Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Second Revolution represented a significant chapter in Bangladesh’s history. Through the formation of BaKSAL – Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (the Bangladesh Worker-Peasant People’s League) – Mujib announced his intention to revive the country’s famine-stricken and fragile economy. But overhauling the remnants of the colonial-era system, at the same time as addressing the challenges of a war-torn society, necessitated great reform efforts. And, shortly after the formation of BaKSAL, Mujib was killed. His programme was nipped in the bud.
Not much research or discussion has taken place since the extensive reform agenda of BaKSAL was cut off. The changes were to be systemic and would not fall under any ideological framework. And yet those in Bangladesh today, if they were to study the programme, would have the opportunity to understand the policy-making strategy of the most accredited politician in the country’s history.
Shams Rahman is one of the few analysts around the world who have extensively studied the BaKSAL agenda. The WhiteBoard team spoke with Shams to get his take on this important yet undervalued issue. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is presented below.
What would you say was going through Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s head when he was outlining his plans for the Second Revolution?
Before I talk about the rationale behind Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s intentions with regard to the Second Revolution, it is important for us to understand what BaKSAL actually was. BaKSAL was principally a concept, jointly created by a number of political parties that were directly involved in leading and implementing Bangladesh’s war of liberation: Bangladesh Awami League, the Communist Party of Bangladesh and the National Awami Party, along with other, smaller, progressive parties. Working through this alliance, Mujib decided to create a political platform to implement his new concept – that of driving economic and social development by ensuring political stability in the country.
Just think for a moment: why would a political leader who has advocated and practised a Westminster-style democratic system his entire political life all of a sudden decide to build BaKSAL, a centrally planned system? At the time, around August 1975, unprecedented misgivings and negative propaganda surrounded BaKSAL, mainly among anti-liberation forces, extreme leftist political parties and a section of the media. The general mass, with due respect to them, had little to no understanding why Mujib took such a drastic step. I personally believe it is our responsibility to inform the generations to come what BaKSAL really was and what it aimed to achieve. And we must inform them on the political, social and economic context in which Mujib tried to implement it. We must not forget that the younger generation has neither experience the war, nor seen the war savaged nation.
Bangladesh received its political independence on 16 December 1971 after nine months of war. The country was in ruins, and economically shattered. The absolute priority was establishment of a stable government that could rebuild the nation and create an economic platform to enable future growth. The challenge was huge. To comprehend it, let us consider a few statistics regarding essential commodities. Between 1972 and 1975, the global price of crude oil multiplied by nine, the price of rice by four and the price of sugar by six. This was the global market Bangladesh faced as it desperately tried to rebuild its economy. Meanwhile, remember that, at the time, the country had to import the bulk of its food grain requirement.
There was very little foreign exchange in the treasury: the government had limited resources at a time when commodity prices on the world market were sky high. As a result, the consumer price index increased by 52%, 33% and 21% in 1972, 1973 and 1974, respectively. This meant that the purchasing power of the poor, especially marginal farmers and the city-centered working class, declined drastically. Be clear here that at the time 85% of people were farmers and 40% were landless farmers. Imagine what happened to their lives!
The government could import some grains using its own resources, but only around a 10th of the total required. The country’s low creditworthiness triggered the cancellation of purchase contracts under short-term commercial credit. Even when credit was possible, it was not feasible to get the grains shipped on time, given unusually high demand for cargo ships, with many countries importing food grains amid the global food crisis. Meanwhile, after delaying for about nine months, the US government cancelled an entire shipment of food that fell under Public Law 480 (PL480), using the excuse that Bangladesh was doing business with Cuba.
The media also played a role here, circulating antagonistic propaganda against the government and the food situation. This gave corrupt businesses the opportunity to engage in speculation on the price of food grains.
In short, internal production was low; floods destroyed whatever had been produced; prices were high; the government faced limited resources; creditworthiness was low; and food aid contracts were cancelled. All of these factors complicated the food shortage situation and hence contributed to the famine of 1974.
What was the political situation like?
This is interesting. To understand the political situation, we need to assess it from both an internal and an external perspective. Immediately after independence, a political party called Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) was formed, based on socialist foundations. However, JSD found Marxist socialism to be insufficiently scientific, and thus came up with the concept of ‘scientific socialism’. Within a short period, it had created an armed wing called Gono Bahini, whose members looted guns from police stations and killed police and landlords in the villages as well as anyone who resisted them. In other words, in the name of scientific socialism, JSD generated political unrest and anarchy throughout the country, especially in the countryside. I must acknowledge that they were partly successful in this regard.
Seeing the success of JSD in creating anarchy, anti-liberation Islamic forces and extreme left-wing parties joined hands. Some even requested funds and other resources from abroad to fight the Awami League-led government. While the new government was struggling to feed the nation, JSD, Islamic anti-liberation forces and ultra left-wing parties were causing chaos.
