Friday, May 31, 2013

The Cultural Dimensions to Shahbagh – Part 2

397379_10151972798629569_849436990_n.jpg (220×142)
by Maqsoodul Haque – Mac

'Capital punishment is society's final assertion that it will not forgive.' Martin Luther King

The volatile and demeaning 'atheist' debate was one that no one protesting against the war criminals of 1971 at Shahbagh were mentally prepared to encounter, and thus when vile insinuations were made, it led to shock and an overall sense of panic. Never ever in the innumerable cultural struggles of Bangladesh has one word, one term ever been used with the sort of 'effective viciousness' than what we witnessed in 2013. 

More so, it was done unabashedly on a wide brushed premise, meaning not only those that were leading the movement, but anyone seen anywhere near the venue of the protest, or ones that had made their public or remotely private allegiance to Shahbagh was condemned 'atheist'. This was a morass that would prove hard for Shahbagh to wriggle out of easily. 

The notion that an unsubstantiated word or its mere usage in public could deter anyone away from the Shahbagh movement is flawed, yet the Jamaat-E-Islami (JeI) devilishly upped the ante by adding more spice by demanding 'death sentence' for 'atheist bloggers'. That was not all; its ally the mainstream opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) trumpeted and provoked this further, by declaring Shahbagh activists as 'atheist and young people with questionable moral character'. 

Predictably, the JeI/BNP combine had made up its mind to destroy Shahbagh with means fair and foul, and the opening salvos were not limited to verbosities, but were unrolled with deadly intent. The killing of blogger Rajib Haider on February 15, 2013 by Islamic bigots and the subsequent open support of the BNP to JeI's propaganda reaffirming the deceased supposed 'atheist' credentials, and later hartals, led to several developments that had far reaching consequences. 

It revealed for the first time that the BNP had veered away from its known centrist political positioning and moved callously to the extreme far right. The political lines of division were hemmed-in and culturally, citizens again got bogged down on uncertain turfs of 'sensitivity'. Siding with Shahbagh would mean being branded 'atheist', while agreeing with JeI/BNP would not make anyone look any more 'Muslim' then they already are. The hackneyed and debilitating 'politics of identity' once again took centre stage. For the Shahbagh movement these developments were bound to have far-reaching consequences, and ones that will no doubt, go on to shape the national cultural thought process in the years to come. 

To the nuts and bolts: by criminalizing the word 'atheist' and then interjecting that the Bloggers had 'insulted Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and denigrated the Qu'ran' and demanding the capital punishment likewise, the JeI scored a superlative propaganda victory. Strategically the JeI duo entendre equated 'crimes' of the bloggers, as 'no less', than those of the criminals involved in the genocides of 1971. This meant that the Liberation War and the emergence of Bangladesh as a nation was treacherously trivialized and sidelined with fecund falsities, albeit with a slight difference. 

In 1971 the enemy was 'Hindus', in 2013, geopolitical realities somehow made it necessary for the JeI not to excite or bin the minority community, for the 'powerful neighbour' India would have none of it, and so the term 'atheist' conveniently fitted the bill. For a nation reeling on dosages of both secular and Islamist 'fundamentalist' propaganda for 42 years, the term 'atheist' thus was an unexpected bolt from the blue, leaving many discomfited. When a vernacular daily culled, select yet very disturbing articles, passages and quips from some of the blogs in question, hatred for Shahbagh spread like wildfire. 

The damage was done, and allegiance to Shahbagh became a hazardous proposition and one that had a huge risk factor; that of losing limbs or life. Shahbagh was certainly stymied, but never ever moved out of the public debate domains.

However, the ill thought out reactions by Shahbagh to the 'atheist' propaganda was pathetically quixotic and potently embarrassing. It was a public relation disaster of Himalayan proportions, and if 'damage control' was the intent, it completely backfired. Overnight, all events at Shahbagh began with recitations from the Qu'ran and other religious text, and the leadership finding itself in a quandary, went all out soliciting 'public support' from Alems, Ulemas, Mashayekhs  and Maulanas (including one who leads an Eid congregation prayer of over 100,000 Muslims).

These dubious efforts at sweet talking the clergy and attempts at kosherisation of the movement, led to endless satire and barbs from JeI in social Media.  Questioning the Iman (resolve/faith in Allah) the Shahbagh protestors earned a new sobriquet - 'Shah-Bagh'! 

The unrestrained and calculated opposition to Shahbagh led to further erosion of its popularity and credibility, and the crowd turnout every evening started thinning in an unprecedented manner. From a cultural movement with political undertones demanding capital punishment, it moved sharply to that of a theological conflict of dangerous proportions, with the 1971 slogan of 'Islam is in danger' making an ominous comeback. 

The seesaw of Shahbagh's fortune saw its first casualty with the AL Government which piggybacked on the movement because it served its partisan agenda, imminently distancing itself. The pro-Government medias, reduced their presence from 24/7 coverage to occasional reporting's. Men in Che Guevara T-Shirt and beret, and women with heavy makeovers posing for Facebook profile pictures, or the medias probing cameras were nowhere to be seen. Shahbagh overnight became a 'un-cool' venue for elitist revolutionary wannabes! Shahbagh activists were beginning to look like abandoned orphans, than the rebels who had challenged the status quo weeks ago, heralding a much-desired change in the peoples mindsets.

Soon anti-Shahbagh public debates raged leaving the protestors continuously cornered. JeI used all capacities at its disposal to tire out the protestors. The activist's defense rarely made national news, and was limited to slinging profanity filled 'battles' on Facebook and other social medias, which rages on as I write.  

There are however specific issues here which went unaddressed:

There is no denying that many among the Shahbagh leaders were atheist, and the movements faced its first crisis specifically through 'guilt by association', as well as explicit denials of the allegations by activists. This primarily belied their honesty and sincerity of purpose, leaving them open to scrutiny of supporters and sympathizers. 

