Shahbagh is Not a An Imperialist Conspiracy, Mr. Umari

Subhash Gatade

Subhash Gatade is the author of Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India, and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India. He is also the Convener of New Socialist Initiative (NSI)

Article courtesy: New Socialist Initiative

The echo of the Shahbag protest in Bangladesh was heard about 200 miles away here on Sunday with citizens, under the banner of Janamat, expressing solidarity with protesters in that country. Janamat, a Guwahati-based socio-cultural body which organised the solidarity meet here, said that the issue raised by the Shahbag protesters is relevant to India in general and Assam in particular because both the countries’ secular and democratic fabrics are threatened by communal forces.

Solidarity meet in city for Shahbag protest. Times News Network, April 29, 2013
Representatives of different Gonojagoron Mancha across the country on Friday suggested spreading its activities to grassroots level to aware people about its demands. They urged all to be united to fight against Jamaat-Shibir and move forward with a view to realising their demands …Around 300 representatives from 167 gonojagoron manchas from seven divisions attended the daylong representative conference at Senate Bhaban of Dhaka University to express their views and suggestions to strengthen the movement.

Imran H Sarkar, spokesperson for the Gonojagoron Mancha, announced a mass rally at Mymensingh on May 18 and a grand rally at Projonmo Chattar in Dhaka on May 31 at the end of the conference.
The Daily Star, May 3, 2013


Maulana Syed Jalaluddin Umari, President of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, (Born in 1935), seems to be a learned man, at least that’s what his biographical details tell us. Elected for the second time as Ameer (President) of the Jamaat he is known to have ‘authored more than thirty books’ and is ‘considered an ‘authority on human rights in general, and women and Islamic family system in particular’. Interestingly, despite his long innings in social-political life and exposure to the outside world his understanding of some crucial developments in this part of the subcontinent seems to be at variance from what can be said as a general consensus around the issue.

The manner in which he and the organisation he leads reacted to the recent developments in Bangladesh, the emergence of what is known as Shahbagh movement – the spontaneous movement initiated by youth seeking ‘exemplary punishment to the war criminals’ and banning of ‘politics based on religion’ – is an indicative of this disconnect between what Maulana Umari and the organisation he leads thinks and what actually happened.

Cartoon Credit: Ruhin Afrin Joyee

As everybody knows the question of trial of ‘war criminals’ in Bangladesh’s liberation struggle still remains unsettled, despite the fact that it has been a longstanding demand of the Bangladeshi people who faced genocide at the hands of Pakistani army. The support rendered to them in this venture by local activists of Jamaat-e-Islami belonging to then East Pakistan is another ignoble aspect of this whole episode. The way post-liberation history of Bangladesh unfolded itself, where one witnessed assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, towering leader of the liberation struggle and the first prime minister of the newly independent country, followed by coups and a period of instability, this important task could not be addressed. Yes, time and again there were attempts at the non-official level to underline and emphasise this unfinished task : e.g. Way back in 1992, an organisation led by Jahanara Imam ( called Shaheed Janani – mother of martyrs) called ‘ Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee’ had held mock public trial of people accused of war crimes in a People’s Court. The immediate context of having this trial was that Gulam Azam, whose citizenship was revoked by Sheikh Mujib, was elected as the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The High Court, however, in 1993 restored his citizenship which was later upheld by the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 1994.

These attempts received a boost when Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Haseena returned to power (2009) and set up an International War Crimes Tribunal to try some leading activists of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh and Bangladesh Nationalist Party as part of fulfillment of its electoral promise. Critics also see it as an attempt to claim legacy over the historic struggle for liberation. A War Crimes Fact Finding Committee in April 2010 published a list of 1597 suspects. As far as evidence to be presented during the trial, the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 states: “A Tribunal shall not be bound by technical rules of evidence; and it shall adopt and apply to the greatest possible extent expeditious and non-technical procedure, and may admit any evidence, including reports and photographs published in newspapers, perio-dicals and magazines, film and tape-recordings and other materials as may be tendered before it, which it deems to have probative value.” (As cited in Julfiqar Ali Manik, “The Trial we are Still Waiting For”, Forum, Daily Star, 3(12), December 2009.