You may be curious to know what the leaders of JSD did after the killing of Mujib in August 1975. This is really interesting! One leader formed a religious-based party, one joined a ministry along with the Jamate-razakars and the third joined a ministry under the military regime. What did ordinary people think of these leaders? Was the entire scientific socialism experiment a total bluff? Was it just to destabilise the Mujib government? Who created JSD? I hope political scientists will research this in the near future.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the external political scenario. After being defeated in 1971, instead of recognising the newly independent nation, Pakistan started a proxy war against it. Funds started pouring in through Pakistani government channels. Many nations in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, did not recognise Bangladesh. China also refused to recognise Mujib’s government, under the pretext of ensuring political equilibrium in the region.
The USA played the biggest role in delegitimising Mujib’s government. The US administration at that time not only was against the liberation of Bangladesh but also had provided both military assistance and financial support during the war of independence. US President Nixon was a great admirer of General Yahya Khan of Pakistan, and Henry Kissinger considered Bengalis to be left-inclined when it came to politics; Mujib was one of his three most hated persons after Fidel Castro of Cuba and Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam. These facts have been documented by investigative journalists and authors. To find out more on this I highly recommend reading the recently published ‘The Blood Telegraph’ by Gary Bass.
I would like to emphasise here that Bangladesh’s war of liberation and Mujib’s government became a victim of the Cold War. The Nixon–Kissinger administration adopted a policy, popularly known as the Tilt Policy, in favour of Pakistan and against India. In his book White House Years, Kissinger provided an aggressive defence of the controversial handling of the nine-month Bangladesh crisis in 1971. However, many researchers disagree with his assumptions and conclusions. They suggest that the USA did not need to remain mute to the Pakistan army’s repression and atrocities in Bangladesh, which caused the death of 3 million innocent people, in order to protect the US administration’s opening-up to China. In my opinion, the Tilt Policy was badly flawed and ill served the interests of the USA itself.
Having failed to save Pakistan, Kissinger’s Tilt Policy continued even after the independence, but now against Bangladesh. In one example, in a meeting between Tajuddin Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Finance Minister, and the US Foreign Secretary over food aid in 1973, the latter advised a speedy settlement of the dispute with Pakistan, proposing the dropping of charges against Pakistani war criminals. The precedent was that the USA had appreciated the Nigerian government’s pragmatism in not holding war crimes trials after the Biafran War. Perhaps at that moment they had forgotten about the Nuremburg war crimes trials after WWII. We all know that the USA and the allied forces prosecuted war criminals very promptly during the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials!
Second, I believe the US administration used food aid under PL480 as a political weapon. PL480 was a US public law that allowed countries to buy grains in their local currency instead of US dollars. As I mentioned before, the US administration withheld food aid after a long nine-month negotiation, giving the excuse that Bangladesh was selling jute goods to Cuba. In spite of having known about this matter long before, the US administration never mentioned it during the long negotiation period. Cancelling the food aid contract was a strong driver of the famine in 1974. One might ask: was this meant to punish Mujib’s government? Was it meant to make sure that Mujib’s government could not stand up economically and thus politically?
In this internal and external context, Mujib had to look for an alternative solution to the colossal problems facing the nation. Hence, he conceptualised, developed and was on the verge of implementing the BaKSAL system as part of his Second Revolution.
From an ideological point of view, what kind of programme was BaKSAL?
I would say BaKSAL was a people-centric centralised planning economic system. Nevertheless, it was not a typically communist or socialist project. On many occasions, Mujib himself said that Bangladesh was not following any ‘ism’ from outside the country and that it would grow according to the people’s need and its own context. I would say this was done from a nationalistic perspective. And the objective was plain and simple: by ensuring political stability within the country it would be possible to capitalise on its human resources for the speedy development of the nation in terms of both economic emancipation and social improvement.
If that was the objective, then what were the major challenges involved in implementing BaKSAL?
I think there were a number of challenges. The proxy war, as mentioned earlier, organised by the Pakistani government and supported by Saudi Arabia and a few other Middle Eastern nations and China, was still a hurdle. The second challenge entailed perceptions of BaKSAL in the eyes of the USA and other Western nations, which feared it represented an ideological shift of the Mujib government towards the Soviet bloc. At the height of the Cold War, this of course came to be a central challenge to BaKSAL’s implementation. Third, although I do not have any concrete evidence to support this, I believe the Indian government was not pleased with the new system of governance in Bangladesh. As the largest democracy in the world, it is unlikely that India would have supported a BaKSAL-type system in its neighbourhood. Fourth is an issue internal to the party: to what extent did grassroots party members and leaders understood the concept and were they prepared to take it forward?
Given the global push for democracy, was a single-party system a difficult concept to sell?
I believe my answer to the previous question provides a partial answer to this question. Mujib aimed to achieve economic and social equity for the people by ensuring political stability, and not really to implement a Marxist-style system. However, the majority of capitalist nations saw things differently – even India, I believe – even though Mujib assured them on several occasions that BaKSAL was a temporary arrangement and the country would go back to the Westminster system eventually.
