Tue May 21, 2024
May 21, 2024

Which way for Bangladesh?

by Mazdoor Inquilab

On the January 7, Bangladesh went to the polls. The election had a predictable outcome, despite months of protests, and ongoing agitation by the garment workers. The boycott by the main opposition party the BNP, meant it would be an open race for the ruling Awami League, which won a resounding victory in an election which saw extensive rigging, the mass incarceration of opposition party leaders, and rampant intimidation of activists all over the country.

The Awami League has entered its fourth term in power, the first being from 1996 to 2001. The party that led Bangladesh to its independence now rules the country with an iron fist, its leaders now control wide sections of the economy, its cadre force operate like brutish thugs, and it presides over a country which has been effectively transformed into a massive sweatshop for fast fashion. Between the tyranny of the police, the ruling party, and the bosses, its people have as much freedom as can be expected in a sweatshop that exploits women and children for profit.

Behind the veneer of economic growth, and fluff pieces peddled about the future of Bangladesh’s economy, lies the true picture of despair and exploitation. The contradictions in the country have burst out into the streets with the agitation of the garment workers, and the long strike which continues now with women workers braving the police to march in the streets of Dhaka. The pandemic and the following economic crisis threw hundreds of thousands into unemployment as companies in the West cancelled orders, and factories had to shut down. The burden of the crisis, as always, has been shifted to the tired shoulders of the workers. The millions employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry hold up the economy of the country, as well as millions of Bangladesh’s working class who are exploited as migrant labour outside their homeland.

It has been 52 years since Bangladesh became an independent country, after a bloody war of independence. In those 52 years capitalist Bangladesh transitioned from a ‘basket case’ perennially ravaged by cyclones, destabilized by military coups and crippled by the continuing impact of partition boundaries, to a semi-colony, dependent on satisfying the demands of trans-national corporations, and dependent on very inequal trade with its larger neighbour and hegemon, India. Bangladesh’s chains of servitude remain even if their form has changed.

It is important to understand how Bangladesh came to this point, and what lays ahead for the country. It is important to understand what the Awami League is, and who or what it represents in order to fight it. The question forces us to investigate the history of Bangladesh from the British Raj to the liberation war.

The history of British Bengal

Bengal was the richest region of South Asia under the Mughals. It was the largest agricultural producer of the empire, the center of its silk textile industry, and a center of bullion trade with China. These factors helped make Bengal the richest region of the Mughal Empire, which at its peak held a quarter of the world’s GDP and stood as the richest nation in the world. Much of the textile economy and trade was in the hands of Muslims of Bengal, which contributed to the community’s relative prosperity. The decline of Bengal began with the decline of the Mughal Empire itself, and later invasions by the Maratha Empire in the middle of the 18th century. These invasions helped create conditions by which the British would subsequently extend their power over Bengal, following the battle of Plassey in 1757.

The effects of British rule were catastrophic for the traditional industry of Bengal. Dhaka, which was the economic center of Bengal, saw a massive fall in its population as the East India Company took measures to alter the economy of Bengal towards agricultural and raw materials export from industry.

The famous textile industry of Bengal was destroyed, and Dhaka was ruined, and agriculture was massively disrupted which contributed to the famine in 1760, which saw nearly a third of Bengal’s population dying. Revolts broke out from among the peasantry and religious sects, as the first anti-colonial uprisings. However, these failed to uproot British rule, or substantially alter the systems implemented by them. Eventually, this drain on the wealth of Bengal had the effect of impoverishing Bengal’s Muslim population. While on the other hand, the British built up Calcutta and a small Hindu Bengali elite as comprador intermediaries for their rule, with upper caste Hindus dominating new professions and bureaucratic positions within Company Rule. The beginning of discontent can be found here, where Muslims continued to fall behind, and a section of upper caste wealthy Hindus carved out a privileged niche for themselves.

The British promulgated the Permanent Settlement Act and changes to the zamindari system, which had entrenched these new social relations in the region and caused resentment to fester at the local level.

