Shahbag happened.

It’s funny, now, to look at my last post -me vaguely and angrily saying that we want the death sentence for the war criminals – because Shahbag has happened in the month since then.

The Shahbag Protest is a massive, massive continuous protest that started on the 5th of February. It began in response to Quader Mollah, assistant secretary general of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and one of the war criminals on trial, getting life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Despite convictions of mass murder, rape, and arson. And his giving the victory sign to the media as he drove away. We had a day or so of confusion and disappointment. And then, somehow, by the next day, thanks to incredible organization and leadership from a group of bloggers and activists, the Shahbag movement had begun, and thousands and thousands of people, mostly around my age, gathered to protest.

I find it, to an extent, impossible to explain this to people who are unfamiliar with Bangladesh’s history. Because oh, on the one hand, it sounds so bloodthirsty. I think a news headline at some point was, “Teeming thousands shout hang, hang.” So bloodthirsty. For people who are unsure about how they feel about capital punishment, I imagine this can be very unnerving.

On the other hand. Three million people died in 1971. Rape was a tool of war. If I had been then, instead of now, I probably would have been thrown in a rape camp and eventually murdered. This is what happened to the mothers of my generation. We are defined, today, by what happened then. Again, I wasn’t there. But my parents were, and I have grown up, literally, in a language that is molded by that time. My grandmother was widowed in that war.

So really, perhaps Shahbag as is simple as saying, we haven’t forgotten you.

It’s also about much more than that. More than just wanting these criminals to get the sentence they deserve. It is, more importantly in many ways, about wanting an end to religion-based (namely Islamist) politics. I think one of my favorite slogans at Shahbag is, religion is personal, state is for everyone. I am truly, deeply honored to have been able to be part of the Shahbag movement. I have been there every day that I can, with friends, family, and strangers. I have, actually, never felt so comfortable in a crowd in Bangladesh. The slogan culture is incredible – I could write for pages and pages about just that – the fact that you’re able to sit in the sun for hours and be shouting at the top of your lungs, and not be tired for a moment. And yet it is the most peaceful mass movement I could ever hope to see. Even in the face of one of its organizers being brutally murdered, there is no question of this group suddenly spiraling out of control. In fact, Golam Azam, long time leader of the Jamaat and also on trial, is being held in a building that is basically right in the center of the Shahbag intersection. No one is rushing in there to go grab him. This is not a mob. Families, children, elderly. Women sitting next to men. Art lining the pavements leading from Shahbag to Dhaka University. Songs of uprising and revolution heard everywhere. Tailors with their sewing machines, making flags for people to wear around their heads. (I carry mine in my purse, now.) A massive painting of Jahanara Imam, and an equally large flag of Bangladesh, are the backdrop for the thousands of thousands of people sitting on the road.

The last few days have been rather ugly for our country. Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, known as ‘Delu Rajakar’ in 1971, was given the death sentence last Thursday, to the jubilation of the Shahbag protestors and the fury of the Jamaat-e-Islami. In the time right after the sentence was delivered, the Jamaat went violently crazy. The Jamaat and their student wing, the Shibir, are doing everything under the sun to fight these verdicts and the Shahbag movement, including, literally: hacking people to death, calling nationwide strikes, setting fire to trains, attacking Hindu homes and places of worship, spreading false information claiming that the Shahbag protestors are anti-Islamic, and saying that Sayeedi’s face was seen on the moon.

Yeah, I’m confused by that last one too.

It is a difficult time for us right now. Many lives have been lost in the recent violence. Families that will look back on this time and feel nothing but pain. It’s all I can think about right now.

But I have also never felt so hopeful for the future. It is impossible not to be. Shahbag continues to evolve. Bangladeshis show their support from around the world, and the movement has spread to every corner of the country.

I also just want to say that I am offended and disappointed by international news coverage of this movement and the current violence in the country. By which I mean the lack of news coverage, and the shockingly biased view of the few things that I do see. I don’t know if Jamaat pays BBC to write the way it does or if they’re just ignorant or what it is. At this point, I just give up on them. During the genocide in 1971 we needed the world to know what was happening, we needed the media to tell everyone. But everything is different, now. Information is everywhere. I have stopped reading the BBC.

More reading, if anyone’s interested:
An article published in the Guardian by a Bangladeshi author, Tahmima Anam, near the start of the Shahbag Protest. Click here.
The History of the Liberation War. Click here.
The Shahbag Protest website. Click here. (The photo of the candlelight vigil on the main page of this website is incredible.)
The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s main English newspaper. Click here.

(Helpline update, it’s been awhile! I’m trying, oh we’re all trying, but everything we schedule is continuously rescheduled because of the current situation in the country right now. Tentatively, we want a press conference at the end of March, to officially go live. There’s still a thousand different kinks to work out, but I’ve realized that it won’t get any smoother until we’re up and running, so that’s that. Right now we’re sifting through volunteer applications and doing interviews and scheduling more recruitment/promotion events and working on our office. As usual, when things don’t get done, it’s me, and when they do, it’s everyone else, the people I refer to as “my KPR team” in my head. )

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