DHAKA: The question of capital punishment stirs strong feelings and so it should. Every death brings bereavement. People unrelated to the crime – wives, children, siblings, husbands, parents – suffer as deep a loss as the people who lost loved ones because of it.
It can never be a wonderful thing to end a life, and as someone recently pointed out to me, to assume to possess the moral authority to do so is assuming quite a lot. At the very least, no death should ever be celebrated. The impassioned and festive calls by little children for Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leader ‘Koshai’ Kader Mollah to be sent to the gallows for his crimes against humanity during the 1971 war of independence are certainly revolting, but perhaps that presents a limited view of what’s really going on all of a sudden in Bangladesh.
And what’s really happening is astounding. Thousands of people have gathered peacefully for days and nights in a country known for violent demonstrations; demanding that their judiciary deliver justice even when a combined assault by Jamaat and its student wing Shibir looms large and in some ways, has already begun.
The protests are decidedly non-partisan and have resisted every attempt by leading parties to use their movement, including the ruling Awami League which initiated the war crimes tribunal and whose tacit patronage they receive in the form of police protection, public toilets and parliamentary speeches.
They have however, allowed members of civil society, intellectuals, freedom fighters and activists to give speeches and have been endorsed by numerous non-political entities, including the Bangladesh cricket team. In a country where partisan divisions go deep, this is truly an unprecedented development.
It began when a group of bloggers calling themselves the Bloggers and Online Activists Network or BOAN assembled at Shahbagh Square, now the centre stage for the sit-ins, and registered their disgust for the life sentence that was handed down to Kader Mollah, in spite of the fact that he had been found guilty of being complicit in murder and several cases of torture and rape, including that of an 11-year-old girl.
The news about the sit-in spread virally, and by late afternoon a few thousand people had added their voices. By the first week, it was somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people, with chapters springing up across the country. Meals are provided, wi-fi is free and open, performances are catered for, an enormous petition has been rolled out, people come with their families and everything about the place is communal and considerate – except towards Razakars (those who were members and supporters of pro-Pakistan militia), of course, who are being given no quarter at all.
Asif Moinuddin, one of the BOAN bloggers and a member of the core group at Shahbagh, who was stabbed a few months ago by Shibir cadres for blogging about atheism and religious fanaticism, says their agenda goes beyond the hangings. It’s about rooting out a culture of low and high level terrorism, the sort that he was a victim of, perpetrated in the name of religion. He said they are fighting for the right to live in a functional, secular country where their freedom of expression and thought is not constantly challenged and where political intimidation and impunity is a thing of the past.
He was careful to make it clear that this was not a movement against religion, but against the misuse of religion in politics and simply an affirmation of the principles that Bangladesh was founded on – nationalism, secularism, democracy and justice.
Even though on the surface, Bangladesh doesn’t look like Afghanistan or even Saudi Arabia, the influence of a particularly intolerant brand of Islam remains perilously close. JI’s leanings are consistent with many elements of these doctrines, and their website plainly demonstrates their desire to be involved in politics only because it’s a necessary evil by which the imposition of Shariah can be realised. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the term ‘shibir’ was synonymous with ‘horror’ as student wing activists routinely slit political opponents’ tendons and throats. During their tenure as part of the previous coalition government, a creeping religious censorship entered the public sphere and manifested itself as acts of vandalism or outright murder.
A sharp spike in activity against secular, academic, cultural, non-Muslim groups and even the prime minister ,was witnessed during this period and while most were perpetrated by groups like Jamaatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkatul Jihad Islami (HuJI) and not by the JI, the fact that it happened on their watch is noteworthy. Some of these activities were carried out with Jamaat’s direct consent. The minority Ahmmadiya community was targeted, their literature banned and their mosques dismantled, and Shibbir activists viciously attacked the writer Humayun Azad with machetes for a book in which he exposed Jamaat’s militancy, both past and present.
The nation-wide fear of being held hostage to a radical interpretation of Islam is a very real one, and one that the Jamaat-Shibbir nexus perpetuates with their tactics of terror. Immediately after the first verdict, AbulKalam Azad aka BacchuRazakar’s death sentence, they declared a nationwide strike, which was marked by violence including the clubbing to near-death of a police officer.