In other parts of India, the decisive shift in the social and cultural fabric was brought about as a result of the Sepoy Rebellion, and the subsequent destruction of traditional social and political structures. Whatever remained of Indian Muslim’s standing and position in Northern India was wrecked. Delhi, which had been the cultural capital of India and a center of Indo-Islamic culture, was utterly destroyed. The new India that the British would go on to create had at its corner stone a policy of divide and rule, made to ensure that Hindu-Muslim unity would never arise and become a serious force to threaten British rule, as had happened in the 1857 rebellion. To this effect, the British supported the emerging elite of Dhaka who fed off discontent among the Muslim peasantry and agrarian classes, to create a movement based on Muslim identity. This would find expression in the Muslim League.

The beginnings of the movement would find its roots in the first partition of Bengal in 1905, ostensibly for the better administration of the province (which at the time included modern day states of Bihar and Orissa), into an Eastern and Western half. The Eastern half of Bengal would have a Muslim majority and its capital at Dhaka, while the Western half would have a Hindu majority with its capital at Calcutta. This had an immediate reaction from the Hindu elite who had been at the forefront of a growing national movement in the country. The movement against the partition of Bengal saw the rise of nationalist organizations like the Anushilan Samity and Jugantar Dal, who used tactics of terror and the boycott of foreign goods under the slogan of ‘swadeshi’ to rally opinion against the partition. The movement succeeded in annulling the partition of Bengal into East and West, but Bihar and Orissa were separated from the Bengal province. The movement also saw the first major division between Hindu and Muslim Bengali populations over the question of partition. This was in fact the beginning of what would culminate in the partition of India itself. The roots of the Pakistan movement lie here in the division of Bengal.

Over the next four decades, the movement for Muslim representation and identity grew in strength, alongside the Indian independence movement, eventually coming to a position where it could challenge the mainstream of the Congress party. The Muslim League would emerge as the primary representative of Indian Muslims while the Congress would corner the majority support of Hindus. In this however, the Muslims of the sub-continent were not unanimous, as opinion remained divided as seen by the 1946 elections to the constituent assembly. The Muslim League did not win Sindh, or the Northwest Frontier Provinces, and had a split verdict in the Punjab. Only in Bengal did the Muslim League manage to win a decisive mandate. The political conditions were put in place for the partition riots to happen, and they began with the great Calcutta killings in 1946. This reactionary outburst of violence would put a final nail in the coffin of an emerging revolutionary upsurge in India in the aftermath of World War II, the red fort trials, and the naval mutiny. The communal killings diverted collective social energy away from class struggle to inter-communal conflict. The bourgeois leaderships of the Muslim League, centered in Bombay, Dhaka and Lahore, and that of the Congress Party, based off mostly Hindu capitalist houses based in Calcutta, Bombay and North India’s landed elite, had led the country to one of the bloodiest episodes in the twentieth century Indian history.

Pakistan would be created from the Muslim majority provinces of British India, while the Republic of India would be created from the Hindu majority provinces. However, even in this geo-politics and economic interests would distort the boundaries, ensuring some Muslim majority regions fell into India and Hindu or Buddhist regions falling to Pakistan. The fate of Northeastern India with its distinct culture and religious fabric would also be affected, and most of the region except for the Chittagong hill tracts and Sylhet, falling to India. The new Pakistan was born crippled, and moth eaten, with an Eastern and Western half separated by 1600 miles of Indian territory. Furthermore, while India had the most industrialized regions, Pakistan had only Karachi, Lahore and Dhaka to build itself with, all three of which lost out because of partition, and the subsequent population transfers. The only winner in this equation was arguably the capitalists of Bombay, who had no equal competitor left, save for Calcutta, which was already reeling under the negative effects of World War II, the Bengal famine, and now the partition.

As terrible as this chapter was, worse lay in wait for the people of Bengal, as the inequities of Pakistan’s birth would determine the future course of its politics.

Contradictions at the core of Pakistan

It was soon apparent that the promise of social and economic advancement that had won over the majority of Muslim peasantry in Bengal would not be fulfilled within the framework of Pakistan. Firstly, because the state itself was born impoverished, and the subsequent few years would make it clear that within South Asia, India would emerge as the regional hegemon, forcing the new ruling class of Pakistan to scramble to secure its survival. In this, it had to face two enemies, first the overwhelming external enemy in the form of India and secondly, it’s internal class enemy. Political and economic power in Pakistan was concentrated in the hands of land-owning elite in Punjab, and the new Muslim bourgeoisie centered around Lahore, and Karachi. Aside from this, the economic center was in Dhaka, and the emerging Bengali Muslim bourgeoisie, who wished to be seen as equal to their west Pakistani counterparts.

