71 years of Awami League

Awami League members in the cabinet of AK Fazlul Huq in East Bengal, 1954. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA

The Awami League celebrates its 71st birth anniversary on June 23, 2020. Looking back, any ardent student of history would come face to face with the fact that the divisions that were to characterise the differing interests of the educated Muslims in the then East Bengal, began to manifest themselves in the penultimate years of British rule in India. While for many, Partition meant making the most of the opportunities created by the departure of the large number of Hindus who had occupied positions of influence in East Bengal, there were others with more progressive ideas who had shared their thoughts on social transformation in their encounters with the rural masses.

The above progressive elements were to become the core of the opposition to the communal and rightist politics of the ruling Muslim League, and to provide leadership to the popular movements which took place in East Bengal. The progressive and secular elements quite naturally formed the vanguard of the movement for recognition of Bangla as a state language, which grew into a strong cultural movement and strongly influenced the growth of Bengali nationalism.

A significant section of the progressive elements were instrumental in the founding of the Awami Muslim League in 1949 in Dhaka, with Maulana Bhashani as its President, Shamsul Haque as General Secretary, and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Joint Secretary. From the beginning, the Awami League demanded a democratic set-up, with elections held in the entire country and more powers for the provinces. The trend towards a secular political culture became evident when in 1955, the Awami League removed "Muslim" from its nomenclature.    

Christophe Jaffrelot, author of A History of Pakistan and its Origins, writes "This (Awami League) party went on to unite all the nationalists, whether they came from the left, the centre or the right, on a common platform. In fact the Communist party leaders pushed their members to join the ranks of the new party, where they were less exposed to official repressions, and then to work from the inside to get the communist point of view heard."

The ruling coterie of Pakistan made every attempt to frustrate a popular verdict. The popularly elected government of the United Front in East Bengal in 1954 could hardly complete two months in office when it was dismissed under emergency provisions invoked by the Central Government. Then followed periods of political instability caused by palace intrigues. The Central Government kept on deferring the holding of general elections. The promise of such elections in early 1959 was dashed when the Martial Law of 1958 brought in authoritarian rule, thus accentuating the sense of alienation amongst the Bengalis. The introduction of basic democracy in 1959, indirect elections, a presidential form of government and a strong centre effectively excluded the Bengali majority from participating in any decision-making process.

The demands for people's participation in the political processes began in June 1962. The students took to the streets to register their protest against the policies pursued by the regime, the education policy in particular. Their movement was ruthlessly suppressed and several students were killed by police fire. It was time for politicians to take the lead. With the demise of prominent leaders like HS Suhrawardy and AK Fazlul Huq, and some others moving close to General Ayub Khan, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman decided to revive the Awami League amidst repression and huge adversity. He decided to start a struggle for autonomy.

Under the above circumstances, despite massive popular opposition, General Ayub Khan manipulated an indirect election in 1965 to secure a 51 percent majority in East Pakistan. This convinced the Bengalis of the futility of efforts directed at securing their interests within the system. In a conference in Lahore in February 1966, Bangabandhu, speaking for the Awami League, presented the Six Point Programme for autonomy. The Awami League, quite rightly, perceived that with the domination of the Punjabi army and bureaucracy, and the backing of feudal interests and an emerging class of capitalists, the thought of sharing power in the centre was a mere delusion. An effective movement for transfer of power from the centre to the regions was the need of the hour.

The plan for an effective movement for transfer of power to the region was manifestly demonstrated in the historic Six Point Programme under the stewardship of the Awami League. Awami League emphatically proposed that any durable political solution has to recognise the realities of the two polities, and hence must build a political structure that located power in the regions. It succeeded in creating an unprecedented political awakening that clearly indicated that East Pakistan was no longer open to exploitation, either of its resources or its share of external assistance. The movement for real economic emancipation also highlighted the unique resolve of self-determination of the Bengalis.

National elections were held on December 7, 1970 in which the Awami League won 167 out of 169 seats in East Pakistan, in a parliament of 313. An overwhelmingly decisive election result gave an absolute majority to the Awami League and was a clear verdict in favour of the party's Six Point Programme.

The refusal of the military government of Pakistan to concede to the logical demands put forward by Awami League resulted in the commencement of the historic non-cooperation programme, the brutal military crackdown thereafter and the subsequent bloody War of Liberation, leading to the emergence of sovereign Bangladesh.  

The most important achievements of the Awami League led government in sovereign Bangladesh included introduction of the parliamentary form of government; framing of a secular, democratic and progressive constitution (1972) within a period of 10 months; the speedy return of the Indian soldiers from Bangladesh who assisted the Liberation War efforts; securing recognition for the new republic by 140 states of the world; and rehabilitation of 10 million refugees who took shelter in India. The holding of general elections in 1973 within 15 months of liberation was another crowning achievement.

The Awami League also took the initiative in the reintroduction of the parliamentary form of government, which came into being through the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, effected on August 6, 1991. The party, after winning general elections in 1996, succeeded in repealing the Indemnity Act, thus paving the way for the trial of the assassins of Bangabandhu. The other major achievements include signing of the 30 year Ganges Water Sharing Treaty with India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.

In the face of heavy adversity, the Awami League has survived brilliantly. As a commentator observes, "Despite everything, the centre has held for the party. Ayub Khan gave it a hard time. Yahya Khan proscribed it. Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad went as far as they could to keep the party from reemerging into the light. And yet, things have not fallen apart. Yet it must survive better, through returning to its old reputation—that of an inclusive organisation reaching out to all citizens of Bangladesh". Democrats in Bangladesh will hope that the Awami League remains committed to nurturing the hallowed traditions of the premier political organisation.    


Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.


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