Bangladesh: Revolutionary fire at Shahbagh

Verdicts of the Bangladesh war crimes tribunal this February, which were widely seen as overdue and too lenient, sparked off a wave of protests in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square and throughout the country.

The Shahbagh protests could mark the beginning of a revolutionary wave in the region. Such a prospect terrifies Bangladesh’s ruling class. The initial trigger for the movement was the verdicts of the International Crimes Tribunal against the perpetrators of the genocide in the national liberation struggle in 1971. But the movement is definitely linked to the frustrations of the youth and the working people in present day Bangladesh.

The recent protests of the garment and textile workers against the very dim future for the youth under capitalism are recipes for a revolutionary upheaval in Bangladesh, with implications beyond its borders. The protest movement in the Shahbagh district of Dhaka, despite its contradictory nature, is part of the global protest wave that began with the Tunisian uprising that led to the ‘Arab Spring’. It is also in tune with the mass workers’ protests throughout Europe against austerity measures and with the anti-rape protests that rocked India in the last two months.

The call for the death penalty for the perpetrators of some of the 20th century’s most barbaric and inhuman crimes against humanity during the struggle for national liberation is understandable. However, this will not erase nor cleanse the deep wounds that still linger amongst millions of ordinary Bangladeshis. The real perpetrators responsible for this crime are not merely the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership: the trail of guilt extends to the current ruling elite and also to the army of Bangladesh, the Pakistani military and ruling class, the Chinese Maoist-Stalinist regime and, last but not the least, US Imperialism.

The regimes of Pakistan, India, China, the Soviet Union and USA were terrified at the prospects of the Bangladesh liberation struggle, starting from the late 1960s and leading up to 1971, going beyond the confines of capitalism and spreading as a revolutionary wave that could have engulfed the entire region of South Asia.

It was not just the Pakistani ruling class and military that tried to brutally suppress the liberation struggle: the role of the Indian ruling class was equally questionable. The real intention of the Indian army was not to liberate Bangladesh or defeat Pakistan, but disarm the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and disband the democratic soviet-type organisations that were beginning to emerge all over Bangladesh.

We welcome the Shahbagh protest movement. At the same time, the movement cannot rely on the current government led by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) to deliver justice.

[Awami League (AL) is the main bourgeois party in Bangladesh. While it carries the tag of having been the leading force during the national liberation struggle, however once in power, it has betrayed the working people of Bangladesh time and again.]

The Awami League will use this movement to score its own political goals against its rivals like the right wing BNP.

[The Bangladesh National Party(BNP) is the main opposition party in Bangladesh. It is known to be pro- Islamic and neo-liberal in its policies. It was known for its campaign against independence from Pakistan, with some of its members involved in committing war crimes during the liberation struggle. Two of its members are currently facing a Tribunal for atrocities committed during the liberation struggle. ]

Given that elections are about a year away, some of the movement’s demands could end up strengthening the hand of the Bangladesh state, and be used against protesters, activists, and left-wing organisations in the future.

The movement clearly has to go beyond the confines of capitalist and landlord exploiters who are really responsible for the backwardness and extreme poverty that is prevalent in Bangladesh today. These conditions are the breeding ground for reactionary tendencies like the Jamaat-e-Islami. It is the system based on capitalism that needs to be eliminated, not the few individuals who were acting on the direct orders of imperialism.

The Dhaka protests against the war crimes committed by the Islamic fundamentalists during the Bangladeshi war for Independence [see also: The birth of Bangladesh] has suddenly awakened an entirely new younger generation, bringing them onto the streets. These protests are the biggest mobilisation in the last 40 years.

Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Liberation Struggle

During the time of Indian independence from Britain in 1947, India was partitioned along communal lines into India and Pakistan. Pakistan included the East (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (now Pakistan). During the struggle for independence from Pakistani rule many, many people were brutally killed, women raped and 10 million people forced to flee across the border to India by the Pakistani military dictatorship.

Jamaat-e-Islami was one of the major Bangladeshi political parties which directly helped the Pakistani army and its puppet government (along with US imperialism) to suppress the liberation struggle. Jamaat members were also part of the reactionary paramilitary force, the Razakars (Volunteers), who were party to the massacre of between 200,000 to 3 million (the numbers are still debated) and up to 400,000 women raped. The Jamaat-e-Islami was also in the forefront of propping up the Pakistani regime in the period between 1950-71, supporting, for instance, the highly unpopular anti-Bengali language law.

