Shahbagh, the Tahrir Square of Dhaka
Tahrir Square of Cairo saw the great upheaval from early 2011 leading to such sweeping revolutionary changes in Egypt, causing ripples in the neighbourhood. Shahbagh in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is presently under sharp focus but for different reasons. The War Crimes' Tribunal awarded life imprisonment to war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah for his collaborative role in killing of innocents during the liberation struggle of Bangladesh in the run-up to its independence in 1971.
The congregation in Shahbagh, active since February 5, is swelling day by day as was seen in Cairo and the protest here largely comprises students with youthful vigour. Their demand is death sentence for Mollah as life sentence is too little for a perpetrator of such heinous crimes. In the recent past, Dhaka has seldom seen such a chain of events unfolding where the gen next is demanding death penalty for a war criminal. The message is loud and clear! Pro-liberation fervor is back and the spirit of freedom has been rekindled in the agitating youth. And more significantly, these protestors are all born much after 1971 but they are carrying forward the torch of freedom. These protests don't seem state-sponsored. They are stemming from the youth who love their country and patriotism is inherent in their veins, thanks to the Bangladeshi intellectuals who have been guiding beacons to their youth. Their parliament has passed a resolution supporting the movement. Roadside beggars have also joined the mainstream lending their support.
The congregation in Shahbagh is not to overthrow the government but to mount pressure on the establishment to ensure that war criminals don't escape death penalty. Hence a public opinion is being created uniting all freedom-loving elements. Isn't it a unique development? Intellectuals, academics, progressive individuals are all frequenting Shahbagh to keep the spirit of the movement alive. Noted writer Shamshul Haq, theatre doyens Ramendu Majumdar, Ferdausi Mazumdar and many more are regular in their visits to inspire the agitating youth. The agitation is peaceful and apolitical. Poems are recited, songs sung, speeches made and slogans innovated to make sure that fanatics are kept at bay and the spirit of freedom is kept alive.
It may be recalled that on February 21, 1952, Shahbagh and adjacent areas rose up against the then Pakistan government in protest against the imposition of Urdu in place of Bangla. Pakistani authorities resorted to firing, killing many students. 'Ekushey'(twenty first) is observed each year with great reverence in Dhaka. This time it's expected to be extraordinary as the gathering is growing manifold in quantity and in quality! From Kolkata, Kabir Sumon performed with his guitar further encouraging the youth. Other than the youth, the older generation, who had lived through the freedom movement, are also present, morally backing up the youngsters.
Bangladesh does not require any certificate of being a freedom-loving nation. It lost millions of innocents during its freedom struggle and almost a similar number of women were violated. War crimes against Bangladesh, against humanity, perpetrated by the Pakistani forces are possibly unparalleled in the annals of history. There were no Nuremberg type of trials to fix accountability. It looks a blatant discrimination when compared to excesses against the Jews.
Sadly, western media is inadequate in its coverage of the Shahbagh happenings as if it's only Bangladesh's concern. One doesn't see any interest amongst the West-sponsored TV channels in the ongoing, exciting developments in Dhaka. As I write, I see a middle eastern TV channel highlighting police dispersing Jamaat protests in Dhaka but ironically nothing on Shahbagh. It is visibly biased but why? Aren't the Bangladeshi youth campaigning for a just cause? Coincidentally or otherwise, one doesn't see any coverage by Indian TV channels except perhaps carried by Kolkata-based Bangla channels. This looks like a disconnect. Indian media stood by Bangladesh in 1971, supporting the liberation cause. The silence or indifference now belies any reasoning. Meanwhile, Shahbagh protests continue to be peaceful and there is also the occasional silence (maun) observed by the protestors.
Pakistan and the US had underestimated East Pakistan during the freedom movement and they were proved utterly wrong as East Pakistan became Bangladesh. It seems no lessons learnt. Once again, the West's political calculations are getting wide off the mark. The results are clearly written on the wall. The coming weeks will determine the course of events and most likely the outcome will strengthen the hands of the progressives and the liberals, proving that Bangladesh will have no place for non-secular and religious orthodoxy. Till then, Shahbagh will continue to be the local Tahrir Square and any eruption may see far-reaching consequences.
More about Shantanu Mukharji
Shantanu Mukharji joined the police in 1976 and was exposed to handling complex investigations and law and order situations, especially communal disturbances, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. With varied experience, he was deputed to various countries overseas for security related assignments. He was also with the elite SPG for seven years looking after VVIP security. A widely travelled officer with a diverse exposure, Mukharji also served the Cabinet Secretariat and Bureau of Security (MEA) in different capacities. A receipient of Indian Police Medal for Meritorious service and President's Police Medal for distinguished service, Shantanu Mukharji, after retirement from GoI, is now the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. He is a freelance writer in English and Hindi and focusses on topical issues.