By Jamal Hasan
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
. . . Or does it explode?
— Langston Hughes, ‘Harlem’
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib had a dream for Bangladesh in the early seventies, which had to be deferred for various reasons. But what did happen to his dream? This short article examines why Bangabandhu was out on a limb trying to forge a coalition among various political forces to come up with a united political system so that the weak and malnourished child who was born in 1971 had a fighting chance to grow. Without much ado, let me delve into this tangled tale, which is not an easy one to narrate.
The political dynamics of Bangladesh puts the country in a unique position in the world. This is so due to two reasons. Firstly, the nation was born after defeating a ruthless genocidal occupation army. Secondly, within a little more than two and half years the nation became captive of the strategic allies of the brutal force who successfully convinced many as if they were the ultimate guarantors of people’s democratic aspiration in this new republic of 75 million people.
The country coming out of ashes of a bloody liberation war witnessed rampant corruption and nepotism culminated during the short-term government ruled by the party, Awami League, which was assumed to be the vanguard of liberation movement. When the people were ready to sacrifice everything to build their Sonar Bangla, they observed in disgust, a great majority of the Awami League stalwarts were busy making money by hoarding, extortion and manipulating commodity market by buying and selling license and permit which was easy to obtain. Because of nepotism and favoritism a good percentage of the opportunists happened to be “temporary Awami Leaguers,” who were never members of Awami League, but merely chameleons who changed colors in changed circumstances. The shattered dream of the millions of Bangladeshis in the post-liberation era gave the defeated force of 1971 a good opportunity to maneuver. They had allies in the right wing of Awami League and of course in the army barracks of Bangladesh.
Although the whole Bengali nation got direct assault from the marauding Pakistani army junta, the killers and collaborators found a new lease of life because of Awami League’s serious flaw in governing a newly emerged country. The enemies of Bangladesh liberation got a propaganda victory by saying, “oh, those were the good old days of Pakistani raj.” The process of national amnesia of Bangladeshis started. And when on August 15, 1975, the Pakistani evil force succeeded in toppling a government of its disliking, hardly anybody noticed the sinister design, though. The blueprint of 1975’s tragedy did not start on a single day. While Bangabandhu was overconfident about his personal safety and security, he was presumably not fully aware that his tilting toward Soviet bloc resulted in a renewed alignment of Pakistani-Saudi-US Axis. Pakistanis and Saudis were hostile to the nascent republic during all these years of Awami League rule. It was hardly surprising that quite a few Bangladeshi Jamat-i-Islami leaders, hounded for their heinous war criminal roles during the war of liberation would find sanctuary in both of these countries.
Even after liberation of Bangladesh, USA did not detach itself from the Nixon doctrine of 1971 periods. Soviet leader Brezhnev’s continuous harping of “Asian Collective Security” was a real challenge to US policy makers. Thus, the old bedfellows of 1971 reconnected among themselves with a mission to nip in the bud the prospect of encountering another Fidel Castro in South Asia. It goes without saying that the ” Fidel Castro” was nobody but Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Although the architects of BKSAL (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League) dreamed of redefining the political landscape of Bangladesh in socialistic model, one important thing they totally ignored. True implementation of socialism may achieve some results with a dedicated cadre who could take the bold steps of coming out of petty bourgeois mindset.
Awami Leaguers to the grassroots level had middle-class affinity.
Traditional Awami League politics taught them anything but socialistic values. Moreover, during the two years after liberation many of the party workers in rural areas to urban centers got the taste of “easy money” with corrupt practices. It was not realistic to expect to reach a socialistic goal with such misguided party cadres.
Nonetheless, formation of BKSAL antagonized a number of political forces in Bangladesh. They were as follows:
1. A coterie of the Awami League right-wingers who were sympathetic to US-Pakistan Axis during war of liberation. It is true that many of them believed in multiparty democracy. But the way BKSAL was formed made them apprehensive of the rising tide of Soviet lobby in Awami League itself. Among these factions, a fringe group was determined to reverse the process even if that needed to eliminate the Bangabandhu from the picture.
2. True democrats in Bangladesh who were devastated with the suspension of all political activities and formation of a single party entity. They believed in democratic pluralism but as champions of morality they could not think of supporting bloody toppling of the new political formation or siding with the Pakistani lobby. Their ultimate motto was to wait and see.