What these groups had in common was a desire to consolidate power and ensure the working class and peasantry remained under their domination. The abolition of the zamindari system in East Pakistan was a very correct and progressive step and was replicated on the Indian side of the border, all within the decade of the fifties. But this did not serve to ultimately free the peasantry from exploitation, rather it simply changed the exploiters, from the old Hindu elite who benefited from British rule to the new elite who exploited the peasantry and working class of Bengal. For East Pakistan, these new exploiters were based in West Pakistan. Under these circumstances, the Pakistani bourgeoisie was compelled by historical fate towards adopting militarism to secure itself. The nascent democracy of Pakistan was doomed to dictatorship, within a few years of its birth.

At the same time, a rising Bengali Muslim middle class grew more politically. This phenomenon went hand in hand with the re-emergence of Dhaka as an economic centre. For them, partition was a victory which secured economic sovereignty, against the hegemony of the Calcutta-based Bengali Hindu elite. However, it soon became clear that they could not meet its aspirations within Pakistan. Their support for the Muslim League waned as the language movement began, soon the Muslim League Split, with its Bengali wing splitting to become the Awami League. Since the beginning, their bourgeois and petty bourgeois character was clear, with their leadership firmly leaning towards right and centrist economic policies. The working class was never at the centre of their idea, and any leaning towards socialism the party had was an opportunistic reaction to the popularity of the movement at the time, and the power of the organized working class and peasantry in struggle.

Over the course of the so-called miracle decade under Ayub Khan’s dictatorship, when Pakistan tilted heavily towards market economics and the U.S., the exploitation and inequality between East and West Pakistan only increased. The one-unit scheme of the newly amended constitution in 1956 was meant to foster unity between the two wings of Pakistan, but only served to further alienate them from one another, and saw a sustained drain of wealth from East Pakistan into the pockets of the West Pakistan based industrial and land owning elite. The truth of the miracle decade of Pakistan was that it was funded by the exploitation of East Pakistan, which was at once a provider of cheap raw material as well as a captive market for finished goods produced from West Pakistan factories.

There was no alternative for the Pakistani capitalists but to exploit the East in this manner. The imposition of Urdu was but one expression of the weak Pakistani bourgeoisie seeking to consolidate power and curb any possible secessionist sentiment among Bengalis. While India’s capitalists had the vast market provided by a largely intact peninsular India, the Gangetic plains, and most of the Eastern India, their counterparts in Pakistan only had East Bengal and Punjab, both of which were sections of a larger state from which they were cut off. The material pressure was inescapable. However, the more the Pakistani bourgeoisie exploited their half of Bengal, the more it angered its people and pushed it towards independence.

Thus, the seeds of secession were sown, and this was an inescapable result of the character of the Pakistani state. The fundamental contradiction which drove the creation of Pakistan remained unanswered in the new state of Pakistan.

The struggle for independence

The specific question of the status of the Bengali language was settled after acknowledging it as an official language in 1956. However, Pakistan’s nascent democracy would not survive long beyond this, as the dictator General Ayub Khan would come to power by a military coup in 1958, setting into motion the supremacy of the military in Pakistani political affairs which still haunts it till today.

Under the new regime, the democratic aspirations of the Bengali people were further trampled. Discrimination was systematized and economic inequality between Pakistan and Bangladesh deepened. A colonial relationship was established between the two wings, where West Pakistan would reap the benefits of industry, and Bangladesh would be used to supply cheap raw materials, most critically jute and rice.

The bias in the state planning was reflected in the disparity in the government spending between the two wings. East Pakistan received a third of the total government spending between 1950 and 1970. This resulted in worse infrastructure, worse government facilities, and impoverishment, which only facilitated the drain of wealth from East Bengal to Sindh and Punjab. This was despite East Bengal earning the greater share of Pakistan’s overall export earnings, but two thirds of the benefits of this export earning was earned by West Pakistan. At the same time, East Pakistan was used as a captive market for West Pakistan, benefiting from exports to East Pakistan, while also exploiting it.

