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Youth Movement and Bangladesh Politics

Paper No. 5426                        Dated 18-Mar-2013

By Kazi Anwarul Masud           

The explosive discontent initially expressed by the youth and then quickly supported by people of Bangladesh of all ages over the sentence given to Abdul Quader Mullah  accused of crimes against humanity is a reflection of national frustration over the leniency of the sentence.

The simple question agitating the minds of the people, unfamiliar with the intricacies of law and judicial process, is how a person convincingly found guilty of killing hundreds of people and raping women was not given the capital punishment. Is Bangladesh becoming tolerant of barbarism because it was committed decades back? Are Bangladeshis losing moral moorings of simple civilized code of conduct while many other countries even today are hunting down and prosecuting people who committed crimes during the Second World War?  Is there nothing to be learnt from the lessons of Nuremberg and Tokyo trials and the more recent ones of Milosevic, Robert Taylor, Rwandan and Srebrenica genocide?

Nuremberg trial established  a base for International Criminal Law affirming that despite the laws of individual nations, nations and their leaders are to be held responsible for their actions. At Nuremberg civilization designed a vehicle to anathemize men imbued with evil. And it created a historical narrative that proved invaluable throughout the decades since (NYT April 9 2011).

Bloggers and On Line Activists of Bangladesh refused to accept a judgment, they felt, was flawed. It was not an indictment on the International Crimes Tribunal or supposed “subservience” of the judiciary to the administration. Their conclusion  has the unreserved support of the  people from all walks of life who have thronged to Sahabagh square now renamed as New Generation Roundabout to express their solidarity.

It seems that the main opposition political party failed to gauge this genuine apolitical aspiration of the people and in the process have lost ground in pressing their demand for a care taker government to oversee the coming general elections.

On the other hand the government not only expressed their solidarity with the movement but has also amended the International Crimes Tribunal Act 1973 that is expected to meet the key demand of the protestors.

The opposition combine led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party have not only criticized the youth movement but have branded them as “atheists” and their spokesman has been called by the Jatyo Party, a coalition partner of the Awami League government, as “a ruling party stooge”. The very fact that the depiction of someone as  an atheist and forcing that individual to declare that he/she is a pious Muslim is a testimony that our societal development has not reached the maturity where rigorous engagement with different faiths without subordinating one’s pursuit of reasoning to religious commands is possible.

German sociologist Dieter Senghaas argues in his book entitled “clash within civilization” that if there is going to be a clash it is more probable to occur within a civilization than between different civilizations because all cultures today have undergone more inner conflict and turmoil than ever before in the past. According to Senghaas the concept of the “clash within Civilization” means that the future pattern of conflict will be drawn by cultural fault lines within civilizations caused by process of modernization within societies.

Comparatively in more developed societies fundamentalist radicalism is regarded as aberration that needs correction lest the pious and the faithful are grouped together with the aberrant behavior of a minuscule percentage of people. The non-violent and disciplined nature of the youth  movement has attracted international attention and billed as a democratic expression of views.- Sumit Ganguli (of Indiana University) looks positively at the events in Bangladesh. He writes: The Awami League-backed trials of Jamaat leaders have resurrected the horrors of the 1971 uprising and war. But as the demonstrations in Shahbag show, they have also emboldened those who still harbor hopes of a secular and unified Bangladesh. If those protests continue (and continue peacefully), they could be a sign that Bangladeshis reject a xenophobic vision of Islam and are ready for social and political harmony. And in that case, this poverty-afflicted country could, against all odds, become a poster child for religious forbearance everywhere (Foreign Affairs March 13 2013).

But one cannot be certain that we have reached that level of maturity where communicative action will be free and uncoerced and all participants shall have equal voice to reach a consensus.  Such a desire may seem  idealistic for a society still mired in poverty, illiteracy and inequality and where clash within civilizations in the shape of  inter and intra-religious intolerance expressed through violence  and  political  victimization is a common occurrence. The emergence of Hifazet-e-Islam, an outfit now demanding the unconditional release of Maulana Delwar Hossain Saydee convicted of committing crimes against humanity,  as a counter to the Sahabagh youth movement is a case in point.

The Amnesty International while praising the non-violent and disciplined protests mounted by the youth has expressed concern that the government of Bangladesh may use new amendments to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 (ICT Act) to push for hasty death sentences to be imposed on individuals convicted by Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).  The AI hopes that the Government of Bangladesh would  not bow to public pressure to use the amendments to the ICT Act to press for increased use of the death penalty, or for sentences of imprisonment to be revised to sentences of death. Amnesty International reminds  that   Bangladesh has a responsibility to the entire international community to ensure justice for more than one million civilians who were  killed by Pakistani forces and their allied groups, tens of thousands of women who were  subjected to rape and other crimes of sexual violence, and more than eight million people who fled the country into India in search of safety. Amnesty International has noted that all those detained so far in connection with these crimes are members of two opposition parties – the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. This has created the impression that the ICT is choosing to deal only with suspected perpetrators who are members of the current opposition. Even if there is no bias in the ICT’s proceedings, the ICT must avoid any appearance of such bias. As articulated  by the House of Lords in 1998 in the Pinochet case, it is a fundamental principle of law that "it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done".

