June 23rd Sunday is the 70th founding anniversary of Bangladesh Awami League, perhaps the most resilient political party of the sub-continent. It is also the party that led the Bengali nation to have a country of their own and produced not only the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman but also statesmen like his daughter – the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. Most of the politicians who played the vital role of forming the Bangladesh Awami League (Awami Muslim League at its birth) all took part in the anti-British movement to liberate India.
Later, Jinnah who started his political career in the Indian National Congress in a cunning move took over the leadership of Muslim League and used it as a platform to demand separate states for Muslims of the sub-continent, as Indian National Congress Muslim League was not established as a political party.Retired Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer Allan Octavian Hume founded the Indian National Congress in order to form a platform for civil and political dialogue among the educated Indians. Later on, the Indian political leaders who thought to protect their interest needed a proper political party and thus Indian National Congress was transformed into a political party which first focused on ‘swaraj’ or self-rule and later on India’s independence. Though many Muslims including Jinnah joined the Congress, they found themselves alienated as Congress was dominated by Hindus and so they also thought to have their own political platform.
In the meantime Muslim League was formed in 1906 in Dhaka by the Nawabs and the elites of Dhaka as a platform to protect their interest. Later Jinnah disassociated himself from Congress and took control of Muslim League. It was all the birds of the same feather coming together.
When the anti-British movement began in full earnest after the end of the Second World War, many political leaders also joined the movement, notable amongst them were Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sarat Chandra Bose, A K Fazlul Hoque, Kiran Shankar Roy, Abul Hashim, Satya Ranjan Bakshi and many other Bengali nationalists who wanted to have an independent United Bengal that would include the presidency of Assam which would be secular in character and free from the socio-economic oppression of the upper caste Hindus, Zamindars, Jotdars, Marwaris and Mohajons. But they knew that first the British must leave India before anything could happen.
The movement began with the ‘Quit India’ Movement or the August Movement in 1942 at the height of the war and was led by Mahatma Gandhi. The main demand was British should leave India. The British Government appeased the Indian politicians that once the war is over, they will resolve the issue through peaceful means. But the movement continued.
In Bengal, besides the Bengali leaders, the common people and the students of Calcutta University also played an important role in this movement. But Jinnah had another idea. In 1940 he passed a resolution in the Muslim League Council held in Lahore that separate independent states will have to be formed to protect the interest of the Muslims of the sub-continent.The leaders of Bengal were more focused on making the British quit India and thought they would later on negotiate to form a United Bengal. But due to cunningness of the Muslim League leaders, this ultimately did not happen and those leaders, especially Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Abul Hashim and A K Fazlul Hoque had to accept the partition of India into Pakistan and India.
In the meantime Jinnah in another resolution taken at a special meeting of Muslim League in 1946 announced that only one state, not states, would be formed for the Indian Muslims. The League leaders of Bengal still believed that once Pakistan was created they would later fight for an independent Bengal.
The idea of separate homeland for Muslims was floated by saying that if the Muslims had a country of their own they would be the makers of their destiny and the oppressive rule of Hindu Zamindars, Jotdars, Marwaris and Mohajons would come to an end. One of those student leaders who were amongst the political workers and fought for in the anti-British movement in Kolkata was young Sheikh Mujib, then a student of Kolkata Islamia College (now renamed as Maulana Azad College).
Young Mujib was a very good organiser and after the partition returned from Kolkata to Dhaka. In 1948 Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan, came to Dhaka and in a public rally at Ramna Race Course (now Suhrawardy Uddayan) announced that the state language of Pakistan will only be Urdu, a language spoken only by 6 per cent of the population most of whom migrated from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Pakistan (West and East).
There was an immediate protest from the students of Dhaka University who went to attend the meeting. Later when Jinnah came to Dhaka University’s Curzon Hall to address a special convocation he again repeated the issue of Urdu being the only state language of Pakistan and again the students protested and one of those was young Mujib. Jinnah stuck to his decision and returned to Karachi (then capital of Pakistan).
Young Mujib realised that to protest against any wrong decision of the government an organised effort is needed and for this there has to be an organisation, preferably of young people. He understood the force of the youth. He took the initiative to form the East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League (later renamed as East Pakistan Chhatra League). As a matter of fact though it was a platform of students, in reality this was the first platform formed to protest the discriminatory policies of the central government of Pakistan.
Chhatra League first waged the movement to establish Bangla as the state language of Pakistan as it was the language of the majority of the people of Pakistan. From its birth, Chhatra League spearheaded all the popular movements in this country, including playing an important role in the liberation of Bangladesh. Mujib knew that the central government will not take the movements of Chhatra League very seriously; so he took the initiative to establish a political party that will fight for the genuine rights of the people of East Bengal. Soon after the partition it became clear that a separate homeland for the Muslims was just a hoax. It was created to replace the Hindu Zamindars, Jotdars, Marwaris and Mohajons to exploit the people of East Bengal by the same breed of people who came mostly from Punjab of Pakistan.
