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Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Kaleidoscope of Bangladesh Politics: The Early Years


THE Awami League conjured up visions of the "come back" kid when Sheikh Hasina managed to win the support of a majority of the elected members of the Parliament to form the government. The "New Awami League" bore a more centrist look in its second innings in power. But now the BNP led mass movement seems to be gradually eroding the base of the party. And this might be a good occasion to share some events that took place in the early days of post-liberation Bangladesh.

Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman enjoyed wholehearted support of the people during the years that culminated in our liberation. The Bangladesh liberation struggle inevitably led to political alliances to meet the needs of the movement. Thus, during the Ashohojog Andolon (civil disobedience movement) of March 1971 pro- Moscow National Awami Party (Muzaffar) and the Communist Party of Bangladesh opted to side with the nationalistic movement led by the Awami League. That political alignment continued during the struggle through much of 1971 and even after the liberation.

Awami League's student wing, Bangladesh Student League also had historically been a right of center nationalistic student front with very few ties with left leaning political parties. But during the famous 11-point movement of 1969 (11-point demand [Egaro Dofa Andolon], which brought down the dictator Ayub Khan) the student fronts of all the left parties and the Student League entered into a political alliance that had tremendous significance. Mahbub Ullah of the Pro-Peking Student Union (in other words Menon Group], Shamsuddoha of the Pro-Moscow Student Union [popularly known as Motia Group] and Tofayel Ahmed of Student League were the comrades in arms in that historical student uprising.

The 1971 War of Liberation found very little support from the pro-Chinese elements. But the pro-Soviet political parties had no difficulty in playing an active role in the freedom movement. Unlike the pro-Chinese elements, they faced no ideological inhibitions in supporting a movement that received support from the Indian and Soviet allies in the face of opposition from the (Rawal)Pindi- Peking-Washington axis.

Bangabandhu had never been known to be a socialist or even a leader with leftist leanings. He was essentially a nationalistic leader, completely at home with electioneering politics, and very sympathetic toward free enterprise. But the circumstances under which he came to power would soon lead him to join the ranks of leaders like Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq of Iran, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Dr. Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, Michael Manley of Jamaica or Salvador Allende of Chile. It would set him in an adversarial role vis-à-vis America. Bangabandhu's change of stance was certainly unsettling for the conservative old guard among the Awami Leaguers.

From the mid fifties through the early seventies it wasn't unusual for nationalistic leaders of newly independent countries to pay, at least, lip service to socialistic ideals. They would vow to reduce dependence on western capital for the task of building the economic infrastructure. They would often seek ties with communist bloc nations to meet their security needs. Needless to say, the free world wasn't particularly happy with the protectionist economic policies and the socialist image that these breed of leaders represented.

The Awami League based its ideology on the principles of nationalism, secularism and democracy. Later on, socialism was added to the above three to reflect the geopolitical alignments through much of 1971. The Awami League theoreticians christened the party ideology as Mujibism which apparently was not in conflict with that of the Soviet leaning leftist parties.

"Socialism" became the shibboleth for the new order in power. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became the prototype for the ideal third world leader among Soviet political strategists.

The World Peace Council (a Soviet affiliated peace organization) found in Bangabandhu "a new star in the anti-imperialist struggle". The organization's general secretary, Ramesh Chandra, came to Dacca to personally decorate the Bangladesh leader with the Peace Council's prestigious Joliot Curie award. Bangabandhu became a leading light of the anti-western Non Aligned Movement. The Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi could scarcely hide his elation when he heard the Bengali leader's speech at the NAM summit in Algiers. In that landmark speech, Bangabandhu defined the world as one divided between the exploiters and the exploited - an idea that was fully in keeping with the Soviet world view.

It is not unusual for nations to initiate radical changes in the aftermath of bloody anti-colonial struggles. The architects of the state of Israel, for example, experimented with socio-political measures that were revolutionary, to say the least. The Kibbutz movement in Israel continues to command reverence among the citizens even though it is now a pale shadow of its past.

Immediately after liberation of Bangladesh, the young generation was ready for immense sacrifices. There was a proposal to form a national unity government, which would comprise all the pro-liberation forces. It would have included even Maulana Bhashani. But there was a strong resistance to the idea within the Awami League. When Bangabandhu came back to independent Bangladesh from his prison cell in Pakistan, he had no clue to the changes of the past year in the political landscape of Bangladesh. Awami Leaguers opposed to the idea of a National government prevailed upon him to scotch the move.

