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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 22, New Delhi, May 15, 2021

Remembering Sheikh Mujib and 50 years of Bangladeshi liberation | Chaturvedi and Raju

Friday 14 May 2021

by Nandita Chaturvedi and Archishman Raju

Bangabandhu, Bishwabandhu!

We find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented crisis in the world order. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of the weaknesses, and the dormant rot in the Western-led world order. Western societies are plagued with unemployment, drug addiction, violence, and depression. The four years of the Trump presidency have brought into question the role of the US as the undisputed leader of the world. Trump made moves to withdraw from the empire’s traditional allies in NATO, breaking free trade deals like the TPP and pulling the American military out from strategic locations like Afghanistan and Syria. On the other hand, we are witnessing the economic and political rise of the Chinese state. The Belt and Road Initiative marks a foundationally different paradigm for world trade, one not reliant on American military might. China has managed to eradicate extreme poverty with its centralized planning and concept of socialism with Chinese characteristics, which should be a point of study and introspection for all third world nations like India. A new multipolar world order is arising for the first time since the era of colonialism.

It is in this time that it becomes imperative that we undertake a study of our history, reflect on the path that has gotten us to this moment, and go back to the vision of the freedom struggle in South Asia in order to determine the path we must take for the future. This was the effort of a two-day online conference organized by the Saturday Free School in Philadelphia that was held to commemorate the centenary year of revolutionary and freedom fighter Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and the 50th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence. The conference was titled “Bangabandhu, Bishwabandhu”, referring to the title of ‘Friend of Bengal’ that the people gave Sheikh Mujib, and which was then expanded to ‘Friend of the world’ by World Peace Council president Romesh Chandra.

History of Bangladesh and its relevance for our time

The first day of the conference consisted of two-panel discussions in which young activists and scholars spoke from Philadelphia. A video of Sheikh Mujib receiving the Joliot Curie medal from Romesh Chandra was screened. The day ended with two musical performances — one of Nazrul geeti and a second of African American freedom music.

Many speakers on the first day spoke of the history of Bangladesh and its relevance for us today. The conference was opened with a presentation by Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed, who was an active participant in the liberation war at the age of 18. He recounted taking up arms in the struggle against the genocidal Pakistani army, and how his father was murdered during the war for refusing to abandon his patients as a doctor in Dhaka. He emphasized that the ideology of the Pakistani elite could be traced directly back to the British’s policy of divide and rule, and their plunder of the Indian economy and destruction of the social fabric. He spoke of the peace-loving peoples all over the world who had supported the Bangladeshi cause. He spoke in particular of the African American leader of the Philadelphia Longshoreman Association, Richard Askew, who had refused to load any goods onto Pakistani ships during the genocide.

Meghna Chandra spoke of Bangabandhu’s embracing of liberation struggles all over the world after the formation of Bangladesh, and his attempt at a second revolution to form a state that would serve the interests of the people who trusted him and had sacrificed so much for liberation. She brought out Bangabandhu’s concern for peace, and the deep links between the anticolonial and peace movements. Brandon Do showed the commonalities of the colonial experience in Asia, painting a picture of how the French divided the Vietnamese from the Cambodians and comparing it with the Hindu-Muslim divisions of South Asia. He spoke of the monumental role of Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman in the global fight for peace and liberation.

Eminent intellectuals from the US and South Asia, Dr. Anthony Monteiro, Prof. Prabhat Patnaik and Prof. Rehman Sobhan also paid tribute to Bangabandhu on the second day of the conference. Dr. Monteiro, well known Du Boisian scholar and participant in the black freedom struggle, recounted how his own father had been a longshoreman in Philadelphia, and had participated in the boycott of Pakistani ships. Prof. Sobhan, who had been a close associate of Bangabandhu and participant in the liberation war, built on this to say that in this way their struggles and people had formed a strong bond of friendship and solidarity. Remembering Bangabandhu, world renowned economist Prof. Patnaik said that the people of Bengal had faced enormous suffering as colonialism started in Bengal with a famine and ended in Bengal with a famine and Bangabandhu emerged as an exemplary leader of the people.

