Immortalizing Gonojagoron Mancha Movement in Bangladesh

In the wake of the Gonojagoron Mancho protests, the governing Awami League amended the respective ICT law in the parliament and incorporated the appeal provision for the victims to that flawed law. 

by Anwar A. Khan

The spirit of victory remains all around

This year on 5 February would be the 9th anniversary of Gonojagoron Mancha Movement (National Awakening Stage) in Bangladesh. The Grand Alliance under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, the Modern Day Joan of Arc, won the election held on 29 December 2008 with a two-thirds majority, based in part on its promise to prosecute alleged war criminals. On 29 January 2009, the new Parliament unanimously passed a resolution to prosecute the war criminals of 1971.

In our country, Bangladesh and in the world in general, or even in our lives, we do not value things that come easy. Anything that we achieve as an outcome of struggle or movement becomes invaluable to us. How can we forget the popular movement of Ganojagoron Mancha for death punishment of 1971 war criminals in Bangladesh? The movement commenced on 5 February 2013 and it is a turning point in Bangladesh’s history after our glorious Liberation War of 1971.

The Gonojagoron Mancha Movement is as if the sun breaks bright to the soil of Bangladesh. The spring…The great awakening…A golden star in our hearts…The victims and their family members too are human beings who deserve and demand right punish those the war criminals of 1971. Alas! It betided differently; the convicted criminals only were given the right to appeal to the apex court as per the ICT law for a further scrutiny of the war criminals. The appeal right of the victims colossally ignored by the concerned Ministry. On 5th February, 2013, the scene exploded into the public eye when Kader Molla, the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ was awarded life imprisonment by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) instead of death punishment.

Without the Gonojagoron Manch Movemen, it was almost impossible to let the worst war criminals walk the gallows. A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. It actually has honoured the victims and their families who fell prey to the deadliest enemies during our glorious Liberation War in 1971, Bangladesh, its national flag and people of all walks of life who fought bravely with utmost patriotism to achieve Bangladesh. It ignited the veridical spark to arouse the people and showed the right-angled pathname. After our liberation war, nothing reminds us of an awakening more than this historic movement.

Silence was a lie that screamed at the light then. Awakening will be sudden. The Gonojagoron Manch Movement is the staggeringly gifted one for us. After pro-longed time, we could recognise our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The deluge and the tree, when the hurricane swirled and spread its deluge of dark evil onto the good green land of people in general gloated in Bangladesh. 

The western skies reverberated with sorrowful accounts: The Tree has fallen! The great trunk is smashed! The hurricane has left no life in the tree! Has the tree really fallen? Never! Not with our red streams flowing forever, not while the vino of our thorn limbs fed the thirsty roots, Bangladesh roots alive tunneling deep, deep, into the land! When the tree rises up, the branches shall flourish green and fresh in the sun; the laughter of the tree shall leaf beneath the sun and birds shall return. Undoubtedly, the birds shall return. 

Humanity, where were you thee? We were being slaughtered under your watchful eyes, we were cold . . . cold . . . cold. We cringed. We cried. Humanity, where were you? Why did you turn your face away? Why did you keep looking the other way? We were here languishing in Bangladesh’s alleyways during our Independence War in 1971. Humanity, where were you then? Look at us? See us? Humanity, enough turning the other way! Turning a deaf ear; turning a blind eye while we and our poor people died unmercifully.

Our path is called Justice . . . and now we must walk it, and stoutly avow to follow wherever it leads till the sun sets blaze to the weeds… We announce what comes after us; we announce mightier offspring, orators, days, and then, for the present, depart. We remember we said, before our leaves sprang at all, we would raise our voice jocund and strong, with reference to consummations. 

We announce natural persons to arise; we announce justice triumphant; we announce uncompromising liberty and equality; we announce the justification of candor, and the justification of pride. We announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, and bold; we announce an end that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation; we announce myriads of youths, beautiful, gigantic, sweet-blooded; and we announce a race of splendid people. An unknown sphere, more real than we dreamt, more direct, darts awakening rays about us – So long 42 years! Remember our words—we may again return, we love you—Bangladesh; we depart from materials; we are as one disembodied, triumphant, dead. 

