Pranab begins Dhaka visit amid clashes, Opposition leader Zia cancels meeting with him

Last Updated: Mon, Mar 04, 2013 05:36 hrs

Dhaka: Bangladesh Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia cancelled her meeting with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee scheduled for Monday, as political violence continued to roil the nation.

Meanwhile, the spiralling violence continued to claim lives as the death toll in the aftermath of the death penalty verdict against Jamaat leader Delawar Hossain Sayedee for the 1971 war crimes rose to 65 since Thursday while arson and destruction of property were reported from across the country.

Amid the ongoing turmoil and a two-day general strike called by Jamaat, a three-day visit by Mukherjee to Bangladesh began on Sunday as the Indian president met Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

At least 16 more people were killed on Sunday in the clashes between people celebrating the death sentence and supporters of Sayedee.

On his arrival, President Mukherjee was received by Bangladesh President Mohammad Zillur Rahman and senior ministers of Sheikh Hasina's cabinet.

He was given a ceremonial reception at the airport, including a 21-gun salute, after which he inspected the guard of honour by the three services of Bangladesh defence forces.

During his visit, Mukherjee will also receive the Bangladesh Liberation War Honour Award for his contribution to country's liberation war and also an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Dhaka.

Violence had broken out in the country since Thursday after the 73-year-old Sayeedi was sentenced to death by a tribunal for several crimes like mass killings, torture, rape and looting and forcible religious conversion during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 when the country attained freedom from Pakistan after a bloody struggle that left countless dead and thousands of women outraged.

The attackers and arsonists were Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir, said reports.

They also allegedly torched Hindu and Buddhist places of worship.

Meanwhile, Jamaat issued a press statement urging for communal harmony and denying attacking Hindu or Buddhist temples.

After the verdict on Thursday, Jamaat and Shibir activists went on a nationwide rampage. Angry protesters attacked a police outpost in Gaibandha killing three policemen on the spot.

In Chittagong, a constable was slashed with a knife making it the deadliest day since the first verdict was delivered on January 21.

According to reports, the activists also beat to death an Awami League (AL) supporter in Sundarganj upazila of Gaibandha Friday morning.

Jamaat-Shibir men were out on the streets even before the verdict to combat the Shahbagh movement calling for capital punishment to war criminals.

Jamaat is an alliance partner of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia.

Shahbag protests: For a secular Bangladesh

 "Joi Bangla!", "Mulla barir Rajakar, ei muhurtey Bangla char (Islamists leave Bangladesh)" , "Jamaat mandir jalachchey, Hinduder ghor bhangchey.. aita ki hotey debo? (Can we allow Hindu temples and homes to be burnt and destroyed?)" .

The chants are kept up on a mike as the large group of young protesters swells with the approach of evening at Shahbag intersection - dubbed Bangladesh's Tahrir Square. Hundreds of protesters, mostly youth, both men and women, gather everyday to demand death penalty for those who committed war crimes during the 1971 war of independence.

And, like the protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square, the ground zero of its popular upsurge for democracy that became the global metaphor for such mass protests, the Shahbag protesters are a connected lot - on Facebook, Twitter and blogging forums.

They are demanding a Bangladesh free of Razakars, the Islamists who sided with the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War in identifying and killings hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis fighting for creation of a new country. Thousands of women were raped by the Pakistani army men and Razakars.

The Razakars were mainly members of the Muslim league, Jamat-e-Islami and other Islamic groups and factions.

The Jamaat-e-Islami called a two-day strike in Bangladesh - a nation of 150 milllion people that was carved out of Pakistan after a wounding India-Pakistan war in 1971 - from March 3, coinciding with the visit here of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. They are protesting last Thursday's death sentence handed down to their leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee by the war crimes tribunal and a life term slapped on Abdul Qader Mollah.

"Agami kaler hartal, garir chaka cholbey (The strike tomorrow will see cars moving)," the Shahbag protesters chanted Sunday evening, to tell people not to obey the Jamaat-called bandh which has left shops shut and roads mostly deserted.

"These people are burning down temples and the homes of Hindus.. Should we let this happen?" asked Imran Sarker, the fiery leader of the Shahbag protesters. "Na, na (no, no)," the crowd shouted back. 'Sarker is spokesperson of Ganajagaran Mancha and convener of Blogger and Online Activist Network.