The inequality of trade relations between East and West reflected in some ways the colonial relation that Bengal had with the British under the East India Company. The destruction of local industry was accompanied by a drain of wealth from Bengal. Sermons of the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be hollow for most of the people of East Pakistan.

All of these factors would come to a head when the Bhola cyclone struck in 1970 and caused the deaths of up to 300,000 in East Pakistan. It was one of the most destructive natural disasters in the history of Bengal and the deadliest tropical cyclone in recorded history. The response of the Pakistani state was abysmal. Most foreign assistance that Pakistan received was diverted to the West, while the East was left to languish with only 20% of foreign assistance. The neglect with which the Pakistani state approached the disaster exacerbated the deaths and added to the increasing discontent within East Pakistan.

The year 1969 in Pakistani history is significant and was part of a wider period of radicalization throughout South Asia. The year 1967 saw the emergence of the Naxalite movement in India and 1966 saw the peak of workers militancy in India with a large nationwide strike wave. In East Pakistan, students, workers, and peasants combined to protest against the Ayub Khan military dictatorship. It culminated in his resignation, but martial law remained in Pakistan. It was under these conditions that the 1970 general elections took place.

Though Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto attempted to broker peace and proposed a coalition government, this would prove futile, and talks broke down. The course was set for a clash. The Awami League demanded for the immediate lifting of martial law, and transfer of power. The military responded with a brutal crackdown which was code named “Operation Searchlight.”

The crackdown was conducted by General Tikka Khan who was assigned the post of Governor General of East Pakistan. Under his administration, the Pakistani army rounded up intellectuals, students, and dissidents, and had them summarily executed. The massacres conducted under Operation Searchlight was reported by American diplomat Archer Kent who sent the infamous “blood telegram” in which he spoke of the killings in detail, expressing his dissent to President Nixon. This got him recalled from his post, as the Nixon administration was openly supportive of Pakistan, and intended to use them as a diplomatic bridge to reach out to China. Pakistan continued its genocide of Bengalis, while the U.S. turned a blind eye. The United States continued to support Pakistan militarily throughout this period, by supplying arms and giving aid.

The operation would seem a success on the surface, as the Pakistan army swiftly occupied most cities of Bangladesh, and seemed to have scattered the nascent rebellion, however their control would remain an illusion in the face of a determined guerrilla campaign.

Forces involved in the independence war

Though the Awami League was the most visible and the largest political party in support of independence, it was not the only force on the side of Bangladeshi independence. It must be remembered that the uprising in 1969, the nationwide strike in opposition to the forming of the new government, was a culmination of a developing class struggle which started soon after the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. The peasant uprising in Nachole in 1951, the Santhal rebellion, and the Tebhaga movement expressed the resentment of the peasantry of East Bengal, and these were led by leftist organizations and leaders.

Within the parliamentary sphere, Maulana Abdul Bhasani was a major force, and a popular peasant leader who would form the National Awami Party, a left-wing party inspired by Maoism. The Communist Party of East Pakistan (later the Communist Party of Bangladesh) under the leadership of Moni Singh had popular support among the peasantry and the working class. One must also mention Siraj Sikder, who was the first guerrilla leader to raise the flag of independence and secure a liberated zone against the Pakistan army, who was inspired by Maoist thought, and built the East Bengal Proletarian Party (Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party) and fought a successful guerrilla campaign from the Southern districts of Khulna and Sundarban regions.

It is important to note here that many of these leaders were inspired by the peasant-centric Maoist movement as well as the Maoist movement in neighbouring West Bengal, even though Maoist China was aligned with Pakistan. The peasant centrism and limited reformist perspectives of these leaders would be a major cause for their failure, which left the leadership of the struggle almost entirely in the hands of the Awami League, who had free reign. Likewise, the uncritical support extended by the Indian Communist Parties towards the India-backed leadership in Mujibar Rahman’s Awami League, would lead to the weakening of all left-wing forces in Bangladesh, and eventually lead to the dictatorial Baksal regime under Mujib, and then the coup by Zia Ur Rahman, and a vicious cycle of dictatorships and the slide towards imperialist exploitation.

