Dacca Protest: Songs from Shahbag

Bangladesh was first known as East Pakistan. Before that, India. And before that, Bengal Presidency. Before that simply Bengal.


The contemporary nation is mostly in the news for its floods, grinding poverty and very recently, unenviable position in the long and dirty supply chain of global garment production. Never mind the country is home to some of Asia’s most sublime art, sharpest and innovative thinkers, a rich literary heritage and too many iconic musical personalities to list.


Bengalis, justly, take pride in their intellectual and cultural life that at core is humanist and non-sectarian; Muslim, Christian and Hindu Bengalis identify with their Bengali-ness first, not their religion.


During their two and a half decades (1947-1971) as the eastern wing of Pakistan Bengalis grew tired of being seen and treated as second-class citizens by the ruling elites of Punjab and Sindh. When a Bengali won the right to be Prime Minister and was denied the opportunity to take up the position, years of resentment spilled into the streets.  Young men joined an impromptu insurgents’ force known at the Mukti Bahini that targeted Pakistani military and civil personnel and installations.  Starting in 1970 the Pakistani state embarked upon, what is now accepted, as being a brutal violent campaign of repression with a ethnic-cleansing fervour.  In all wars there are those who misread the tea leaves and side with the oppressors against their own families, community, friends and citizens.  In Bangladesh this class of people are despised as rajakars (literally, volunteers).


The Rajakars were created, trained and equipped by the military rulers of Pakistan expressly to create terror and do violence against others who wanted Independence.  Many rajakars were Urdu-speaking migrants from other parts of Pakistan and India but a substantial number were Bengalis born and bred.  The leaders and rank and file of an Islamic party, Jama’at –e- Islami joined up and cheered on the ‘volunteers’.


India (not without its own less that altruistic intentions) sided with the Bengalis throughout this process and after a short ‘hot’ war with Pakistan, midwifed the new nation of Bangladesh in 1971.  Revenge attacks on rajakars followed with many low ranking killed by angry mobs.  Thousands of others were arrested but eventually freed under international pressure from Pakistan’s main supporters (China and USA). As for the Jamaat it was, for many years, banned from participating in electoral politics. Though the country moved on, the wound remained raw and torn. Justice had not yet been completely served.


In 2010 the government of the day established an International Crimes Tribunal to finally put the last remaining leaders of the rajakars on trial.  In March this year (2013) several sentences were announced.  Abdul Kalam Azad, a fervent preacher of the Jamaat-e-Islami and key player in the violence against fellow Bengalis was sentenced to death. His Jamaat colleague, Abdul Quader Mollah, received a life sentence.


Cartoon depicting trial of the rajakars

This last sentence received an angry, spontaneous and raging response from the people.  Hundreds of thousands gathered in the Shahbag neighbourhood of Dacca, the Tahrir Square equivalent.  Young and old demanded Mollah’s sentence be ‘upgraded’ to death.  Very soon, a counter-movement developed, again supported by those with Jamaat connections. Bloggers took to internet arguing their points. while people camped out day and night in Shahbag.  One pro-Shahbag blogger Ahmed Haider, was one day found brutally hacked to death by machetes outside his home.   Supporters of Jamaat were arrested and allegedly confessed to the murder.  This led to wild protests by Jamaat supporters.  Chaos ensued with police and civilians killed in significant numbers as they tried to gain control.


Shahbag protester 2013

While a certain part of me recoils at the idea of a ‘people’s power movement’ demanding the death of an individual, I can understand that this is an echo of the deeply felt sense of injustice that runs in the blood of Bangladeshis.


In the heady days of March musicians from across Bangladesh and the Bengali diaspora created songs in styles both traditional and contemporary, Bengali and American that protest the injustice of the sentences handed down, as well as sing out in patriotism and hope.


Listen to this and you’ll learn A LOT about the Bengali people.

Track Listing:

01 Maa

02 Shahbage Raatbhor

03 Aj Pagol

04 Amar Bangladesh

05 Tarunner Slowgaan

06 Tumi Kothay

07 Banglar Hobey Joy

08 Abar Ashibo Fhirey

09 Dhormo

10 Shimana Chariye Jak Shahbag

11 Na Honay Paee

12 Shahbag Tomar Awaj

13 Notun Shonar Bangla

14 Projonmo Joddhoa

15 Gonodabi

16 Pobitra Sthan

17 3 Minute

18 Joy Bangla

19 Nastik

20 Joley Shahbag

21 Ora Amar Mukher Kotha

22 Tomake Dakche

23 Roktorin

24 Projonmo Chottor

25 Rajib’er Jonno Ponktimala

26 Shahbag Shorone

27 Shobkota Janala

28 Amra Korbo Ek

29 We Are Awake Bangladesh

30 Alor Gaan