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Chalo, chalo Shahbag chalo


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There are only a few occasions when I really miss 'East Pakistan'. These days are one of those. Had we been together, Shahbag would have won at least a two-column on page 3 and chalo chalo Shahbag chalo graffiti on some town walls. Maybe the Dhaka bureaus of few channels would have covered the massive youth gathering there and improvising further on my wish list, perhaps the demands of the Shahbag mass could have triggered a parallel youth movement over here. But pity me, I came to know about what's happening in that Dhaka city compound through New York Times despite the fact that it is related to us — Pakistanis — in more than one direct ways.

It started on 5th February, the day Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal awarded life sentence to a person nicknamed 'Butcher of Mirpur' for his part in the mass murder and rape of Bengalis in 1971. He is a leader of Bangladesh's Jamaat-i-Islami. The sentence was the second from the Tribunal. The first one had awarded death sentence to another Jamaat leader who was tried in absentia — the police suspects he had escaped to Pakistan sometime back.

The international community is not happy with the death penalty and also found the trial falling short of meeting the international standards of justice. Many also see the whole matter of trying war criminals as a ploy by the ruling Awami League to divert the Bangladeshi public’s attention from its abysmal performance over past four years. The country will go to polls early next year. Awami League will face the four party alliance led by Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party with Jamaat as its second largest partner. Hence, hitting at Jamaat will also supposedly batter the opposition alliance.

All of this may be true, but only partly. The crowd at Shahbag has shown some characteristics that distinguish it from what a conspiratorial power can assemble. Starting with a small spontaneous gathering powered by social media, it has sustained itself to date and its ranks have been swelling continuously. Moreover, I feel that the energy emanating from it can't be artificial. But if you think I am getting carried away, do compare it with the crowd that had gathered in Islamabad a few weeks ago to purge the country of yazids. The two are in complete contrast and their stark differences can exemplify conspiracies and movements.

Critics are also skeptical of the main demand of the Shahbag movement — death for war criminals, no less and nothing else. This should, however, be viewed in the light of the fact that Jamaat has a history of dodging efforts for a war crime trial in Bangladesh. But this time around, it seems they are left alone and exposed. After the first death sentence by the Tribunal, the government and the court were publicly criticised by western countries and the pressure is likely to have softened the second sentence to life imprisonment. One can expect that the next sentences would be even milder and in the end the initiative of settling the issue of war crimes would fizzle out, again.

The Shahbag youth, I believe, is not frustrated at the 'leniency' of the verdict as much as it is infuriated by the Jamaat getting away with murder. Jamaat's volunteer corps were known to be the ears and eyes of the Pakistan Army in 1971 and served as its point men at the time. But what surprises me most is the absence of Pakistan from the Shahbag protest. One can understand the legal limitations and diplomatic expediencies of the Bangladeshi government but the same does not hold true for the 'vengeful crowds'. You don't hear any slogan against Pakistan, see no flag or effigy burning, not even some pressure for the government of Pakistan to offer an apology. I have scoured through the internet and have found no trace of Pakistan at Shahbag — just that the star and the crescent appears on the caps of hated clerics in posters and placards. The Bangladeshis are strictly observing the protest as an internal affair — the matter is between the people and the Jamaat, Pakistan comes only as a reference. So the context may be historical, the fight is all about the present and the youth does not need any forensic evidence as their daily lives can stand to witness as to what Jamaat and Shibir mean to their freedom (the student wing of Jamaat is called Jamiat in Pakistan and Shibir in Bangladesh).

Jamaat-Jamiat seem to stand against everything that most of the youth loves — arts, culture, freedom and friendship. To me, they signify a force that wants to obscure knowledge, stifle creativity and dissent; a force that intrigues, maneuvers, manipulates and conspires. The happenings of 1971 seem to epitomise what the party stands for and that was also the time when Jamaat was at its fiercest. If it can be seen to get away with the most heinous of its acts, nothing should stop it from ruling over every aspect of the present-day lives of Bangladeshi youth.

The fundamentalist narrative of Islam has come to dominate the lives of middle classes across the Muslim world for over half century now. It was presented to them as a viable option to build egalitarian societies while staking claim to a unique identity in compensation for their traditional ones that they had lost to colonial machinations. Its champions, the Jamaat-i-Islami included, have deceived the populace and have traded our dreams for the clergy’s vested interests, pushing us into the lairs of blood thirsty dictators and auctioning our souls to the highest bidder in the geopolitics bazaar.

What was once 'East Pakistan' has seen the most merciless of the faces of religious nationalism and 'West Pakistan' is still bleeding from the thousand cuts it has endured from the same. As a matter of fact, middle classes across North Africa, Middle East and Far East are suffering in various ways and degrees from the myopic narrative of political Islam that bars them from accepting who they are and stopping them from living lives to the fullest.

A counter narrative raises its head only occasionally. It has proven to be meek and elusive. It has dropped some hints, tweeted a few times, but has largely remained confined to academic circles. Can Shahbag be seen as a step to take the debate to the populist realm, an attempt to make familiar the alternative intellectual discourse? I wish it to be so. Challenging the conservative narrative in bold terms and brave ways shall give way to a new discourse on what role religion should have in our collective national lives. And if it has to start with a few bold steps in Dhaka, so be it, and let us chalo, chalo Shahbag chalo.


