Past And Present

More on ‘Shahbag'


On 5 February 2013, several thousands of young men and women assembled in the Shahbag Maidan of Dhaka and raised slogans against the war criminals of 1971. They assembled in response to the call of Bnagladesh Online Activist Network. Mobilization of people through internet networks has precedents in Egypt, Europe and recently in Delhi in protest against gang rape. Some uses of internet were made also during Anna Hazare's agitation. This has led some to compare the Shahbag Movement with the events of Egypt or Delhi. One kind of similarity is there in the sense that these movements have manifested the popular longing for democracy. Secondly, the educated middle classes and young men and women have played a big role in these movements. These apart, the disimilarities are greater and more striking. The Tahriar Square movement of Egypt was directed against the then government and, the Islamist party named Muslim Brotherhood joined it. By contrast, the movement of Dhaka was covertly supported by the ruling Awami League Government and the main opposition party, the BNP and its ally, Jamat-e-Islami, have been opposing it. In reality, the Shahbag Movement is directed against the Jamat. On 21 February (the historic martyrs' day of the language movement of 1952), the Shahbag gathering raised demands for the arrest of the killers belonging to the Jamat camp, start of the legal process for outlawing the Jamat and formation of a neutral body for scrutinising the financial dealings of the Jamat-led institutions, giving a permanent shape to the tribunal against international war crimes etc. What is noteworthy is that the Shahbag movement did not at all raise the issues of high prices of foodgrains, low wages, unemployment and inadequacy of the educational system.

Punishments of those who opposed the liberation war of 1971, and were responsible for a number of genocidal acts is a long-standing demand of the people. Sheikh Mujib outlawed Jamat. But he was killed along with many of his family members by a military coup d'eat backed by CIA in 1975. Later on, Jamat again entered the political scene, first as an ally of the Awami League and then as a partner of the BNP. At present, this outfit runs a large number of educational institutions, including quite a few medical collages, in Bangladesh, and it cannot be said that it stands totally isolated from the public life in Bangladesh. Yet there are some real reasons why the people of a new generation have launched an anti-Jamat agitation after more than four decades. An understanding of them requires some discussion about the partition of 1947 and the background of the liberation war of 1971.

Historic Background
Before 1947, undivided Bengal was a Muslim-majority province. But the vast majority of Muslims was agricultural labourers, poor landless peasants and poor farmers. Even a sizeable middle class did not emerge from the Muslims of Bengal. Till 1860, Persian was used as a language of the judiciary, and there were some Muslim lawyers and scribes employed in courts. Then, with the official decision to use English as the only official language, Muslims disappeared from government offices and courts. Till 1857, Muslims not only boycotted the British, but boycotted English education also. Upper caste Bengali Hindus, on the other hand, acquired landed estates through the Permanent Settlement and receiving English education entered the lower government services. The Aligarh movement started in 1858 under Sir Syed Ahmad and one section of Muslims too began to accept and receive English education. This phenomenon appeared in Bengal too and demands for education and jobs for Bengali Muslims began to be raised. C R Das, the far-sighted leader that he was, dreamt of a Bengal where Hindus, Muslims and lower caste people would receive access to all spheres of social life. But after his premature death, the Congress leaders of Bengal abandoned his policy, which, according to Maulana Azad, made the partition of Bengal inevitable. Muslims of East Bengal had thought that formation of Pakistan would provide them with access to education, jobs and all walks of administration. But the expectation was not fulfilled. Although the majority of population of Pakistan was in East Pakistan, the West Pakistanis overwhelmingly dominated the administration. According to Dr Ahmad Sharif, the well-known linguist, languages like Sindhi, Balchi, Multani etc were still in their infancy as written prose. As a result, Urdu with Persian script became universally accepted language in Pakistan, which was then run by the leaders and servicemen of Upper India. Intellectuals of Bengal demanded that Bengali should be the state language of Pakistan. One of them, Abdul Haque, wrote, "In as early as 1947, Kazi Motahar Hossian said, 'If Urdu is now sought to be forcibly imposed on Bengali Hindus and Muslims, the attempt will fail, because the simmering discontent will not remain suppressed for long. In that case there is the danger that the relation between the east and the west will end soon'.