Together, their extremely weak defense, inadequate knowledge of grass root culture, religion, theology or political Islam made the Shahbagh leadership look like amateurs in the public eye. The proverbial 'heat' was on and there was to be no respite. With the government choosing to ignore their sets of demands – including a ban on JeI, the disappointment, dissensions and conflict within Shahbagh surfaced and escalated with a faction going on fast unto death strike.

The core point here is the erosion of support to Shahbagh amply demonstrates that while our culture is liberal and has a wide degree of tolerance to many belief systems in its midst; it never had a huge appetite for atheism. Thus, when the 'atheist' label was wholesale tagged to Shahbagh, the blowback was predictably inevitable. Complicating the equation, Shahbagh made no efforts at distancing itself from a handful of atheist in their midst, giving the movement a bad name, and one that was unnecessary. 

That said, whether Bangladesh has the space for agnostics or atheist in its populace is a debate for a later date. However if disbelief in God constitutes 'atheism', in Buddhism (thought to be the oldest religion in Bangladesh), where the concept of 'God' as understood by theist or monotheist is non-existent, the word 'atheism' needs to be defined by authorities, and its criminal abuse prevented as forcefully as possible. Anything short of that, will lead to a cultural catastrophe in Bangladesh and Shahbagh was an indicator, as how close we were to it.

When it comes to 'hurting religious sentiments'  it wasn't the bloggers in question that were responsible, but the planned provocation by a couple of vernacular dailies funded by vested interest, who lifted materials off these blogs and made them public, that prompted bloody riots in the streets. The dailies were not sued by anyone, not even by the government for spreading incendiary hate. 

Considerable political capital had to be made through confusion, and by distracting the public's intense concentration away from war crimes trial on part of the JeI/BNP on the one hand, on the other, paving an opportunity for the government of the day to undertake draconian measures on law enforcement matters was successfully completed. Those measures were initiated not just to punish JeI/BNP – but in effect jackknife and compromise public liberty space, with the façade of 'democracy' remaining on track, and on course!

Part of the misunderstood legacy of Shahbagh and the criticisms/opposition it faced other than those explained above, is the movement was conceived on a huge paradox. While it called itself a 'non-violent movement', its demands for the capital punishment to War Criminals of 1971 did not gel well with its implied pacifist agenda.  For Shahbagh activists in Europe and North America it was a hard sell proposition. That the western media completely ignored a peoples uprising no less significant than Tahrir Square in Cairo, was because demands for capital punishment could never be explained to anybody's satisfaction.

However, Shahbagh simply had no other options available than taking a hard line, given the political establishments role in the last 42 years to delay and derail the War Crimes Trial process. The crimes of 1971 had to remain focused and in the public eye at all times, and demands for capital punishment was the only weapon available within purview of existing laws, to ensure that justice was delivered. Demanding the death penalty is after all legitimate in Bangladesh.

As far as transparency and code of conduct of the International War Crimes Tribunal is concerned, it was never free of controversy in as much as any other court set up anywhere in the world for similar crimes. Yet, regardless of critics and conspiracy theories abounding in Bangladesh, it is no secret that JeI has any dearth of funding, and for long sought counsel of expensive criminal lawyers in the UK and the US. 

Hence, big money and dangerous power play would no doubt lead to a protracted trial process with stakeholders of different shades within and outside the government, as well as shady vested interest having a fair run of the mill – is not unexpected, as newer developments will indicate. 

The uniqueness of Shahbagh weighed heavily, as it was cultural motivation of the young, with relentless days and nights spent sloganeering, that created a bulwark of popular passion and a resistance that opened up a pandora box of surprises!

Deceptive elements of 42 years were unmasked at a scale hitherto unseen. From politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, cultural activist, clergy, government functionaries, freedom fighters etc the list is long and continues to grow. The Shahbagh movement saw a bewildering array of characters previously hiding behind one façade or the other, being exposed and chastised as 'national enemies'.

As days wore on, more confirmations came in as evidence, as these elements unable to fathom the cultural dimensions to Shahbagh started losing their credibility every time they opened their mouth in public.  

Our political Mafia for long had never looked at any opposition worthy of being taken seriously. Our political culture had embraced the 'strange bedfellows' proposition to the extent that any initiative to hold war crimes trials have been marked with buffoonery that has been disgraceful to the victims of 1971, as well as to their families.

For far too long the young of Bangladesh have been ignored, and grey haired intellectuals or fossilsed politicians have relentlessly lied and cheated on issues of national aspirations. Shahbagh is just not a cultural movement. It is a generational revolt that commenced on 5th February 2013, and one unlikely to end in the short run. On the long run, any efforts at scuttling the movement by any quarter will lead on to an explosion, like of which we are unprepared as a nation to cope with. 

to be continued

New Age, Shock & Awe Talk
Friday, 31st May 2013

To read Part 1 of this essay click on this link

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Of terrorism and the US Ambassador

by Mac Haque

If deterrence is the avowed principle of civil conduct, the US should take the lead in helping Bangladesh eliminate ‘democratic terrorist’ and dismantle their playing field. Stripped off their known source of evil power, the US ambassador will then not have to expend too much energy convincing our politicians to sit together for decent talks. Simply put, the US idea of firing canons to disperse imaginary flies is too hazardous a proposition for Bangladesh to undertake, writes Mac Haque

"Americans no longer fight to keep their shores safe,
Just to keep the jobs going in the arms making work place.
Then they pretend to be gripped by some sort of political reflex,
But all they’re doing is paying dues to the Military Industrial Complex."
Gil-Scott Heron (1949-2011), Working for Peace, 1994

THE word ‘terrorism’ strikes a fear deep into our heart and whenever it is uttered, by responsible officials of the United States government in its heavily unipolar role as a world policeman, the perceived ‘threat’ to us here in Bangladesh does get all the more pronounced.