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

He tweets @TahirMehdiZ

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (24) Closed

Kj Feb 24, 2013 09:49am
there is nothing wrong with Holy scripts..but pple who claim themselves of executing the Holy scripts are totally driven by personal and political gain....they simply abuse religion to come to power....I strongly believe in religion and try to work hereby, but it does not necessarily mean that i have to be radical and kill poeple whereas Allah ordered us not to coerce in religion.
Kdspirited Feb 23, 2013 03:27pm
Well written. I am glad that the bangladeshies have not brought up Pakistan in their protest. Thats their past and out of that struggle they got their country. This is about how to move Banglaesh forward learning from the example of West Pakistan that cannot seem to rise to the occassion
Pinto Feb 22, 2013 05:51pm
Dear Sir, Your writing is great, specially coming out of Pakistan, its time we look at things from neutral perspective than see though coloured glass. We are in 21st century and surely we cant servive on medieval concepts of rule. The education is root of forming formidable society and lets take the education in right direction. You may be in minority amongst your people but if you persist there will be more of you kind, RASTE BANTE JAYENGE KARWAN BANTA JAYENGA.
vjaiswal35 Feb 23, 2013 12:58pm
An article that truly reflects the present day Muslim youth, yes the youth who some how escaped from the brain washing of right wing clerics who more then imparting reason and logic are inducting them in a version of Islam that is " the myopic narrative of political Islam that bars them from accepting who they are and stopping them from living lives to the fullest."
Aj Feb 22, 2013 08:06pm
You seem to be denying the Holy Book and giving preference to man made laws. What should i call it WESTERNISM or fundamentalism of colonial laws
Soumendra Mukherjee Feb 23, 2013 10:53am
Jamat is the part of PAKISTAN Who killed core of Bengali men and women. SO, no F. I. R. no ARREST no TALK, HANG them on the spot.
rashed islam Feb 23, 2013 08:37am
Fundamentalists have no regard for human life. All they want is power by dividing people.
ahmed41 Feb 23, 2013 06:21am
* goodbye crescent . i am Cross with u * Thank you Waseem sahib
NDChawla Feb 22, 2013 12:39pm
Yes, Pakistan has a link to what is happening in Bangladesh. Younger generation there does not want to be in the same position in which Pakistan finds itself to be at present. Pakistan has served as a bad example to them by adopting narrative of fundamentalists in state policy.
Naf Feb 22, 2013 10:30pm
Wow.. I sincerely applaud such objectivity.. (no offense.. you can imagine the ones from the 'qaum' I have encountered)... you will be a gem to your community.. inshALlah! (yes I am from Bangladesh..thanks for understanding the youth factor in the Shahbag protests... ) Go #Shahbag
Vijai Feb 24, 2013 06:17am
What you have achieved from your separation from India?
Masud Khan Feb 24, 2013 08:05am
Look at youself in the mirror and what do you see? Yes, that's the difference between where we are today and where they are. Of course, if you're a blind like many others in our society, that's a whole different story.
bose Feb 24, 2013 08:17am
The Biased tribunal not punishing the Mukti Bahani war criminals proves its not neutral. It seems the author fails to mention the massacre of Biharis at the hand of the terrorists of Mukti Bahani and presents a one sided view of things. Things are never black & white in the world.
Moin Ramiz Feb 22, 2013 08:57pm
what they have achieved by getting separated is the first question?
waseem ahmed qureshi Feb 22, 2013 10:01am
goodbye crescent . i am Cross with u
Jaseem Pasha Feb 22, 2013 05:06pm
Excellent article in Dawn. It is time for Pakistanis to learn lesson from the past history of Political Islam, trash all the Islamic political parties and religious leaders (the cause of all fitna and blood shed) and hold firmly the Quranic knowledge of Taqwa, revering Allah SWT without the help of Mullahs, respecting human dignity, especially women an children and human rights and also respect the rule of the law.
anwar kamal Feb 22, 2013 05:24pm
We want capital punishment of the killers of 1971.
Condemned Feb 22, 2013 12:37pm
Great article Mehdi Sb. In the increasing smoke of religious conservatism, your and other progressives' voice is a breath of fresh air. Keep up the good work.
BRR Feb 22, 2013 02:57pm
The concept of Ummah has invariably created a "fascist" enforcement of dominant Sunni perspective, that too a fundamentalist Wahabi type of fascism. The "brotherly live" has morphed into a "deadly embrace" where dissent results in annhilation of the "errant brother". The writer seems to suggest some of this.
sameer Feb 22, 2013 06:16pm
I do not think you have read about protest Shahbag. They are actually demanding capital punishment. That is why Bangladeshi govt has actually amended the law to allow it to appeal for capital punishment
sameer Feb 22, 2013 06:19pm
Furthermore, protest actually started when one of the culprits was given life sentence. Now people want him to be hanged
Tesin Feb 23, 2013 05:31pm
In Islam no one has the authority to permit what is forbidden or forbid what is permitted. In every circumstance the relevant reference from the Quran and Sunnah has to be followed. You cannot "improve" on it.
beg Feb 23, 2013 09:37pm
you will gasp for air in the hereafter
Sadia Zafar Feb 23, 2013 10:22pm
Congrats on your courage, YES! Pakistan needs to be redefined as Republic of Pakistan. I do not want to live in Islamic Republic of Pakistan