An Autumn Sunbright! We leaguered in fire; the wild black promontories of the coast extend; their savage silhouettes; the sun in universal carnage sets, and, halting higher, the motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats, like an advancing mob in sword-points penned, that, balked, yet stands at bay. Mid-zenith hangs the fascinated day in wind-lustrated hollows crystalline, a wan Valkyrie whose wide pinions shine across the ensanguined ruins of the fray, and in her hand swings high overhead above the waste of war, the silver torch-light of the evening star wherewith to search the faces of the dead.

The Gonojagoron Mancho movement means a platform for popular uprising or mass awakening platform. It’s a real song…The movement experienced external threats from extremist forces such as Jamaati men and their buddies, and as a result, the group has become less politically active than the widespread mobilisation seen during February to March-April 2013 and January 2014. The spontaneous movement initially aimed to non-violently build popular support for a harsher sentence for Kader Mollah, a notorious war criminal in accordance with the penal code, and that it has focused on nationalism and patriotism. The demonstrations were called the biggest mass mobilisation in recent memory in Bangladesh by both the local and foreign media outlets. The Gonojagoron Moncho or Shahbag demonstrations in early February 2013 were as peaceful and included candle-light vigils, large-scale gatherings, theatre, poetry recitations, national songs and nationalistic speeches.

In the wake of the Gonojagoron Mancho protests, the governing Awami League amended the respective ICT law in the parliament and incorporated the appeal provision for the victims to that flawed law. On hearing appeal from the victims’ side, the Supreme Court overturned the life sentence awarded by the ICT and ordered that Molla be put to death. Following the 28 February 2013 guilty verdict and death sentence of the Jamaat party vice-president Molla, sub-humans-Jamaat protesters held demonstrations that led to clashes with Gonojagoron Moncho supporters. The unrest resulted in the deaths of protesters, bystanders, and police officers, numbering in the dozens.

Three Gonojagoron Moncho activists were killed in different regions across Bangladesh: Prominent blogger Rajib Ahmed Haider was attacked and killed in February 2013. 

In a speech on 8 February 2013, the spokesman of the Gonojagoron Moncho conducted an oath to the crowds of protesters at the Shahbag inter-section, which stated objectives related to the continuation of the movement for capital punishment for those on trial for crimes against humanity committed in 1971. The objectives of the Gonojagoron Moncho also included: Commitment to a democratic Bangladesh, where religion is considered a private matter; boycotting of businesses, banks, media outlets, social and cultural entities connected to Jamaat; called for an investigation into the sources of funding of Jamaat and associated institutions and businesses; ban on the politics of religious fundamentalists or the politics of Jamaat-Shibir; and achieving their goals without violence.

The group’s demands more broadly promote accountable governance and it has opened up the space for debate in society. Gonojagoron Moncho obtained support from all sectors and classes of society initially, and the movement exposed internal tensions and debates about secularism and religion in politics, the culture of impunity that is part of the political process in Bangladesh, as well as the meaning of communal harmony in society.

The Bloggers and Online Activists Network (BOAN) is the group in Bangladesh that initiated Gonojagoron Mancho protests through online networking and social media. The spokesman for the Gonojagoron Moncho, Imran H. Sarkar who was the main organiser of BOAN. It has been referred to as an umbrella platform of apolitical organisations. The group is not an organised political party or grouping in any traditional sense, but rather that at its height, the movement was a coalition of loose networks, associations, and individual actors though there are core networks.

Participants in the initial Gonojagoron Mancho protests numbered hundreds of thousands. The movement can be described the movement as initiated by youth, with hundreds of thousands of supporters including men, women, boys, and girls from all walks of life and citizens irrespective of age and faith. Youth and people from various professions including university teachers, students, cultural and political activists, journalists and bloggers joined this movement of protests. A noted aspect of the movement has been the participation of large numbers of women. Shahbag Square in Dhaka is described as the centre of the movement. Support for the movement has soon spread across the country. The movement uses social networking to organise support.