And so it was on May 17 that a New Age report quoted the US ambassador Dan W Mozena as saying 

‘This [terrorism] is our shared enemy, one which confronts us, all of us around the world who cherish freedom and democracy… Bangladesh is developing a capacity to create a whole of government response to increase the effectiveness in fighting terrorism.’

On the surface, it seems perfectly all right for Bangladesh to go for effective capacity building of its men in uniform, even better if this is paid for by a superpower such as the US. It means our fighting force have first world expertise, weapons, logistics and equipments in place to handle any exigencies that may come along, with or without warning.

Yet, on the flip side, it merits a deeper thought whether ‘terrorism’ as defined by the US at all exists in Bangladesh? Is a first world solution desirable for problems in a third world country like Bangladesh? Culturally, is the Bengali race game to Rambo-esque trigger-happy, heavily-armed members of law enforcement, who, at taxpayers’ expense, can be misused to brutally suppress its people and the same spirit of ‘freedom and democracy’ that the US ‘cherishes’?

Fundamentally, what is ‘terrorism’ that the US defines, understands or even ‘fights’, and what does it imply when it is called a ‘shared problem’?

The answer for now to all of the above is ‘we do not know’!

The definition of ‘terrorism’, a relic of the Bushonian ‘war on terror’, has two all encompassing parameters in US foreign policies, unrolled since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Firstly, the all-powerful ‘invisible enemy’ has been al-Qaeda. Yet, after years of ‘fighting’ them and then the elimination by US Special Forces of its supremo Osama Bin Laden, in Pakistan in May 2011, we are being led to believe that ‘resurgent ghosts’ have the infinite global capacity to hit back.

The US appears for now to be our credible saviour, and have the ‘requisite skills’ to bail us out on terms that suits them. Sure enough, like Hollywood, it will, of course, be the US that will come to save the world ‘at the very last minute’!

Secondly, as the US helps corrupt and foot-licking governments such as Bangladesh build its ‘terrorist fighting capabilities’, it consciously avoids the term Islamic or Muslim as a prefix before the word ‘terrorism’, for good reasons.

It does not like to be perceived as an ‘enemy of Islam’ and for Bangladesh which it branded post 2001 with a ridiculously patronising term ‘moderate Muslim country’, the inference is that it is a ‘maybe’ situation; ideally a hunch.

That done, it creates the perfect opportunity to subtly hammer in the fear psychosis that ‘extremist Muslim maybes’ are lurking excessively close for our comfort. That Islam is Islam and there is simply no space for ‘terrorism’ in the religion has been jettisoned from the popular imagination for now.

The odd lessons from the closing years of the last century tells us, it is the US that creates these ‘terrorist Muslims’ in the first place and then goes out hunting them down. The footprint of such groups is spread out all the way from the occupied West Bank in West Asia to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Eastern Europe, it has been much of the same; however, in Bangladesh while the story ‘may be’ identical, reality checks reveal perceivably sinister agendas of stakeholders that harp upon the US-induced fear psychosis for profits.

For example, if we make a comparison of trans-national or even ‘global terrorist groups’ to those in Bangladesh, the sanest deduction would be; we have none worth the mention that is a threat either to the state or the public. The images or evidence of heavily armed men in outfits like Hezbollah, Taliban or Lashkar-e-Taiba, etc, has not been seen — not even for once — and all ‘terrorist incidents’ that we get to read about or see on TV are laughable.

We get a fair dose of ‘jihadi’ arrest stories, but what do our law enforcements present as factual evidence? Columns in newspapers are printed laced with lies about ‘captured terrorist camps’ where the arsenal are no more than ‘dummy rifles’, machetes, daggers, knives, batteries, flashlights, and ‘jihadi’ materials and books, etc.

Sometimes ‘bomb making materials’ are noticeable in seizure lists, but then these ‘dangerous materials’ are available anywhere in most grocery, commercial chemicals or hardware shops.

Essentially, ‘terrorism’ in Bangladesh on the US scheme of things is a hoax of unbelievable proportions and has a legacy tag. It is true that there were many Bangladeshi volunteers in the two Afghan conflicts, the first between 1979 and 1989 against the Soviet invasion, and the second against the US invasion in 2001 that is yet ongoing.

However, the actual numbers of Bangladeshi volunteers to both ‘jihads’ have always been grossly exaggerated and there are no records whatsoever of any of them being in active combat, or of anyone being killed in action.

Bengali volunteers to Afghanistan fought no ‘jihad’. They were menial support staff to war efforts and their roles were limited to that of cooks, butlers, toilet cleaners, porters, messengers, etc, no different from poor Bengalis that go to West Asia to earn hard cash.

Therefore, the propaganda of apparently ‘battle hardened Afghan war veterans’ poised to threaten a ‘bloody jihad’ in Bangladesh is used by rogue elements within our own intelligence services to keep the US interested, and its funds for covert activities to flow freely.

The headline screamingjihadis’ of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh is a focal point for our clearer understanding. The precursor to the JMB was Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, formed in 1998 allegedly with government and intelligence services largesse, to create a buffer with the aim of curtailing Naxalite (Maoist) insurgencies in northern Bangladesh.

By 2005 the monster was allowed to grow to an extent that in August the outfit carried out a ‘terrorist attack’ when 500 ‘bombs’ went off simultaneously in 300 locations all across Bangladesh.

However, as far as the synchronicity of the attacks is concerned, it hardly became obvious in the days that followed, that it could have been done without an intelligence agency overseeing of the same.

