Syed Badrul Ahsan
History took a decisive new turn for the Bengali nation on 23 June 1949.
There were some courageous men — Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Yar Mohammad, Shamsul Haque, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and, of course, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy — whose names are today engraved in the Bengali consciousness. These men, grown acutely aware of the growing authoritarianism of the ruling Muslim League in the newly constituted state of Pakistan, thought it necessary to break loose of the organisation which had spearheaded the struggle for Pakistan and come forth with the Awami Muslim League. The goal was democracy. The objective was to reassure the people of Pakistan, in both wings of the country, that they had a political alternative to fall back on in their yearning for pluralistic politics.
Today, at this remove in time, it is necessary to remind ourselves that the place of the Awami League in Bangladesh’s history has been an enviable one. As the party observes its founding anniversary today, it is well and proper to look back at the story it has scripted for itself since June 1949. There is pain and then there is pleasure in that story. There is the record of the huge advances made by its leaders over the decades; and there are the demonstrations of pettiness that have prevented a good number of its leading lights from transforming themselves into leaders on a nationwide scale.
In the beginning there were the men who felt early on in Pakistan that the Muslim League was swiftly turning into a feudal, self-serving organisation. And thus was the Awami Muslim League forged into shape, a party of Muslim League dissidents who believed that the genesis of Pakistan was under threat at the hands of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s successors.
But the Awami Muslim League did not or would not replace the Muslim League, in that strictly communal sense of the meaning. The spur that pushed it into taking a new path along the forked road of politics was the growing nature of the language movement in East Bengal. February 1952 was to be a watershed. By the middle of the decade, the party would reach out to all classes and all denominations of citizens as the Awami League. There was boldness in a jettisoning of the term ‘Muslim’ from its name. Pakistan, after all, was a Muslim state, implicit in whose philosophy was the second class nature of its Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, tribals, and others.
Having shed its communal skin, the Awami League became the force to beat in public opinion at election booths. Its leader Suhrawardy assumed a pre-eminent role at the centre. In the province of East Bengal-turned-East Pakistan, it was to be either the ruling party or a powerful opposition, in the shape and form of men like Ataur Rahman Khan. And yet it would face a major crisis in terms of ideology. Suhrawardy, naively suggesting that the 1956 constitution had given East Pakistan ninety eight percent autonomy, then gave foreign policy a patently pro-Western sheen and substance. An outraged Moulana Bhashani walked out, to reinvent himself as the chief of a new organisation, the National Awami Party (NAP). That was post-Kagmari 1957. The Awami League was in crisis.
The 1960s …
The Awami League was much sinned against in the decade-long period of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan between October 1958 and March 1969. Banned under martial law, it would re-emerge in 1962 but only as part of an alliance of opposition political parties. Placed under arrest and then freed, a shaken Suhrawardy left the country, to die in Beirut in 1963. Earlier, a leading figure of the party, Shamsul Haq, went missing along the way, figuratively speaking. He would die sad and forlorn. Today, not many in the party remember or talk about him, which is a pity. Meanwhile, power in the party clearly was beginning to pass into the hands of a radical group of young leaders headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In early 1964, Mujib revived the Awami League and moved out of the opposition front.
A defining moment for the Awami League came in February 1966, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman placed a Six-Point plan of regional autonomy for Pakistan’s federating provinces at a conference of opposition leaders in Lahore. It left the remnants of the old party leadership, personified by the likes of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, horrified. It created consternation among the other opposition parties. And it pushed President Ayub Khan into threatening to employ the language of weapons against the party. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s foreign minister, challenged Mujib to a public debate at Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan over the Six Points.
The cerebral Tajuddin Ahmad, general secretary of the Awami League, took up the challenge. In the event, a nervous Bhutto failed to turn up. But that did not stop the regime from going ahead with its plan of trying to eliminate the Awami League. Mujib, along with his young associates, was once again in prison by May 1966. That did not prevent Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury and Amena Begum, two young leaders of the party, from organising an unprecedented general strike in support of the Six Points throughout East Pakistan on 7 June 1966.
By January 1968, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be the principal accused in the Agartala Conspiracy Case instituted by the regime against him and thirty four Bengali civilian and military personnel. His party was under relentless assault. Increasingly subjected to brutality, the party struggled to hold on, for the base not to come apart. It took the blows patiently. A year later, it was marching back to life in freedom as popular support replenished its energy. A free Mujib, once the conspiracy case was withdrawn, became Bangabandhu. He travelled to Rawalpindi for a round table conference, a leader on the march to the future.
The 1970s …
Bengali support for Bangabandhu and his party came through the electoral triumph of December 1970. A year later, the Pakistan army having murdered three million Bengalis, Bengali constitutional politics having graduated to armed guerrilla warfare, Bangladesh was a free people’s republic. Less than three years later, Tajuddin Ahmad, the man who had organised and led the battlefield struggle for freedom, was shown the door by his leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was an early sign of the tragedy which awaited the party. Three and a half years after December 1971, Baksal took over where the Awami League had been. That was in January 1975. A one-party state, patently at variance with the fundamental values of democracy upheld by the original party, was in place. Disaster struck only months later. Bangabandhu and the four leaders of the Mujibnagar government were shot down, in a military coup led by the rightwing Awami Leaguer Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed.
Post-1981 . . .
In the darkness between August 1975 and May 1981, it was back to struggle, back to the streets. Mizan Chowdhury and Dewan Farid Gazi held their factions together. And then it was Zohra Tajuddin who bravely fought on, until Sheikh Hasina took charge in 1981. She took the party back to power twenty one years after 1975. And Hasina has been there since, as the longest surviving leader of the party.
Despite everything, the centre has held for the party. Ayub Khan gave it a hard time. Yahya Khan proscribed it. Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad went as far as they could to keep the party from re-emerging into light.
And yet things have not fallen apart. The Awami League has survived. Yet it must survive better, through returning to its old reputation — that of an inclusive organisation reaching out to all citizens of Bangladesh. It is in need of reinvention. Its policies and commitment to national causes, in light of the new challenges it is confronted with in these difficult times, call for necessary reconfiguring.
On the streets, in the villages and small towns of this country, in the nation’s pivotal centres of intellectual creativity, the party must reassert itself through giving space to its veteran workers, through opening its doors to young men and women imbued with the zeal of patriotism which has made it a powerful force in the history of politics in our part of the world.
The Awami League remains the nation’s remarkable claim on history, which is why it must focus once again — without ambiguity and with conviction — on democracy, socialism, secularism and nationalism as guiding principles of faith for the nation.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani.