It’s midnight and a young girl’s slogan pierces the chill in Dhaka to mesmerize an audience that chants after her: “Who are we? We are Bengalis. Those who want an Islamic state can go to Pakistan. Joy Bangla!” As the diminutive Lucky Akhter’s gravelly voice booms on the loudspeaker – the passion is unmistakable – and the crowd of several thousands join her.

It’s happening in Shahbagh Square right in the heart of the busy and overcrowded capital of Bangladesh – midnight, midday, 24/7. They want justice – justice for a generation before them, a generation who fought the country’s liberation war; they want justice for the worst genocide in post-colonial South Asia which left three million dead and a quarter of a million women were raped.

“Bangladesh is not seeking revenge, Bangladesh is seeking justice,” says Dr Imran H. Sarker, one of the main leaders of the Shahbagh Square movement. 42 years-old, soft-spoken firebrand blogger, he is part of the Blogger and Online Activist Network. The movement ‘started online’ and ‘sparked a revolution’ that Bangladesh has never seen before, he told me in Dhaka.

“It is the first non-political movement in the country’s 41-year history, yet it deals with the core political issue of this nation, an issue we have often failed to come to terms with. Because, we were liberated from Pakistan in 1971, but within four years after a military coup killed the father of our nation (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman), our nation’s history was subverted by successive army regimes and political parties that never wanted Bangladesh to be formed,” says author Masuda Bhatti.

It all began in the aftermath of February 5. The International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka pronounced a life sentence for Jamaat-e-Islami Assistant Secretary General Abdul Quader Mollah. Known as the ‘butcher of Mirpur’, he was accused of killing hundreds in 1971 – the proof was available in the cases of beheading of a writer and rape of a minor girl. Many had prepared to celebrate the first judgment in the war crimes trial – they expected the death sentence for Mollah. The law did not allow state prosecutors to call for a retrial except in the case of acquittals. To fuel the fire, Mollah came out of court and flashed a victory sign.

“We gave a call on Facebook and on our blogs for people to gather in front of the National Museum at 3pm,” says Dr Sarker. It spread like wildfire on the internet and text messages on mobile phones. People started pouring in to form a human chain but soon they realized that they had to move to a bigger place. By 6pm, they had occupied Shahbagh Square and placed their six-point demand chart – amend the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 to allow the government to appeal against Mollah’s sentence, banning Jamaat-e-Islami and its violence-prone student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir, and all their financial institutions including Islami Bank – Bangladesh’s largest bank, Ibn Sina Hospitals, and Retina coaching centres, and ban all religion-based political parties. The Jamaat had opposed Bangladesh's independence and sided with Pakistani troops during the 1971 Liberation War. Jamaat activists staffed the auxiliary support forces of the Pakistani army like the Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams who masterminded the mass murders targeting the Bengali intelligentsia. Jamaat is also a key constituent of the opposition BNP-led 18-Party Alliance.

The youth took over Shahbagh Square, their number increased by the hour and it took politicians, including the government, by surprise. The government is led by Sheikh Hasina, the whole party Awami League (AL) fought for the independence of the country and romped to power with two-thirds majority in the last election after more than a year of unofficial military rule. Her father Shekh Mujibur Rahman was the father of the nation, gunned down with other family members in 1975 by Army men. Her son Sajeeb Wazed Joy, who leads the country’s Digital Bangladesh programme, flew down from the United States to show solidarity for the movement. In an interview, Sajeeb agrees that the Shahbagh movement has surprised everybody. “It’s a whole different ballgame now. The youth of this country is trying to bring closure to a dark chapter of our history – a history which was interrupted by the coup of 1975. The coup masters tried to subvert our independence, by becoming a vessel state of our former masters (Pakistan),” he says. “Does Germany allow the Nazi party? What does the Numremberg Trial teach us? And here we have a party and their collaborators who have not just killed, maimed and raped thousands; they are even allowed to function in the democratic process of our country. This cannot continue forever,” Sajeeb added.

Bangladesh is a nation scarred with coups, military rulers and rabid Islamists trying time and again to impose Islamic laws on a nation formed on the basis of common language – Bengali. Its capital Dhaka, the world’s most densely populated city, is often dubbed a nation of protests – protests which have been violent. Last time, such a protest which united the nation was the people’s revolution in1990 – which toppled the military dictatorship of Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Demanding democracy, political activists took to the streets and it was violent. But the two-and half-week old Shahbagh movement has transcended the political chaos and rhetoric of the country – they have resisted any calls for violence. “This is the most amazing part of the protests because this has gone far deeper into our societal vein. This is not just about demanding death for those few people for their crimes committed 42 years ago. This is not about rule of law either. These people are saying ‘enough is enough’. The protestors claim that perpetrators of some of the worst crimes in human history have become ministers, members of parliament, owners of big companies, and have run the affairs of the state whose birth they so vehemently opposed in the name of religion or other pretexts. They deserve the highest possible punishment that this state often metes out for far lesser crimes such as a murder,” says Toufique Imrose Khalidi, Editor-in-Chief of BDNEW24.COM, the country’s first internet newspaper.