The flashpoint of this three month old youth led movement became the ‘lenient punishment’ meted out to Vice President of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Abdul Quader Mollah, who was given life sentence on February 5 in spite of his proven guilt of the heinous crimes that he had committed. He was proven guilty on five counts out of six charges that were brought against him, including murdering more than 300 people. The photo of this man emerging from the court, smiling and making a Victory sign, so infuriated the youth that they gave a call on social network to gather at the historic Shahbagh Square. Rest is now history. (5 th Feb 2013)As has been written elsewhere, the uniqueness of the Shahdbagh movement – as hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life converged in this important part of Dhaka and continued to demonstrate for weeks together – was that though it was principally initiated by those youth who run online blogs, and none of whom had actually witnessed the actual genocide, it quickly witnessed the participation of other classes. People could see the repetition of ‘Tahrir Square’ in Dhaka, but not many could foresee that it went much beyond. Undoubtedly, by taking lead in this historic movement and persisting against heavy odds, the youth of Bangladesh were trying to carry forward the forgotten legacy of all those unnamed martyrs who sacrificed their present for a better future for the people of Bangladesh – a future free of religious extremism, a future guaranteeing a life of dignity to everyone.

What a time to be in Dhaka!

I am in Dhaka right now.

Being here at this moment, in Shahbagh (Projonmo Chottor, as it is now called) and on the streets with activists from the Gonojagoron Mancha – young people, academics, veterans of the liberation movement, singers, artists, writers, professionals and thousands of ordinary people – is a unique and inspiring experience.

The similarities and differences with the Delhi mobilisation are striking. There is the same exhilarating sense of reclaiming public space. The same energy and camaraderie, the same feeling of security and freedom. All kinds of unexpected encounters and conversations that leave one feeling both elevated and humbled. Hearing women and men who were part of the liberation war talking about their experiences. The “mashaal” rallies every evening – overwhelming when one is walking in the middle of it, and spectacular on TV, like an unending ribbon of light snaking down the streets.

Of course, this being Bangladesh, there is also a lot of very good music and poetry! The greats are singing on the streets. I feel so privileged to be here.

But this is a far more politically aware and focused movement than what happened in Delhi – it is an out and out confrontation with the Jamaat and Hefazat-e-Islam, which calls itself “a people’s movement” in defence of Islam. And of course BNP is right in there stirring the pot and trying to skim off whatever they can.

This confrontation has been simmering for a long time and most people I’m talking to are glad it came now, when the young people are mobilised in force on the issue of punishment of war criminals…

(Excerpts of a writeup by Ms Kalyani Menon Sen,, 8 april 2013)

Forget words of appreciation for this historic churning in our neighbourhood, and the youth’s resolve to set right ‘historical wrongs’ happened more than four decades ago and their attempts to bring to book the ‘war criminals’ who were responsible for indiscriminate killings of innocents – which included people belonging to different faiths or political outlook – and rapes of women, during the struggle for liberation; forget the fact that people on this part of the border had once played a very supportive role for their struggle, Maulana Umari had nothing but scorn for these young fighters and it appeared that he was trying every way to sanitise the crimes of the Bangladeshi Jamaatis. He lamented : “the death sentence for popular leader of Bangladesh Jamaat Islami Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and renowned religious leader and speaker Maulana Dilawar Husain Sayeedi by the ruling Awami League-appointed war tribunal. While terming the conviction as cruelty and injustice, Maulana Umari demanded Bangladesh government to revoke the sentence against Sayeedi and all leaders of Jamaat Islami, rescind the cases and release them. He said this punishment is the worst example of devaluing the nation’s most caring and concerned Jamaat and its people. Those who have observed international affairs and politics know well that Bangladesh Jamaat Islami did great service to the nation in the field of religion, politics, economy and social welfare…”

The glorification of Jamaatis in Bangladesh did not end at that. And this despite the fact that all historical evidence pointed to the contrary, which again and again underlined the criminal role played by them during the war of liberation.

..On 20 June 1971, Ghulam Azam at a press conference at Lahore Airport said, “With support from many non-Muslims in East Pakistan, Sheik Mujib intends for secession. (Pakistan) Army has uprooted almost all miscreants from East Pakistan and now there is no power which can challenge the dominance of the army”.

..On August 12, 1971, Azam declared, “the supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims”.

..On 5 August 1971, Matiur Rahman Nizami (then head of Al Badr) said “Allah entrusted the pious Muslims with the responsibility to save His beloved Pakistan. (But) when the Muslims failed to solve the political problem in a political way, then Allah saved His beloved land through the (Pakistan) army”.

( Courtesy : Daily Prothom Alo, 11 January 2012, a compilation of statements based on what was published in Jamaat’s own newspaper The Daily Sangram in 1971)

The facts regarding the bloody period which accompanied Bangladesh’s emergence have been recounted n number of times. It need be noted here that Bangladeshi authorities claim that as many as 3 million people were killed in this struggle, while news outlets like BBC have quoted the figures in the range of 3,00,000 to 5,00,000 for the estimated death toll as counted by independent researchers, whereas an official Pakistan government investigation after the debacle of 1971 – under the Hamoodur Rahman Commission after ‘ackowledging its mistakes’ itself had put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualities. Even if for arguments sake we focus on the figures presented by Pakistani government, it also boils down to hundreds of civilian deaths daily during that tumultous nine month period in 1971.

