By Prof Abdullah al-Ahsan
More than two weeks have passed since the massacre of little after midnight on May 6 in Dhaka had happened; Bangladesh still has no sign of any official inquiry on the even. On the contrary the Home Minister is talking about banning on all forms of protest activities in the country and the authorities are arresting and persecuting activists indiscriminately.
According to BD Alert.com, a Bangladesh centered internet site, “between 500 and 2,500 protesters have been killed” at night between May 5 and 6. This has been reported by other credible sources. According to the report of Asian Human Rights Commission, “several internet reports have mentioned that the number of deaths could be as high as 2,500 or more. Pictures of dead bodies have also been distributed over the internet. Major news channels in Bangladesh have been silenced.
Two private television channels that were showing live pictures of the attacks upon the demonstrators were immediately closed down.”
The Economist on its 7th May issue has reported that, “Details of precisely what happened on May 6th remain unclear. Graphic pictures and video footage of the violence show bloodied bodies strewn on the streets of Dhaka’s Motijheel commercial district.
According to the report, “the government closed two pro-Islamic television stations that had been broadcasting live images of the attacks.” These reports came out despite frantic efforts by the government of Bangladesh to suppress them. This development demands immediate attention of the international community,”
Who are these Protestors?
A little known non-political religious organization titled as Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh(HIB) called for demonstration on May 5, 2013 in support of their 13 point demands that sound, according to many observers, a “call for Taliban type changes in law and society.”
Also, the appearance of most demonstrators on the screen with their long beard, skullcap, and loose outer garments suggest reminiscent of Taliban activists for many viewers. But a keen observer must be careful in drawing such fast and shallow conclusions.
Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh came up with their demands on April 6, 2013 and allowed the government more than a month to address them. Concurrently, they declared their intention to demonstrate on May 5 in favor of their demands.
Media Blackout, “Government Non-democratic”
The government allowed them to demonstrate during the day but when the demonstrators continued their protest in the form of sit-in, the security forces turned electricity off little after midnight and began firing on the peaceful demonstrators. most of whom were sleeping at that time.
Former president and a coalition partner with the ruling party General Ershad issued a statement saying, “Attacks and firing on the peaceful staying and sleeping activists of HIB in the darkness of night is unprecedented. Creation of such situation isn’t conducive to democracy, next elections and the Constitution.”
He also said, “Exemplary punishment would have to be ensured for those responsible for the casualties. The government and other concerned quarters have to show tolerance in handling such a situation.”
The incident has also attracted attention of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. His office issued a media statement saying that “The Secretary-General has been following the recent wave of violence in Bangladesh with increasing concern and is saddened by the loss of life, including during the events that unfolded in Dhaka throughout Sunday and on Monday.”
Yet, unfortunately the mainstream media including the BBC, NY Times and Aljazeera not only have played the event down, some have misinformed the public.
HIB Demands: Islamic Motive
HIB became active in advancing their demands in response to a group generally known as Shahbagh Movement who held demonstration and sit-in at the capital city’s Shahbagh square for several weeks earlier this year demanding death sentencefor leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami party leaders who were accused of war crimes during 1971 war.
Initially Shahbagh Movement, composed mainly of a number of bloggers, started off by some cultural activities at the congested city square, which with the passage of time soared with the support of the government.
Within weeks, however, some internet sites released some information about the group’s background and exposed earlier writings which included nasty accounts about the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
This angered the HIB leadership, which forced them to come up with demands for blasphemy laws which are considered necessary to protect the dignity of the noble Prophet and Islamic teachings application in Bangladesh.
What is noteworthy here is that whatever the demands that the HIB had were expressed by protesters in a very peaceful manner. On the contrary, it was the government’s handling of the issue that turned the situation violent.
Events of the past few weeks, which include the collapse of an eight story building due to the negligence of the authorities, have turned the whole country into a grave situation
Many people in Dhaka who had witnessed the “midnight massacre” by the Pakistan army on March 25, 1971 believe that more people might have been killed on the night of May 5, 2013 than that fateful night which triggered Bangladesh’s war of independence.
In 1971, the international media exposed Pakistani atrocities and motivated many Bengalis to take up arms against Pakistani armed forces, but this time because of the lack of proper information, rumors are spreading like wildfire through the internet.
The opposition has demanded an investigation with international participation and mentioned earlier former President Ershad has demanded a judicial inquiry. And any inquiry must be conducted with complete transparency; otherwise Bangladesh will move toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.
If Hefazat-i-Islam’s demands are unreasonable, they must be conveying the message in a civilized manner. That civilized manner would demand putting the issue into a referendum or at least a commitment on the part of the government for conducting the forthcoming elections under a neutral caretaker government.
For the sake of international peace and security, the international community must intervene in handling the situation in Bangladesh and intervene right now.
Prof. Abdullah al-Ahsan is professor of History and Civilization at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), International Islamic University of Malaysia. His books and articles have been translated into Arabic, Bengali, Bosnian, Turkish and Urdu.