Dhaka University, Shaheed Minar and CP Gang’s ‘bessha’ banner
by Rahnuma Ahmed
THIS story begins with the sudden and unexpected death of professor Piash Karim on October 13, 2014, of cardiac arrest. Piash, who had returned to Dhaka in 2007 after teaching for nearly two decades at an American university, had joined BRAC University and was teaching in the department of economics and social sciences. Dr Amena Mohsin, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, and Piash Karim got married in March 2013; high-school student Drabir Karim, Piash’s son from his first marriage, was part of their family. Earlier known in his circle of friends for his left-leaning views, Piash gradually gravitated towards the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a centrist party and the ruling Awami League’s arch-enemy. He began frequenting television talk shows, popular, as no real debate takes place in the parliament. (The popularity of TV talk shows has drastically declined, however, with the silent black-listing of dissident voices; a couple of analysts have reportedly left the country). His comment that the Ganajagaran Mancha — initially composed of a small group of bloggers and activists calling for the hanging of war criminals of 1971, later mushrooming into a sea of people at Shahbagh square in Dhaka city and spreading nationwide — was developing “fascist” undertones, earned him widespread denunciation. The movement was then riding high.
His outspokenness on TV talk shows earned him a steady barrage of verbal attacks, presumably, also the crude bomb attack on his residence in November 2013 (Piash and Amena were unhurt, they had not been at home, the security guard received a bullet in his leg); these incidents, some surmise, helped draw him closer to the BNP. Piash was a public figure, he had a following among the BNP and its coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami (many of whose top leadership are accused of/have committed war crimes), and among TV audiences generally dissatisfied with the Awami League government’s misrule.
His brother’s announcement, a few hours after his death, that his body would be taken to the Central Shaheed Minar (the language martyrs memorial located on the Dhaka University campus) to enable members of the public to pay their last respects, was national news on scores of TV channels. It was not unexpected as well-known intellectuals, academics, writers, political and cultural figures are publicly mourned thus before being taken away for burial.
Protests soon erupted, vicious allegations were made by leaders of student and cultural organisations close to the ruling party, and by groups in the social media: Piash Karim had spoken against the Shahbagh movement. He had opposed the war crimes trials. He was, in short, anti-Liberation (these allegations are not borne out by clips available on Youtube; he was critical of the war crimes trials failing to meet accepted international standards). A catchy slogan was soon forged, “Piash Karimer lasher bhar, boibe na Shaheed Minar” (The burden of Piash Karim’s body will not be borne by the Shaheed Minar). It helped galvanise people and protests.
A delegation of the Chhatra Sangram Parishad comprising Bangladesh Chhatra Maitri president Bappaditya Basu, Chhatra Maitri general secretary Tanvir Rusmat, Chhatra League (JSD) president Shamsul Islam Suman and the ruling Awami League’s student organisation, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) university unit president Mehedi Hasan Molla met the Dhaka University vice-chancellor professor AAMS Arefin Siddique (Dhaka Tribune, October 14, 2014). Basu told the press, the VC had assured them that professor Piash Karim’s body would not be allowed at the Shaheed Minar.
New allegations surfaced against professor Karim: his father and paternal grandfather were collaborators, they had been members of the local peace committee in 1971. Piash Karim was a Pakistani agent. He had been on the Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI’s payroll.
A faction of the Ganajagaran Mancha (by then the mass movement had shrunk; it is rumoured that intelligence agencies had been involved in its decimation), Slogan 71, Praner Adda 71 and several other online-based groups organised a sit-in at the Shaheed Minar. A group of artists joined in the protests, they painted iconic caricatures of collaborators on the streets around the memorial; on the northern steps of the memorial were painted the words, “The sacred Shaheed Minar will not bear the body of a (Pakistani) agent, take it to Pakistan.” The university authorities called the police for “security” reasons, they promptly cordoned off the Shaheed Minar (sylheteralap.com, October 16, 2014).
On October 15, a formal application was submitted to the Dhaka University authorities seeking permission to hold a public respect ceremony for Piash Karim at the Shaheed Minar on Friday, October 17. It was turned down. Left with no other option, his family and well-wishers took his body from the hospital’s mortuary to his Dhanmondi residence. According to news reports, his namaz-e-janaza, held after jumma prayers at the Baitul Mukarram Mosque, was well-attended. He was buried at a Dhaka city graveyard.
The DU authorities gave permission instead (the authorities insisted, the decision had been taken earlier) to the Muktijoddha Sangsad Santan Command to hold a programme on Friday, October 17, 2014. The programme began at 9:00am with a human chain, formed to resist Piash’s body being brought to the Shaheed Minar; participants in the programme included the Kamal Pasha-led Ganagajaran Mancha, Muktijuddho Projonmo, CP Gang, the BCL Dhaka University unit, Bangabandhu Sainik Platoon, Praner Adda 71, Slogan 71, Chhatra Sangram Parishad and Y Platoon (some of these groups have never been heard of before). At the rally held later, the president of the Muktijoddha Sangsad Santan Command Mehedi Hasan announced the names of nine intellectuals who were barred from the Shaheed Minar: Mahfuzullah (senior journalist), Asif Nazrul (Dhaka University professor), Amena Mohsin (Dhaka University professor; also, professor Piash Karim’s wife), Dilara Chowdhury (North South University professor), Tuhin Malik (lawyer), Farhad Mazhar (writer and columnist), Golam Mortuza (editor, Saptahik), Nurul Kabir (editor, New Age), and Motiur Rahman Chowdhury (editor, daily Manabzamin).