The Shahbag protests were triggered by the Feb 5 war crime tribunal judgement, convicting 65-year-old Mollah, known as the Butcher of Mirpur, to life imprisonment.

Mollah, secretary general of the Jamaat, smiled and gave a victory sign to waiting journalists after the sentence was handed down to him Feb 4, triggering a groundswell of anger among people who were hoping he would be hanged. He was convicted of beheading a poet, raping an 11-year-old girl and shooting 344 people during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence.

Online anger spread, and quickly rallied thousands to Shahbag to demand death for Mollah and other Jamaat accused of war crimes. A Facebook page dedicated to ridding Bangladesh of Razakar's is called "Rajakar Mukto Desh Gorai Shobai Egiye Ashun (Come forward to make our country free of Razakars).

The dislike for the Islamists grew after a young blogger, Rajib Haldar, was killed - his throat slit Feb 15 for his anti-Islamist blogging.

With the media, especially electronic media, beaming the protests live, and the online networking among the youth, thousands turned up at Shahbag intersection, dubbed Shahbag Square, to demand the war crimes accused be hanged. The intersection is located close to Dhaka University. The protests are the largest the country has seen in two decades.

On Sunday, the demonstrators held a rally at Shahbag, also called Projonmo Chattar, to protest the Jamaat-sponsored countrywide hartal. In a pointer to the secular nature of the Shahbag protests, one of the prominent slogans is "Surja Sener Bangla, shahider Bangla, razakarer nei kaaj (In a Bangladesh belonging to Surja Sen and other martrys, the Razakars have no place)".

Surya Sen was an Indian freedom fighter against British rule who led the famous 1930 Chittagong armoury raid The Shahbag protests, seen to be supported by the ruling Awami League, has dented the opposition Bangladesh National Party's clout among people to a large extent. The Jamaat is a part of the BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance. The Islamist party was part of the ruling alliance when the BNP came to power in 2001.

BNP chief Khaleda Zia called off her scheduled meeting with the Indian president. Her party has called a hartal on Tuesday.

"The people are angry with the Jamaat, they want justice (for the war crimes). The Shahbag protests have helped to turn the people's attention away from other issues, like price rise and corruption," said Mujibur, a driver, echoing popular sentiments.

Affectionate welcome awaits Pranab at his 'sasural'

An affectionate welcome awaits President Pranab Mukherjee when he visits his "sasural" for the first time tomorrow in the sleepy Bhadrbila village on the banks of Chitra river, immortalised by Rabindrnath Tagore in his poems.

The village has been gripped by a festive mood ever since the news filtered in that Pranab Mukherjee, accompanied by his wife Shuvra who was born in the village and spent a few years of her early life here, would come calling at the ancestral house of his in-laws tomorrow morning.

The house of Pranab Mukherjee's in-laws has got a facelift by Narail district administration ahead of the first couple's visit and an 8-km road connecting the district headquarter town of Narail with Bhadrabila has been repaired to enable the President and his wife a smooth drive to their destination.

Kazi Rakib, a resident of Bhadrabila, was agog ahead of Persident Mukherjee's visit to the village.

"It is a great pleasure for us that Pranab Mukharjee, our brother- in-law, will visit our village. We will accord a warm reception to him," Mr Rakib said.

Narail Deputy Commissioner Md Zohirul Haque said the President is likely to stay at his father-in-law's house at the village for about an hour and then leave for Kushtia district to visit Tagore's Kuthibari at Shilaidaha.

District administration sources said a helicopter carrying President Mukherjee and his wife Shuvra will land on Narail Government Boys' High School ground in Narail town from where the first couple will go to Bhadrabila.

Shuvra was born to late Amarendro Ghose and Mira Rani Ghose and is the eldest among four brothers and four sisters.

Shuvra's family, except her brother Kanai Lal Ghose, moved to India in 1952, five years after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent.

During the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, Pakistani occupation army and their local collaborators had vandalised Amarendro's house at Bhadrabila village.

However, Kanai Lal Ghosh rebuilt the house later.

President Mukherjee told ATN Bangla TV channel that he had never been to his "sasural" before although Shuvra Mukharjee along with her daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee had visited the house at Bhadrabila in 1995 when they had led a cultural team there.

The President said he has always felt that a trip to Bangladesh is like home-coming and it was his conscious decision to choose this country as his first foreign trip after becoming the President in August last year.

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