Despite its virulently communal and genocidal past, it is still a legal political party and this has been a festering wound on the Bangladeshi national psyche. Many ordinary Bangladeshi youth and working people openly question the government’s inaction even after 40 years! The party is also known to have ties with Islamic terrorist groups and has itself been involved in many extremist-linked activities such as the violent terror attacks on ordinary working people.

Implication of Shahbagh Protests

Throughout Bangladeshi history, youth and students have played a key role in major events in the country’s fractured history, such as the Bengali language movement in 1952, the mass uprising in 1969 and the armed struggle for national Independence in 1971.

There was an impression in the last period that the younger generation had forgotten about the horrific crimes committed by these right-wing, fundamentalist forces. Since February 5th this year, Shahbagh Square in the national capital Dhaka has been the site of a mass protest calling for a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami and the confiscation of Jamaat businesses. The frustration of having to wait for 40 years to get justice has led to calls for the death penalty for Abdul Kader Mullah and eleven others for committing crimes against the Bangladeshi people.

Bangladeshi women demanding justice

Abdul Kader Mullah, a senior leader of the Jamaat-E-Islami, is also known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ and his role in the genocide during the liberation struggle is very well known. It is shameful that the Bangladeshi ruling class never took any action against him or others. In fact, they went to the extent of collaborating with the Jamaat-e-Islami in the years following independence. In the process, Jamaat leaders have increased their wealth, owning businesses and once again re-establishing their right-wing fundamentalist networks across the length and breadth of the country.

The current movement of the Bangladeshi youth started just after the verdict of the International Crimes Tribunal – ICT (Bangladesh) in Dhaka on February 5th that awarded a life sentence to Abdul Kader Mullah for his barbaric crimes before independence.

[Though it is named as an International Crimes Tribunal, it is in fact a local tribunal which was one of the election promises of the Awami League when it wept to power in 2008. Many of the human rights organizations have criticized the functioning of the Tribunal as being orchestrated for the benefit of the ruling party.]

What triggered the movement was probably in response to the violent demonstrations carried out by the Jamaat activists across the country in the run up to the verdict, demanding that their leaders be freed.

Between November 2012 and January 2013, with the support from the main opposition party, the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), Jaamat and its youth wing organised violent demonstrations against the war crimes tribunal. They sent hundreds of their party activists on a terror campaign against the activists of other parties and the police, damaging vehicles and property and throwing home-made bombs.

The Gano Jagaran Mancha (Mass Awakening Platform) formed by the youth in the wake of the Shahbagh protests could well turn out to be the ignition stage for a revolutionary upheaval in Bangladesh. Tens of thousands of youth and students (some estimating the crowd at more than a million on some of the days) occupied Shabagh square until 21st February demanding action against Jamaat-e-Islami and the perpetrators of massacres in the national liberation struggle.

A month ago, on 15th Feb, a protester and blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was brutally slaughtered outside his home in Dhaka, allegedly by Jamaat activists. His body was taken to Shahbagh square, where tens of thousands gathered to pay their last respects to him. They were even more determined to take on the Islamic fundamentalists. The ‘Mancha’ youth also announced a boycott of business, educational establishments, banks, etc., run by the ‘war criminals’.

After the protests at Shahbagh ended on 21st February, the protesters returned once more to the Shahbagh square the day after the Jamaat cadres went on a rampage in Dhaka. They attacked the police and public with bombs, stones, and destroyed the Sylhet Central Shaheed Minar, set up as a memorial by the Shahbagh activists. Angered by these unprovoked attacks, thousands of youth demonstrated on 22nd Feb and attacked businesses, schools, etc., run by the Jamaat.

Jamaat-e-Islami on the rampage

With the tide clearly against Jamaat, the Parliament on 17th February amended the ICT Act to allow the prosecution to appeal against any verdict in a war crimes case that it deems unsatisfactory. The amendment also allows a life sentence to be replaced by a death penalty. On 27th February, the tribunal sentenced one of the accused, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the Vice President of Jamaat-e-Islami, to death. The decision immediately sparked violence, unleashed by the Jamaat activists, with a death toll of over 80 people as of now. There was looting, arson and the deliberate targeting of the minority Hindu community in many parts of the country.

However, the Shahbagh movement has defied all these threats against it, especially during the recent 48- hour strike (3/4 March) called by the Jamaat-e-Islami with the support of the BNP. The Shahbagh movement will continue to stage demonstrations during the run-up to the March 26 deadline for the banning of Jamaat.

As Bangladesh continues to be tense, the Shahbagh protests could mark the beginning of youth and working people questioning the very foundations of Bangladesh, which is in the throes of the most barbaric exploitation under capitalism and landlordism.

Our author, Protap Debnath, is originally from Bangladesh

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March 2013