There were only two fatalities, yet security analysts have always been sceptical about the size, shape and effectiveness of these ‘bombs’. In reality, they were ‘potkas’ or firecrackers, and much more ‘powerful’ explosives go off in the US during 4th of July celebrations!

The background to the rise of the JMB and the ‘bomb attacks’ is sordid, yet interesting. After being in a denial mode of any ‘jihadi threats’ for years since it was installed in power in 2001, the then government of Bangladesh Nationalist Party capitulated to US whims and officially joined in the ‘war on terror’. ‘Jihad’ entered our vocabulary and it was amazing to see the spin doctoring that the media was lasciviously indulging in.

There were several important developments before the BNP’s change of tack and position on the ‘war on terror’. By the end of 2003, top political functionaries of the government and the intelligence services were making frequent trips to the US, and it is possible that a curt ‘get em bombs goin, and jihad slogans up and runnin’ instruction was whispered.

Sure enough, ‘jihad’ phobia drowned out calls and pleas for reason. Enough greenbacks were on offer, and coming from the United States of Arrogance, very few would have the guts to refuse.

Bangladesh apparently needed ‘fighting capabilities’ for this shady, shadowy ‘enemy’ and top line weapons, surveillance and communication devices had to be sourced. That our military does a commendable job in UN peacekeeping missions anywhere in the world was selectively deleted from public memory and pressures also mounted on the BNP government from neighbouring India.

With Jamaat-e-Islami as a coalition partner, things weren’t easy because India wanted a greater role in South Asia in the US-led ‘war on terror’. The greens could not be refused for too long and neither was the greedy BNP government willing to share it with others, so another hoax on massive proportions was perpetrated.

It happened on all fools day of April 2004.

Like pages from a John le Carré novel, phantom ships carrying deadly weapons and explosives that could fill ten trucks floated into the Chittagong Port mysteriously and were discharging their wares, when alarm bells went off. It was to be the biggest haul of sophisticated weapons in the history of Bangladesh, and the array on display was of a like that was never seen before, not even by the thoroughly baffled men in uniform.

Speculations ran rife that the consignment was either smuggled into Bangladesh by Islamic ‘jihadist’ or on the way to Northeast India. Specifically, the name of the insurgent group United Liberation Front of Asom featured as the prime recipient. Both allegations greatly embarrassed the BNP as it exposed ‘cat out of the bag’ that the BNP supported ‘jihadi’ militants and Indian insurgents in combi.

In court, as of today, the latter, i.e. ULFA, is the prime accused, yet it seems improbable that an insurgent group would take such a massive risk in transporting weapons and explosives without being detected. In all possibilities, it was corrupt and rogue elements within the Bangladesh intelligence services that purchased the weapons from the international black market.

The origins of the weapons were a mix of Chinese and European, yet some intelligence reports at the time nailed this as being shipped from Belgium. The US surprisingly made no ‘big noise’ about the haul, nor was it ever considered a likely ‘villain’.

The ultimate beneficiaries of the weapons and explosive were the newly formed US-trained anti-terrorist force, the ‘elite’ Rapid Action Battalion. Pointer: RAB was officially formed just a week before the haul, and were armed to the teeth and ready for action just two weeks after the haul!

The less said about how the RAB was later used in violating citizens’ liberty and human rights, the better, and under Indo-US pressure, the JMB was dismantled by the force, and the ‘jihad leaders’ arrested. However, in the many years, none of JMB’s supposed ‘100,000 heavily armed cadre’ were ever arrested, although occasionally the media does write stories about them ‘regrouping’ and imminent attacks.

The execution of the JMB ‘leaders’ by the military-installed, US-backed caretaker government in 2007 put to rest any further speculation on this ‘jihadi’ outfit. It would have been nice to hear their part of the story had they been produced before the media, a demand they pleaded immediately after their arrest, but one that was succinctly denied to them. 
Concisely, the rise of JMB and their ‘terrorist attacks’ was nothing more than ‘false flag attacks’ in security parlance.

That brings us to the question; what is ‘terrorism’ in the Bangladesh parameter of reality?

‘Terrorism’ in Bangladesh has traditionally been used by all ‘democratic’ parties whenever it vies for power. There are endless small bomb attacks, killing of law enforcers, arson and mayhems where the citizens have to pay the ultimate price in life and limbs, in losses of job opportunities. The list is formidably long.

However, as ‘democratic’ as our parties or leaders may pretend to be, they covertly fund and patronise professional agitators, yet nationwide the number of ‘democratic terrorist’ will not exceed a thousand individuals at the most. If Bangladesh has at all to restore a semblance of decency and propriety, US actions at ‘building fighting capabilities’ should be readdressed in fighting these ‘terrorist’ elements — and not the ones implied in their ‘war on terror’.

Fundamentally, the Islamist or al-Qaeda imitators pose no immediate risk or threat whatsoever because the base of our secular culture rooted in Sufi Islam, and our experience at ‘fighting’ Islamic terrorist and bigots is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, our cultural resistance to bigotry of any form has a history of over 400 years, and one the US may be conveniently or blissfully unaware of, as it malevolently propels stooges to ultimate power to sell killing machines produced by its military-industrial complex.

The real danger to all that is happening in Bangladesh is reflected in issues of recent times.

Propelling Taliban wannabes in the shape of Hefajat have been ascribed to US ‘assets’ working closely to dangerously destabilise Bangladesh and put to test its secular and liberal credentials. If true, this is most regrettable for essentially groups like Hefajat border on the insane fringe, and neither have the popular democratic mandate of the people, nor are they socially or even religiously a remotely acceptable entity.

That Bangladesh can and will use brute force in evicting these unwanted elements as witnessed, from a city square on May 5, is no indicator or success of US ‘capacity building’, but the demonstration of the people’s resolve at zero-tolerance for bigoted adventurisms of any form.