3. A group of Bangladeshi army officials who did not abandon the old values of Pakistan where pro-westernism and Islamism mixed in a platter which would be combative to global communism, especially of Soviet variety. Multi-party democracy or democratic pluralism was not their cup of tea as great majority of them were groomed under Pakistani military dictators like Ayub Khan or Yahya Khan. They were alarmed at the possibility of emergence of Soviet style socialism in Bangladesh and they were ready to stop the process at any cost even if it resulted in bloodshed.
Aside from this group, there were other army officials who had become disgruntled with Awami League’s continued policy of benign neglect of cantonment and emphasis of Rakkhi Bahini. The grievance of the latter group gave the former enough strategic inspiration to change the course of history.
4. The defeated forces of Bangladesh, i.e., The Fifth Columnist. They included all the Islamist parties like Muslim League, PDP, Jamat-i-Islami, Nezam-I-Islami, etc. And also the auxiliary forces of Pakistani Army, namely, the former members of Razakar, Al Badr and Al-Shams. It is true that many of these elements saved their skins because of the nepotism policy of Awami Leaguers. But they perceived Awami League to be their eternal enemy and blamed the party for their ill fate. They realized that if BKSAL got full control of the country, they could never make the situation favorable to their ideology.
5. Pro-Chinese political parties and ultra-left parties scattered around the country. Many of these party members openly sided with Pakistani Army and were adversaries of freedom fighters. After the country became independent, some of those ultra-leftists went underground and were active in secret killings of Awami Leaguers and rural landlords. For them, Pakistani influenced politics was far better than Soviet influenced BKSAL. As a significant portion of those ultra-leftists believed in the bloodshed, inevitably they were in favor of a bloody ouster of BKSAL regime.
6. Last but not the least, the formidable enemy of Awami League, namely, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal. This party was getting enough clout in educational institutions across the nation. In the village level its underground fronts, namely, Gono Bahini and Bangladesher Communist League were gathering experience in killing Awami Leaguers and confronting Rakkhi Bahini. Although JSD was proponent of “Scientific socialism”whatever it means, it was not thrilled to see a left wing metamorphosis of Awami League. This party was ready to push the country to a bloody civil war with the clear ambition of eliminating Awami League from the political power.
Some critics of BKSAL often give the reasoning that one-party-system would wreak havoc in Bangladesh as it was against democratic pluralism. The fact is after the liberation, Bangladesh had faced immense difficulty in building democratic institutions. Already the legacy of Pakistan under successive military regimes of Ayub and Yahya kept the Bengalis in dark about the essence of democratic values for more than a decade.
Not only that, prior to Ayub Khan’s ascension to power, a few palace cliques and intrigues deprived the Bengali masses of being active partners in the political process. It is also noteworthy that after liberation, because of Awami League’s absolute majority representation in a national parliament, voice of dissent was not a common-scenario. The parliament became almost a rubber stamp institution. And Awami League hooligans’ muscle power and their regular clash with the rival parties’ muscle men was nothing close to a test case of democratic pluralism.
Most newspapers decided not to rock the boat for fear of reprisals. They showed a symptom of subtle appeasement of the ruling party. Probably only paper, Haq Katha, a tabloid of the National Awami Party (Bhashani) was staunchly critical of Awami League and its party members. So, when BKSAL was formed, the average citizens did not miss much. After all, pre-BKSAL Bangladesh was not an epitome of democracy, as some critics would like to argue.
Expecting democratic pluralism on the basis of simply multi-party system is not always pragmatic. The Institutional Revolution Party of Mexico ( PRI) ruled that country for more than seventy years. The ruling party made sure winning in the election is guaranteed for decades. There was corruption at the highest level; there was drug trafficking and secret killing. The people were living in a less than civil society and the ruling elites amassed amazing wealth.