This is exactly what happened in reality. When, in March 1948, Jinnah announced that Urdu would be the only state language, East Pakistan erupted in grievance. Although ordinary Bengali educated Muslims had a weakness for Urdu, the people of East Pakistan could not accept Urdu as the only state language". The rule of the West Pakistani bureaucrats, domination of Urdu, coupled with neglect of the development of East Pakistan and low representation of Bengalis in the armed forces—such real reasons and the consequent anxiety spurred the Bengali nationality to place the six-point charter of demands. These six points were the formation of a federal government with the responsibility of defence and foreign affairs only, adult franchise, separate revenue and financial systems for the two parts of Pakistan, separation of the external accounts, the power to impose and realize taxes solely to rest with the provincial governments, which will, according to needs, will be allowed to maintain paramilitary or armed forces. Immediately after this six-point demand was raised, the Pakistan Government instituted the Agartala Conspiracy Case on 2 January. 1968 and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested. He was released later. In 1970, provincial and central elections were held all over Pakistan, and the Awami League came to capture almost all the seats in East Pakistan. As per this result, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan, but the Pakistani ruling clique could not digest it. On 15 March, 1971, the Pakistani armed forces lanuched an offensive, which ended in the birth of independent Bangladesh on 16 December 1971.

The people of East Pakistan refused to accept Pakistani rule. It was perhaps not impossible to solve the problem within the framework of the six-point demand. But the rulers of Pakistan did not concede it and forced the people of East Pakistan to revolt. The Indian State took advantage of it. The Indian State never reconciled itself to the formation of the state of Pakistan and it intelligently used the opportunity of its dismemberment. The Indian State had no real feeling for the people of East Pakistan and its intervention in the liberation war of Bangladesh was motivated by an expansionist attitude. After Bangladesh became independent, the Indian State asked for such concessions as were difficult for even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to grant. In consequence, the Government of India blocked the flow of water of the Ganga through the Farakka barrage, which drove Bangladesh to a path of destitution. While in power, Mrs Indira Gandhi did not sign the Farakka treaty. Finally, it was signed during I K Gujral's premiership with Jyoti Basu's mediation.

On 16 December, there was euphoria among the people of Kolkata. It was not genuine and fraternal, and the exuberance of many was due to the joy of seeing the dismemberment of Pakistan. Besides, to those upper caste Hindu families, who owned large amounts of landed property and other immovable assets in East Bengal and was holding Muslims responsible for having to leave these behind, 16 December was a day of revenge.

East Pakistan revolted against Pakistan on 25 March 1971. But she preferred silence after the killing of Mujibur Rahman. One of the reasons is that alter assuming power, the Awami League, which then took the name Bangladesh Sramik Krishak League (Baksal), established a reign of terror. In the language of Ahmad Sharif, "This too was a reign of terror. Educated, urban servicemen, lawyers, teachers, doctors, journalists, trading capitalists-all became members of the Baksal-some for profit-making, some voluntarily and others out of fear". Along with this suffocating situation the people were aggrieved at India's role, particularly in respect of Ganges water. In 1974, there took place a famine that claimed several hundreds of thousands of human lives. Many held the Government of India's Farakka project responsible for this catastrophe.

Bengali Bourgeoisie and Middle Classes
When independent Bangladesh came into being, there was no Bengali bourgeoisie worth the name on her soil. There was a tiny class of landowners and businessmen among Bengali Muslims and some of them started small trading ventures in urban areas. But the control of the state being firmly in the hands of the West Pakistanis, these Bengalis had little scope of growth.

After independence there grew over time a fairly large Bengali bourgeoisie. On the process of formation of this class, Badruddin Umar wrote, "This upper middle and wealthy class of Bangladesh has grown not through landownership, ordinary trade or services, but mainly through corruption, plunder and terror. Owing to this separate process of formation, the character of the Bangladeshi middle classes is largely and significantly different from the those of the British or Pakistani period". The difference emphasized by Umar is the common characteristic of the growth of the bourgeoisie in newly independent countries. The principal source of the growth of the present big bourgeoisie in India too is the plunder of the wealth of the slate.

