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Pranab invokes Shahbag icon

Dhaka, March 3: Tugging at the heartstrings of the Shahbag movement for the execution of war criminals, President Pranab Mukherjee landed here on a day this country can showcase itself as the only Muslim-majority nation with a mass movement against Islamist theocracy after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood lent its support to the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Mukherjee also took it upon himself to ignore a last-minute advisory to defer his visit because of security concerns after the Jamaat called a two-day bandh to protest against verdicts to hang its leaders. He is understood to have told the advisers that by putting off the visit, he would only encourage fundamentalists.

In an interview to the local ATN TV news channel that was repeated through the day, the President repeatedly referred to Jahanara Imam, the icon of the Shahbag movement and known as “Shaheed Janani” (Mother of Martyrs), an alumna of Calcutta’s Lady Brabourne College who died in 1994.

It was her establishment of a committee in Dhaka demanding the trial of the criminals of the 1971 war that ultimately persuaded the government to set up the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).

The portrait of Jahanara Imam, whose elder son Shafi Imam Rumi was killed for joining the liberation forces, is the only one that adorns the hoardings, placards and posters at the Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Square) at Shahbag. Not even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation, has that exalted status among the demonstrators who want to maintain the dividing line between themselves and the ruling Awami League.

“Across Bangladesh,” said Mukherjee lyrically in the interview, “there are so many thousands of martyrs of the liberation war buried in unmarked graves whom the quiet halo of moonlight embraces night after night”. He was speaking in Bengali.

Repeatedly described in the media here as “Bangladesh’s son-in-law” and “India’s first Bengalee President”, Mukherjee’s landing in Dhaka coincided with an appeal by the Hasina Wajed government today against the tribunal’s award of a life term to Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah. It has pleaded for the death sentence to the former Rajakar, known as the “Butcher of Mirpur”, under a law amended after the verdict.

Quader Mollah had emerged from the tribunal on February 5 flashing a “victory” sign and provoked the mobilisation in Shahbag.

The Jamaat, nine of whose leaders have been indicted for crimes against humanity committed in 1971, claims the Hasina government is persecuting it for political reasons.

The outfit has picked up a statement from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to show that its position had some global recognition. The Muslim Brotherhood has asked world powers “to intervene and persuade Bangladesh authorities to review the death sentence wrongly given to Opposition leaders” by the ICT.

The Muslim Brotherhood was the beneficiary of the Tahrir Square protests that fascinated the world last year with its twin promises of a more tolerant society and transparent government after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. But the West has by now largely cooled to the promise of a secular Egypt and, in turn, the notion of an “Arab Spring”.

“The Muslim Brotherhood denounces the unjust death sentence against one of the Islamist Opposition leaders in Bangladesh, and condemns the deadly force used against citizens during activities protesting the evidently wrongful sentence,” says the statement by Muslim Brotherhood leader Mahmoud Ghozlan, put up on the Jamaat website.

The Jamaat, whose cadres are alleged by the government to be attacking the police and administrative authorities across Bangladesh during the bandh, has said it does not endorse the violence and believes that “Bangladesh is a land where religious differences are cherished”.

Dhaka was largely peaceful during the first day of the Jamaat-sponsored two-day bandh.