This December of 2013 we will be celebrating the 42nd year of the Independence of Bangladesh. Perhaps it is time now that we reflected upon what we have achieved as a nation-state. Today our nation is riven by dissension; every institution of our state is corrupt; the people are not only immoral and corrupt but invent excuses to perpetuate that corruption and immorality; and the common people are as mercilessly and ruthlessly exploited as they have ever been. So what has led to such a state of affairs? The study of Revolutions and Revolts provides a unique insight into what ails a nation-state and into problems of nation-state building. Revolts have been numerous in the geographical area of Bangladesh since time immemorial and many of these revolts have formed part of popular myths but since my subject of study is the state of Bangladesh which came into being only in 1971, I will restrict my study of revolutions and revolts from the period 1970 to the present.
Allow me digress slightly and state what led me to seek causes of our national woes in a study of Revolutions and Revolts. In my early 20s, four or five years after the independence of Bangladesh, I read Thomas Paine’s (1737-1809) “The Rights of Man” and John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) “On Liberty”. I was greatly moved by the passions and ethos of these works. That early period of Bangladesh was an era of revolutions and revolts of a young (figuratively and literally) nation-state and I found great hopes and dreams in those. Now, at the old age of 58, I reread these works and was impressed by their logic and reason, having all but lost all my passions, hopes and dreams.
Thomas Paine was an intellectual and revolutionary, who was one of the founding-fathers of the USA. He was also one of the key intellectual movers of the French Revolution, which followed shortly on the heals of the American Revolution. Defending the moral rightness of the French Revolution and by extending support to all such revolutions, Paine wrote the “Rights of Man”. John Stuart Mill was trained and educated by his father to be a genius and a genius he turned out to be. Mill wrote “On Liberty” to propound the notion that liberty was an inherent and natural human right that no government or state can trample upon. Government or state infringement of individual liberty and freedom would amount to tyranny and oppression and people have a right, indeed a duty to themselves to revolt against such oppressions. These two works led me to the thought that in study of Revolutions and Revolts in Bangladesh causes could be found for many of our present-day problems. This article will, by its nature, explode many myths and commonly held beliefs.
As I have already indicated revolutions and revolts are not peculiar to Bangladesh alone; they are as old as civilization itself. As a matter of fact, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was so impressed by such tumults that he wrote a treatise on Revolutions and Revolts, seeking the causes, the effects and the remedies to such phenomenon. Since then, every writer on politics and political philosophy right up to the 21st century has written extensively on revolutions and revolts. However, before going into a discussion of Revolutions and Revolts in Bangladesh, we need to define these terms.
Defining revolution and revolt
There are as many definitions of revolutions and revolts as there are writers but I am providing below the most commonly accepted ones. We will see from these definitions that differences between Revolutions and Revolts are not just a matter of extent and scope but of principle and nature. The two cannot be confused with one another; a Revolt can never be considered a Revolution in embryo, neither can an unsuccessful Revolution be considered a successful Revolt.
(1) Revolution: A revolution is an attempt to create a new state or to totally and radically restructure an existing one in all its institutions, structures and processes – economic, social, political and cultural. Revolutions are thus totalitarian; a ruthless, violent conflict between those who hold power and those who are denied it. A successful revolution leads to the literal destruction of the old order and its replacement by a new one. An unsuccessful revolution leads to physical elimination of the advocates and participants of the revolution. When physical destruction is not possible or practical, an unsuccessful revolution may well lead to modification of some sorts of existing economic, social and political relationships within a nation or a state. Revolutions occur when a society or an entire nation is so dissatisfied with existing conditions, real or imagined, that it feels that only the creation of a new state or restructuring of an existing one would allow it to fulfil its interests, needs and aspirations. There has been only one Revolution in Bangladesh and when we study it we will see how far it has fulfilled and satisfied this definition.