In today's Bangladesh, the garment industry is a flourishing sector of the economy. The owners are mostly Bengali Muslims, who themselves have invested some capital and are producing garments in collaboration with large multinational corporations. Although Bangladesh is a densely populated country, the purchasing power of the masses is low, requiring this industry to depend on external markets, in order to be competitive, these industries have to offer lower prices and hence to exploit workers ruthlessly. In garment factories, workers have to labour for twelve to fourteen hours a day in conditions of extreme insecurity, and their monthly salaries are 5000 to 6000 Bangladeshi takas per head.

During 1971-2011, there has grown a middle class in Bangladesh. The status of Bengali as the state language has ordinarily increased the rate of literacy and descendants of farmers are now more inclined to receive higher education and enter middle class professions. But the incomes of the larger part of this class are very low. For example, the monthly salaries of primary teachers are 6000-7000 takas, those of secondary teachers are 15000 takas, while the college and university teachers receive 40000 takas. Considering the exchange rate between an Indian rupee and a taka, and the relative price indices in India and Bangladesh, it is clear that the purchasing power of this class is significantly lower.

The larger section of the young men and women participating in and at least playing the role of organizers comes from this middle class. Their fundamental problem is to get employment or having to work at less than subsistence wages. But these fundamental demands have not yet been raised in the movement. This movement, however, will strengthen the process of democratization of the society of Bangldesh that grew in the aftermath of the language movement and the fundamental demands of life and livelihood too will come to the fore. The Awami League is the protector of the class interests of precisely the bourgeoisie and upper middle classes that have thrived by means of plunder. These clases have no interest in protecting national wealth or in using it for the betterment of the lives of the people. Rather they want to profit by keeping wages low. Hence they do not want any expansion of democracy, and their opposition to Jamat is dictated by electoral calculations only. But they do not want a weakening of the fundamentalist ideology of Jamat. Besides, the credibility of this class before the people is very low owing to their record of plunder of national wealth.

For this reason, however hopeful one may be about the Shahbag Movement, it will not grow beyond ‘Shahbag’ unless a fundamental programme for furthering the interests of workers and peasants come to the fore.

Indian Expansionism
India which helped the liberation war, was motivated by expansionist aspirations. That attitude has not changed at all. On the other hand, the more India resorts to the big brother mentality, the more the fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh will be strengthened. The dilly-dallying attitude shown by India regarding Ganga water is reflected recently in the issue of Teesta water as well. Mamata Bandopadhyay has gone one step ahead and announced that Bangladesh will not be given Teesta water before meeting the needs of West Bengal. Rivers that have flown into Bangladesh from India, e.g. Ganga, Teesta, Torsa, Brahmmaputra and Barak, are international rivers. India has no right to build dams unilaterally and take away their water. But the Indian State is trying to force such a solution, though India is protesting against China’s unilateral move to build check dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet.

The policy of muscle flexing is being applied not only to Bangladesh, but to other neighbouring countries also, to Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Mynamar. The result is that India has become isolated and friendless in this subcontinent. Had India cultivated good relations with her neighbours South Asia would have gained over ally and India would have benefited most.

India's trade with South East Asia through the Bramhaputra and Meghna spanned centuries. Had this trade route been opened India would have gained much more. Similarly, had places like Agartala, Silchar and Dhubri been connected with West Bengal through Bangladesh, West Bengal and India would have benefited much. Citizens of different countries of Europe can travel throughout their continent without passports, and Indians too can travel to Nepal without passports. Then why should Indians need passports to go to Bangladesh? The distance of Kolkata from Jessore or Khulna is so short that a daily passenger train can cover it regularly. Had the impediments to travels been removed, the entire region would have prospered.

One or two processions have been held in Kolkata in support of Shahbag. Quite a few pieces have appeared in papers and periodicals. But a real fraternal attitude towards the people of Bangladesh would require much more. Why can't Kolkata hold processions for just shares of Bangladesh in Ganga and Teesta water, solution of the Chhitmahal problem, unrestricted passage between India and Bangladesh?

The partition of Bengal is a great misfortune for the Bengali nationality. That historic blunder cannot perhaps be reversed. But if the people of the two countries make up their minds the impact of this misfortune may be lessened through economic, social and cultural exchanges. ooo
(Translated from Bengali, Courtesy : Ekhan Bitarka)

Vol. 46, No. 22, Dec 8 - 14, 2013

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