Therefore, the US more than helping Bangladesh develop ‘terrorist fighting capabilities’ should improve upon their own inadequate cultural capacities, and importantly take lessons on Islam as in Bangladesh. It is not exactly the cup of tea dished out by the media and is markedly dissimilar from the Islam of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

If deterrence is the avowed principle of civil conduct, the US should take the lead in helping Bangladesh eliminate ‘democratic terrorist’ and dismantle their playing field. Stripped off their known source of evil power, the US ambassador will then not have to expend too much energy convincing our politicians to sit together for decent talks.

Simply put, the US idea of firing canons to disperse imaginary flies is too hazardous a proposition for Bangladesh to undertake.

New Age Sub Editorial Wednesday, 29th May 2013

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Cultural Dimensions to Shahbagh – Part 1

by Mac Haque

'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.' –Margaret Mead

It has been a little over one hundred days that the protest in Shahbagh commenced and in the intervening, the movement has had its fair share of bouquets and brickbats, in fact more of the latter than the former. Shahbagh nonetheless represents a significant cultural statement in the history of Bangladesh and will be studied closely for times to come. 

Despite all the partisan politics that has no doubt sullied the movement's image and made it lose its initial appeal and credibility, history will record the mass movement for its sheer uniqueness in encapsulating a civilian resistance strategy and non-violent uprising of the people.    

What started out as an expression of collective contempt on the Qader Mollah verdict of 5th February 2013, became a phenomenon that morphed and gripped our imagination in ways we had not witnessed in our forty-two years as a nation. 

It was the actors that made all the difference, and that in itself was a pleasant surprise. The young with no direct connections to 1971, and who were born years after the momentous period in our history, were among the first to cry foul, and took to the streets to demand that the War Criminals be given stiffer penalties, which by implication meant capital punishment or, the death penalty. 

The leniency displayed by the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) verdict of a life sentence to Mollah, shocked not only the 'youthful' protestors, but also the nation as a whole. Divided as the nation may have been due to intense political polarisations of forty-two years, on this one i.e. War Crimes of 1971 and punishments, there was no visible crack evident in the unity and resolve of the citizenry, the majority. 

However, whether or not, capital punishment was broadly acceptable was up for conjectures and debates.

The cultural call that the War Criminals had eluded us and lived within our midst for long, together with the haunting memories of martyrs meant; justice was not merely to be 'demanded', but guaranteed - and the only safeguard available was mass people's participation. 

Therefore, post the verdict on February 5, the first frantic calls urging people to take to the streets were made aggressively on social networks and citizen's forum by vanguard activists, who constituted common denominators. This was also a very loud and clear signal that people had lost all their faith and trust on politicians. 

For sceptics on the other hand, it appeared as another 'human chain' effort in the offing, which amounted to no more than a handful of protestors lining up for photo-opportunities outside the perimeters of Press Club, and ones we see almost regularly in newspapers every day! 

However, the reaction to this particular call was awe inspiring and unprecedented for several reasons. Firstly, the call was not made by any political party or 'leaders' worth the salt. Secondly, the nation had suffered enough of destabilisations whenever it attempted with any sincerity to address the issue of the 'original sins' beguiling the nation. This was a breath of fresh air in a long time with hope and a potent ingredient.

Tough actions from the people themselves were therefore the only way to push aside sections of our corrupt politicians, greedy elite and vested interest – and pave the way for the will of the people to prevail and Shahbagh was born with citizens in thousands besieging it. 

That 'will' in effect meant the movement had to by default, acquire an apolitical status of credibility, no easy bargain as subsequent events unfolding saw political parties and vested interest piggy-backing not to take the movement forward, but to dent and scuttle it from within – in the classic Bengali panache for treachery. 

For those that suffered the horrors of 1971, there have been consistent demands for a rigid stand, which of course no political party had the temerity to express. People's hatred for the war criminals multiplied; many had been rehabilitated into society and some even went on to become powerful Government functionaries using many a cunning ruse, and exploiting our deep divide. 

The unease and reluctance of politicians to try the war criminals had an overriding package of scare. The criminals belonged to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) party, and as in 1971, they used religion in their agenda whenever the 'vexed issue' appeared in the public domain. No political party aligned with secular ideals could in any way stand up to the bigots, who had the capacity to mould public opinion with blatant and deadly scare tactics. 

When the centrist BNP meanwhile allied with the JeI and formed a Government in 2001, the divide was complete, with turfs of liberal and secular leaning parties, and those of the centrist and far right clearly delineated. 

So, take it or leave it, it was the Awami League (AL) and its Leftist secular allies that has always been stridently vocal on the issue of War Crimes, even though their consistency and seriousness wobbled many a times, given political expediencies. A classic example of this is the AL/BNP and JeI were a joint alliance in the agitations that overthrew the military dictator General Ershad in 1990! And again, Al-Jamaat alliance against BNP government for securing Constitutional provision for non-party caretaker government in the early 1990s.

However, it was the promise by AL to try war criminals that led to its massive landslide victory in polls 2009. Riding on a crest of support, they snatched a 'brutal majority' and that was all because of active participation of young, first time voters, the likes of which are now besieging Shahbagh. 

Shahbagh was therefore unique for the young had touched upon a very sensitive nerve of the nation at a particularly important juncture in our history. While the ICT was erected and got fully functional with one verdict already in its cap, the Qader Mollah verdict led to mass speculations that elements within the Awami League had sold out to the nemesis of 1971. 
Those suspicions were not without reasons. That black money and muscles fuel politics in Bangladesh was no longer a 'secret'. 

Shahbagh on the one hand was an anti-Government protest against a well-entrenched and publicised pro-Government agenda, yet on the other, it was an expression of resentment to the slipshod manner of the ICT's conduct, and the citizen's revolt therefore surprised not only the Awami League, but also the Opposition BNP and its allies JeI. 