The emotions were galvanized to such an extent that shops across Bangladesh ran out of candles last Thursday after the movement leaders asked citizens of the country to light a candle to show their respect to martyrs of 1971 and to push for the execution of all war criminals. A day earlier, the country stood still for three minutes as men and women stood in silence to express solidarity with the protests at Shahbagh.

“The story of 1971 has been retold in a more convincing manner to a generation across Bangladesh. ‘Distortion of history’ has been part of our political history for such a long time, and this Shahbagh thing is one decisive strike against all that. Its effectiveness lies in the fact that it has all come from a non-party platform in a highly-polarised country,” he says. The movement forced the government to amend the ICT within 10 days, which now empowers the tribunal set up in 2010 to punish any organisation involved in the crimes against people during the war.

The protestors want Mollah along with eight other leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami and two of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), standing trial for crimes against humanity, to be hanged. The protests galvanized after one key blogger - Ahmed Rajib Haider, was brutally hacked down and beheaded near his house in Dhaka’s Mirpur locality while returning from Shahbagh protests on its tenth night – allegedly by Jamaat’s student organisation.

“We have forced people to rise above partisan party politics and unite for our country, our language. And Rajib’s murder was a turning point – it infused new spirit in the movement ,” says the diminutive Lucky Akhter, whose slogans on the loudspeaker in Shahbagh has become a rallying point for millions – schoolchildren, housewives, college students and the middle class Bangladeshi as well as journalists. Three prominent journalists – Sumon Mahbub, Gazi Nasiruddin Ahmed and Shariful hasan – echoed a same tone. “Our parents fought in the 1971 war. I might be a journalist, but I am a Bengali first. Our country will never forget the genocide of 1971 and never forgive the collaborators of the Pakistani army who carried out this genocide,” says Mahbub, whose father is the Attorney General of the country. Hasan agrees, “If it was 1971, I would have left to join the freedom movement.” Ahmed says that this protest has removed a misconception about the ‘Facebook generation’. “Religion had no role to play in our founding constitution. We have shown that my generation still believes in that,” he added.

Politicial leaders, even from the ruling Awami League, have not been given a platform in these protests. Their leaders and MPs have come, showed solidarity and gone from Shahbagh. Some, perceived to be corrupt, were even booed away. The opposition BNP is under tremendous pressure to ditch ally Jamaat. BNP’s initial reluctance to understand and accept the protests – even calling Shahbagh a 'stage-managed drama' – has left them completely isolated in the country. On the back foot, Jamaat hit back the way they know best – with violence and more violence. First, Jamaat-e-Islami cadres leading 12 Islamist organisations went on a rampage after the Friday prayers in Dhaka burning the national flag, attacking journalists and policemen with handmade bombs and guns, killing four and injuring nearly 1000 people including 14 journalists. They even vandalized Shaheed Minars – monuments to established in memory of the martyrs of the 1952 Bengali Language Movement – in response to the mass-movements going on across Bangladesh for capital punishment to 1971 war criminals.

According to the police, which has filed 11 cases after the attack, Jamaat cleverly orchestrated and fermented their call to “punish anti-religious bloggers”. “They whipped up their cadres sentiment by spreading canards against bloggers. A Muslim can never do such things from the premises of a mosque, said Banazir ahmed, chief of Dhaka Metropolitan Police.

Then started the attack on the minority population, Hindu temples were burnt down and villages destroyed. Trains and buses were set on fire. Opposition BNP, with their space shrinking everyday, pushed their leader Begum Khaleda Zia to call the leaders of the movement blasphemous. Begum Zia even called for the shutdown of the entire country strike after strike. But Shahbagh has not been silenced. Instead it has spread across the country, where people have started replicating the Shahbagh model to protest against the war criminals of 1971.

“It is now a ‘Gonodabi’ (Mass Demand). I live far away in Kolkata. I can’t be there in Shahbagh. Tobuo amar gaane, khunir biruddhata (Still, my song opposes the killers),” says Indian Member of Parliament Kabir Suman, whose songs became the voice of the movement. Till now, the 64-year-old songwriter-musician-singer-politician has penned and given voice to four songs – songs that have become runaway hits among the protestors. “My songs are dedicated to the brave people of Bangladesh. And the youth who have risen up to protest, as for justice against the mass rapists and perpetrators of genocide in 1971,” he says.

Shahbagh is now branded as the Projonmo Chattor or Generation Square – a generation whose voice promises to rectify the mistakes of the past and usher in a new beginning that the founding fathers of the country set out to do – a secular, inclusive Bangladesh.

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