During PRI’s draconian rule, how the election in that US’s neighbor was stolen is now an open secret. The PRI oligarchy was prudent enough not to antagonize the northern neighbor so the continuity of rule went unabated. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and General Suharto of Indonesia ruled their countries with iron grip. Both the authoritarian leaders appeased Western allies so that a constant cash flow could be secured. The urban middle class was typically not very unhappy with this arrangement. These “less then democratic” rulers ruled their respective countries for years to come hardly facing serious challenge at home and abroad. The ousted President Alberto Fujimori of Peru showed the world how autocracy thrived in a multi-party democracy. The record of Fujimori may pale many authoritarian rulers’ misdeeds all around the world.
During the time of Cold War, U.S. administrations supported a number of right wing military dictators in the Latin and Central America. From Paraguay to Chile, Argentina to Brazil, Nicaragua to El Salvador, Uruguay to Guatemala, the countries were shadowed by unsavory regimes.
There were numerous instances of human rights violations while most of the regimes were corrupt to the teeth. Death squads were formed to suppress political dissidents. Civilians’ accused of being sympathizers of left politics disappeared in the middle of the night. Death squads acting like the Nazi German Gestapo or East German Stassi were active in their evil designs. Today’s unclassified documents in archives around the globe are showing horrific evidence of the dark days of Cold War.
These documentations are enough to disclose that some democratic nations do not always promote democracy. In Bangladesh, in the post 1975 time, two successive military rulers with western and Islamist leanings proved that infusion of hard cash could make miracles. With a relatively satisfied urban middle class, the iron men from the barracks played Houdini with ease. Both the right wing military dictators ostracized Bangabandhu and the concept of BKSAL as vestiges of totalitarianism. They acted as if they were the ultimate saviors of western style democracy.
In reality, they had iron grip in all matters of state power that included executive and judiciary bodies. During election, their manipulative acts gave them startling results of 80 to 90 percent supports, which is rare in pluralistic democracy. They made sure they would not be ousted by ballot forever. Because of their commitment to thwarting Soviet influence in this South Asian nation, the Bangladeshi military dictators obtained significant support from not only the proponents of western democracy but also from theocratic regime such as the Hashimite Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Bangabandhu’s dilemma was how to bypass the already proven corrupt and nepotistic Awami League hierarchy to significantly change the political dynamics. He was gradually coming closer to pro-Moscow Communist Party of Bangladesh and its front organizations. In a CPB conference, Bangabandhu told the party leaders that he considered them (the Communists) real patriots as his own party men were drowning in corruption. It could be attributed to be just a lip service or a public relations ploy. But the construction of BKSAL proved to be his inclination to the Soviet line politics in Bangladesh.
The experiment of forming Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League was not well received by many old Awami Leaguers who felt that that was tantamount to decimating Awami League. Moreover, decentralization of administration and the concept of agrarian reform were far from the traditionalist Awami League philosophy.
If BKSAL was formulated like the Iranian mullah’s Supreme Council without any socialistic goal, may be Uncle Sam would not be so much perturbed. If BKSAL incorporated notable Razakars, Al Badrs, Jamats and if the newly formed party had an Islamic agenda and insignia, Saudi recognition to Bangladesh would have come immediately. Maybe within a few months after the formation of Islamic BKSAL, Bangladesh would have been flooded with petrodollars.
BKSAL came as a radical concept when the country already passed the stage of “radicalism” of Bangladesh liberation. I am using the term radical in this context because the liberation war itself was too radical for most Awami Leaguers who were used to constitutional form of politics.
Secondly, BKSAL gave power to many well-known corrupt Awami Leaguers in certain areas while they would become little emperors in their domains. Thirdly, BKSAL included most of the notable pro-Soviet Communist party leaders (their student fronts and labor fronts) in its high command. Wasn’t it enough to ring an alarm bell in certain countries’ capitals where democracy and antipathy toward Soviet hegemony were the everyday mantras?
Bangabandhu was a leader at the time of living dangerously. In the era of superpower rivalry, the birth of Bangladesh occurred rather quickly as a result of consistent effort of Soviet bloc countries and India. And these guardians of the infant country did not have the resources to feed the millions. Like many radical Third World leaders, Bangabandhu thought socialism would be the panacea to all ills and he worked in that direction. In the process he alienated a vital power of the world comity of nations. He was walking on a razor’s edge and thus it almost becomes an academic question whether his early demise was a historical inevitability.
Originally published in News from Bangladesh on August 21, 2001 in the Feature section