(2) Revolt: A nation consists of many groups and subgroups called societies and communities which are delineated along economic, social and cultural lines. Each of these societies and communities has its own interests, needs and aspirations, many of which may be in conflict with one another. When a group or sub-group is so aggravated that it finds no recourse to resolution of its grievances, real or perceived, within the existing structures and processes of the state, it takes recourse to an insurrection against the state. Revolts do not aim to create a new state or to totally restructure it but to modify it to an extent where the state makes sufficient arrangements within its structures to cater to the peculiar needs, interests and aspirations of the revolting group or sub-group. For example, the ethnic minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts fought an insurrectionary war against Bangladesh extending for a period of 20 years until 1997 when a peace treaty was signed between the Bangladesh Government and the insurrectionists, substantially recognizing and agreeing to the demands of the hill people.
The birth of Bangladesh: A revolution?
None of the participants in the December 1970 election, the last one of the united Pakistan, claimed that it was an unfair one. The idea of the election was to ensure transition from military despotism to democracy. The Awami League (AL) won a clear majority bagging 160 federal seats of the 300 at stake; in the East Pakistan provincial parliament, the party secured an overwhelming majority of 288 out of 300 seats. The total voters listed in East Pakistan were 31.2 million (31,211220 to be precise), of which 63% cast their votes. The AL garnered 75% of the votes cast. (Source: Nohlen.D.Grotz & F.Hartmann, 2001, Elections in Asia: A Data Handbook, Volume I, page 686. G.W.Choudhury, 1974, The Last Days of United Pakistan, page 128-129). In other words 47.25% of the total electorate had spoken for the AL. This may have included those who wished to secede from Pakistan, but most voted for regional autonomy and redress of economic and other grievances, contained in the AL’s 6-point programme. At no point prior to and during the elections did the AL or its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman claim that a vote for the AL was a vote for a separate state, and after winning the election, Sheikh Mujib continued until the day of military action to negotiate a political arrangement that would enable him to become the prime minister of Pakistan. It was psychologically impossible for Sheikh Mujib and his senior colleagues to declare a total break with Pakistan; not more than 25 years back they were enthusiastic activists of the student wing of the Muslim League, fighting for a separate state for the Muslims of India.
So, the data provided here regarding the election destroy the first myth that the people of East Pakistan voted overwhelmingly and consciously for the AL for an independent Bangladesh. 47.25% of votes are nowhere near overwhelming and most certainly this was not a mandate for the AL to seek the independence of Bangladesh. Neither did the AL propagate this point of view. This led to the devastating consequence discussed below.
Following the elections, from January 1971 onwards, the AL launched a non-cooperation movement aimed at persuading the procrastinating Pakistani ruling military junta to hand over power to the elected representatives. Practically, the writ of the Pakistan government ceased to exist in East Pakistan and a parallel government of Sheikh Mujib ruled East Pakistan until the military crackdown on the night of 25/26 March 1971. So, although the AL and Sheikh Mujib took on the authority of instigating the people to open insurrection, they did not take the responsibility of preparing them for the consequences of that insurrection. Thus the entire nation was caught totally unprepared when the Pakistan military launched its Operation Searchlight to reassert control in East Pakistan. The people resisted in a half-hearted, disorganized fashion and were massacred. The leadership of the AL were nowhere in sight, Sheikh Mujib himself surrendered to the Pakistan Army.
The armed war of the Liberation struggle would never have got underway and gained momentum had not the Bengali portion of the Pakistan military, police and para-military revolted. It was they who provided the initial rallying point, the motivation and some of the organizations got engaged to fight for an independent Bangladesh. The AL politicians simply followed the lead and took over the entire movement starting from April 1971. This, therefore, explodes the second myth that the AL led the Liberation War and “presented” an independent Bangladesh to its people. As shown, the AL did not “lead” the Liberation War and Bangladesh was not a “present”. Bangladesh was fought for by its people with AL participation at the political level.