India’s role in this regard cannot be understated, nor the impact of the Cold War on this conflict. The Cold War set the conditions under which the Bengali Liberation War would be fought, with the United States on the side of Pakistan, and the Soviet Union on the side of India. At a time when it seemed like South and Southeast Asia was on the cusp of revolution, the United States was intensifying its reactionary imperialist war on Vietnam, bombing Cambodia, North Vietnam and Laos into the stone age, and sponsoring dictators like Suharto in Indonesia to massacre communists and their sympathizers by the hundreds of thousands. In Pakistan, they backed Yahya Khan, and his butchers. The Pakistani establishment was desperate to hold on to East Pakistan as their colony and continue the lucrative exploitation of its resources and markets.

While the reactionary partnership of Pakistan and the United States was forged in the mutual antipathy to communism, the Indian capitalist class, backed by Soviet Stalinism made their own plans to undermine the revolutionary developments in Bangladesh. If Yahya Khan was the tool of U.S. imperialism, Sheik Mujib and the Awami League was the chief tool of the Indian capitalist class, and the Congress Party.

As much as the Awami League may have hated Communists, no matter how cynical and scornful it may have been to the working class and peasantry, the only way it could fight a war of independence for Bangladesh against the U.S. funded and supplied military machinery of Pakistan, was by rallying the peasantry and working class to its side. It could not do so without inviting socialists and communists into the army of liberation, the Mukti Bahini.

For most of the war, the Indian army remained in the background, training and supplying the insurgent guerrilla movement which used bases in bordering Indian states to conduct strikes deep behind enemy lines. Local insurgent armies and militias also played a part in the guerrilla campaign. In the period up to the outbreak of hostilities between India and Pakistan, it was the Mukti Bahini that was doing the bulk of fighting, with the Indian army providing training, logistical support and intervention. The Communist Party based in India supported the refugees, while their counterparts in the Communist Party in Bangladesh took up arms together with the Mukti Bahini. In both instances, the two respective Communist parties operated under their respective bourgeois leaderships, at no point was there any effort to build an independent front for the revolutionary overthrow of Pakistani rule.

To counter the guerrilla army, the Pakistanis resorted to a combination of scorched earth, massacres, and supporting local reactionary Islamist militias known as Razakars. While many of these were recruited from among the Bihari population of East Bengal, most were recruited from among local Bengali collaborators, who still believed in the false ideal of Pakistan. They had support among sections of the rural populations, the petty bourgeois, and Bengali military officers within the Pakistan army. The Islamists were the same forces who had supported partition and had rallied the Bengali Muslim peasantry against Hindu landlords, in the liberation war they joined the Pakistan army in enacting its genocidal suppression of the Bengali people.

The Pakistan army typically focused their brutality on the Hindus of Bangladesh, with whole communities being destroyed in punitive campaigns. However, Bengali Muslims were not spared either. Rape, mass murder and torture were the key instruments of the army and its collaborating militias. However, this brutal campaign of rape and murder could not stop the struggle of the Bengali people, and nor was it enough to prevent the Indian military juggernaut from supporting the Mukti Bahini. When hostilities began with India with an attack on India’s western border, the Pakistan army in the East was trapped, with roads and railways cut off, and surrounded from the sea by India.

By December 1971 the Pakistan army had collapsed, having lost a quarter of their entire army, two thirds of their navy and half of their air force. It was forced to recognize the independence of Bangladesh.

After independence

Bangladesh had won their independence after a bloody struggle which claimed the lives of at least 300,000 people, upper estimates take the death toll of the genocide to 3 million. The new nation came under the rule of the Awami League, who would soon prove to be unfit for the task.

Bangladesh started off worse than either India or Pakistan did at the time of their independence, it had the worst of both worlds: the carnage and destruction suffered by Burma, and the inequity of British drawn borders. The context of the Cold War meant that Bangladesh had also unwittingly made an enemy of the United States, which at the time remained a steadfast ally of Pakistan.