The international community is concerned over the standoff between the ruling and opposition combines particularly over the violence let loose by the Islamists and with the inevitable reaction by the law enforcement authorities resulting in the death of scores of people. Amnesty International has been particularly critical of the law enforcing authorities working under a climate of impunity. AI has been equally critical of the violent attacks against the minority community by the Islamists and noted that in Bangladesh’s Hindu minority makes up only eight per cent of the population, and has historically been at risk of violence from the Muslim population – including during the independence war in 1971, and after elections in 2001.“Given the obvious risks the Hindu minority faces in Bangladesh, these attacks were sadly predictable. We urge the authorities to take note of the violence and act to prevent further attacks,”.

The attacks on the minority community have been condemned by one and all regardless of political affiliation except the Islamists who are suspected of committing these crimes. As regards the political standoff the apparent equation of views of the ruling combine and the protestors may stiffen the government in disregarding the demand for a care taker administration by the opposition political combine and embolden the government to hold the next elections under its supervision.  If that happens the opposition combine may launch a violent campaign to disrupt holding of the elections inviting inevitable governmental response. 

But then again how much should one believe in the supposed “threat” posed by the radical Islamist political party and its student wing? Clearly these forces lack public support. Besides the current movement by the protestors at the New Generation Square has rekindled the demand that Jamat-e-Islami and their followers should not be allowed to do politics in Bangladesh. The proposed banning of politics by Jamat has broad public support of the people of Bangladesh. An imponderable will be how this is seen by some of the conservative and authoritarian Arab countries where millions of Bangladeshis find employment. In these countries both Jamat and its foreign supporters have been engaged in portraying the war crimes trials as assault on Islam as Bangladesh liberation war was portrayed by then Pakistan government as an Indian conspiracy to dismember a Muslim country. Bangladesh will have to guard against such disinformation propaganda by Jamat-pasand parties, both domestic and international, and refute through diplomacy and dissemination of information to the disinformation-vulnerable countries clearly stating the  position that a democratically elected government has to respond to the wishes of the people more so when the demand of the people relates to crimes against humanity.

Should it be necessary one may revisit the 1985 UN Summit that resolved that states have an obligation to their citizens to protect them from being subjected to crimes against humanity and prevent such a situation from occurring. The participants in the Summit also resolved that should any state is found wanting in fulfilling its obligations then the international community may step in to free the people from victimization of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Banning of Jamat-e-Islami does not mean that Bangladeshis have embraced atheism or agnosticism or even our entry into secular age. The ban can be  based on the party’s criminal past and their refusal to be loyal to our collective identity of a nation born of a bloody liberation war. Jamat leaders’ trial for crimes against humanity is a testimony of the party’s past. The recent assault on the law enforcement authorities by the student wing of Jamat-e-Islami and the most recent murder of the architect-blogger who was one of the leaders of the on-going agitation at the New Generation Roundabout by possibly Islamist armed cadre should remove any misgivings if one has about banning Jamat-e-Islami as a political party in Bangladesh. 

From a broader point of view Sahabagh protestors have encouraged the people to believe that Bangladesh’s future will remain in safe hands. In the background of the inability of successive administrations to fulfill the expectations of the people many were apprehensive that the realization of  “Golden Bengal” will remain an elusive dream. But the dedication and unwavering commitment shown by the youth in the New Generation Roundabout to a set of demands through a peaceful and disciplined movement has demonstrated that the country has still a vast reservoir of youthful talent unmarred by greed for power and money that can steer the country in the right direction. The youth of Bangladesh has shown that clash within the same civilization is more likely to occur when immorality transgresses the boundary of fairness and the transgressors have to account for their misdeeds in a court of law where justice is dispensed without fear or favor of the crowd.

The political tussle one sees in Bangladesh today that appears insoluble due to firm positions taken by the ruling and opposition combines, some people suspect, is more due to their ambition for power and less for their desire to serve   the people. But one can also find ideological differences between the two parties.  While one is believed to be left of center allied with left leaning parties in a coalition government the opposition is believed to be right wing conservatives allied with Islamist party. The current main opposition political party not only rehabilitated the Islamist political party accused of collaboration with the occupying military forces during Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 but also gave some members of the Islamist party berth in the cabinet when in power.

So there is a clear distinction in the appeal of the two combines to the people. One propagates that the spirit of the liberation war should guide  governance and preferably secularism should be the vehicle for engagement with diverse denominational groups in the sense that people belonging to different religions should be allowed to practice their faith without hindrance from any quarter. The other would like people to believe that Islam is not safe in the hands of the ruling combine despite assertions to the contrary that such propagation is utterly false and baseless.  As regards the domestic policies the ruling combine in Bangladesh though business friendly gives priority to poverty alleviation and expanding the social safety net for the benefit of a larger number of people than the opposition combine did when they were in power. Such ideological differences, apart from being controvertible, have been marginalized by  the demand of the opposition that the next elections to be free and fair should be held under a   caretaker government (undone through a constitutional amendment).