The War was fought by the two opposing sides on two different diametrically opposed perceptions. For Pakistan, which then included East Pakistan, maintaining the integrity of a united Pakistan was a political-strategic issue; the use of military force was a last and desperate attempt at preserving that integrity. The Pakistan military was seen as fulfilling its “sacred” duty of preserving the territorial integrity of Pakistan; they were deployed in a part of their own country, to defend it. For the proponents of Bangladesh, it was an ethno-cultural matter with racial overtones. The Bengalis saw themselves as victims of exploitation and oppression by the Punjabis and Biharis. The Pakistan Army and their local collaborators were an occupation force, a “hanadar bahini” bent on wiping out Bengalis and their culture. For the Pakistanis it was an insurrection; for the Bangladeshis it was the Liberation War. Thus the war, when it started and progressed, was brutal and ruthless, with no quarters given by any side to the conflict. Herein lays the roots of dissension that divides Bangladesh today.
The vast majority of Bangladeshis belatedly, as late as August 1971, felt that a separate state was the only possible resolution to the conflict. A strong minority of Bengali Muslims however felt that the breakup of Pakistan would sound the death-knell of the ideal of a united Muslim nationhood and they too took up arms to defend that ideal. In an independent Bangladesh these points of views were reflected in the political rubric of “Bengali” nationalism whose chief flag-bearer is the AL and the “Bangladeshi” (Muslim Bengali) nationalism whose chief flag-bearer is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In reality “Bengali” nationalism is non-tenable, at least in its present form, if one considers the fact that a great number of Hindu Bengalis had opted for a province of West Bengal in a federated India in 1947. In 1971 the Bengalis of West Bengal felt not the slightest urge to unite themselves with Bangladesh and they do not do so today.
When Bangladesh became independent on 16 December 1971, the question of state formation assumed urgency. Hastily, a constituent assembly was formed consisting of AL members elected in December 1970 and a constitution was promulgated incorporating all the ideals and principles of liberal democracy. These ideals and principles were however not reflected in the four key institutions of the state which remained not substantially but in totality those that Pakistan had set up when Bangladesh formed a part of Pakistan as East Pakistan. The system of Justice and the Judiciary; the system of law-enforcement and the Police; the system of public administration and Bureaucracy; and the system of national defence and the Military, all remained in letter and spirit as they were in Pakistan.
Thus, from the very beginning of their statehood, the people of Bangladesh were faced with two sets of dilemma: (1) On the one hand was the revolutionary formation of the state of Bangladesh, while on the other hand the state in its laws, institutions and processes remained what they were before independence regardless of the principles propounded in the constitution. (2) The question of identity – Bengali or Bangladeshi? The birth of Bangladesh was a truncated Revolution, which threw up many contradictions and dilemmas. The attempted resolution of these contradictions and dilemmas led to numerous conflicts, violence and revolts within the political space of Bangladesh. The most important of these will be enumerated below.
Revolts in Bangladesh
(1) August 1975
In 1974, the AL parliament, which had just two years back promulgated a constitution which seemed to reflect the Will of the nation, laid it entirely aside in favour of an amendment, the 4th, which provided for a single party government and gave life-long, absolute and arbitrary power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This betrayed the very principles on which Bangladesh came into existence. Meanwhile the state remained disorganized, food was short, inflation was rampant, as was corruption, and numerous armed bands roamed about the countryside exacting a devastating toll of human lives on nebulous political agendas. To tackle all these, a para-military force was formed by the acronym of JRB (Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini), consisting mainly of AL cadres and the erstwhile Mujib Bahini. The ostensible purpose of the JRB was to establish government control and writ over Bangladesh.
Meanwhile the Bangladesh military suddenly gained in strength by an influx of some 20 thousand or so Bengali soldiers released from Pakistani captivity, most of whom were absorbed in the armed forces. The military was not pleased by this or by the formation of the JRB or by the change in the constitution; they felt that their contribution to the Liberation War was not being recognized and that their primary role of national defence and security was being side-lined for narrow political reasons. In late August 1975, the military or at least a portion of it revolted, murdering Sheikh Mujib, his entire family daughters, except his two and his closest relatives and colleagues. This was followed by tumultuous violence that lasted till November of 1975 and ended with the murder of four more AL politicians of national repute, who during the Liberation War had formed the Bangladesh government in exile.
