The place of the Awami League in Bangladesh's history has been an enviable one. As the party observes its founding anniversary today, it is well and proper to look back at the story it has scripted for itself since June 1949. There is pain and then there is pleasure in that story. There is the record of the huge advances made by its leaders over the decades; and there are the demonstrations of pettiness that have prevented a good number of its leading lights from transforming themselves into leaders on a nationwide scale.
In the beginning there was Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani who, along with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, felt early on in Pakistan that the Muslim League was swiftly turning into a feudal, self-serving organization. And thus was the Awami Muslim League forged into shape, a party of Muslim League dissidents who believed that the genesis of Pakistan was under threat at the hands of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's successors.
But the Awami Muslim League did not or would not replace the Muslim League, in that strictly communal sense of the meaning. The spur that pushed it into taking a new path along the forked road of politics was the growing nature of the language movement in East Bengal. February 1952 was to be a watershed. By the middle of the decade, the party would reach out to all classes and all denominations of citizens, as the Awami League. There was boldness in a jettisoning of the term 'Muslim' from its name. Pakistan, after all, was a Muslim state, implicit in whose philosophy was the second class nature of its Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, tribals and others.
Having shed its communal skin, the Awami League became the force to beat in public opinion, at election booths. Its leader Suhrawardy assumed a pre-eminent role at the centre. In the province of East Bengal-turned-East Pakistan, it was to be either the ruling party or a powerful opposition. And yet it would face a major crisis in terms of ideology. Suhrawardy, naively suggesting that the 1956 constitution had given East Pakistan ninety eight per cent autonomy, then gave foreign policy a patently pro-Western sheen and substance. An outraged Moulana Bhashani walked out, to reinvent himself as the chief of a new organization, the National Awami Party (NAP). That was post-Kagmari 1957.
In the 1960s . . .
The Awami League was much sinned against in the decade-long period of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan between October 1958 and March 1969. Banned under martial law, it would re-emerge in 1962 but only as part of an alliance of opposition political parties. Placed under arrest and then freed, Suhrawardy left the country, to die in Beirut in 1963. Earlier, a leading figure of the party, Shamsul Haq, went missing along the way, figuratively speaking. He would die sad and forlorn. Meanwhile, power in the party clearly was beginning to pass into the hands of a radical group of young leaders headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In early 1964, Mujib revived the Awami League and moved out of the opposition front.
A defining moment for the Awami League came in February 1966, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman placed a Six-Point plan of regional autonomy for Pakistan's federating provinces at a conference of opposition leaders in Lahore. It left the remnants of the old party leadership, personified by the likes of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, horrified. It created consternation among the other opposition parties. And it pushed President Ayub Khan into threatening to employ the language of weapons against the party. Mujib, along with his young associates, was once again in prison by May 1966. That did not prevent Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury and Amena Begum, two young leaders of the party, from organizing an unprecedented general strike in support of the Six Points throughout East Pakistan on 7 June 1966.
By January 1968, he would be the principal accused in the Agartala Conspiracy Case instituted by the regime against him and thirty four Bengali civilian and military personnel. His party was under relentless assault. Increasingly subjected to brutality, the party struggled to hold on. It took the blows patiently. A year later, it was marching back to life in freedom as popular support replenished its energy. A free Mujib, once the conspiracy case was withdrawn, became Bangabandhu. He travelled to Rawalpindi for a round table conference, a leader on the march.
The 1970s tale …
Bengali support for Bangabandhu and his party came through the electoral triumph of December 1970. A year later, the Pakistanis having murdered three million Bengalis, Bengali politics having taken to guerrilla warfare, Bangladesh was a free people's republic. Three and a half years later, Baksal took over where the Awami League had been. A one-party state, militating against the values upheld by the original party, was in place. Disaster struck only months later. Bangabandhu and the four leaders of the Mujibnagar government were shot down, in a coup led by the rightwing Awami Leaguer Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed.
In the darkness between August 1975 and May 1981, it was back to struggle. Mizan Chowdhury and Dewan Farid Gazi held their factions together. And then it was Zohra Tajuddin who bravely fought on, until Sheikh Hasina took charge in 1981. She took the party back to power twenty one years after 1975. And Hasina has been there since, as the longest surviving leader of the party.
The Awami League then is quite removed from the Awami League now. It was once a politicians' club. It is now a happy hunting ground of politicians, businessmen, retired military officers and superannuated bureaucrats. Then, its politics was collegial, even if men like Bangabandhu were Olympian in height. Now, the party chief is in absolute command.
Despite everything, the centre has held for the party. Things have not fallen apart. It remains a metaphor for democratic politics. It has survived. Yet it must survive better, through returning to its old reputation --- that of being an inclusive organization reaching out to all citizens of Bangladesh.