My interview in The Asian Age

We are writing, fighting and will go on: Bangla online activist
Mar 20, 2013 – Patralekha Chatterjee

Paula Aziz was born nearly a decade after 1971 — the year Bangladesh became an independent nation after what must be one of the most violent wars of the 20th century. But as this thirty something online activist and writer speaks about Bangladeshi youth today, and her generation’s fight to rekindle the “spirit of 1971” the memories come tumbling back.

The year 1971 is graphically etched in the memory of Indians of my generation. In 1971, I was in primary school, too young to follow the raging current affairs debates of the day. But I do remember crouching close to the radio set to listen to Charampatra a hugely popular satirical programme by Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro, the underground radio station that played a vital role in keeping up the morale of Bangladesh’s freedom fighters. Charampatra lampooned the increasingly beleaguered West Pakistan Army in the rich and humorous dialect of old Dhaka; it was also a huge hit among Bengalis this side of the border.
A conspiratorial smile flits across Paula’s lips as I remind her about Charampatra’s satire and as we speak about “then and now” and about Shahbag, sitting in my living room here in Delhi.
Shahbag has inspired many of Bangladesh’s writers, singers, poets and politicians. In February this year, this historic neighbourhood in Dhaka, zoomed into the spotlight again as the site of “Gonojagaran” (mass awakening). Thousands of civilians gathered to demand justice for the victims of Bangladesh’s Liberation War and the highest punishment to War Criminals.
More than a month down the line, what is happening to the spirit of Shahbag, I ask Paula.
“ We are writing and fighting. We are on the ground. We are also online, in the social media — on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs. Shahbag is Bangladesh’s unfinished war. This is a war we have been fighting for the last 42 years now,” Paula tells me.
Through her online posts, Paula has been trying to tell the world about “Gonojagaran”, the student and youth-driven uprising in Bangladesh. In one of her online posts, ( Paula tracks the start of the movement. “It started when the infamous ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, the Jamaat-e-Islami assistant general secretary Abdul Kader Molla was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death even after he was proven guilty of slaughtering more than 340 people in 1971. Bloggers and online activists called for a quick protest at the Dhaka University. After a half-hour human chain, the protesters quickly took over the main square of Shahbag. The movement began with only one demand — “death sentence for war criminals”. The protesters are also demanding that the Jamaat-e-Islami, the anti-liberation party of Bangladesh, be banned and that all its accomplices be boycotted. The war criminals mostly belong to this radical Islamist party, who are also the Opposition party of the ruling government.” she noted.
The rest is history.
“The movement that Shahbag triggered is rekindling the spirit of 1971 — that was about democracy, nationalism, social justice and peaceful co-existence of every religion alongside others. These are the values we are trying to affirm in our lives. Jamaat is against this. Jamaat does not believe in democracy; it does not believe in Bengali nationalism. This is their philosophy. This philosophy is against my preferences. As a woman, they think I should not be allowed to go out alone and I should not be allowed to do many things which I do now and which does not hurt anyone. Not surprising that women are a huge part of our movement today,” says Paula.
How did the post-Independence generation in Bangladesh reconnect with the events of 1971? “Every family was affected. Everyone who has a sense of good and bad wants to remove the dirt from Bangladesh’s history. Not punishing the War Criminals is one of those dark spots. It is a very emotional issue. So many mothers lost their sons. How can we forget their pain?” says Paula.
“Today, education, economic growth and information have come together and helped us unite. Young people who are educationally, technologically and economically empowered are taking the lead. But many others are also joining in. There is the main Gonojagaran manch in Shahbag of course. But now they (the activists) are going to other places. They have identified five to six locations in Dhaka. Activists are going to these places, meeting people. The movement has fanned out to 60 districts in the country. The response has been tremendous. Hundreds and thousands of people have been coming together to express solidarity,” she says.
Paula says the young people who are part of the “Gonojagaran” have no illusions about what they are up against. “We have to be careful. There is no doubt about that. But there is also no doubt in my mind that we have to go on. In 1971, our parents faced similar opposition from the Pakistan Army and their local ally. But they did not run away. They had to fight and they fought. It is risky for us. It is dangerous for us, but we are moving forward.”
Nineteen major bloggers in Bangladesh who are part of the recent protest movements have received death threats, she says.
“I am not one of those 19 though. Neither I am a very famous blogger. But there are thousands of activists like me. If I am killed, thousands more will continue to fight.”
“At this moment, it is the people who are in the frontline of the youth-led movement and who have been writing about it for the past six years who are being targeted,“ she says.
A hundred people have died so far but the Bangladeshi activist points that none got killed in the actual Shahbag protest movement. “However, the security threat is very much there. A blogger has been killed,” says Paula.
The Shahbag movement is different from what happened in Tahrir, says Paula. “Tahrir was against a government. We are not against any government. We don’t care who comes in the government as long as they do good to the people. We are against the Jamaat-e-Islami. Our demands are very specific. We want the War Criminals to get the highest punishment. We want Jamaat to be banned. Jamaat has vandalised monuments to liberation fighters and is attacking bloggers…”
Paula is piqued by the attempts to slander the movement which is now such an integral part of her life. “The Jamaat and its allies try to make out that our movement is against Islam. How can we possibly have a movement against Islam? 90% of our population is Muslim. We are simply against War criminals and these criminals are associated with Jamaat.”
So where is the movement headed?
“We want to take it to the socio-cultural level. We want to rejuvenate the spirit of the 1971 Liberation movement among ordinary people in our country. Our people must realise the sacrifices our freedom fighters made. There are certain things which are completely non-negotiable like pride and self-respect. Bangladesh is refiguring itself, and we will not compromise on these core values”


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