When in March 1971, the Pakistan Army came to get hold of Sheikh Mujib, he did not come out to meet them being apprehensive that they would harm him and his family but they did not and merely took him and his family into custody. Later they charged him with treason but neither he nor his family were subjected to disrespect and after the independence of Bangladesh, he was released. When members of Bangladesh Army came to get him, Sheikh Mujib came out to meet them but they brutally murdered him and his entire family. A tragic irony one would say.
So, what were the people to make of such happenings? They did not know and probably they did not care; all they wanted was an end to violence, chaos and oppression. Was this revolt based on the greater principle of modifying the structures of the state or was the revolt an outcome of perceived slights to the interests of a portion of the military? Probably it was a bit of both because the demise of AL leadership did indeed lead to a superficial modification of the state structures with a revised constitution which permitted some sort of democracy. Retrospectively, it would appear that the dissensions that divided Bangladesh prior to and during the Liberation War, still continued to divide the nation. The two opposing notions of Muslim Bengali nationalism and Bengali nationalism still continued to divide Bangladesh – the revolt of August 1975 did not resolve the main issue.
(2) The Chittagong Hill Tracts
Let us now study a revolt which was substantially different from the one discussed above. The ethno-cultural megalomania which gripped Bangladesh following its independence led to the notion that everyone within the political space of Bangladesh was a “Bengali”. This did not take into consideration the small population of Chittagong Hill Tract who were ethnically and culturally different from the rest of Bangladesh. The British and latterly Pakistan had given recognition to this ethno-cultural diversity through special acts; the Bangladesh government refused to take cognizance of those. The hill people denied every avenue of redressing their grievances revolted, not all at once but gradually, first organizing themselves politically and then militarily. The first AL government was in complete denial of the issue, treating it as a law and order problem. Subsequent governments came to a much belated recognition that unless something was done, Bangladesh would stand to lose one-sixth of its land territory. The military was gradually deployed and a counter-insurgency war began which lasted with many ups and downs till 1997, when a peace treaty largely pacified the hill people. The revolt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts points to the fact that insistence on ethno-cultural exclusivity could lead to revolts by societies and communities which do not subscribe to the majority point of view. It also points to the fact that “Bengali” nationalism as opposed to a “Bangladeshi” one could lead to problems of national integration, state-formation and nation-state development.
(3) May 1981
Like the August 1975 revolt, the revolt of May 1981 did not have any concrete articulated objective or purpose. There was however a perception in a portion of the military that General Zia ur Rahman was courting the rightist religious groups for fulfilling his narrow political purposes and that the integration of Pakistani returnees within the military was being done at the cost of freedom fighters. This perceived grievance was at the root of the May 1981 revolt and although it led to the murder of Zia ur Rahman, it did not bring about any changes whatsoever either in the politics of the country or in the forms and structures of government. Unlike the August 1975 revolt, this revolt was quickly put down, with many of the participants being shot out of hand; those who survived were court-martialed and hanged. In effect, the revolt merely replaced one quasi-military dictator, albeit a very popular one, with another quasi-military dictator. What is one to make of such a revolt? Perhaps this could be seen as a mindless propensity to violence to solve perceived problems, reflecting the many structural faults within the polity.
(4) The upsurge of December 1990
The upsurge of December 1990 was not so much the outcome of public frustrations and anger, as the frustrations and wrath of politicians of AL and BNP for having been deprived of their perceived role in the governance of the country. It was simply a power struggle between those who had power and those who thought they had the legitimate right to power. From 1975 to 1990, the military had firm control of the state, with politicians being largely delegitimized. General Ershad however was popular and he ruled for 9 years not so much by force as by fraud, not so much by coercion as corruption. Understanding the role of greed in human affairs, Ershad allowed full play to greed in national life and so began a period of laissez faire economics in Bangladesh. Nothing, neither law nor morality was allowed to interfere with the business of making money. Politically Ershad legitimized his regime through elections, in which at first the AL participated and even went to the parliament but soon realized that Ershad meant to monopolize power. However, the AL was unable to do anything about it because people seemed to be happy with the way things were. Gradually, the two diametrically opposed political parties AL and BNP, with the Jamat-e-Islami procrastinating in between, came together to moun