How did the Shahbag protests begin?
Abdul Kader Mollah is an established war criminal who murdered 344 people. The tribunal has admitted it and Mollah has been given life sentence. We believe that the tribunal has tried its best; however it has some weaknesses and should be made strong. Before the tribunal judgement, there was a verdict of hanging of Mollah. But, he was absconding. We Bangladeshis are upset with the tribunal verdict. And we have come out to the streets to protest this verdict. Now, we are demanding punishment of all war criminals. We have made a six-point demand and have asked for ban of war crime tribunals across the world. Jamaat-e-Islami and its youth wing since the formation of Bangladesh have engaged in murders. They are responsible for growing terrorism through international terrorist organisations and we have demanded the ban of these organisations. The parties who sponsor these organisations should be prevented. We have appealed these groups to relinquish funding Jamaat. Several banks have stopped funding Jamaat. Bangladeshis have also stopped supporting these groups – their agencies like the banks, coaching centers, travel agencies. There is a social boycott that has already started.
On 21 February you announced to conclude the gathering at Shahbag. Was it because you were expecting that there would be violence the next day?
No. We were discussing the issue. There are more than 100 organisations including student, social and cultural groups. Even university based youth clubs are there. We sit regularly to discuss these issues. We don’t take any decision individually. Our primary demand of hanging Mollah was because the ruling government had no authority to appeal. Secondly, the decision making body was not there. The tribunal was brought through the appeal made to government. This is our primary achievement.
Our protest was getting confined around Shahbag Square only. We sat for 24 hours voicing our protests; however, we have to spread the movement. We would primarily get together around different spots in Dhaka and then move to the districts and towns. We have come up with our ‘plan-of-action’ based on that.
Tell us of the incident on 22 February that resulted in crowding? Was this expected?
We knew about it. Our declaration the day before had clear issues – we wanted to spread out and get together in different places. Our cultural activities – Protibadi Gaan would be carried out. There would be congregation every Friday. We have not treated it differently because there was a crisis the next day. Since it is a ‘people’s movement’, the direction and tone of the movement would also depend upon people.
Bangladesh is a one of the youngest countries in the world. What is the key reason for this surge in awareness among Bengali youth?
Socio-economic structure in Bangladesh has been changing rapidly. Bangladeshis have been seeing the change. If you do a financial analysis – the GDP, the growth which is six percent, we see that Bangladesh is growing fast in the region. In the education sector, we see that there were limited universities 10 years back. Many private universities have sprung up now.
Bangladeshi youth is amid change. They have become more aware, they have become well connected internationally. Internet connectivity has improved several folds. Four years before, nearly 20 to 30 lakh Bangladeshis used internet; now the figure has increased to 3.5 crore. Mobile users four years back was between one to one and half crore, now it has increased to eight and half crore.
About 2.5 crore are mobile internet users, the rest are broadband users. This is also a rapid change. Different mobile apps – the technological up-gradation has happened in the last four to five years. Perspectives among the youth has changed as a result of this. Youth gets know of Bangladeshi history and identity in a way which reading books did not give them.
Another incident that is really interesting that is also happening in India is that US is excited with Bangladesh being a secular country. Is your problem with Jamaat being in politics, or religion in politics?
My problem is with the Jamaat Shibir – they supported Pakistani army in 1971. It does not have a direct link with religion.
What has been the largest crowd figure?
Prior to 21 February, we had large crowds. On 10 February we noted a 10 lakh crowd figure. Even at night, there were huge crowds. It has reduced now. We are discouraging people from crowding at the Shahbag Square – we want people to come to our scheduled gatherings. We want people to get connected in the gatherings. We are not making calls to people to come to Shahbag. We are asking people to organise in their neighbourhood and mohallahs.
Elections in Bangladesh are in the next 10 months. Is Shahbag going to change the quality of elections in the country?
Our ideology is based from our experiences with the liberation war. We believe that politics in our country should be based on the foundation on which our country was formed.
Bangladesh politics at times is very violent. In terms of quality of politics, your method is civilised. What do you have to say about that?
Our activities are non violent. Protests should be made through non violent means – one can light a candle, hold the national flag or sing the national anthem. Politicians can also learn from ordinary people as they are protesting through non violent means. We welcome everyone; politicians should also come like ordinary people.
Would Shahbag throw up future leaders of Bangladesh?
We want Shahbag to spread out not just as political, but a cultural movement. Shahbag may throw up leaders, but it is a personal matter. I don’t appreciate it. I am not interested in that kind of politics.