It was therefore predictable that the BNP/JeI combined would go ballistic in their accusation that Shahbagh was an 'AL drama' to influence and pressurise the ICT. Those hiccups were inevitable because demands for War Crimes Trials in so many years have always been shunted to the sidelines with political polemics that have come and gone with 'changed times' and/or prerogatives of those who have been in or out of power. 

Therefore, even as the many student fronts of the AL and leftist political parties marched upon Shahbagh on February 5, they realised in no time that the demography of the 'new protestors' were unique, and one hitherto unseen. 

Good senses prevailed, and with all political banners quickly folded, the movement went 'pro-people' and viral. Common people, and that did not mean only students who have traditionally been at front lines of any socio-political movement in Bangladesh, but the cross section of the citizenry thronged Shahbagh to chant slogans and stayed there until they were heard. 

The subsequent days were rapturous with TV channels beaming non-stop happenings at the hastily erected Gonojagoron Mancha (mass awakening stage) as much as print media went overdrive in eulogising the young, the inspired, and the intelligent who have taken a defiant stand on the status quo of the day, with the seriousness it deserved. 

The days following February 5, seemed a déjà vu and the return of 1971 in 2013. Together with outpouring of support from the Bengali diaspora mainly in Europe, North America and Australia, it was only a matter of time that Shahbagh went global.

The nation for far too long had suffered the pangs and tribulations of 1971, yet the popular culture never gave up, repeating the message of the Liberation War over and over again. 

The archive for materials on 1971 is stupendous. Books, movies, documentaries, poems, songs and music as also reflections in folkloric, Mukti Juddher Chetona or 'spirit of the liberation war' is a phenomenon that was always represented in the popular culture and captured faithfully. 

Images of Mukti Bahini guerrillas, their heroic exploits as much as stories of those that suffered, the martyrs and their families, the maimed warriors, the Birangana's or war heroines i.e. women who were raped by the Pakistan Army were constantly beamed to the nation's conscience. 

There were also enough dosages of repugnant AL partisan propaganda materials on 1971, as also the War Criminals themselves kept up a constant barrage of blatant lies so that by the time 2013 came, the generation besieging Shahbagh has no dearth of ready reference materials, on opposing, and contradictory views. 

They learnt the difference between black and white, and knew what to accept or reject in their 'grey' faculties and that was helped by the advent of the internet and its availability on fingertips. It further complimented the protestor's efforts, as they did not have to go looking for versions dished out by retrograde intellectuals living in ivory towers to come to their respective conclusions or make their own judgments. 

By sieving information from the disinformation maze, and beating the trail of facts versus fictions they took on centre stage of the popular imagination with alacrity, and the knowledge that cultural conflicts of the past had taken an overtly partisan colour and contributed hugely to political polarisation

It wasn't as if Shahbagh was unaware to past events. Quite on the contrary, among the young for many years, allegiance to any mainstream politics had already become 'unfashionable'. They were conscious that those polarisations were deliberately employed to drive a wedge and confuse people, post 1990, when electoral system returned to Bangladesh after years of military dictatorship. 

Aside, they were keenly aware that the records of the Awami League Government post the liberation war was in no way free of blemishes. Months before the assassination of the country's founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his attempts at installing a one party Government on the Soviet mould, backfired and is thought to be one among many reasons that led to his murder. 

Therefore, from 1972 to 1990, eighteen years is what Bangladesh lost in its strides and autocracy in all its forms made an appearance. Cultural aspirations meanwhile took a severe beating, and over time, resurgent Islamism reminiscent of 1971, now laced with Taliban ideals that Bangladesh was not ready to deal with, made a menacing comeback.

Back to 2013; it is not as if the Shahbagh protesters were unaware of the challenges they have taken on hand, yet in their first push to make a grand stand on War Criminals of 1971 and their 'millennium twin ally' - bigotry and Islamic fanaticism, was not only a resounding success, they had also managed to bring the spirit of the liberation war to the front stage of popular debate. 

It was only a matter of time that sections of our corrupt power elite would be bruised badly, and launch a vicious counter attack. Those attacks were eminently forthcoming for the Shahbagh protestors may have been loaded with emotions and the 'spirit of liberation', however when it came to actual leadership, they had none. 

In what was the most suicidal aspect of the Shahbagh movement, very little thought was given to the hastily assembled leadership, which was then passed on as a move by 'Bloggers and Online Activist's'. 

There was potent trouble brewing and coming their way, and given the exuberance of the moment, the composition of the leadership was up for a challenges and scrutiny that neither the activists, nor the people of Bangladesh had any mental preparation to cope with.    

After years of struggle between liberal secularist and Islamic bigots, with fortunes dipping and rising in the process many a time, Shahbagh in 2013 revealed a completely new battle line, one between Muslims and so-called 'atheist'. 

