From BBC World Service*:
Listen to the radio piece: https://soundcloud.com/mahfuz-sadique-1/shahbag-talking-about-my
Shahbag: Talking about my generation
Shahbag, the name of a roundabout in central Dhaka, has come to to represent much more – the scene of protests to call for justice against those accused of war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence. That was in 1971, but old wounds, it seems, are haunting a new generation. Mahfuz Sadique is a young BBC journalist from Bangladesh who has been watching keenly the events in his home town.
Call me provincial but I get all excited every time my London neighbourhood is in the news. But when its my hometown, Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, something else kicks in. In the first week of February, when a roundabout just a few blocks from where I grew up became a regular item on global news, that feeling tilted more towards nostalgia. Thousands of miles away from home, the same satellites that daily bounce images of Tahrir or Tiananmen square through my newsroom were now beaming news of Shahbag Square into the ether. Though, frankly, I never remember calling it a square. It’s just plain old Shahbag mor, or roundabout.
Every time Shahbag was on, there — behind the thousands of people chanting for justice, you could almost make out the name of the flower shop where I bought the marigolds for our wedding. A little to the left, you could clearly spot BIRDEM hospital, where my aunt spent her last days while cancer did what it does. Eventually, I get goosebumps when I start to recognise faces of friends in the crowd. And, that is when it hits me: this radio news bulletin item I am hearing on Shahbag is actually about my father and his brother who took part in the 1971 war of independence; that sound effect of the chanting Shahbag crowd in this perfectly mixed radio package is also about my mother, who had to flee her home to escape the marauding Pakistani army and their local collaborators; in fact, that great vox pop clip in that news sequence has the same arguments of justice for war crimes that for many years me and my friends thumped out at school debates not far from Shahbag; this news is about my generation; this news is about me!
Thousands of protesters gathered at Shahbag for weeks demanding justice for war crimes committed before their time. They see the ongoing trials for war crimes as the last chance. For many, the ultimate desire for closure trumped any issues surrounding the robustness of the trial process. Yet, in between actual news feeds at work in London, I couldn’t help but notice a sudden change in my generation’s equivalent of a collective stream of consciousness – in the form of my Facebook news feed. A young nation having a long overdue conversation with itself – passionately, tinged with frustration, even some anger. Why dig up the past? Why now? Who gains?
The tapestry of thoughts to come out is a reflection of Bangladesh’s collective memory. Millions like me, born after 1971, in a free country, could never escape the history of how our own country’s birth came about. For ours is a nation that did not have a normal delivery. TIME magazine put her on the cover: The Bloody Birth of Bangladesh. But spilt blood leaves dues. There would a reckoning, someday. Bangladeshis fought those who claimed to be brothers from afar. Rising up from within a country carved out of the map with the riotous dagger of common religion, they instead wanted to become a nation of common culture and language.
Four tumultuous decades have passed by. Bangladesh is not the nation it wanted to be. It is still a young nation though. Like me, the majority of Bangladeshis are under the age of forty. While not witnesses, they have their future tied to their nation’s past. But the past can be murky. Dealing with it is never easy. As the euphoria of Shahbag settles, old cracks in Bangladeshi society are reappearing. They were always there. The same religion-based identity politics that had pushed back any form of justice for so long is now ruling the streets again. In the whipped up frenzy, many lives have been lost in the past few weeks. The lingering stench of uncertainty is back.
Still, one thing is clear – Shahbag was inevitable. A country that had not dealt with its violent past has come full circle. Bangladesh needs closure. And the raw passion of my generation is palpable – demanding justice. To find a path that heals old wounds without opening up new ones, my generation needs to make the road ahead of Shahbag a straight one, and not just a roundabout.
*From March 30, 2013 edition of The Fifth Floor on BBC World Service: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016461g