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