New struggles in South Asia

February 14, 2013

In Bangladesh, thousands of people are occupying Shahbag Square to demand justice for war crimes and a renewal of Bangladeshi civil society. In Delhi, India, battles rage between Hindu nationalists opposed to Kashmiri independence and Kashmiri students demanding liberation.

Nagesh Rao and Navine Murshid explain the backdrop to each of these mobilizations. Rao is associate professor of English at Galgotias University. Murshid is assistant professor of political science at Colgate University and a visiting fellow at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

IN THE early hours of February 9, a secret execution was carried out by the Indian government. Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri, was put to death for his alleged involvement in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Afzal’s family in Kashmir was cruelly denied a last visitation. They were informed of the Indian president’s rejection of his mercy petition and of his imminent execution by mail—the letter reached Afzal’s wife Tabassum two days after he was executed and buried in an unmarked grave inside Tihar Jail.

Meanwhile, across the border in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis from all walks of life have occupied Shahbag Square near Dhaka University, outraged that a notorious war criminal might walk free after having been spared the death penalty by the Bangladeshi International War Crimes Tribunal. Abdul Quader Mollah—leader of the right-wing Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami and convicted of multiple counts of rape, torture and murder—was photographed flashing a victory sign as he left the court.

Protesters fill Shahbag Sqaure in Dhaka
Protesters fill Shahbag Sqaure in Dhaka (Mehdi Hasan Khan)

The bloodbath of 1971 and the birth of Bangladesh

The occupation of Shahbag Square is nearly a week old and shows no signs of abating. By far, its loudest message—and one that has shaped the public discourse around it—is a call for the death penalty. Demonstrators are demanding that Quader Mollah be hanged and that all the other accused war criminals be tried and executed as well (there are 10 others awaiting trial).

That so many thousands would take to the streets with the singular demand of capital punishment seems difficult to understand unless we recall one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the Indian subcontinent: the bloodbath unleashed by Pakistani (then West Pakistani) armed forces in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971.

When the government in West Pakistan nullified the results of the 1970 elections—which would have brought the Bangalis of East Pakistan to power in the country—it triggered a mass uprising that soon developed into a struggle for an independent state. In response, the West Pakistani army launched “Operation Searchlight” on March 25, 1971, which was a genocidal campaign that involved mass murders, mass rapes and torture.

The Pakistani army found willing collaborators among the Jamaat-e-Islami, who set up fascistic counterrevolutionary groups such as the razakars, Al Shams and Al Badr, a killing force that “carried out planned murders of intellectuals.” While the number of people killed is disputed, as is often the case in such instances, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 3 million people were killed by the rampaging Pakistani forces and these Islamist, collaborationist militias. According to feminist author and activist Susan Brownmiller, 200,000 to 400,000 Bangali women were raped in these few months.

For reasons having little to do with the rights of ordinary Bangalis, the Indian military entered into the conflict as a seeming champion of their national aspirations. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani forces surrendered, and an independent Bangladesh stepped onto the world stage with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, as its first president. But with the Pakistani army defeated, the Indian state did little to bring their generals to court for war crimes. Instead, Pakistani prisoners of war, despite having committed war crimes, were sent back to Pakistan.

Four decades of stalled justice

Mujib succeeded in banning the Jamaat-e-Islami and four other groups that had collaborated with the Pakistani forces, and ordinances such as the Collaborators Order and the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act were passed to bring them to trial. However, he was unable to paper over the factionalism within the newly formed Bangladeshi armed forces. In 1975, a military coup overthrew Mujib’s government, assassinated him, scrapped the Collaborators Order, allowed the hitherto banned groups to resurface and permitted leading perpetrators of war crimes to return to the country.

Men responsible for rape, torture and murder were thus given free reign to operate as legitimate political actors, and many of them have since climbed political ladders to wealth and fame, courted by mainstream political parties, particularly the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia, which now sits in opposition. As Jalal Alamgir wrote in 2010:

The biggest sin in our post-1971 politics was not the dictatorial decisions made by the earlier leaders, but the choice by all major parties to politically collaborate with alleged genocide collaborators when convenient. These partnerships, after the country had become a democracy, gave war criminals the kind of political legitimacy that no military dictator could have offered.