This in turn shifted the entire focus away from the War Crimes Trial, to that of theology, with damning consequences. The first spoke was shoved into the wheels of the Shahbagh movement, and all we could do was wait and debate. 

to be continued


Friday, May 10, 2013

Of 05/05, Hefajat demography and a brain-dead nation

by Mac Haque 

"Please be kind to yourself, do not get lost in hate filled pastures, for you were chosen to lead by examples and creed " Shams Monower, A shooting star leaps to Oblivion, 2006

I DO not know if this is a time to rejoice or a time to cry. I do not know if this is a time for soul searching, to introspect, or a time to sit back and take everything that is happening around us, on its ‘face value’, harden my heart, pray and say that a devastating storm has passed. I do not know if there is one sensitive or compassionate nerve left in my system to comprehend whether what has passed us by was merely an aberration or a nightmare that we escaped.
All I know is every wakeful day in Bangladesh we have to deal with deadly demons that have made murders, injuries and devastations no more than another spectator sports. Our common senses have never ever taken such a serious dip. For now, nonsense and nuisance are the only senses worth anything!
Like all sports, the last results, the last numbers, the ‘breaking news’ are more important, and we have now acquired a macabre taste of launching post mortems, discussing the ‘finer points of the game’ of deadly events around our lives as nonchalantly as we would, a game of soccer or cricket.
Chess, a brain-game, is unfashionable in a nation that has taken a new penchant for blood sports and that too with 24/7 LIVE TV coverage. Like gladiators, we are checkmated slaves to the ‘powers that be’ and we are condemned to kill to survive, simply because slaves are slaves, and have no other choice. 
We are live fodder to cater to the savagely vulgar taste buds of the status quo, where demands for corpses, outstrips those of life and living. Destruction of property of small businesses, which ultimately leads to death of thousands, and happens invisibly, without our knowing, is secondary — in fact of no consequence whatsoever. 
If there is any hero right now, they are corpses, real or imagined. If there is anything un-really real, this is it!
I am not at all surprised that we created the demon in the first place, let it linger until it became a full-blown monster. Now it has gone berserk. I suspect there is going to be no easy solution, no convincing ‘formula’ by intellectuals or the neo-barbarians among some midnight talk-show hosts and guests, which is likely to ease us out of our traumatic affliction
Bangladesh today has the classic symptoms and makings of a brain-dead nation. Those that are ‘alive and functioning’ have precious little to offer for they have willingly or unwillingly sold their brains, brawn and souls, to all interests, save those of the nation, of the people. Our fate is sealed.
We have decided to accept that sinning within our souls is an expiation exercise. Salvation for this nation is a distant mirage — and one we will be forced, much against our wishes, to chase until the end, until the final dusk, to our predictable doom. 
There is not going to be any need for wakeup calls, angry write-ups on pages of newspapers, or any attempts at self-correction, because we have lost our coordinates, our bearings, to the extent that the word incorrigible has become a misnomer, a blatant farce in our national psyche.
I have never been a bloodthirsty Awami League sycophant, or a BNP/Jamaat corpse-mongering brigand, yet after 05/05, I thought long and hard and ‘out of the box’ and I have given my think a ‘neutral’ benefit of the doubt. Knowing well that it is only infants and the insane that are capable of being neutral, this is the least I can do to be perceived as ‘credible’ in our incredibly hypocritical existence. 
We all have our respective bias, and use those biases to cloud our judgement. The balance of justice wavers when providence intervenes and human hands shiver more than they can remain firm, and in grip. That is being human, that is why none of us can claim to be perfect in an imperfect world. It is only when calamity faces us that we go ‘what iffy’ to find answers, and so did I. 
I thought ‘what if’ it was the BNP in power today. Would they have stood by and did nothing if hundreds upon thousands of mullahs and madrassah students who live on the charity of the majority, had run riots in the capital, pillaged and looted, attacked security forces and threatened the government and in turn all that is plural, all that has been our hard-fought gains as an independent nation? 
Would they have permitted a non-political entity that on surface claim to have ‘no ambitions to seize power’ to become ever so powerful that they have the luxury of our undivided attention as a nation given their frightening demeanor? Would they stand for provocations when a minority on the lunatic fringe harp hate to the extent that each citizen feels vulnerable and threatened? Any answers there? 
Then I looked at the threats to us, to our civility by sheer ‘overwhelming numbers’ who we were told would be ‘easy ammo’ to unseat not only the government, but us the citizens, from our zones of tolerance, from our rich culture, from our traditions of centuries, that has resisted bigotry in all its forms. 
Now, no one can ever say with any degree of certainty the actual numbers of ‘male only skull caps’ in Shapla Chattar on 05/05. Any estimate is good enough, and speculations ran between thousands to ‘hundreds of thousands’ to the one hundred thousand unknowns who the government has officially sued for murder mayhems, arson and much more. 
Fair enough, I will be more generous than our pauperised media or other stakeholders have ever been. Let us be ‘large-hearted’ and say it was half a million, or 5 lakh of these so-called ‘defenders/saviours of Islam’, who congregated to tell us how wrong we are as far as our understanding of religion of our forefathers is concerned. 
We were face-to-face with the ‘ultimate role models of Islam’, so salute and Salaam to the heroic jihadists, our venerated hujursalemsallamasulemas and who else do we have!
Question: nationally, what is the Hefajat demography?
Answer: put in an average of five individuals to half a million, meaning their immediate families, support base, and ‘fan club’ even among the scared, the confused, as also elite ‘neo-Muslims’ with plastic spinal columns. We are talking about 2.5 million citizens bearing this sickening and convoluted mindset, as opposed to a population of 160 million. Are our politicians joking? 
And what are the ‘grave issues’ here that have gone awry and out of control? If I have read right, heard right and seen right, it is no more than ‘atheist bloggers who have insulted the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and have denigrated the Qur’an’ and the incendiary ire is apparently so powerful that anyone who disagrees with their ‘protest’ must die? 
Without trivializing the allegations in any way, is this the first time that we have seen the same lynch mob out on the streets, burning and killing to ‘defend the honour’ of our Prophet who died 1,500 years back? Have we forgotten about the YouTube movie last year by a US filmmaker that caused unprecedented violence and death in Dhaka? 
Is there any guarantee that yet another perceived, real or imagined ‘insult’ to the Prophet somewhere in Shangri La or in Timbaktu or God knows where else will not lead to more orgies of violence and death in our streets? No, we have no answers because we have not studied the mind of the bigots, or the culture they live in, so how can we ever have a resistance strategy?
What can we ever expect from a culture where there is no space for any entertainment or recreation, not even sports? What can we expect from children who are mostly orphans, or those parents who are so poor that they are left with no other choice, but to send their children to spend time in a hell - hole, harsh prison like conditions, where there is no TV or radio, no newspaper, no Internet, and importantly no real-time interaction with any other members of society? 
Fundamentally, what can you expect of children whose ‘custodians’ themselves are abusive, who use cane and whips mercilessly on their charges? How many of our pompous human rights activists have ever investigated these allegations that have appeared in the media many times over, or have spoken to the children in question? 
When will we ever have a phenomenon called ‘children’s rights’ as an active ingredient in our culture? Or, shall we limit them to photo-opportunity dibash or days of the year, when donor doles are available?
Then pause and read the other side of the coin, the ‘custodians’ masquerading as madrassah teachers, alems and ulemas, the hate-filled people we saw at Motijheel and who for centuries, have been ‘groomed’ by misogynist Deobandi schools, brainwashed with Wahabi inspired Maududi-ite kital (slaughter) ideals and diktats and spurious Hadith influenced individuals. We also witnessed the ‘millions’ they in turn went on to ‘create’ with the same dice of convoluted imagination and ‘intellect’ as their own. And what has been our contribution?
Regardless of our ‘political affiliations’, the billions of takas we collectively donate each year just by selling cow hides in the Eid-ul-Azha festivities are supposed to be used for the upkeep of orphans and children in these Quomi madrassahs. And, what do the inmates get in return? 
We get to see the likes of Allama Shafi riding insanely expensive SUVs and helicopters, while his half-fed ‘supporters’ are coaxed and threatened to join his murderous jihad on fellow Muslims, are made to endure a ‘long march’ to Dhaka? How more corrupt and vulgar can these fake ‘god men’ be? How long shall we be in fear of these so-called ‘apolitical theologians’ that are no different from sections of our corrupt politicians? 
And after a day spent haranguing the ‘faithful’ with screams of imaner lorai (fight/resolve of faith) where they promise in public view and that of the world, never to leave their ground, never to return home if their demands are not met, to sacrifice their blood, to become immortal shaheeds (martyrs) — and all it takes is 17 minutes of security forces action, for the ‘millions’ to flee, to literally disappear into thin air.
Not to forget, the first ones to decamp leaving followers to face the overwhelming might and wrath of the state are the leaders themselves. So fragile and dithering is their iman and so huge is their arrogance fed by impunity that the tolerant citizenry, who had given them a compassionate welcome to the nation’s capital just four weeks ago, just for them to be given a democratic right to be heard, to be understood, were left aghast, dumbfounded and shell-shocked.
Even before the smell of cordite evaporated, even before we could take stock of fatalities, of the damages, we came face-to-face with a spectacle like of which we have never seen before. The first photographs of the death and destruction bypassed the horrors of burnt Qur’ans that left millions in tears all across Bangladesh. Yet the first condemnations to burning of the ‘holy book’ did not come from the ‘defenders/saviours of Islam’ but ordinary citizens, many of whom easily fit the stereotype of either secular or even ‘atheist’. 
However, I am at a loss for words, why at all this pandemonium over the Quran? 
The penultimate issue is we use the ‘holy book’ for no other purpose but to drop a quick quote to friends, or an occasional recitation of words we do not understand. And at other times, we do quite the opposite to what the book asks us to do.
Therefore, for people who only care about the Qur’an being a ‘paper book’ and not one they use for any other purpose but to appear ‘holy and religious’ and since we don’t live by the words of the Qur’an and merely use it as a political tool of oppression, if there is at all a ‘curse of Allah’, the recent state of the nation is an apt example.
And the biggest curse we took on our mantles on 05/05 is we let the Hefajat ‘supreme leader’ scot-free, back to his safe sanctuary in Hathazari, yet didn’t think twice about shaming and humiliating innocent madrassah children, forcing them to sit and twist their own ears as a ‘punishment’ while camera persons clicked away in glee. How more cruel and insensitive can we be? 
Have we forgotten that they are no older than our own children are, were per force taken to Dhaka by their ‘custodians’ with promises to ‘defend the Prophet’s honour, Islam and the Qur’an’? Have we not given the security forces that are in uniform on public money the open licence to do similar shaming and humiliation in public to our children as well? 

