4 years since the Shahbagh movement
Dhaka Tribune Report: On February 5, 2013, the nation was eagerly waiting for the much-desired verdict in the war crimes case against Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Molla, who was known as Koshai (Butcher) Quader during the 1971 Liberation War, amid a dawn-to-dusk shutdown enforced by Jamaat.
But the justice-seekers were disappointed as the special tribunal handed down life-term imprisonment instead of a death sentence for the notorious war criminal, who was found involved in genocide and rape.
Condemnation poured into social media, especially Facebook, against the lenient sentence. Some youths announced a human chain at Shahbagh at 3pm to demand death penalty for him since he might have walked free if the government changed.
Quader Molla was serving as the assistant secretary general of Jamaat that has never apologised for the atrocities committed in 1971.
Jamaat was even in the government for the first time in 2001 as part of the ruling four-party alliance led by the BNP, and two of its senior leaders were made ministers.
It was BNP founder Ziaur Rahman who lifted the ban on Jamaat and religion-based politics after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Earlier, Zia scrapped the Collaborators Act and released over 11,000 razakars being tried under the law.
By 3pm on February 5, 2013, some 50 youths joined a human chain in front of the National Museum in the capital, and the chain of protesters extended rapidly in the next two hours.
The organisers, Blogger and Online Activist Network (BOAN), then decided to occupy the Shahbagh intersection amid a Jamaat-enforced general strike around 5pm, and the participants went to the roundabout with a procession chanting slogans demanding death penalty for all war criminals.
In its first verdict, the tribunal on January 15 the same year had sentenced to death a former Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar in absentia. Families of martyrs and war crimes trial campaigners expected the highest punishment for Quader Molla as well.
The activists started a sit-in at Shahbagh amid slogans and patriotic songs. Around 6pm, there were several hundred people gathered at the place. Civil society representatives, cultural activists, left parties and some ruling party leaders expressed solidarity with the movement.
Members of the ruling party’s student wing Chhatra League also joined the protests.
The protesters continued their programme throughout the night, and the organisers soon came up with three-point demands: death penalty for all war criminals, ban on Jamaat and its radical student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir, and confiscation of properties of convicted war criminals and nationalisation of Jamaat’s financial institutions and social organisations.
Some organisers also raised the demand for banning religion-based politics, and removing state religion from the constitution, alleging that the provision promotes religious fanaticism and terrorism. But the platform did not adopt them.
The BNP initially welcomed the movement that turned into a sea of justice seekers, but soon made a U-turn reportedly after failing to convince the organisers to raise other issues including corruption of the ruling government – like the movements in several Middle East countries – dubbed “Arab Spring” around the same time.
BNP-Jamaat leaning newspapers and TV channels started campaigning against the movement’s organisers terming them “fascists,” “atheists” and “blasphemers.”
Within a week into the movement, people across the country launched similar sit-ins on Shaheed Minar premises and important spots expressing solidarity. Bangladeshis living abroad also staged demonstrations demanding death for all war criminals.
People and the media started calling the platform Gonojagoron Moncho and the place “Projonmo Chottor.”
The sit-in was held at Shahbagh without a break at least for 17 days and continued for a couple of months with intervals. During that time, people from all walks of life at home and abroad participated in the programmes declared by the Shahbagh organisers including candle light vigils and human chains.
The platform also submitted 10 million signatures to the parliament urging the government to fulfil their three-point demands.
The movement faced its first violent opposition on February 14 when Jamaat-Shibir men killed Agrani Bank staff Zafar Munshi in Motijheel area for unfurling a banner expressing solidarity.
A day later, a group of North University students linked to Chhatra Shibir hacked to death architect Ahmed Rajeeb Haider, an active participant of the movement, in front of his home in Mirpur. Soon after the murder, radical Islamists started campaigning on social media against Rajeeb branding him as an “atheist” – a strategy adopted by the Jamaat top brass and other collaborators during the Liberation War to justify the killings of freedom fighters.
The murder took place only four days after a Shibir-run blog published a list of bloggers and secular activists linked to the movement, urging its supporters to kill them.
In the face of growing demands, parliament passed an amendment to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973 on February 17 to allow the prosecution to file appeals against the tribunal verdicts. As per the original law, only the defence was allowed to appeal against the judgements.
Radical Islamist platform Hefazat-e-Islam, formed by Qawmi madrasa teachers and students, groups linked to BNP-Jamaat alliance, started regrouping after the murder. They believed the propaganda against Rajeeb, and staged violent demonstrations across the country after the Jumma prayers on February 22. They vandalised and torched Gonojagoron Moncho stages in different districts as revenge.
Jamaat and Hefazat supporters created a reign of havoc across the country killing several hundred people and destroying government properties after the war crimes tribunal on February 28 handed down death penalty to another influential Jamaat leader, Delawar Hossain Sayedee, for his war-time crimes committed in Pirojpur.
The Islamists gained support through these activists and later handed over a list of “atheist bloggers and websites” to the Home Ministry seeking stern punishment.
But they did not stop after the police arrested four bloggers for their suspected involvement in “defaming” the Qur’an and the Prophet (PBUH). Hefazat announced a long-march towards Dhaka for April 6 and placed a 13-point charter of demands including formulation of an anti-blasphemy law, banning free mingling of men and women, erecting statues and candle light vigils terming them Hindu culture, and declaring the Ahmadiyya community non-Muslim.
So far, more than two dozens campaigners for war crime trials have been killed. Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarullah Bangla Team (now Ansar al-Islam) took credit for 13 attacks that killed 11 activists. The terrorist group termed its targets “atheists,” seeking to gain sympathy of the Islamist parties and groups.
On the other hand, another group of militants affiliated with the Islamic State, New JMB, has killed dozens of people, mostly non-Muslim and non-Sunni community people, and carried out bomb and gun attacks on Ahmadiyya and Shia mosques and Hindu temples between September 2015 and July 2016. The group also claimed responsibility for the Holey Artisan Bakery attack that alone killed 24 people, mostly foreigners.
Both the groups want to establish Shariah Law in Bangladesh and bring the Rakhine State of Myanmar and parts of India under their Caliphate.
The government has yet to ban Jamaat, whose party registration with the Election Commission was scrapped by the High Court the same year, and an appeal against the verdict is pending with the Appellate Division. But it has taken measures to reform and nationalise the Jamaat-owned business institutions.
After the disposal of appeal verdicts, the government executed five top Jamaat leaders including Motiur Rahman Nizami, and Quader Molla. The appeals of several other Jamaat leaders against their conviction are pending with the apex court.