The United States refused to recognize Bangladesh, and to make matters worse, blocked wheat imports from Cuba. The destruction of critical infrastructure over the course of the war, and from Cyclone Bola earlier in 1970, had left the economy in a fragile state. To this was added the sudden return of 9 million of the 10 million refugees who had to flee Bangladesh to escape Pakistan’s genocide.

The new government promulgated a secular and socialist constitution, in the mould of the Indian constitution. The ‘socialism’ of the Awami League of course, was simply a cover for state capitalism, managed in the most corrupt and inefficient manner by a party that would prove itself to be most corrupt and dictatorial in its own right.

Over the next three years, Sheik Mujib would consolidate power, and establish the basis of a one-party state over Bangladesh. In this period, the CPB remained in support of him, honouring the age-old Stalinist tradition of surrendering to the ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’. The party remained steadfast in their alliance with the Awami League even as the Mukti Bahini irregulars massacred thousands of Biharis in reprisal killings for the genocide. The CPB did not leave the side of the Awami League, even as famine loomed.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Stalinists of Bangladesh enabled the Awami League, through its decisive support both during the liberation war and in the crucial formative years of Bangladesh’s independence. Sheik Mujib inherited a country without any possibility of capitalist development solely on the basis of private enterprise, state capitalism was an inevitable necessity. To spin this as socialism is but a standard ploy of most bourgeoisies of former colonial countries. The system in Bangladesh was doomed to fail, along with its fragile bourgeois democracy.

Revolutionary developments after independence

Among the few independent left leadership that did emerge in Bangladesh, the most popular by far was that of Siraj Sikdar, who built the Proletarian party of East Bengal on the basis of Maoism. Following the strategy of protracted guerrilla struggle, he had built a base in Barisal in Southern Bangladesh, and conducted his own guerrilla campaign in coordination with the Mukti Bahini. After independence, he had a force to conduct his war against the newly independent Bangladesh state.

In June of 1971, while the liberation war was still going on, Siraj Sikder had launched the Proletarian Party of East Bengal. After independence, he built the National Liberation Front of East Bengal by uniting 11 mass organizations of workers and peasants. His next struggle would begin against the independent capitalist state under the rule of the Awami League in January of 1973. An armed struggle was initiated throughout the country but failed to materialize into a larger uprising against the Awami League. It did, however, give Sheik Mujib and the Awami League the basis to centralize power around him and the party.

The weight of the crisis following the devastation of war, the international isolation, and allegedly, the mass smuggling of food grains into India, all contributed to famine breaking out in March of 1974, less than three years into independence. While official government estimates claim only 30,000 died, unofficial estimates reach to over a million. The famine was widespread, with rural workers and the landless being worst affected. The disaffection this caused against Mujib and the Awami League, had turned an almost deified figure into a villain, overnight.

The insurgency initiated by Siraj Sikdar’s forces petered out, with an emergency declared, the nascent armed forces of Bangladesh proved more than equal to the task of clamping down on the ill-organized uprising, hence the protracted struggle died before it could go anywhere. Maoism once more, led to a dead end along with any real hope of a socialist Bangladesh. The consequences of this disaster would play out over the next decades.

While Siraj Sikdar’s movement ended, the influence of Maoists or Maoist-inspired leftists within the government, and in particular within the army, did not end. Sheik Mujib centralized power following the emergency, and the formation of a National Unity government, given the acronym BAKSAL (Bangladesh Krishak Shramik Awami League – Workers and Peasants People League of Bangladesh). The Baksal regime was formalized in February of 1975.

The imposition of this dictatorship only proved the fragile nature of the new bourgeois regime, by August 15, 1975 the new one party styled unity government would be attacked by a reactionary cabal of army officers who sought to put their own candidate in the position of the President, overthrowing Sheik Mujib. The coup and assassination would see Sheik Mujib and most of his family massacred. The new coup regime would then suffer a mutiny of its own, where a leftist colonel Abu Taher, would organize a coup to place General Ziaur Rahman, a right winger, in command of the army.

The good General would reciprocate by having Colonel Abu Taher jailed and executed, in order to restore order in the army. The events of 1975 to 1976 threw Bangladesh into a spiral of instability, it had lost 2 presidents in short order, in two very disorganized coups. The military had now taken up the mantle of leading the fledgling new bourgeois state, with many of its existing troubles still unresolved.

