Online organising offline movement for a secular society: An example from Bangladesh

Let’s share a different story.. It has been fourteen days now!

Millions of youths and common folks took the street to demand ‘justice’ for the victim of war crime and genocide that happened in 1971 during the independence movement of Bangladesh. One thing I should mention in the very beginning that I am not trying to advocate for ‘death penalty’ here but trying to analyse the power of social media.

On 5th February 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal-2 pronounced the verdict of Abdul Kader Molla, a notorious war criminal and widely known as ‘the butcher of Mirpur’. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity in Liberation War 1971. This man allegedly gunned down 344 people and raped a young girl including some other crimes during the war. He was charged with the 1) Pallab Murder; 2) Killing pro-liberation poet Meherunnesa, her mother and two brothers; 3) Khandoker Abu Taleb Killing; 4) Ghatar Char and Bhawal Khan Bari killing 5) Alubdi Mass Killing (344 people) and 6) Killing and rape of Hazrat Ali and his family members.

So, dissatisfied by the judgement what they described as an ‘unduly lenient punishment’ for someone who deserves capital punishment, immediately some youth online activist and bloggers under the banner of Bloggers and Online Activists’ Network called for a ground mobilisation on the same afternoon at Shahbag crossing to demand capital punishment of this criminal who also holds the position of Assistant Secretary General of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party. Unexpectedly thousands of online activists and many more common people gathered within first couple of hours on the same day. They stayed at the Shahbag intersection, now widely known as ‘Shahbag Chottor’ or ‘Projonmo Chottor’ for the whole night and demanded ‘justice’ for the victims of crimes against humanity. The demonstrators vowed to continue the protest until their demands were met.  It is important to mention that the organisers have no prominent political affiliation. The non-partisan nature of this historic movement just increased the respect from the common mass. However they have raised political issues from this platform but for a better society.

More and more people joined on the second day. The protestors started signing a petition demanding ‘justice’, drawing cartoons and hanging effigies of war crime suspects.

The third day of the sit-in protest started with the demonstrators singing the national anthem of Bangladesh and a lot more people gathered carrying banners, posters, and placards in Shahbag Chottor with the same demand as the news of the protest spread through the social media platforms. Protesters set up a temporary base at the Shahbag Chottor to provide live updates of the movement via Twitter, Facebook and Blogs. They have started using #Shahbag and #Shahbagh for twitter. Diaspora Bangladeshi community from all over the world also showed their solidarity support. This diaspora community also organised several solidarity protests in India, UK, USA, Finland, Australia, France, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand and other countries.

A mass rally was called on 08th February 2013 afternoon at the same place. It is estimated that over 2.5 million common people mobilized during the rally. At the rally the protestors placed 6-point demand including death penalty for war criminals, amendment of the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 to try political parties and organisations that helped the war criminals, ban Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. Earlier, the western media showed very little interest to cover the protest, but gradually they have started covering up the protest.

On 10th February Shahbagh protesters have submitted a memorandum to the honourable Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament. Protestors called for a countrywide 3-minute silence on 12 February. A 3-minute silence from 4:00pm to 4:03pm was observed at Shahbag and whole Bangladesh as well. ‘In Dhaka, the traffic was stopped, and thousands of people flocked to the streets, formed human chains and stood in silence. The ongoing Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) game at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium halted for three minutes as the players and the supporters observed silence. The parliamentarians and the police force also joined the protest and it became a part of history.’

The most unfortunate and pathetic incident happened when one of the Shahbag protest organisers, an anti-Islamist blogger Rajib Haidar stabbed to death on 15th February allegedly by extremist groups. Rajib had actively participated in the protest from the beginning and had written several blogs against Jamaat-e-Islami activities. However this death triggered more protests.

On 17th February 2013, the Bangladesh Parliament amended the 1973 International Crimes Tribunal Act to try political parties and organisations that helped the war criminals during 1971 and also arms the government with the right, equal to defendants, to appeal against verdicts by the tribunals for ‘crimes against humanity’ during the Independence Movement of Bangladesh.

It is needless to mention that the amendment came in the wake of an online organising popular mobilisation that continued for more than two weeks so far. Stimulated by social networking platforms, this huge grassroots uprising for one of the most important universal values of our society: fighting against fundamentalism is really inspiring and example for others.

Now, it is with the hands of the Bangladesh Government, with the common mass, youths who want to live in a secular society without any fear, with the women and girls who were bound to wear hijab or borqa and now dreaming an equal society and obviously with the online activists to keep Bangladesh safe from all evil initiatives to make Bangladesh  a really progressive country.

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