Hungry and tired, traumatized by events, abandoned to fate by their ‘custodians’, these children didn’t even know the location of the nearest bus stations, didn’t have a poisha in their pockets when it all ended, and as ‘non-lethal’ as the security forces operations may have been, if there is a hell on earth, they had the first taste of it LIVE and brutal, with cameras rolling, one that will live on in our memories too, for as long as we live.

Those images left none of us who have been fighting the bigots for decades any elated. Indeed, we have been left asking ourselves: ’what if the tables turn, how more sensitively will they deal with us?’
And then came the ‘missing corpses’ drama and the less said the better. To imagine that 2,500 corpses disappeared into thin air is like the Bermuda Triangle ‘miraculously’ shifting its global coordinates and making a ‘rare appearance’ at Motijheel. The other possibilities are the ‘millions’ we saw thronging Shapla Square were not humans but djinns!
To end, a rewind to the first line, I do not know if this is a time to rejoice or a time to cry. I do not know if I am dead, or ‘practically dead’ as a New Age report on the May 8 quoted doctors as saying of some ‘victims’, or am I completely dead? 
I let the question float on Facebook and this answer from a friend sums it up in totality:
"DEAD are those who have left the world forever, “Practically dead” are those imagined to be dead by the BNP and the like, “Completely Dead” are those who walked away alive from Motijheel and the leader who was given “jamai ador” (son-in-law affection) and flown off to Chittagong."

I do not know if this is a good time for black humour.
New Age Op-Ed Friday, 10th May 2013