Ask for a piece on Pakistan and Bangladesh during December and you’re likely to get something about the 1971 wars — note the plural, because the eastern part of the subcontinent simultaneously experienced an inter-ethnic civil war and ethno-communal cleansing, genocide, inter-state conventional war and a war of national liberation, all climaxing in the crisp Bengali winter of 1971. Naeem Mohaiemen’s seven part series is an example, covering many aspects of that fateful year.
Let me skip 1971 in this post. Instead, I’ll begin by marking the other December anniversary, one that will have a particular relevance for Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2013. And I’ll note the parallels between the post-1971 developments in the two wings of former United Pakistan.
Delwar Hossain Sayedee, an Islamic preacher and a senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the country’s largest Islam-pasand party, was sentenced to death on 28 February for war crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War. Within hours, Jamaat cadres and activists clashed violently with police and law enforcement agencies. Scores have been killed in some of the worst political violence the country has experienced in recent years.
Five other senior Jamaat leaders, including its current and former chiefs, are being prosecuted for war crimes committed in 1971. Another leader was sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 February. That sentence triggered what has come to be called the Shahbag Awakening—a month of largely peaceful gathering of tens of thousands of people in the middle of Dhaka. A key demand of the largely government-supported Awakening is to ban Jamaat.
Will the Jamaat be banned? The ruling Awami League has a three-fourths majority in parliament, while the Jamaat is a key ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. A general election is expected before the year is over. So there are complex political calculations involved. Meanwhile, even if the party survives, how will it perform if its top leaders are convicted (and possibly executed) for war crimes?
When asked his opinion on the French Revolution, Zhou En Lai is meant to have quipped, ‘too soon to tell’. I stood in solidarity earlier today, but I echo the former Chinese premiere on Shahbagh. I find it ridiculous to call it a Square. I think people calling it a revolution or dawn of Fascism are being a tad bit silly. But beyond that, as of now, I am observing and assessing. As Sherlock Holmes might say, it’s not a good habit to hypothesise without sufficient information… actually, I am sure he would say something more pithy and cool, but you get the point — I am not in Shahbagh (or even in Bangladesh), and I am not going to say anything more about Shahbagh until I have more information.
Instead, I am going to note that this is February, the month when Bengali Muslims of an earlier generation discovered their Bengaliness. This is as good a time as any to write about the articles by Naeem Mohaiemen and Arnab Ray that appeared in the New York Times last November.