The organisers of Gonojagoron Mancho Movement have refused to allow the participation of any political parties in the speeches or activities of the movement. A prominent Gonojagoron speaker stated publicly at a rally that “this movement does not belong to any political party.” The movement involves sit-ins and a programme to occupy Shahbag before the verdicts for those on trial for war crimes, including a sit-in related to the verdict of the 90-year old Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam in July 2013. On 17 July in that year, both Jamaat and Gonojagoron Mancha called simultaneous hartals (day-long strikes) which led to 4 deaths and 100 injuries. In mid-August 2013, Gonojagoron Moncho conducted a procession march and rally to protest a hartal held by Jamaat and to pay tribute to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The movement’s demands included the arrest of Jamaat-Shabbier activists and banning of the Jamaat party. Some of which were peaceful and some of which caused in violence, including in a few cases the deaths of police officers beaten by Hefazet activists, and in many cases, the use of extreme force by security forces resulting in the killing of many people. Fiery band sloganeer young girl activist Lucky Akhter has emerged as junior “Agni-kannaya’ (the junior daughter of fire) after the-then Agricultural Minister Matia Chowdhury, has always captivated the audience by her skyrocket patriotic slogans. 

Ganajagoron Mancha announced its decision to continue the sit-in at Shahbagh until Quader Molla’s death sentence is executed. Activists blocked the Shahbagh intersection from 10:50 pm in demand for the execution, and crowds began gathering since 7pm in anticipation of the verdict, bursting into protests when the news of the death sentence arrived.

Spokesperson of the Ganajagoron Mancha Imran H Sarker said, “The Rajakars do not deserve any mercy.” He urged everyone to join the sit-in until the verdict is executed. This was happening in a country for which many people of all walks of life of our society fought by ignoring families and personal life, for months. They have fought to free Bangladesh from the hostility of far rights and Pakistani military junta and their brutal local henchmen in 1971. As a generation of participating in 1971 war, I ought to think how meaningless the fight of liberation has become under the ignominious regimes of Zia, Ershad and their compadre politician like Begum Zia. It is possible to rebuild a secular state only if the government recognises its responsibility to identify the network of fanatics and prosecute the criminals, including those that hide under the banner of different noms de guerre.

Protesters considered Mollah’s sentence too lenient, given his crimes. Bloggers and online activists called for additional protests at Shahbag. Tens of thousands of people joined the demonstration, which gave rise to protests across the country. A counter-protest, questioning the validity of the tribunal and the protest movement and demanding release of those accused and convicted, was launched by Jamaat-e-Islami as its leaders were the majority of those first identified for trial. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) expressed its support for Jamaat-e-Islami, a political ally of them.

On 27 February 2013, the tribunal convicted Delwar Hossain Sayeedi of war crimes and sentenced him to death. Jamaat followers protested and there were violent clashes with police. About 60 people were killed in the confrontations; most were Jamaat-Shibir activists, and others were police and civilians. In 1971 Bangladesh was the portion of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan known as East Pakistan. In the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, the-then East Pakistan fought West Pakistan for nine months. During this period the Indian Army which provided guerrilla training to Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters), joined the war on 3 December 1971 in support of the liberation of former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The deadliest war ended on 16 December 1971 through surrender of the Pakistani Armed Forces to joint forces of Bangladesh and India, resulting in the formation of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh as a secular and independent state.

The government intended to use the 1973 law: the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act. It worked to amend the law, updating it and incorporating in it other nations’ experience. The amendments provided the legal basis, though there were some legal flaws to it, for the trial of individuals and political parties that had committed war crimes during Bangladesh liberation war in 1971.

