1975: A Defining Year for Bangladesh

HU001779

By: Muhammad Ahmedullah

Nineteen seventy-five (1975) was both a momentous and traumatic year for Bangladesh. On the one hand, the dream that inspired the Bengalis of East Pakistan to fight against the dominance of West Pakistan and the non-democratic rule of the military lay shattered with the ‘second revolution’ and the creation of BAKSAL. It was a political system designed for one-party rule – the newly created party BAKSAL was to rule Bangladesh under the supreme leadership of Sheikh Mujib, and no other party was to be allowed to function. All but four, newspapers were banned. The expectation of economic benefits arising from the ending of Pakistani rule did not materialize – in fact, in many respects, matters only became worse. Of course, Bangladesh faced a gigantic task of rehabilitating millions of displaced people and rebuilding the shattered economy in the aftermath of the devastating war of liberation. However, given the post-war assistance Bangladesh received from sympathetic nations around the world, corruption and incompetence of the Mujib government quickly began to be seen to be the main factors behind the lack of progress. Added to that, the summer flood of 1974, a factor that caused the subsequent famine and the loss of a large number of innocent lives, were fresh in the minds of the people. Again, Mujib and his government were blamed. The sacrifices that the unarmed people made in 1971 to liberate Bangladesh in the name of ‘Jatir Pita Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’ were beginning to be seen to have been in vain. The people of Bangladesh trusted Mujib and thought that his democratic vision for Bangladesh was based on a clear and deep understanding of political theory and the process of democratic politics. The BAKSAL was seen as another experiment of a confused leader that had very little knowledge or understanding of politics and economy.

Assassination of Sheikh Mujib and the Rise of General Zia

On the other hand, Bangladesh became faced with a very dangerous political crisis with the assassination of the ‘Father of the Nation’ in August 1975, which unfolded for several months before the situation began to stabilize after the 7th November soldiers uprising and the installation of General Ziaur Rahman as the ruler of Bangladesh under a military dictatorship. The irony is that many individuals, both military personnel and politicians, who fought the war of liberation under the leadership of Mujib, including many of his close associates, joined those who killed ‘Bangabandhu’. This included Zia, who was known for both his service during the liberation struggle and his declaration of independence from Chittagong radio on 26 March 1971 when the Pakistani military assault began. Although Zia was not directly linked to the killing of Sheikh Mujib, his position as the military ruler and many of the changes he instituted are definitely antithetical to the ideology of both Awami League and BAKSAL. Further, as the situation in Bangladesh continued to stabilize, the reputation and acceptance of Zia increased progressively. The question that comes to mind is, how can it be explained that individuals like Zia, who fought bravely during the liberation war under the leadership of Mujib, de facto supported his removal from power and subsequently initiated steps to dismantle the ideology of Mujibbad? Many factors no doubt contributed to this, and people do go through conversions. However, not only did Zia challenge the ideological dominance of the Awami League and Mujibbad, he also created an opposite ideology and called it ‘Bangladeshi Nationalism’. This was created to particularly challenge the identity definition of Bengali Nationalism as propagated by the Awami League. Further, how can it also be explained that even after 39 years of the assassination of Zia, the ideology of Bangladeshi Nationalism still attracts support from a very sizeable population of people in Bangladesh?

Of course, the political process since 1971 has been rather complex and therefore the precise answers to the above questions may be difficult to unearth. Further, it may never be possible to grasp the totality of the processes, induced by diverse related and unrelated factors, that lead to the alienation of a large section of the Bangladesh from Mujib and his leadership. However, there may be some pointers that could lead to an improved understanding. 

Creation of Pakistan & Liberation of Bangladesh: Lessons We’ve Learned

A comparison with the creation of Pakistan and certain subsequent events may throw some lights in the right direction. Nobody doubts that the vast majority of the Muslim people of Bengal supported the creation of Pakistan, including the leadership of many parties. This does not however mean that they were all ideologically united under one single clearly defined Islamic political vision. There seems to be two main reasons why various Muslim groups and the Muslim population supported the creation of Pakistan. On one hand, they wanted to escape from actual and perceived Hindu domination, partly the result of historical experiences and the fear that they developed about living in a future independent India under Hindu domination. On the other hand, they wanted to develop their society according to Islamic principles. After the creation of Pakistan, it became quite clear that not all the Muslim people of Bengal, who supported the creation of Pakistan, did so for the same reasons, and disputes soon arose as to what kind of Pakistan one should build. One principle on which the vast majority of the Bengalis in East Pakistan was united under was on the question of their Bengali identity. Although they supported the creation of Pakistan to safeguard their interest as Muslims, they were not prepared to allow the destruction of their Bengali identity. The struggle to preserve their Bengali identity, together with their struggle against economic injustice and military dictatorship, lead to the 1971 Liberation War. The struggle’s undisputed champion was Sheikh Mujib, who was called by the people ‘Jatir Pita Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’. Just as before, when they struggled to create Pakistan under Jinnah’s undisputed leadership, the vast majority of the Muslim Bengalis supported the creation of Bangladesh under Sheikh Mujib, who was their brave champion.

What is General Zia’s Bangladeshi Nationalism?

Similarly, soon after the creation of Bangladesh disputes began to arise about what kind of Bangladesh one should build. Zia created Bangladeshi Nationalism to reflect the Muslim and Bengali aspirations of the people of Bangladesh, and he has mass support in this regard. What does this show? Clearly, despite what the proponents of Bengali Nationalism say, a large section of the people of Bangladesh are very proud of their Islamic identity. They want to see a future that incorporates the Bengali and Islamic elements of their experiences, way of life, culture and identity, and fuses them into one whole to march forward into the future. The struggle for freedom of the Bengalis in Pakistan began because certain sections of the Muslim League and Pakistani ruling class wanted to obliterate element of their Bengali identity. Similarly, the alienation of a large section of the Bangladeshi people from Mujib began, in the immediate aftermath of the Liberation War, because Bengali nationalism did not accept that eight hundred years of Islam in Bengal meant that the culture of the people of Bangladesh was based on deep Islamic roots. What is clear is that just as in Pakistan when Bengali Muslims were not willing to allow the destruction of their Bengali identity, in Bangladesh they were not willing to allow their Muslim identity to be undermined. They are both Bengalis and Muslims at the same time. 

Minority Question

In all these the minority voice and aspirations suffer. Before the partition of India, the region of Bengal that subsequently became Bangladesh the Hindu population consisted of nearly 30% of the total and there were also many other smaller non Bengali indigenous and ethnic groups. The tragedy of the partition saw movements of people away from their ancestral lands to and from India and Pakistan and mass killings along the way. Currently the Hindu population of Bangladesh is about 10% and Bengalis have become the majority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts through planned settlement of the area. The question is, where do the minority Bangladeshis fit into the Bengali / Bangladeshi identities and nationalism’s spaces, aspirations and rivalries? 

Minorities are usually, but not always, vulnerable in a country where there exist hostility against them. This means that it is the duty of the majority to reach out to minorities and make them feel safe, give them a stake and ensure equal birth rights of all human beings to this world and its opportunities and resources. We are a long way off from a place where our minorities will feel full members of Bangladesh.