The disastrous first decade of independence, saw the failure of the Awami League, and the nascent bourgeois of Bangladesh build a functional capitalist state, always perched at the edge of crisis, and threatened at all times by the spectre of revolution. India invested heavily in the formation of the new state, building its military over the course of the liberation war, especially after the military had imploded. The Awami League was not built by India, but it was fostered and nurtured by India since the point of its exile by the Pakistani state. It had all the hallmarks of the corruption and ineptitude of the Muslim League of Pakistan. Ultimately, the threat from the working class and peasantry is what pushed the Bangladeshi bourgeoisie towards authoritarian rule, when the Awami League and its socialist rhetoric failed, the army intervened.

Bangladesh switched from one form of Bonapartism to another, this would remain till 1991, when it returned to a very dysfunctional bourgeois democracy, only to revert back to military rule, before finally settling into the one-party rule of the Awami League, a caricatured version of BAKSAL.

From army rule to ‘democracy’

The Awami League entered into crisis after the dissolution of BAKSAL, as did its allies the Communist Party of Bangladesh, and the National Awami Party. The Bangladeshi bourgeoisie had matured to the point it could demand its own separate state, organize a military and government structure, but not enough that it could hold or manage that independently.

All efforts to build an independent state fell flat on their face and could not but end this way. Bangladesh, which was already weakened by a good two centuries of exploitation at the hands of the British was crippled further by partition which saw industrial West Bengal severed from agrarian and commercial East Bengal, and finally destroyed by the genocidal policies of the Pakistani state.

Regular environmental disasters like cyclones and floods did their part to further damage Bangladesh, and leave it in ruins. The Bangladeshi bourgeoisie was dependent from the outset, with India practically controlling its military apparatus and guaranteeing the existence of its independence struggle. Any revolutionary working-class alternative to this inept bourgeoisie was made impossible by the liquidation of the CPB and the National Awami Party to the Awami League, a policy that remained until the end of BAKSAL. And further, it has continued in another form into the present day with most mainstream left parties supporting the Awami League.

India’s dominance over Bangladesh’s trade is a harsh reality which remains today and is a legacy of the partitioning and borders which Bangladesh inherited. The headwaters of the Ganga and Brahmaputra both lay in Indian territory, and India surrounds Bangladesh on three sides, with only the small border with Myanmar being Bangladesh’s alternative.

Ziaur Rahman attempted to move Bangladesh away from Indian hegemony, along with every bit of socialistic rhetoric and the state capitalist system that the Awami League built. The Islamization of the Bangladeshi state began in earnest under his dictatorship. The Jamat i Islami, a party that had collaborated with Pakistan during the genocide, was restored and readmitted to mainstream politics, the Islamic kalma was inserted into the Bangladeshi constitution, secularism and the commitment to socialism was removed. He reoriented Bangladesh’s foreign policy away from India and the Soviet Union and towards Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Pakistan, in return for recognition, trade deals, and aid.

General Zia effectively ruled for 5 years from 1976 to 1981 after which he died in a plane crash under suspicious circumstances. It was enough time to strip the country of a secular constitution and begin the process which would culminate in the adoption of Islam as the state religion. India-backed General Ershad would finish the job by making Islam a state religion in the Bangladeshi constitution.

After losing hundreds of thousands of lives in a struggle against Pakistan, the new state reverted back to choosing religion as it’s basis. A distinct ‘Bangladeshi’ nationalism was promulgated by General Zia as opposed to ‘Bengali’ nationalism which was the basis of the Awami League’s politics. Today both these ideas represent the two dominant bourgeois ideologies in Bangladesh. However, we must distinguish the origins of the two.

Bengali nationalism was rooted in the struggle against the national oppression by the Pakistani state, while Bangladeshi nationalism was a reactionary imposition by a right-wing military dictator who reversed many of the progressive gains of independence. While Bangladesh still retained its sovereign existence, it remained in a limbo where it could only choose which capitalist power could exploit it. The choice was between India or the West. Bangladesh is exploited by both and can only play one off against the other to survive.