Prof. Rehman Sobhan spoke on the historical importance of the Bangladeshi struggle for liberation. He emphasized that Bangabandhu went over the head of the traditional middle classes and reached out to the Bengali masses effectively fighting the whole tradition of colonial rule which attempted to create divisions in society and rule it through a minority elite. He pointed out that living and travelling amongst the people, Bangabandhu had learnt socialism from his practice amongst them, and not from abstract theory or another society. He spoke of how he was invited by Bangabandhu to formulate policy as part of the nation’s first planning commission based on socialistic principles that could respond to the needs of the masses. He recounted how the whole people of Bangladesh had risen in support of Mujib, and how the peasantry had taken up arms against the Pakistani army. Further, Bangladesh was unique in the sense that the Mujib government had been functioning as an independent administration even before the formal independence of Bangladesh because of the people’s mandate. He talked about the American destabilization of the Bangladeshi regime as well as how they precipitated a famine in Bangladesh.

The Rise of Asia and our new world order

The importance of Bangabandhu’s vision must be seen in the context of our times. Dr. Anthony Monteiro emphasized the crisis in the United States, which is not visible from outside. He compared the conditions in the U.S. to a cold civil war. He said the state is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy and the American ruling elite is being forced to retreat from the overly aggressive imperialist position it had taken in the past 30 years as in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. He said the axis of human civilization was shifting from Europe to Asia and the historic age was moving from the age of Europe to the age of Humanity. This shift comes with the possibility of transforming ancient civilizations into modern and revolutionary civilizations. He said that our task was to continue the fight for peace and solidarity with world humanity. He said we should consider the possibility of the reconfiguration of nations and continents to fulfill the dreams of the first generation of freedom fighters. He stressed that we were facing a new kind of neo-colonialism which was the meaning of Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum’s great reset.

Prabhat Patnaik began by speaking on the dismal conditions of the poor and working masses in South Asia. He pointed out that inequality in India was the highest it had been since 1922, laying the blame on neoliberalism. He emphasized that there was a new form of imperialism today, where fiscal spending in the first world is combined with fiscal austerity in the third world. He said that Keynesian policies of demand management were being revived in the first world and were bound to lead to inflationary pressures. These inflationary pressures would be kept in check by suppressing the income of third world workers. He thus argued that increasing unemployment and poverty in the third world was directly linked to the policies of the American ruling elite. He added that there was a huge social base to delink from globalized finance and fight against these policies of fiscal austerity in the third world. Further, he stressed on the need to improve cooperation and trade amongst the global south.

Professor Sobhan emphasized that much has changed since the time of the Liberation War and today we are living in a world where the U.S. is no longer the dominant global economy and the IMF and World Bank are no longer hegemonic. He said the Financial crisis of 2007-2008 had demonstrated the incompetence and mendacity of Western financial institutions. He viewed the rise of China in a positive light speaking of the vast resources that China is investing in Asia and Africa particularly under the Belt and Road Initiative. He cautioned that because of the asymmetry in Western economic and military power, we were going through a time when there is a grave threat of war. He suggested that India should take a leading role in South Asia building value chains in South and South-East Asia and furthermore that India and China should come together to recreate the world as partners and realize Pandit Nehru’s vision articulated in the Inter-Asian Relations conference in 1947.

The panelists suggested future conversations to understand the role of the state and democracy given the political crisis of liberalism, and the role of politics in resolving the economic contradictions that the panelists brought up.

In sum, the conference served to celebrate, remember and learn from the legacy of Bangladesh’s Liberation War. It emphasized the changing world order, the positive conditions created by the rise of China, and the possibility of realizing unfulfilled visions of the anti-colonial struggle in our time, which would require that we rededicate ourselves to the struggle against poverty, and for peace and freedom.

The recording of the two-day conference can be found on the following links:

Day1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7Em-xSyLK8

Day 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwih5XCTi7s

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