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Next-door lessons: What India can learn from the protesters of Shahbag

It’s been compared to Tahrir Square. It’s about history that is tied to India’s history through blood and war. It’s about young people taking to the streets.

But the Shahbag protests in Dhaka have not set media in India abuzz. Perhaps as Big Brother, India expects Bangladesh to pay attention to it and not vice versa.

India should be paying attention to Shahbag Square because this is about more than a war crimes trial that is only relevant to Bangladesh. There is a conversation happening in Shahbag Square which matters to all of us.

The spark for the protest is well-known. A war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh convicted and sentenced a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami to death in absentia for  crimes during the Liberation War. On 5 February, the tribunal sentenced another Jamaat leader, Abdul Kader Mullah, known as the Butcher of Mirpur, to life in prison. Mullah, accused of beheading a poet, raping an 11-year-old girl and murdering 344 people obviously was expecting the worst. He flashed a V sign to his followers outside the courtroom and triggered off a tsunami of outrage that spilled from social media to Shahbag Square. The protesters demanded that Mullah be hanged.

The slogans of Fashi chai! Fashi chai! (Let him hang) have made some observers see this protest as a bloodthirsty mob baying for blood. But it would be a mistake to regard this as just a story about capital punishment.

As Philip Hensher writes in The Independent this week:

The calls for the death penalty are the counsel of despair. These are people who believe passionately in the rule of law, and justice. They have seen too many times that justice is only done at the bidding of politicians, and may be undone.

Mullah flashed that victory sign because he knew that if the Awami League was swept out of power in the next election, and the BNP came back to power, chances are it would quickly reverse course, stop the trials and free people like him. The Jamaat has been the BNP’s electoral ally.

A protester at the rally in Dhaka. AFP

A protester at the rally in Dhaka. AFP

Capital punishment, unlike a life sentence, is irreversible and immune from shifting political tides.

The reason why India should be paying attention to Shahbag goes beyond the history of 1971 and the issue of capital punishment.

“The issue today is much broader,” Veena Sikri, the former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh told Tehelka in a television interview. “A very important demand that youth there have put forward is demanding a ban on religion in politics. This is amazing.”

This is a conversation that few political parties are willing to have in our part of the world where religion has become a dependable vote bank. Even if they do lip service to secularism, keeping religion out of politics is easier said than done. The Awami League itself has been nervous about taking up the issue head on. While Sheikh Hasina reintroduced the word secular into the constitution, she did not remove the bit about Islam as a state religion.

In that sense, the protesters are also turning the screws on her government writes Kanchan Gupta in The Pioneer.

Many Bangladeshis have begun to feel that the Awami League has suddenly adopted a soft line in view of the coming national election. This is what makes the Shahbag protest significant. For all her bluster, Sheikh Hasina has hesitated to push for a full return to the secular politics of her father’s time.

The force of the Shahbag protest, which has tried to stay apolitical, is pushing the government to even consider the political risky step of banning Jamaat.

Whether banning a  political party is a healthy act for a democracy or just drives it underground to fester is a subject that’s worth debating but as Sikri points out Jamaat is facing a ban not because of its religious ideology per se but because its constitution does not conform to Bangladesh’s requirements for all political parties vis a vis accepting the results of the 1971 war as settled fact etc.

“The constitution of Jamaat is not  in line with the constitution of Bangladesh,” says Sikri. “Certain norms should apply to all parties.”  Sheikh Hasina has some political cover here – she can claim that any ban is pro-Bangladesh, not anti-Islam. It is not about singling out Jamaat as much as it is about making sure the same law applies to all.

AFP

AFP

But what is truly worth noting is that in a situation where extremists take for granted that they can control the bully pulpit by taking the name of God, here is finally real pushback from the notoriously squishy moderate middle. " Though the Jamaat party only won two out of 300 seats in the last election, their presence as a powerful third party in politics has remained unquestioned – until now, " writes Tahmima Anam in The Guardian. It is being questioned forcefully on the streets by groups that are often dismissed as political dilettantes -  young people, women,  students and Facebook activists. And it is happening in Bangladesh.

As Anushay Hossain writes, "The biggest story of an organic movement to resoundingly choose secularism over Islamic extremism is happening in one of the world’s largest Muslim democracies. So why is the world not acknowledging Shahbagh?"

We often hear about the moderate middle in any country. But it’s too amorphous, willing too often to yield ground to the louder and better organised extremists. “Bangladesh has never leaned much towards extremism – either left or right,” K. Anis Ahmed told me during a literature festival in Dhaka late last year. “In the seventies when socialism was sweeping through the region with Naxalites next door to us, it was a centrist party like the Awami League that led our liberation. Even now in a country that’s 90 percent Muslim, main Islamic parties struggle to get even 10 percent of the vote.”

Now those centrist secular voices are protesting in Shahbag Square showing that they too can count for something in a democracy, staying put even after a blogger was hacked to death. It is a protest that liberals, queasy about the calls for hanging, ignore at their peril writes Nick Cohen in The Guardian.

Theirs is a grassroots uprising for the most essential and neglected values of our age: secularism, the protection of minorities from persecution and the removal of theocratic thugs from the private lives and public arguments of 21st-century citizens.

Shahbag is not a miracle pill that will fix everything in Bangladesh. Changing laws through slogans in public squares is always risky – whether it’s about rape laws in India or electoral laws in Bangladesh. Just as political parties tried to co-opt and scuttle the anti-corruption movement in India, the Awami League will surely want to manipulate the energy of Shahbag into an electoral victory that had seemed far less likely a few months ago. And the protesters could try and squeeze too many different demands under one banner.

But that is all realpolitik and petty politics. There is something bigger and more remarkable happening at Shahbag square. Another world is seeming possible, as Arundhati Roy once said. On a quiet day you can hear her breathe.

Actually it does not have to be a quiet day anymore. Even in a city as noisy as Dhaka, the call for change can be heard loud and clear every day from Shahbag Square.

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