Besides the opposition demands that the ongoing trial of the Islamists accused of genocide and crimes against humanity committed in 1971 should  be “transparent and of international standard”. They have failed to condemn the terroristic activities of the Islamist party Jamat-e-Islam and its student wing Islami Chatra Shibir who are waging an armed protest movement against the government demanding the release of their leaders convicted and/or being tried by the International Crimes Tribunal. The opposition combine has also taken a position against the peaceful movement of the youth at Shahbagh who are demanding capital punishment of those convicted of war crimes and banning of Jamat and its student wing. They view the spatial expansion of the youth movement and the support given to them by people of all ages as a manipulation by the government to win the next election disregarding the fact that the trial of the war criminals was an election promise by the Awami League before they the last elections were held.

If the differences between the two combines are due to felt need for identity then it has to be acknowledged that  affiliation and allegiance to nation-state as a source of identity are diminishing rapidly. Other identifying elements such as religion are filling the gap often in form of movements that are labeled “fundamentalists”. It has been argued that while local identity affiliations are weakening, they are not diminishing in favor of other factor such as religion or culture but they yield for a wider global culture. This brings up the issue of globalization and flat earth-one shrinking the space of the globe or making the world into a global village while technological advances have made it possible for the rise of the rest.

Clearly the contribution of the emerging and developing  economies to global GDP, for example, is fast replacing the traditional contribution of the West to global wealth. On  15th March Helen Clark UNDP administrator observed that the South as a whole was driving economic growth and societal change for the first time in centuries. By 2020, she added,  according to projections developed for this Human Development Report, the combined economic output in 1990 purchasing power parity dollars, of three key emerging economies alone– China, India, and Brazil – will surpass that of the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada combined. Nations in the real world, however, is yet far from becoming mutually dependant on each other  to the extent that cultural or other distinctive factors can be overcome to facilitate oneness. 

The victory of Uhuru Kenyatta in the Kenyan Presidential elections despite being accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide, illustrates the strength of tribal loyalties over commonly held civilized values. It is, therefore, not surprising that in Bangladesh a section of the people belonging to the majority community still feel threatened by alleged dilution of their faith by the movement of the youth who are on the street on issues that in no way threaten  the articles of faith of Islam. It is unfortunate that even responsible political leaders have termed Shahbagh as a gathering of the atheists. One hopes that such branding of the youth, now clearly supported by a large section of the people, is an oppositional  political tactic  as some have alleged that the youth movement is being supported and sustained  by the ruling parties and not to be read as support of those accused of crimes against humanity.   Such an argument is again difficult to defend as the main opposition party(BNP) despite call from different quarters have so far refused to ditch Jamat-e-Islami from being an integral part of the opposition parties combine. Besides its support for the hartal(strike/closure) call by Jamat makes it difficult to believe that in the near future BNP will sever its ties with the Islamist party. Unless BNP decides to make “safeguarding Islam” one of its main election planks then its continued association with Jamat does not make much sense because the Islamist party even at best of its time got about 4% of  popular votes.

As most of the people of Bangladesh are devout  but moderate Muslims they do not need an Islamist party to safeguard Islam because Islam is not in danger in Bangladesh. Another point of departure between the two main political  parties is Bangladesh’s relations with India. Despite Indian assurance that India conducts relations with countries and deals with whichever party holds the rein of governance and India has no favorite among political parties in Bangladesh a section of BNP politicians suspect that Awami League has  special relations with the Congress from the time of the liberation war of Bangladesh and Indian political parties including BJP would prefer a Sheikh Hasina led government to a Begum Zia led government in Bangladesh.

Additionally both the Indian Foreign Minister at Dhaka  and the President Pranab Mukherji( just prior to his arrival at Dhaka on a State Visit) praised  the Shahbagh student movement.  Though the demands of the youth are internal matters of Bangladesh BNP sees the similarity of views of the Bangladesh ruling combine and that of the Indian establishment as yet another sign of the UPA government’s favoritism of  Awami League.  That the pronouncements by the Indian FM and of the Indian President could be praise for youthful energy and their  specific demands which are non-controversial expressed in peaceful and disciplined manner appear to have escaped the attention of BNP leaders.

It is unfortunate that at a time when the 2013 Human Development Report  has identified Bangladesh along with China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam as belonging to a group of 18 countries that have recorded rapid growth in human development along with the World Bank and the IMF reports saying more or less the same thing  our political leaders are embroiled in a bitter  power struggle.  Sooner a peaceful solution is arrived at the better it will be for the people of Bangladesh and the continued rise of South Asia as a region in global politico-economic development.