The army rule remained in place for another decade, ending in 1991 with the first elections. The great irony of these elections was that the inheritors of the two previous dictatorships now fought for the restitution of democracy. On the one hand was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by General Zia’s widow Khaleda Zia, and on the other hand was the daughter of Sheik Mujibar Rahman, Sheik Hasina Wajed. The two united against the dictatorship of General Ershad, but as soon as the dictatorship was undone, they became enemies.

The 1991 elections were won by BNP in alliance with a coalition of right-wing parties, while the 1996 elections were won by the Awami League with a coalition of left-wing parties, in 2001 the BNP won again with a coalition of right-wing parties. That term ended in 2006 when an unelected caretaker government took power and remained until the end of 2008. The elections in December 2008 brought the Awami League back in power in 2009, and it has remained in power ever since. This macabre game of musical chairs has caused chaos, riots, and spread corruption throughout the country. As the situation has oscillated between a reactionary Islamist petty bourgeois, and a Bonapartist centrist bourgeois party that has all but turned Bangladesh into a one-party state.

After the Ershad dictatorship, the military had lost most legitimacy as a political force, and remained in the background, influencing politics, but unable to control, unlike Pakistan or Myanmar. The army mutiny in 2009 all but ended the political power of the military and opened a new chapter of class struggle in Bangladesh. The opening of the 21st century saw the rise of neo-liberal policies, which slowly and surely turned Bangladesh into one of the leading sweatshops of the world for fast fashion companies. While billions are made by clothing brands worldwide, the workers of Bangladesh are subjected to the most brutal exploitation.

As the Awami League rule enters its 15th term, discontent is rising. Once again, the two main bourgeois political forces are in open contest, the reactionary Islamist and the centrist ostensibly secular one. The conflict is life threatening for the Hindus of Bangladesh, who are facing the prospect of further marginalization, and perhaps even extermination. India has always had a say in the politics of Bangladesh, and now it has a direct economic interest in Bangladesh with rising Indian foreign investments, and ever greater trade dominance. With a reactionary Hindu party in power, India is working behind the scenes to ensure the Awami League keeps winning the elections.

Conclusion

The modern history of Bangladesh has witnessed a continuum of class struggle, from the fight of the peasantry against the zamindari system fostered by the British, the fight against British rule, the campaign for Pakistan, the recognition of the Bengali language, to independence, to the restoration of bourgeois democracy, and finally the ongoing struggle of the garment workers, youth and peasants against the Awami League regime.

The perspective of permanent revolution tells us that in the age of imperialism, the bourgeoisie no longer has a progressive character. The tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution thus fall on the shoulders of the working class. In Bangladesh, it is the alliance of workers and peasants that must fulfil the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, as part of the socialist revolution.

The history of the liberation war and the struggles that preceded it, shows us who can lead the revolution in Bangladesh. The language movement, the Tebhaga movement, the liberation war itself, was led by the youth, the peasantry and the working class. The Awami League and the ambitious but incipient Bengali Muslim bourgeois and petty bourgeois, who eventually became the bourgeoisie of Bangladesh, have only shown ineptitude, corruption and cynicism.

Their leadership has transformed Bangladesh into a dependent sweatshop for multinationals and has trapped it in a dependency with India. Rather than challenge the colonial boundaries and become a beacon for revolution across South Asia, the potential and power of the working class of South Asia and the world, the bourgeois leadership of Bangladesh did everything in its power to undermine them. In this, the Stalinists played the role of willing pawns. The Maoists vacillated between collaborating with the Awami League, or leading them into political dead ends with doctrine that yielded nothing besides more death.

Bangladesh is once again at the crossroads where the unresolved questions of the bourgeois democratic revolution impose themselves before the people. In this time, the working class yearns for revolutionary leadership. Here lies our main task, to build a party and a programme that can finally deliver the socialist revolution. Bengal was the birthplace of the Indian national movement, it was and is a bastion of working-class radicalism even today, and it can become the leader of a South Asian revolution.

The revolution in Bangladesh will be fought on three foundational programmes :

  1. NATIONALIZATION OF LAND
  2. NATIONALIZATION OF THE COMMANDING HEIGHTS OF THE ECONOMY
  3. A SECULAR DEMOCRATIC STATE

The fulfillment of these must be the cornerstone of a revolutionary programme.

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