The Significance Of The Shahbag Protests: Is It A Sign of The Changing Times?

By Sango Bidani:

The recent massive protests in Shahbag have revived a lot of interest in the Bangladesh war of Independence, fought in 1971 and the excesses that took place after the war ended. Tahmima Anam, in her novel, The Good Muslim, published in 2011, looks at this aspect critically through the changing attitudes of the protagonist towards punishment of people involved in war crimes. Two years later, when finally, an international tribunal gives its judgment, there is a lot of anger and people occupy the main street from where they gained independence. Is this anger justified? What is the significance? Is it a sign of things to come?

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Bangladesh witnessed one of its greatest movements against the non action of the judiciary with regard to top officials involved in war crimes on 7th February, 2013, when they occupied the heart of the city, Shahbagh, from where the first speech after independence was made, protesting against the punishment that was given to three politicians. These politicians were given life imprisonment by the International Tribunal on War Crimes. They wanted that these three be awarded death penalty for the crimes they committed. They also wanted a particular political party, Jamaat-e-Islami to be banned. They also demanded that Abdur Quader Mollah should have been awarded death penalty and all those who were involved in war crimes should also be tried.

The fight for an independent Bangladesh saw fierce resistance and protests from the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing led to various atrocities against those who were in favor of creating an independent country. There were cases of rape and killing of political leaders involved in the fight for the creation of Bangladesh. The Pakistan Army fought a pitched battle against the Indian Army which was called in to help East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) separate itself from West Pakistan (now Pakistan). The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam captures the problems that came with independence and the impact it had on the ordinary lives of the people. It captured the pain of an abducted woman, a doctor who was involved in many unfortunate abortions due to rape and who sees her brother turn into a religious fanatic after the war, unable to cope with the atrocities that he witnessed during the war. It also showed the initial reluctance and then acceptance that those who were involved in war crimes need to be punished.

The significance of the Shahbagh protests for the future of Bangladesh is that it has made the political spectrum conscious of the anger in the people against the poor performances of the democratic governments, the inability to deal with religious fanaticism and the atrocities that come with it. Their anger regarding the somewhat lenient punishment meted out is justified as they deserve a higher punishment for the crimes they have committed against humanity. One hopes that this is the beginning of better times for Bangladesh, which of late has been going through a horrible economic and political crisis.

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