In a decade following the partition the dominance of primarily the Punjabi capitalists and rich landowners in all spheres of the life of common people Pakistan was complete. The concept of Pakistan was just old wine in a new bottle. As practically none of the people of East Pakistan had capital for any major investment, all investments in industry were made by the feudal class of West Pakistan, particularly Punjab.
So it was the repetition of the of old culture of exploitation of the common people, this time by a new breed of exploiters from West Pakistan.
Mujib and other politicians from East Bengal felt the necessity of forming a political party that would fight for the protection of the rights of the common people of Bengal. On 23 June 1949 a special meeting of the politicians who believed in the socio-political and economic emancipation of Bengal was held in Dhaka’s Rose Garden and the first political party of East Pakistan was formed, first to be named as East Pakistan Awami Muslim League, later to be renamed as Awami League. The Muslim League was a party of the elites and the upper class Muslims of the sub-continent and Awami (People’s) League was formed as a party of the common people and was led by common people. Maulana Bhashani was made the President of the party and young Shamsul Hoque, a student leader from Tangail the General Secretary. Though young Sheikh Mujib was in jail for his role in the language movement after Jinnah’s announcement that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan, he was made the joint secretary of the party.
Soon a new era in the politics of Pakistan began and from the very beginning it began to challenge the dominance of West Pakistani civil and military bureaucrats over the people of East Bengal. During the 23 year of united Pakistan Awami League was in power twice, once in the centre under the premiership of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (coalition government, 1956-57) and the other one in East Bengal in 1954 as the leading party of the United Front (Jukto Front). But on both occasions the rule of Awami League-dominated government was short lived due to the conspiracy of the civil-military bureaucracy of Pakistan.
As Awami League never focused on politics of power whether in the government or not, it always fought for the genuine rights of the people. One of its founders, Sheikh Mujib, later Bangabandhu and the Father of the Nation spent about thirteen years (exactly 4,682 days) of 23 years of united Pakistan in prison and faced death sentences at least on two occasions, once in 1969 during the sham trial of the so-called Agartola Conspiracy Case and the second one during the Liberation War of 1971. On both occasions he was tried for treason in a military court and the only punishment for the alleged ‘crime’ was death sentence. On both occasions it was the people who played the vital role in librating Mujib and from a mere political leader not only made him the Father of the Nation but also a statesman that the world respected.
Awami League faced a number of splits in its early phase, first one being at the Kagmari Conference of Maulana Bhashani in 1957. Another major split happened when Mujib announced the Six-point programme, considered the Magna Carta of the people of East Bengal. Many Awami League leaders did not take the Six-Point of Mujib in good earnest and soon there was another major split, this time the party Chairperson Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish walked out of Awami League and joined PDM (he later came back to re-join Awami League contesting the 1970 election as an ‘Awami League candidate and won). Another split happened when Mujib’s close political associate Mizanur Rahman tried to form his brand of Awami League.
Awami League also was banned on number of occasions by the military rulers of Pakistan, restricted from doing politics in public and its leaders put behind bars for years together. Its one time President and the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy died in a Beirut Hotel in isolation after being released from the Pakistani prison. But Awami League survived with the spirit announced at its birth – fighting for the rights of the people of East Bengal and for democracy and building a secular country.
In the post 1975 brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with his entire family and the four national leaders for a while the party’s future looked uncertain. Again it was the undaunted, committed and patriotic leaders of the party who held the reign of the party and played a strong role in its revival. Notable amongst them was Begum Zahura Tajuddin, Abdul Malek Ukil, Abdus Samad Azad, Zillur Rahman, Abdur Razzak, Tofail Ahmed and others.
The grassroots level workers were the soul of the party and they never betrayed the party. Based on the support of the common people and its grassroots level the party came back to power after 21 years in oblivion under the leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina in 1996, the current Prime Minister, a feat unparallel in the history of modern day politics.
Today as the party will be celebrating its 70 anniversary, its dedicated workers are now overshadowed by the highbred Awami Leaguers many of whom are backed by the local Awami Leaguers.
Unfortunately there are people even in the government who never believed in the politics of Awami League. Their personal gain is the only priority and many of them are working relentlessly to mislead Bangabandhu’s daughter. People see the future of the country and its people in Awami League and the party must continue to exist with the spirit with which it was formed, and purge each and everyone who have managed to silently crawl into the folds of Awami League like termites.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave his life for the party and the people. His daughter Sheikh Hasina experienced insurmountable odds, risked her life on a number of occasions just for the people and the party. No other political leader in the present day world have suffered so much as Sheikh Hasina’s family but irony is – there are many who alleged to be waiting in the wings to betray her as many did to her father.
On this day I pay tributes to all those who sacrificed their life, time and effort for Bangladesh Awami League.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator. Currently he teaches at ULAB