Does that mean multi-party governance is better?
No, it is not a question of better or worse. It is about understanding the context and acting accordingly. In other words, being pragmatic in approach. Given the political and economic context, a BaKSAL-based system could have provided better results in the short run. Let’s look at the other side of the coin – that is, the multi-party system. Consider the case of Zimbabwe. Under a Western-style multi-party system for over 40 years, the country could neither achieve economic prosperity nor build a vibrant democracy. It remained a one-man show. There are many other examples. Take the example of Mexico. In the name of multi-party democracy, a single party ran the country for over 70 years. We see a similar phenomenon under Suharto in Indonesia and under Marcos in the Philippines. Singapore and Malaysia are also relevant examples.
Therefore, a multi-party system will not necessarily end up generating democratic pluralism. This would require other conditions. Further research is necessary on whether continuity of government for a newly independent nation, through a system such as BaKSAL will lead to a superior platform and conditions for multi-party democracy, or whether a multi-party system will provide a more sophisticated democratic pluralism.
What are the main action points and salient features of BaKSAL in terms of governance and economic reform?
Under BaKSAL, the administration would have been decentralised. Cooperative-type collective farming would have been emphasised. People’s participation would have been guaranteed. With greater participation and better use of the available human resources, the likelihood of achieving higher efficiency and productivity in every sector of production would have been assured.
What were the health sector reforms under BaKSAL?
BaKSAL aimed for a more equitable distribution of resources and services such as health and education. No nation can build a superior workforce to contribute to the task of nation-building without a healthy and educated workforce. I understand that BaKSAL aimed to build clinics in every thana (local administrative unit), and ultimately the planned health system would be decentralised to the village level – as would the education system. This would have been necessary to ensure the deployment of the necessary workforce to the initiative’s farm-oriented schemes.
What is the relevance of a BaKSAL-like resolution for a developing country today? We have different development targets, for example. In today’s world, in a developing country like Bangladesh, what is the relevance of a similar revolution? Or is there no relevance?
It is important to understand the current context, which is quite different, in both a domestic and a global perspective. Recently, opposition political parties targeted the current government in Bangladesh by saying that the Awami League was gradually moving towards BaKSAL style government. But I don’t believe the Awami League will ever go along the same path. BaKSAL is neither relevant nor necessary in the current global political and economic context.
Nevertheless, what I see from outside is that the Awami League wants to bring political stability to the country in keeping with the spirit of our liberation war. This makes sense. The form will remain the same, as witnessed under Mahathir in Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yu in Singapore. Building a system of democratic pluralism means putting in place a human workforce with the right mindset and implementing accountable governance. No nation can build these overnight.
Where did Mujib go wrong in relation to BaKSAL?
It remains a mystery to me whether or not Mujib tried to share his idea of BaKSAL with other nations, especially the USA and other Western nations. As mentioned earlier, Mujib wanted to achieve economic and social equity for his people by ensuring political stability, and not through the implementation of a Marxist-style system. He even spelt out that BaKSAL was a temporary arrangement – quite natural for a politician who believed, advocated for and practised a Westminster-style democratic system his entire political life. I guess it was not Mujib but the US administration that assumed that Bangladesh would turn into another Cuba, Nicaragua or Vietnam.
Did anything go wrong internally?
I don’t think anything went wrong internally on Mujib’s side. Except, of course the Mostaque factor. Khandaker Mostaque Ahmed and his handful of close collaborators had been disloyal to Mujib for a very long time. There is evidence to suggest that he disclosed the salient points of the draft constitution based on the historic six points to the Pakistanis sometime after the general election of 1970. He also betrayed our independence by negotiating with US representatives during the liberation war. And he betrayed BaKSAL. So, this was nothing new.
Was Rokkhi Bahini part of the BaKSAL scheme?
No. Rokkhi Bahini was formed before BaKSAL was conceptualised.
What if BaKSAL had been implemented?
I would like to highlight what could have been achieved had BaKSAL been implemented, even if only for a short span of time:
- The war crimes trials would have been completed a long time ago, having started immediately after independence (as with the trials after WWII). We would not have had to wait until 2014.
- It would have been impossible for anti-liberation forces and war criminals to re-establish themselves in mainstream Bangladeshi politics. It is unprecedented that, in such a short time after independence, they could ascend to political power in Bangladesh. I don’t believe such a phenomenon has happened in any other nation in the world.
- The practice of politics using religion would have stopped: the nation would have been able to uphold the ideals of secularism. It is now well accepted that politics based on religion harbours inequality and discrimination in society. Nations where discrimination is less prevalent are found to be more creative.
- BaKSAL could have brought about political stability in war-torn Bangladesh – the prerequisite for economic and social development. Over the past 10 years, the Sheikh Hasina has given proof to the relationship between political stability and economic prosperity.