 and the banning of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, Chhatra Shibir.

It's almost impossible to imagine the spontaneous waves of protesters there only a few days ago. Most of them have gone home, to work and to their usual lives. As evening falls, only a handful of young boys and girls from the Dhaka University colleges next door show up at the empty square and slowly begin to sing a "liberation war song".

But the notes of the music hardly fill the emptiness of Shahbag. Only the big posters and paintings by the Art College students, hung on the railings of the college compound, bring alive moments and memories of the movement. So, is Shahbag now only a memory? Alamgir and Mansoor tell me it is far from that. Tomorrow is the day that Shahbag hopes to renew and rebuild itself. Tomorrow is the deadline it had set the Sheikh Hasina government to initiate legal proceedings for banning the Jamaat and the Chhatra Shibir.

It's now clear to the Shahbag protesters that the government isn't going to do that by tomorrow. At least two senior ministers of the Sheikh Hasina government I met over the past two days tell me as much. They give their reasons, which are supposedly Hasina's reasons as well, for not clamping a ban on the Jamaat. "It will help the Jamaat more than it'll help the government, the Awami League or Shahbag's cause. Also, the Jamaat's leaders will go underground while its activists will join the BNP (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia)," one of the ministers argues.

Shahriar Kabir, one of the leading lights of the civil society movement in Bangladesh, doesn't agree. According to him, the Jamaat has underground cadre anyway. The recent violence unleashed by it across the country to counter the Shahbag movement, he says, is evidence that the Jamaat and its workers indulge in underground activities even in normal times. As for the Jamaat activists joining the BNP in the event of a ban, that too has already happened and will happen in the future as well, Kabir adds.

Kabir has led the movement demanding punishment for the "war criminals and collaborators of 1971" since 1992 under the banner of the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmool Committee (committee for the uprooting of the killers and collaborators of 1971). And, he has paid the price for upholding his cause, spending time in jail and facing attacks and persecution by successive governments.

Like the young men of Shahbag, Kabir too sees tomorrow as a new beginning. "We have been organising meetings and special programmes on independence day for 20 years. But this time it's different because of two things — the war crimes tribunals have now begun sentencing "the most infamous of the war criminals" and the Shahbag uprising has spawned the new generation on to the country's political stage.

Shahbag-sceptics, though, see the thinning crowds at the square as a sure sign of the movement's dwindling popularity and impact. It was always unsustainable in its form, a Awami League parliamentarian from Faridpur, three hours' drive southeast of Dhaka, tells me. "You couldn't expect the boys and girls to hang on to the square for weeks and months, leaving schools, colleges and their workplaces." But he agrees that the movement has done the Awami League a world of good. "Without this movement, we were doomed in the next elections."

Few in Dhaka or anywhere else in Bangladesh deny that the Shahbag movement has helped and even been nurtured by the League and its coalition government, even though it began on spontaneous, non-partisan promptings. The Jamaat-led violence, the deaths of nearly 100 people including scores of policemen in it, and the BNP's open opposition to the Shahbag movement have sharpened the polarisation in Bangladesh's politics. All told, the battlelines are drawn with the AL and its allies on one side and the BNP-Jamaat on the other.

What the Ganojagoran Mancha, the Forum for People's Uprising, as the Shahbag protesters have named their movement, does tomorrow may set the stage for the next battle. The movement's leader, Imran H. Sarkar, a young doctor, has warned the government of "harsh programmes" if it does not take steps to meet its demands, especially the one of banning the Jamaat.

But, what exactly can the Mancha do? Most political analysts here agree that the Shahbag movement is very different from similar stirs in Bangladesh in earlier decades. The civil society movement of 1992 on the issue of "war crimes" remained mostly confined to Dhaka. The Shahbag movement, by contrast, has spread to district and sub-district-level towns across the country. "It's gone down to the villages even. In my village, which was connected with electricity only seven years ago, even the little children now shout the Shahbag slogans," Mansoor, whose native village is in Bhola district in the extreme south of the country, tells me at the square.

That also means that the battle has reached the villages, where the Jamaat's network of banking, insurance, hospital and other operations as well as the madarsas has helped it build up a strong organisation with thousands of dedicated, many of them paid, cadres. "Neither side of the battlelines has an option to leave the battle. That's what Shahbag has achieved," Mansoor, who works in a mobile telephone service company, adds.

The Mancha's preparations for tomorrow, however, begin tonight. Today is the anniversary of the "black night" of March 25, 1971, when the Pakistani army, aided by local collaborators, cracked down on the people in Dhaka in what it called "Operation Searchlight". Most estimates put the killing of civilians that night at about 10,000 and the night began the nine-month war that led to the liberation of Bangladesh with the surrender of the Pakistani army to the Indian army on December 16 the same year.

This evening, Shahbag revives itself with a new series of programmes to commemorate the dead of the night of March 25, 1971. It isn't as if such programmes hadn't been organised in earlier years. Every year for 20 years, Shahriar Kabir's committee has lit candles and led processions to the Dhaka University's Jagannath Hall campus where on that night of March 25, 1971, some 300 students, teachers and university employees were killed by Pakistani soldiers and their bodies buried in mass graves on the same ground.

Two things make tonight's mourning different. Tonight, the procession will start from Shahbag Square and will have thousands who had never taken part in previous years' processions. And, tonight, when the candles are lit at the mass graves outside the Jagannath Hall and the people assemble at the Central Shahid Minar, thousands of others would do the same all across Bangladesh — in cities, towns and even villages.

At midnight, the mourners here will come back to Shahbag to stay there till daybreak tomorrow and announce their plan for the road ahead.

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