Should not we call such deaths ‘genocide’?

In fact, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) is quite explicit about it. Article 2 of this convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

It would be opportune here to remind Maulana Umari, that the first one to make such charge happened to be Anthony Mascarenhas, a noted Pakistani journalist, himself. In fact, his writeup in ‘Sunday Times’ (London) created great sensation during that period and let the outside world know what is happening in then East Pakistan. Perhaps, Mr Umari and his colleagues at Jammat Islami Hind would be crestfallen to know that even Archer Blood, the then US consul-general in Dhaka – while his government was actually supporting Pakistan then – had used the “dissent channel” of the US department of state to protest against American support for Pakistan during this crisis. In his telegram, Blood had written, “the much overused term ‘genocide’ is precisely applicable in this case”…(The Shame of Kolkata, Sumit Ganguly, 1 April 2013, Asian Age)

It is clear that Mr Umari does not want to look at facts of the case , nor the genocide which took place and the heinous role played by the Bangladeshi Jamaatis and wants to reduce the whole question to alleged ‘different views’ between Bangladesh Jamaat Islami and Shiekh Mujiburrahman during the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan, which according to him ‘..cannot be called a crime’. Naturally when lakhs of Bangladeshis agitated on streets demanding punishment to leaders of the Jamaat he was singing paens to the ‘..great service to the nation in the field of religion, politics, economy and social welfare’ which Jamaat rendered. and referring to the war crimes tribunal was alleging that ‘due to political differences,’ Jamaat leaders are being implicated in false cases and are being awarded even death sentences which was ‘against the Islamic and democratic values.’

Not to be left behind the press release issued on behalf of Jamaat-e-Islami, Hind urged .”..[o]ur Government here to impress upon Dhaka to abolish the so-called War Crimes Tribunal and stop atrocities on Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamic organisation.”It is important to note that ” On prosecution of leaders in Bangladesh, Jamaat Secretary (Media), Ejaz Ahmed Aslam said: What is going on in Bangladesh is part of larger international conspiracy to suppress Islamists all over the world. It is not in the interest of Bangladesh and the Muslim community. (Posted on 02 March 2013 by Admin_markaz,

It appears that the Jamaat people in India have not properly thought over this label ‘international conspiracy’ in their hurried efforts to sanitise the acts of Jamaatis of B’desh. Do they want to say that all those people who poured out on streets of B’desh, and who are still continuing with their movement in very many ways, to pressurise the government to ensure exemplary punishment to the ‘war criminals’ were paid agents of the imperialists ? Do they want to say that demanding justice in case of deaths of all those people who were martyred during Bangladesh’s war for liberation is dancing to the tunes of the imperialists ? In fact, by stalling further enquiries in the war crimes, Jamaatis here, indirectly seem to serve the agenda of the erstwhile occupiers of B’desh and their imperialist masters.


Abdul Bari had run out of luck. Like thousands of other people in East Bengal, he had made the mistake – the fatal mistake – of running within sight of a Pakistani patrol. He was 24 years old, a slight man surrounded by soldiers. He was trembling because he was about to be shot…

..“General Yahya Khan’s military government is pushing through its own ‘final solution’ of the East Bengal problem. ‘We are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once for all of the threat of secession, even if it means the killing of two million people and meeting the province as a colony for 30 years’,

(Genocide : Anthony Mascarenhas, Pakistani Journalist, The Sunday Times, 13 th June 1971)

To be fair to Maulana Umari, it can be added that neither he or nor for that matter Jamaat-e-Islami, Hind were alone in denouncing this historic movement. Many Muslim leaders and their organisations were found to be vying with each other to stigmatise the protests knowing fully well that majority victims of genocide undertaken by the Pakistani army to suppress national aspirations of the Bangla people belonged to the same Umma (community) they seem more concerned about. The other prominent organisations which either maintained silence or opposed the ‘war crimes tribunal’ included : All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, All India Milli Council, All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, West Bengal Sunnat Al Jamaat Committee etc.

Kolkata could be seen as an epicentre of this anti-Shahbagh protesters. All Bengal Minorities Youth Federation and the dozen odd Muslim outfits had held a ‘one lakh strong demonstration’ there on 30 th March to protest against the verdict of the ‘war crime tribunal’ against Jamaat-e-Islami’s leaders and demanding stepping down of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena. The participants in the well attended demonstration had come from different parts of West Bengal. According to them the actions of the Bangladesh government was not only ‘anti-Islam’ but ‘anti-humanity’ as well. The organisers of the demonstration said that if their demands are not met then they would appeal to the Indian government to sever all ties with Bangladesh. The city had witnessed a more violent demonstration by the same forces earlier albeit with lesser participation of people.

