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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 17, April 13, 2013

The Ideological Battle in Bangladesh

Sunday 14 April 2013, by Barun Das Gupta

Pakistan as a country was born with the seeds of its eventual dismemberment lying embedded in the very process of its birth and subsequent evolution. The third paragraph of the momentous Pakistan Resolution of the Muslim League, adopted at Lahore on March 23, 1940, said:

“Resolved that it is the considered view of this Session of the All India Muslim League that no constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to the Muslims unless it is designed on the following principles, viz., that geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions which should be constituted, with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of (British) India should be grouped to constitute ‘independent states’ in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign.”

Mark the concluding part of the paragraph which resolves to constitute independent states which should be autonomous and sovereign. Going by the text of the resolution, the founding fathers of Pakistan wanted to create, not one but two Pakistans each of which would be sovereign and independent. But what actually happened on the morrow of independence was just the reverse of what was intended. It was one Pakistan that was established, a Pakistan divided into two halves which were separated by over a thousand miles of Indian terrtitory.

The logic behind the demand for Pakistan as a separate country was Jinnah’s two-nation theory which held that it was religion which was the basis of nationhood. From the day Pakistan was born, this theory was put to test. Ere long, it failed to pass the test of history. It was being proved every day in East Pakistan that it was not religion, but language, ethos, mores and cultural homogeneity of a people that formed the basis of nationhood.

The Bengalis of East Pakistian realised very soon that the birth of an independent Pakistan had not delivered them from bondage, had not changed their status as a colony. Only, from a British colony, East Pakistan had become a colony of West Pakistan or, to be more precise, of the Punjabis. The nature and extent of colonial exploitation of East Pakistan has been exhaustively brought out in numerous tracts by scholars and economists of Bangladesh. Salahuddin Ahmed’s Bangladesh, Past and Present, for example,has laid bare the character of this exploitation.

The foreign exchange earned from the export of jute and tea grown in East Pakistan was used for the development of West Pakistan and for the enrichment of the West Pakistiani ruling elite. As early as November 1950, Nur Ahmed, an eminent lawyer of Chittagong and member of the Constitutent Assembly of Pakistan, bluntly warned that in due course East Pakistan would be gradually converted to a colony of West Pakistan which would lead to a ‘fatal result’.

Ironically, it was none other than Jinnah who ignited the battle of the Bengalis of East Pakistan against West Pakistani domination—both economic and cultural. Jinnah came to Dhaka in March 1948, and made his attitude to the Bengalis very clear immediately after his arrival. Addressing the Convocation of the Dhaka University at the Curzon Hall on March 24, 1948, he said:

“It is easier to go to jail or fight for freedom than to run a Government. Let me tell you something of the difficulties that we have to overcome. [There is an attempt] to create a split among the Muslims of this State as indeed they have made no secret of their efforts to incite hatred against non-Bengali Mussalmans. Realising, however, that the statement that your Prime Minister made on the language controversy, on return from Karachi, left no room for agitation, insofar as it conceded the right of the people of this province to choose Bengali as their official language if they so wished, these persons changed their tactics. They started demanding that Bengali should be the State language of the Pakistan Centre and since they could not overlook the obvious claims of Urdu as the official language of a Muslim State they proceeded to demand that both Bengali and Urdu should be the State language of Pakistan. Make no mistake about it. There can be only one State language, if the component parts of this State are to march forward in unison, and that language, in my opinion, can only be Urdu.

I have spoken at some length on this subject so as to warn you of the kind of tactics adopted by the enemies of Pakistan

and certain opportunist politicians to try to disrupt this State or to discredit the Government. Those of you are about to enter life, be on you guard against these people.” (Emphasis added.—B.D.G.)

Earlier also, addressing a public meeting at the Racecourse Grounds in Dhaka on March 21, 1948, he had harped on the demand for making Bengali the national language and said: “The

language issue was designed by afifth column

to divide the Pakistani Muslims.” (Emphasis added. —B.D.G.)

Jinnah’s statements had the opposite effect of what they were intended to produce. Anger and indignation gripped the students of East Pakistan. For demanding official status for the Bengali language, which was the mother tongue of the majority of the people of Pakistan, they had been gratuitously insulted and called ‘enemies of Pakistan’ and ‘fifth columnists’. They were not going to take it lying down.

The demand to make Bengali the official language became stronger and the movement started by the students gradually developed into a powerful mass movement. It reached its climax on February 21, 1952, when police fired on a crowd in Dhaka that had defied prohibitory orders under Sec. 144 Cr.P.C. Abdus Salam, Rafikuddin Ahmed, Sofiur Rahman, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar fell to police bullets. They became the first ‘language martyrs’ and February 21 became a sacred day on which the Bengalis of East Pakistan would renew every year their pledge to get the status that the Bengali language was rightfully entitled to. Nineteen years later, on March 25, 1971, it culminated in the unleashing of the War of Independence with the battle cry given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The war ended on December 16, 1971, with the triumph of the Mukti Bahini and the emergence of Swadhin (Independent) Bangladesh. In 1999, the UNESCO declared February 21 to be the International Mother Language Day which has since then been observed every year all over the world.