As a typical middle class, petty bourgeois centric party, Awami League failed to rise above the class interests of its leading constituents. Inevitably, corruption, nepotism and gross misuse of power quite soon overwhelmed the new administration. It didn't take long for the people to get disillusioned. The general mass as well as the intelligentsia started longing for alternatives as the Awami League grew unpopular day by day. Most of the cabinet positions of the Dacca University Central Students Union (DUCSU) had been won by the pro- Moscow Bangladesh Student Union in the immediate aftermath of our liberation. The cadres of this organization seemed honest and selfless. But the common man's expectation was shattered as the DUCSU leadership gradually took on the role of the B-team of Student League which was an organ of the Awami League.

It was January 1, 1973. The Vietnam war was in its final stages. The pro-Moscow Bangladesh Student Union decided to demonstrate in front of the United States Information Service building in Topkhana Road. The students suddenly turned edgy during the demonstration. The police opened fire. Two activists, Matiul and Kader, died on the spot. That brought the first major rift between Bangabandhu and his pro-Moscow allies.

The agitated Student Union members sought support for their cause. It was provided by the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal and its student body, Bangladesh Student League [JSD; also known as Rob Group], which had been advocating the line of "Scientific Socialism." There was a successful Hartal (shut down), presumably the first time in Bangabandhu era. That Hartal unmistakenly showed that the days of unchallenged power were over for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In the second and third week of January of 1973 the Dacca city was the scene of numerous anti-government demonstrations. The USIS building was forced to remain closed for a while. The "ultra revolutionaries" of the Bangladesh Student League (JSD) hoisted Vietcong flags on top of the USIS building. The successful Hartal failed to calm down the aggrieved students. The DUCSU leadership of the Bangladesh Student Union, in a public meeting, tore apart the papers that documented Bangabandhu's life-membership of DUCSU. That infuriated leaders of the ruling Awami League and the other Student League. They were extremely upset with these leftists who had been their political allies till then.

The country was headed toward a strife. The Student League (pro Awami League) called a meeting at the Paltan Maidan (public square). Many a right leaning leader voiced his outrage openly and publicly. The Student Union leaders were disparaged as undisciplined and cowards. Not even the leaders of NAP and of the pro-Moscow Communist Party were spared.

The Paltan Maidan had been filled with muscle-men from all parts of the city. As the meeting was going on, the Student Union leaders brought out a torch light procession in the Baitul Mukarram area, which is in the near vicinity of the Maidan. The stage was set for an explosion. The huge crowd in the Paltan Maidan soon took on the student demonstrators. Within an hour, the office of Muzaffar NAP was ransacked and the Student Union office was set ablaze. The torch lights came in handy indeed.

The Kremlin policy makers probably realized that the situation was spinning out of control. The Communist Party of Bangladesh directed the "student revolutionaries" to pull back from the confrontation. They were ordered to go to Bangabandhu, and ask for his forgiveness. Bangabandhu's life-membership to DUCSU was reinstated. The Soviet Ambassador Valentin Popov was replaced soon after by Andrei Fomin, a veteran Soviet Foreign Ministry official.

The year 1973 was a momentous one in the western hemisphere. The Chilean leader Salvador Allende was ousted in a bloody pro-western coup in September. President Allende was finding it difficult to push through his agenda in the face of a Congress that was firmly under opposition control. Nevertheless, multinational corporations like ITT were pushing for his ouster. It wasn't long before Allende had to pay the price for offending the neighbourhood superpower. He was ousted by an US inspired coup by army chief Augusto Pinochet.

Bangabandhu, with the support and advice of some of his close political aides, soon embarked on an unchartered course. The Awami League was disbanded all of a sudden, in 1975. And so were all other political parties. Their place was taken by a new party, named Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BKSAL). The press was forced to curb its freedom. BKSAL was the only party that the people were allowed to join. Bangladesh was now a one-party state. Leaders of pro- Moscow groups were accommodated in the BKSAL high command and in its newly formed student and labour fronts. The armed services gained access to the political arena as would-be generals like Ziaur Rahman became part and parcel of BKSAL.

The transformation of Awami League into BKSAL can be a productive topic for future researchers. It may have been accepted by the people in the immediate aftermath of liberation as a prelude to setting up a national government. But Bangladesh was a very different country in 1975 than it was in 1972. The corrosion of the spirit of liberation and patriotism and the rampant corruption of a large segment of Awami League members created a situation in which such a revolutionary undertaking under Awami League supervision was no longer viable. It seemed BKSAL came too late in the game to play a healing and constructive role the nation. In fact, it merely aggravated the grievances of the people.

The pro-western coup in August of 1975 was a familiar tale. It was a victory for supporters of one superpower over those of the other. The demise of BKSAL and the beginning of an era of right wing military regimes marked the eclipse of forces that had made possible the liberation of Bangladesh in December of 1971. That will be the subject for a future article. #

This essay was first published in the Editorial and Commentary section of NEWS FROM BANGLADESH on March 15, 1999

Jamal Hasan is a Washington DC based freelance writer. He can be reached at

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