Shahbagh Chottor: A definite message

This article was originally published on on 13 February 2013.  Coauthored with Syed Rajib Imteaz, a former fellow of Foreign Policy and Immigration at the Senate Office of Hillary Rodham Clinton and currently a finance professional in New York. **

March 24, 2013


The message delivered in Projonmo Chottor by the youth of Bangladesh may seem pretty straightforward: an outcry for the capital punishment for the war criminals of 1971. The demonstration, however, is more than just a mere demand for justice. The spontaneous participation of the youth, the many million blog and Facebook posts, the wholehearted support of the nation underscore something much more salient: the long-silent majority is finally ready to speak up and shun communal politics.

The demand for justice has always been alive in the Bangladeshi psyche – the lenient verdict against the “Butcher of Mirpur” was merely the spark that was needed to bring 42 years of injustice, anger, and shame to a head. This should serve as a wake-up call for the politicians who think that they can pull the wool over the eyes of the people: you can corrupt the system, attempt to re-write history, play silly games by changing the names of parks, airports and hospitals, and blame each other to drown out the truth. But you cannot outwit people. People know your culpability, and some day, they will hold you responsible for your gross negligence. Today, the Projonmo Square has ignited the fire for justice for war crimes, and we will not be surprised if it triggers another movement in the future to overhaul the sickening politics of our country.

Of course, not everyone is as excited about the protests as we are. Some have complained about the traffic jams and the resulting disruptions to daily routines. It is a fair point. And let us address that with a question: How do we bring decisive changes in the country and deliver justice on behalf of the martyrs of 1971 without some sacrifice? Our parents fought against a modern, professional army without formal training, supplies, and proper weapons so that they could leave a free country for their children. We owe it to the memory of the three million martyrs to “tough it out” because we would not be here without their sacrifice. We owe it to the honor of our quarter million mothers and sisters and daughters to “tough it out” because what they went through was a million times worse.

Others have decided to not join the protests lest it ends in another attempt in futility or worse, a politicized “dog and pony show” for various political parties. Yes, it will be futile, but only if you do not participate. Remember the political protests that finally topped the military dictatorship of Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad? It is known as the people’s revolution of 1990 (“Nobboi-er Gono Obbhutthan”) and not Awami League or BNP’s revolution because people from all spheres of the society wholeheartedly came to the streets demanding democracy. We sometimes forget that that our independence was nothing short of a miracle: western political analysts in 1971 said that we would not survive the onslaught from the Pakistani Army for long, and even if we did, the war would go on for years. And yet, in less than nine months, we won a decisive victory. The truth is, when 170 million people work together toward a common goal, miracle happens! And we are not even asking for a miracle – we are simply asking for the proper punishment for a group of well-known war criminals.

As a part of the Bangladeshi diaspora, it is easy to feel that we have little to contribute to these protests. Let us not underestimate our roles during this great moment in history. We are, after all, the ambassadors of Bangladesh all over the world, and we can play an important role in ensuring that foreign governments, news media, and most importantly, the people of this world know the true story about Bangladesh, about the genocide of 1971, and about what we are trying to achieve today. Whether you are ten feet away from Projonmo Square or ten thousand miles away, you can make a difference. If you have not posted on your Facebook, let your friends know about what is going on and how we are trying to right three million wrongs committed 42 years ago. If you have not told your children about 1971, this is the time to sit down in the living room and tell them the story of how brave our ancestors were who gave their all and defied all odds to so we could have our very own country. And if you have not written to the politicians in your area and to CNN and BBC, write to them and remind them that as the most progressive Muslim nation on the planet, as the second largest Muslim democracy in the world, we deserve – no, we demand – their support.

Trying war criminals after 42 unfortunate years is meant to be difficult and challenging, especially when many of the indictees were allowed to reign free for long. However, it is not unheard of to attempt to try war criminals many decades after their crimes: The Khmer Rouge Tribunal started in 2006 for the war crimes committed during the late 70’s, and Germany still today investigates and prosecutes Nazis for their roles in the Holocaust. Justice delayed might be justice denied, but having no justice at all is certainly justice denied. At the same time, we must impress upon the importance of ensuring that the trials are not politically motivated – the government should not influence the verdict in order to allay the anger of the supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami or other Islamist parties nor should they put undue pressure on judges to give haste or biased verdicts for political gains. Only a free, fair, and unbiased trial can cleanse the national soul of the 42 years of shame and ignominy.

Finally, a well deserved salute to the young souls at Projonmo Chottor. You have spoken with clarity and maturity beyond your years: communal politics is out, the peddlers of religion are out, Jamaat-e-Islami and Shibir are out! Deliverance is righting the three million wrongs, salvation is ensuring that religious extremists have no place in our country. That is one last wrong we must right after the criminals of 1971 have been punished.

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