Further developments: On 21 February in the same year, International Mother Language Day, the number of protesters reached a new height. Its leadership declared 26 March 2013, the Independence Day of Bangladesh, as the deadline for the government to ban Jamaat-e-Islami from politics. The government did not ban Jamaat-e-Islam from politics after the deadline was over. Seven protesters calling themselves the Shaheed Rumi Squad began a fast until death on 26 March at 10:30 pm in front of the National Museum, protesting inadequate government action to ban Jamaat in response to the Shahbagh protesters’ ultimatum. The fasters said at a press briefing that they would send an open letter to Prime Minister Hasina during the 100th hour of their protests. More than 100 organisations expressed solidarity with the hunger strikers.

The-then State Minister for Law, Quamrul Islam, said that the verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah could have been different if people had not taken to the streets sooner. The government was planning to file appeals with the Supreme Court contesting the sentence for Mollah. On 11 February the Cabinet approved proposed amendments to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973, introducing a provision for plaintiffs to appeal verdicts handed down by the tribunal. This amendment enabled the state to appeal Mollah’s life sentence to turn it into death sentence.

International response: On 18 February 2013 British Foreign Office minister Sayeeda Warsi hailed the Shahbag Square protests, describing them as peaceful, productive and non-violent.

Media coverage: In Sreemangal, Moulvibazar cable operators in solidarity with the protests have stopped broadcasting the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami television channel Diganta Television. Protesters in a crowd were holding up English-language poster. Protester showed placards to foreign media. The BBC, CNN, Yahoo! News, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, The Independent and others have published stories on the protests; BBC Bangla has been closely following the events. Reuters photographer Andrew Biraj published “live” photos of mass demonstrations at Shahbagh.

Outcome: On 11 December 2013 demand for quick execution of ‘Butcher’ Molla.’ The demonstration put pressure on the government to amend the International Crimes Tribunal Act so war criminals “can be swiftly executed if convicted”. The cabinet also set a 60-day limit for the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division to rule on appeals, to keep the cases moving. This means that those who have been convicted and sentenced to death could be executed that year if their verdicts survived appeal. In response to popular protests, former Jute and Textiles Minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui said on 12 February that a bill was being drafted to ban Jamaat-e-Islami from Bangladeshi politics. On 17 September 2013, Bangladesh Supreme Court found Abdul Quader Molla guilty of murders and other war crimes and ordered his execution and executed him on 12 December 2013.

The Gonojagoron Manch Movement or the National Awakening Stage Movement is the biggest turning point in Bangladesh’s history. This very attempt to blot out forever the stigma of non-bringing the war criminals of 1971 to justice for decades and it may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the complete overthrow of the whole non-trialing system of the mass murderers. This movement served as a defining moment for those culprits to book and inflict due punishment to them, and the movement soon emerged as the most prominent one in the annuls of Bangladesh’s history.

Celebrated Educationist Prof Dr. Khan Sarwar Murshid once reminded us, “Forgetting or forgetfulness is equivalent to perfidiousness.” We should celebrate this great movement every year with due honour and admiration toward its organisers and people who actively participated and supported this crusading battle tending in the direction of a particular glorious goal-directed purposive. 

Because of the Gonojagoron Manch Movement, we could lawfully try six beastly animals and successfully executed them. And the trials are still going on to punish the remaining worst war criminals of 1971. We salute the Gonojagoron Manch Movement, its leaders, activists, people of all walks of life, PM Sheikh Hasina and her the-then cabinet members on its 9th anniversary this year. 

Let us not force our flagging spirit into a poor preparation for worship of the Gonojagoron Mancha Movement. It is thou who draw the veil of night upon the tired eyes of the day to renew its sight in a fresher gladness of National Awakening Stage of 5th February of 2013. Grace, then, is grace, – that is to say, it is sovereign, it is free, it is sure, it is unconditional, and it is everlasting. This song isn’t a song of theology—it’s our own heartfelt expression of gratitude to this great movement which betided nine years back in Bangladesh. Long live the Gonojagoron Manch Movement as a lighthouse for us all in Bangladesh.

-The End –

The writer is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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