The stalled quest for post-colonial justice was restarted in 2010 when the current International Crimes Tribunal was formed. Abdul Quader Mollah is only the second person to be convicted and sentenced by the Tribunal, but the first to be convicted while in custody in Bangladesh. He has been convicted of the murder of the poet Meherunnesa, her mother and two brothers; the murder of Hazrat Ali, his wife and their three children; the rape of Hazrat Ali’s 11-year-old daughter; the murder of Pallab and Khandoker Abu Taleb, both civilians; and the mass killing of 344 people in Albudi village in Mirpur.

After 40 years, it is understandable that Bangladeshis are clamoring for justice. It is understandable too that many progressives have joined the chorus of voices calling for the death penalty, for they have little faith that subsequent governments will uphold a life sentence. Predictably enough, opposition leader Khaleda Zia of the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has rejected the verdict.

Many at Shahbag Square see the ruling liberal Awami League Party as opportunists as well and share the sentiments expressed by Abdul Kader Siddiqui, the president of Krishak Sramik Janata League (Peasants, Workers and People’s League): “The government has handed down life sentence to Quader Mollah as they compromised with Jamaat to return to power.” In short, Bangladeshis fear that one way or another these war criminals might walk free if they are not sent to the gallows right away.

The spirit of Shahbag and the quest for justice

The remarkable thing, however, is that the occupation of Shahbag Square looks less like a mass lynch mob and more like a “festival of the oppressed.” The 2013 protests have taken on an artistic expression whose parallels can be found in earlier Bangali protest movements.

The walls and streets have been turned into canvases: massive caricatures and cartoons of war criminals, alponas (street art) everywhere one looks, and beautiful installations with candles and flowers. On February 10, occupiers enjoyed an impromptu concert by popular rock bands such as Miles, Cryptic Fate and Artcell. Awrup Sanyal captured the mood in the Square in a Facebook update later that night:

The crowd swells by the minute: students, office goers, families, old and young; zillions of signatures are being scribbled on long strips of cloths; a retail economy thrives selling food, beverages, water, flags, headbands and all kinds of wares; big screens have come up playing old patriotic films and TV plays; multiple pools of candlelight vigils, accompanied by slogans, drum beats, songs rattle and hum; mock trials and mock hangings are enacted on a special set created for the purpose; every surrounding surface is draped with banners and posters; OB vans, camera cranes and newsmen abound; the police and the RAB watch in “attention.”

The center island of the Shahbag intersection has become the main stage from where slogans, speeches, songs and calls for justice pour out relentlessly. Joy Bangla, Mujib's iconic slogan, till now Awami Leagues' property, has been reclaimed by the people. Calls for boycott of all Razakar businesses and establishments are being made.

Thus the spirit of Shahbag seems to be expressing something that goes beyond the execution of a few men and spills over into a hope for justice and a renewal of Bangladesh’s political culture.

Not everyone at Shahbag is clamoring for the death penalty. Some have argued against it on the grounds that it would make Bangladesh look bad in the international arena. But justice is not about validation, and Bangladeshis need to consider alternatives not because of “what others might think” but because they owe it to themselves to get meaningful justice, not revenge.

The question has yet to be answered: what would constitute a restorative, rather than retributive, form of justice in Bangladesh today? Will the execution of a handful of men put to rest the traumas of a genocide? To quote Jalal Alamgir once again:

The Pakistani ringleaders are safe by treaty. Their American supporters, like Henry Kissinger, are safe by sanctuary. Just a few local collaborators will be tried. The only way to consider such partial justice morally legitimate is by adopting a principled commitment to allow the truth be told, untainted, uncensored…Capital punishment, while entertaining some trigger-happy activists, will only derail us by refocusing attention on the verdict rather than the proceedings.

To allow the truth to be told; to make public the actual record of the horrors of 1971; to demand reparations for the victims of the war and for the survivors of the genocide; to seize the assets of the Jamaat, to use them to establish a trust to compensate survivors and their families, and to neutralize these reactionaries financially; to secularize school curricula and end the historical amnesia surrounding 1971—these would be essential steps towards restorative justice.

In the final analysis, meaningful justice would be achieved with the realization of the promises of national liberation that have eluded most Bangladeshis: an equitable and just distribution of wealth; the eradication of poverty and illiteracy; access to food, health care and meaningful employment; and a state and judiciary that are accountable to the people. This is the potential that we see in the Shahbag demonstrations, a potential that is easy to overlook amidst the clamor for the death penalty.

The death penalty and a travesty of justice: The case of Afzal Guru

Quader Mollah and his ilk deserve no sympathy. The world would indeed be a better place if he were locked up for life or executed. But a glance across the border reminds us of the impunity with which capital punishment can be used by states. To Kashmiris, Afzal Guru’s hanging has come as a stern and somber reminder of their status as an occupied people. Since the execution, Kashmir has been under an indefinite curfew.