There was a similar demonstration held in Karachi in the second week of March led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (Pakistan) ‘to protest the indictment of Jamaat-e-Islami (Bangladesh) war criminals of 1971 and the treatment of its activists by the Bangladesh government, judiciary and the police in the aftermath of the Shahbag movement against the Islamists in Dhaka.’. Leaders of many Islamic countries especially President of Egypt and Prime Minister of Turkey are reported to have written letters to their Bangladesh counterparts expressing their ‘displeasure’ over the war crimes tribunal. Few other Islamic countries have through informal channels also ‘requested’ the Bangladesh government to ‘go slow’ on the trials or ensure that ‘violations of human rights’ does not take place. Wittingly or unwittingly all such ‘protests’ or ‘displeasures’ about ‘danger to Islam’ or ‘danger to humanity’ or alleged concern over democratic rights violation which the ongoing trials have allegedly provoked make one thing very clear.

Interestingly, echoes of Shahbagh could be heard in far off UK as well which witnessed daily events in solidarity with Shahbagh. (The youth of Shahbagh: A Bengali spring? Ansar Ahned Ullah 15 February 2013. In fact, on one of those days there was a direct confrontation between Bengali Muslim secularists and Islamists in East London. A number of young Bengali bloggers from London had called for a peaceful demo in Aftab Ali Park, Whitechapel in solidarity with Shahbagh movement. (8 th Feb 2013) And when the young bloggers went there at the scheduled time, they found to their surprise that UK Jamaat-e-Islami activists had reached there in large numbers and forcefully occupied the sacred Shahid Minar. The standoff between the two groups continued for eight hours. During and at the end of the event Islamists pelted the secular gathering with eggs and stones, abused the women folk and physically attacked a number young bloggers and hospitalised them. No arrests by the police followed.

From Dhaka to London, from Cairo to Riyadh, it is not difficult to understand why Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind and many other Muslim organisations from this side of the border, as well as their counterparts in other countries felt so agitated and threatened over the Shahbagh movement and were going all out to defend the indefensible. It is also a marker of the large network established by the various communitarian Muslim organizations the world over and the influence they have on policies of different Muslim majority nations.

Their immediate interest was definitely to lessen the pressure on the Bangladeshi Jamaatis who were facing bad times inside B’desh, put on the defensive by the youth led uprising demanding capital punishment to the war criminals of 1971 coupled with the actions of the Awami League government against its leaders.A press release issued by the Bangladesh Jamaat Islami itself  on 20 th March 2013 described how ‘ [t]he leadership of Jamaat is either in jail or is living in fear of arrest ‘

Its Ameer (i.e. President) is in jail. There are warrants of arrest issued against the Acting Ameer and he is now in hiding ..The party’s Secretary General is in jail. The two people who were subsequently appointed (one after the other) to replace him have also been arrested and are now in jail. The third person appointed is now avoiding arrest in fear of custodial torture. Of the 7 Assistant Secretary Generals, 6 are in jail. 12 of the 16 member Executive Committee have been arrested. Of the 6 City Ameers in the 6 metropolitan cities, 2 is in jail, while the remaining 4 are in hiding.

At the grass-root level, the situation is far worse. 54 of the District Ameers in the 64 districts of Bangladesh have been arrested. The rest have warrants of arrest issued against them. All of the sub district (or Upazilla) Ameers in the 493 Sub Districts of Bangladesh have warrants issued against them and are now in hiding.

They could also foresee that if the Shahbagh experiment for banning religion and religious organisations from politics – led by the seculars and democrats – succeeds in a country which is fourth largest in the world as far as Muslim population is concerned (160 million, 90 percent Muslims) then it can definitely start a chain reaction in other Muslim majority countries as well and then it would be extremely difficult for the forces of political Islam of various hues to suppress the democratic aspirations of the people there.

Today it might be the case that people in many of the Muslim majority countries are veering around the idea of giving more space to Islam in governance but it has not been the case earlier. In fact, during the 1960s, the predominant ideology within the Arab world was in fact pan-Arabism which deemphasized religion and emphasized the creation of socialist, secular states based on Arab nationalism rather than Islam. And in many other newly independent countries, with a significant population of Muslims which had their own genesis in leading anti-colonial struggles, there was still more space for running governments on secular principles.

Undoubtedly, in an atmosphere of growing religiosity and faith based practices the world over, where one witnesses increasing intrusion of faith and religion in matters of governance as well as societal functioning, the Shahbagh movement offers not only the Muslim majority countries but the rest of humanity as well not only a beacon of hope but a promise that things can be changed for the better.

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