The list had grouped partisan intellectuals (BNP and Jamaat supporters) with independent voices — not surprising as the ruling party abhors all equally. Some are not only disdained but feared, for the respect and credibility they enjoy among large TV talk-show audiences. Unsurprisingly, Mr Hasan had couched it differently: they were barred because they wanted Piash’s body to be brought to the Shaheed Minar. The rally was also addressed by leaders of the Chhatra League, and the Chhatra Maitri.
That this list of names had been decided beforehand was apparent from the banner held by the CP Gang (see photo). “CP” is short for Crack Platoon; their namesake, ie, the original Crack Platoon was a small urban guerrilla group belonging to Sector 2, which had fought under Sector Commander Khaled Mosharraf in 1971. The group is legendary because their attacks had been conducted in the enemy’s heartland, they had inflicted physical injuries, but more so, had weakened the enemy’s morale.
The CP Gang’s banner was life-size, the faces of the nine intellectuals, prominently displayed, had been crossed out in red. The banner said: “Muktijuddher shothik itihash projonmer kache tule dhorte shusheel namdhari eishob mitthabadi shadhinotabirodhi buddhi-besshader protihoto korun.” (Resist these so-called civil [society] liars and anti-Independence intellectual prostitutes in order to uphold the true history of the liberation war to the younger generation).
The law minister Anisul Huq spoke up in defence of Piash Karim a few days later. His father, said the minister had actually been a member of the Awami League, and not the Muslim League. Piash had been picked up by the Pakistani army while distributing leaflets in support of the war of liberation. His father had been forced to give an undertaking to seek his release, he had been forced to join the peace committee. The minister’s effigy was burnt in front of the National Press Club two days later. Protestors, numbering twenty or so, holding banners identifying themselves as belonging to the Online Activists Forum, Jatiya Ganatantrik League, Krishak-Sramik Party, and Kazi Arif Foundation demanded that he apologise because his comments had been ill-motivated, they helped strengthen the anti-liberation forces. Dubbing him a “nobbo rajakar” (new collaborator), they also demanded that he be removed from the cabinet.
The whole saga was disconcerting for many. A leading English daily editorialised, “Declaring people non grata. A dangerous portent” (The Daily Star, October 20, 2014). The Shaheed Minar should not be used to serve the political objectives of one party, commented Ruhin Hossain Prince, a former president of Bangladesh Chhatra Union. Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury blamed it on the lack of student union elections, “partisan leadership has muscled in” because union elections haven’t been held for the last 25 years. A top-ranking BNP leader dubbed the Shaheed Minar the “Awami” Minar, while a pro-BNP senior journalist said the national monument was now a “dirty and stinking” place. Columnist Syed Abul Maqsood reminisced, I didn’t know Piash’s father but his paternal uncle was appointed the inspector general of police after Bangladesh became independent. He was later made head of the commission tasked with preparing the list of 1971 martyrs. As a matter of fact, we’d assisted him (Prothom Alo, October 21, 2014). A pretty common response, voiced by many was, ‘The Shaheed Minar is a national monument, it is not the Awami League’s property.’ There were tongue-in-cheek ones as well, an online reader had posted, “No problem, my respect for those unwanted has increased manifold…” (Prothom Alo, October 18, 2014). A more thoughtful comment was posted by Mahbub Morshed on Facebook, “This photograph is historic. Those who have been slandered with their faces crossed out have been critical of the government for long. The Awami League has crossed out the right to freedom of speech. This photograph provides the evidence” (www.priyo.com, October 17, 2014).
There was a bit of confusion as well. Were the nine eminent citizens barred from entering the premises of the Shaheed Minar while still alive, or was the prohibition to be effective post-death, ie, their bodies were not to be brought to the memorial for public respect ceremonies? Press reports conflicted. If it was the former, well then, I’m afraid the ‘order’ proclaimed by the “laasher bhar” umbrella group was soon defied. Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age, was one of the speakers at a programme held in memory of language veteran Abdul Matin at the Central Shaheed Minar on October 24, 2014. Popularly known as ‘Bhasha’ Matin for his role as convenor of the all-party state language movement committee in 1952, he died on October 8, 2014, a few days before Piash. The programme was organised by the Bhasha Sangrami Comrade Abdul Matin Smaran Jatiya Committee, speakers spoke of the general anger and outrage at state honours not having been extended to Abdul Matin at his funeral. Freedom fighter Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury apologised to ‘Bhasha’ Matin on behalf of the nation for this “failure” (New Age, October 25, 2014). One which had occurred despite prime minister Sheikh Hasina conceding in her condolence message that Abdul Matin was “one of the fighters” of the “historic” language movement, the “first step” towards “independence.” It just went to show that Matin’s idealism, his uncompromising attitude, was not appreciated by people high-up in circles of power.
But what concerns me is the text in the CP Gang banner, more specifically, the word “buddhibessha” (intellectual prostitute). This is what the article is about.
May Piash Karim’s soul rest in peace.
To be continued.