Indian occupation forces have fanned out across Kashmir, arresting and detaining activists and leaders in a bid to quell protests. At least five people, including two teenage boys, have been killed at the hands of police and paramilitary forces, and dozens more have been injured as of this writing. Meanwhile in Delhi, protesting Kashmiri students were attacked by a mob of Hindu-nationalist Bajrang Dal activists, and politicians and media pundits alike have been complaining that the execution did not take place sooner.

To be sure, leading Indian activists like Arundhati Roy have spoken out against the killing of Afzal Guru, and editorials in The Hindu, a leading national newspaper, have condemned it as well. But these voices are few and far between. The leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), Sitaram Yechury, for instance, seemed satisfied that the “law of the land had finally been completed.”

The media are referring to Afzal Guru as the “plotter” (Wall Street Journal) and “planner” (the Pakistani newspaper Dawn) of the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, in which 12 people (including the five attackers) lost their lives. Yet, there is little disagreement that the case against Afzal was a flimsy one. In an atmosphere charged by the 9/11 attacks, it was hastily cobbled together in a matter of days.

Afzal had little by way of legal representation, and the evidence against him was circumstantial. A former member of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, Afzal had surrendered to the Indian authorities in 1993, but his political and national identity no doubt worked against him as the Indian media began to bay for blood in the aftermath of the attack.

He was convicted not of direct involvement in the attack but of conspiring with those who carried it out, all five of whom had been killed during the attack itself. While the evidence against Afzal was unconvincing, the Indian Supreme Court blandly asserted in its ruling that “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender,” and thus imposed the death penalty in the name of a bloodlust that it imputed to the “collective conscience” of Indian society.

This “collective conscience” of India must now come to terms with what was obviously a travesty of justice, and take a hard look at the impunity with which this government metes out death, whether in prisons like Tihar Jail or on the streets of Sopore and Srinagar.

Protected by the ignominious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), and now well-versed in the techniques of counterinsurgency and military propaganda, the Indian state continues to suppress Kashmiris in the name of “national security,” to occupy their land, kill them at will, and then paint the struggle for azadi (freedom) as the work of “terrorists.”

For many in India, the actual conduct of the Indian state in Kashmir seems remote from their own daily existence. What they learn about this conduct comes filtered through layers of media obfuscation, so that protesting Kashmiris cease to appear human at all. They are seen as petulant malcontents that need to be brought in line and are typically written off as irrational anti-national “secessionists.” (The term is ideologically loaded. A territory that is annexed and held by force does not seek “secession” but liberation.) These Indians see the killing of Afzal Guru as a necessary sacrifice at the altar of (India’s) “national integrity.” His actual innocence or guilt is to them irrelevant, as the law seems to have taken its course.


Those who have taken to the streets in Delhi in recent weeks to demand the death penalty for rapists would do well to heed the lessons of Afzal Guru’s execution. He was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and was executed and buried in utter secrecy with little regard for his or his family’s rights.

An opportunistic political class, a deeply flawed judiciary and a bloodthirsty and sensationalist media environment killed Afzal Guru. We now know—if there were reason to doubt it earlier—that we have a well-oiled execution machine in this country. What good would we do ourselves by giving it further license to kill?

Likewise, the demonstrators in Dhaka, Chittagong and elsewhere must reckon with the consequences of boosting the credibility of the state’s machinery of death. For Shahbag shows the potential for embracing a broader vision of social change. The call-and-reply slogans asserting national identity—“Ami ke? Bangali!” (Who am I? Bangali!)—have been joined by the terms naribadi (feminist), shongrami (revolutionary), bidrohi (rebel) and pahari (ethnic non-Bangali).

In the struggle to reclaim history and renew Bangladeshi society, these are signs of hope that the calls for executions must not be allowed to obscure.


As we write this, news is trickling in that the goon squads of the Jamaat and its student wing Shibir have launched protests against the Shahbag demonstrators and provoked clashes with the police.

In the coming days, the international media will no doubt parrot the Jamaat’s lie that Shahbag is a “government-sponsored” phenomenon and that the Jamaat is the aggrieved opposition fighting against the verdict of a compromised Tribunal. The struggle against the razakars is entering a new phase, the outcome of which will determine the future of secularism, justice and freedom in Bangladesh.

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