But the enemies of Bangladesh, the funda-mentalist, communal and pro-Pakistani elements, though defeated, were not weeded out. They decided to lie low, regroup themselves and try to recruit new adherents. They struck on August 15, 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation and President of Bangladesh, was killed along with his entire family, barring daughters Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana who were then out of the country. After that came Army rule—a period which saw the aban-doning of the ideals that inspired the liberation struggle and a gradual Islamisation of the State. During this period the communal forces started gaining ascendancy. But the Awami League and the patriotic people who were firm in their loyalty to the party, went about their job silently and kept alive the flame of idealism that made Swadhin Bangla a reality.

In 1996, for the first time after Sheikh Mujib’s death, the Awami League won the elections and came back to power with Hasina as Prime Minister. But after five years the Awami League lost the 2001 elections and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power with Begum Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister. The communal, fundamentalist and pro-Pakistani elements were again on the ascendancy. Begum Khaleda pledged her support to the ‘freedom movements’ that were being waged by the armed secessionist groups of the North-East Indian States. Bangla-desh became a safe haven for these secessionists where they not only got sanctuary but arms and training as well.

But Sheikh Hasina stormed back to power again in 2009. And immediately she set about bringing the war criminals during the liberation war to trial. It is common knowledge that after the liberation war began on March 25, 1971, a section of people turned collaborators of the Pakistan Army and joined hands with it in the mass killing of the people, especially the enligh-tened intelligentsia, mass raping of women, looting and forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam. Some three million Bangladeshis were murdered and about a lakh of women raped. These enemy agents belonged to organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami, al-Badr, al-Shams, Razakars, etc.

Soon after independence, there grew a strong popular movement that demanded the trial of these war criminals and giving them the highest punishment. A body named Ekattarer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmool Committee (Committee to weed out the murderers and Pakistani agents of 1971) was set up. It was sponsored by the fredom-fighters who actually fought the Pakistani Army on all sectors, and a large body of students and intellectuals. They swore to bring to book the butchers of 1971. After Hasina came to power in 2009, an International War Crimes Tribunal was set up and the criminals were brought to trial. The trial continues.

The present phase of political unrest sweeping the country began on February 5, 2013, when the Tribunal sentenced Abdul Qader Mollah, who is known as the ‘butcher of Mirpur’ and accused of mass murder, to life imprisonment. The supporters of the freedom movement and all sections of patriotic, democratic and anti-communal people, especially the student community, exploded in protest. They demanded that Mollah deserved only the death penalty, nothing less than that. The Shahbag area of Dhaka became the point of convergence of hundreds of thousands of people, especially the younger people of the present generation, united in their resolve to see capital punishment being awarded to the mass murderers. Shahbag was renamed Prajanma Chattar (Generation Square).

The Jamaat, its students wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir, and other fundamentalist and communal organisations are now on the war path. Their rallying cry is that the war criminals’ trial should be stopped, the Tribunal disbanded and the criminals released unconditionally. They have resorted to widespread violence, clashing with police and beating up supporters of the Awami League and its allies. Bangladesh newspapers have reported that they have killed several policemen, desecrated and destroyed a number of Hindu temples, attacked members of the minority community, uprooted railway lines and obstructed the main thoroughfares by putting up roadblocks. Several dozen people have been killed either in violent clashes or in police firing.

Apparently, this is a battle between the supporters and opponents of the trial of war criminals. In reality, it is something much bigger. It is an ideological battle. It is actually a dress rehearsal for the real battle—the general elections in Bangladesh scheduled for early next year. The patriotic people of Bangladesh want—and they are reiterating it day in and day out during these tumultous times—a Bangladesh which is firmly committed to democracy and equally firmly opposed to giving any quarter to fundamentalist, communal and bigoted people. They want to stamp out communalism from the soil of Bangladesh for all time to come. Both sides are getting ready for the showdown next year.

There is also an international dimension to this battle inasmuch as the fundamentalist and communal forces in Bangladesh are getting moral and material support not only from Pakistan, but also from Saudi Arabia, and even from far-away Turkey. They are putting pressure on Sheikh Hasina’s government to stop the trial of the war criminals and disband the Tribunal. The supporters of the war criminals would stop at nothing to win this battle. They may, if they can, even resort to extra-constitutional methods to overthrow the Hasina Government and seize power. There are powerful elements within the administrative structure to support them.

The year 2014 will, therefore, be a crucial year not only for India but also for Bangladesh. If it is Narendra Modi who represents the communal face of the forces that want to make India a Hindu Rashtra, the Jamaat, the al Badr, the al Shams and the Razakars who support the Bangladesh Nationalist Party make up the forces that want Bangladesh to abandon all the values and ideals that inspired the liberation struggle and put the clock of history back. They want Bangladesh to be another theocratic State where Islamic laws, as understood andinterpreted by them, will guide the nation and control everything—from educational institutions to the contents of textbooks, from media policies to policies of the State. The future of Bangladesh will be decided for a long time to come by which of these two antagonistic forces emerges victorious.

Whichever side wins, it cannot but affect India—either positively or negatively. Let us not forget that it was only after Sheikh Hasina came back to power for the second time that the secessionist leaders from North-East India were denied sanctuary, arrested and handed over to India. That is how a split occurred in the ULFA with its political leadership willing to negotiate for a peaceful settlement and the leader of the armed wing, Paresh Barua, getting more and more isolated and living in exile. Insurgent leaders from several other North-Eastern States were also handed over to India by the Hasina Government. All that may change if the funda-mentalist and communal forces come to power. They are not only baying for the blood of the Awami League leaders. They are also the sworn enemies of India.   

(Courtesy: Frontier)

The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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