A Massacre at Motijheel? An Interim Reflection
Throughout the day, Bangladeshis everywhere are whispering, or clamouring, about a massacre at Motijheel, the commercial district of Dhaka. In the absence of a free, responsible media and the denial of the right to gather (a Section 144 has been issued), established narratives struggle to make sense alongside social experience. In this article, we bear witness to these reports, especially as the Bangladeshi government has effectively enforced a curfew, shutting down any media other than those towing its party line.
There are unconfirmed reports of hundreds (dare we say thousands) dying at the hands of police and the infamous Rapid Action Battalion who fired live rounds into protesters, aided by a black out as a result of an enforced electricity cut. The violence took place after the Hefazat-e-Islam movement staged its massive demonstration numbering up to a million people. Unlike its previous march, which ended and was commended for ending peacefully, this event has been marred by violence.
It is difficult to say who drew ‘first blood’, but what is clear is that Hefazat-e-Islami activists were armed only with their ceremonial sticks (a popular appendage for all Bangladeshi protesters, including secular-friendly Shahbagis) while the police were armed and ready with lethal force. They were aided, it would seem, by Awami League counter protesters, who, in the full lightness of day, and behind police lines, brandished and used firearms.
As news of the massacre at Motijheel trickles through social processes of denial and perhaps exaggeration, we form a flexible interim image of what we can know now, and take stock of events. The traditional enumerators of the Bangladesh experience are either in jail, fearful, or are now co-opted by the state. The newly founded Dhaka Tribune live blogged spectacularly from well inside a government-approved echo chamber, recycling its own prejudices with pathetic effect. This has been taken up by the likes of the BBC, who have focused more on the ‘illiberal’ demands of the protesters, while glossing over the autocratic and murderous methods of Bangladeshi secularism’s so-called protectors. One would have thought the BBC would have learnt from being caught short during the Arab Spring.
The 5th May March saw religious protesters flowing into Dhaka from all around the country for 13 points, which addressed matters of religious denigration and protections for all the faith communities of the country. It followed last month’s largely peaceful Long March which saw hundreds of thousands flock to Dhaka, which we covered in an earlier article.
This time around , the government appeared to have resolved to meet Hefazat with violence, both during and after the main day’s protest. There are blog and audio based accounts of the protest from witnesses, as well as of the fateful clampdown. In the absence of the conditions for traditional investigative reporting, we build a picture from what is available.
One informant, curious to see events for himself late last night, reported a war zone with the police firing and ruling party thugs being handed the wounded to beat. He reflected that what he saw resembled what he had heard about the Pakistan Army launching a crackdown on the Awami League 43 years ago. Perhaps Tiananmen Square, the Peterloo massacre and the Battle of Algiers may help us to understand the state violence inflicted on such a large scale, and of such a vicious nature.
The protesters congregated around the Water Lily monument at the centre of the Motijheel district. They set up for the night, firm in the conviction that they would stay until their concerns with sufficiently addressed. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been on the sidelines of late with much of its leadership in detention, announced its support.
Into the darkness
At 0230 am the ‘security’ apparatus broke the night with its clearing operation, dispersing a sleeping crowd of hundreds of thousands with tear gas, gun fire and more primitive savagery. It would appear that the police, the disgraced and rebranded Bangladesh Rifles and no shortage of armed Awami League thugs are primarily responsible for the killings that took place on Sunday and in the early hours of Monday. The extent of the media blackout is unprecedented in recent years. Opposition Diganta and Islamic TV channels were raided by the UK-trained Rapid Action Battalion. Mirroring the chilling accounts of the much remembered Operation Searchlight from the night of 25th March 1971 in which the Pakistan government lost much of its legitimacy, the government reportedly busied itself with carting away the evidence and the bodies.
As the morning drew to noon, the events of the night met recognition even from elements of the secular liberal establishment. The BBC was reporting only seven dead well into the morning, and mirrored the government line of extremists and non-lethal weaponry Sources from nearer to the suffering have given death tolls of 431 (religious scholars) , 1700 (Basherkella) and 2500 (a leak from CID).
Does the scale of the operation suggest that the Bangladesh government must have got clearance from its international backers? As the situation becomes clearer, or more blurred, diplomats, newspaper editors and activists who provided the mood music and misframing of Hefazat must ask themselves searching questions about their own humanity. Local human rights NGOs who interpret the Bangladeshi situation to the world display selective humanitarianism by effectively ignoring the atrocity that took place last night.
Where to now?
As the government becomes increasingly desperate and deluded, it is lashing out at opposition with ever-increasing violence. That hundreds and thousands of political demonstrators were terrified, killed and maimed in this way marks a new low in the history of Bangladesh, and its predecessor states. It comes as this beleaguered government still deals with its criminal negligence over the Rana Plaza tragedy. Some whisper the trajectory that may inevitably follow, that the Awami League makes a compelling case for an army takeover, a situation that none of us would wish.
While the conventional media lacks courage at this instance, social media takes on a new, and problematic importance in Bangladesh’s struggle for justice and democracy.
International observers will no doubt be sold the Taliban line about the protesters, with added spice depending on audience. In some respects, the Awami League’s international legitimacy rests on the bogus claim that it is a bulwark against Islamism, just as Egypt’s recent autocrat did all those years ago. Wiser heads should realise that much of the country sympathises with Hefazat’s stand on the vitality of religion, and are disgusted by the current regimes behaviour.