On 25 January 1975, a significant amendment to Bangladesh’s Constitution was brought about on the watch of the government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This fourth amendment, adopted by Parliament, legislated for a sweeping change in the nation’s political system. The country took a new political path through the adoption of a presidential form of government. Mujib, in office as prime minister since 12 January 1972, took over as president with all the executive authority the office was vested with.
The adoption of the fourth amendment was in essence a journey into new political terrain for the nation. Ever since, there has been a great deal of criticism of the constitutional changes effected in that rather dramatic phase of our country’s history. A focal point of this has been that, with the formation of the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BaKSAL), a month after adoption of the fourth amendment, Bangladesh went straight for a single-party, undemocratic system of governance.
Of course, Mujib did not see it this way. He referred to the political changes of early 1975 as a ‘second revolution’. And indeed, many misconceptions need to be removed around BaKSAL. Was BaKSAL the reason for the tragedy of August 1975? Acclaimed Bangladeshi journalist Syed Badrul Ahsan does not think so. The WhiteBoard team spoke with him to explore the matter. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is presented below.
Can you tell us why BaKSAL continues to have a negative connotation?
The term ‘BaKSAL’ is used in a very critical or pejorative way. But it should really be described as a second revolution, as Mujib conceived of it. Mujib’s first revolution was the liberation war and the achievement of independence in 1971. The second revolution was largely geared towards the economic emancipation of the people. That is the way he looked at it. Some people will claim that the second revolution should have come immediately after December 1971 but Mujib had his reasons for delaying it.
Mujib was a politician who believed in constitutional principles. Throughout his life, if you look at his career, there was not a single instance when he deviated from his belief in constitutional politics. Even the provisional liberation war government – the Mujibnagar government – comprised elected representatives of the people. As such, when Mujib came forward with his idea – this principle, or the new policy, of the second revolution – he believed economic priorities were important.
Meanwhile, all around him there were still those who were not happy with the emergence of Bangladesh, both on the right and on the left. The extreme left was engaged in incidents of kidnapping and killing of even lawmakers. And on the right, forces were lurking to upset the course the country had taken. Then there were politicians who, despite having taken part in the liberation war under the vision of pluralism, had suddenly created the smokescreen of Muslim Bangla.
All these factors were added to the international alignment against Bangladesh. For example, some countries refused to recognise Bangladesh as long as Mujib was alive. China, for example, used its veto against Bangladesh’s entry into the UN. Saudi Arabia, along with a good number of other Middle Eastern countries, also did not recognise the country, as a result of Pakistani propaganda. Indeed, many demanded that the country be declared an Islamic republic before they would recognise it. Mujib was aware all of these factors.
Mujib’s second revolution was different from other revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Cultural Revolution in China. He meant it to be a peaceful revolution, with the focus on economic development. If you look at the measures stipulated in his programme clearly show that he believed in ‘normal’ politics. He was not going for radical change. Of course, if you call the actual establishment of BaKSAL radical, then yes, this was radical measure. But BaKSAL itself was merely a national platform that brought together all pro-liberation parties. Later on, though, those from other parties who had joined Mujib in BakSAL went on to be critical of him.
Let’s talk about the ideology. Was BaKSAL the result of Mujib’s failure to deliver ideological basics such as democracy, secularism and socialism in the first revolution?
I would not put it that way. What I would say is that the constitutional process was inaugurated in Bangladesh right after liberation. When the first general election took place in March 1973, the constitutional process was there. But what got in the way was the rising corruption around Mujib. He himself condemned the disappearance of all the relief materials that his government had brought from abroad, directly referring to the perpetrators as thieves. In an address at the inauguration of the Bangladesh Military Academy, he said that, even if we had achieved independence, this would be meaningless if we did not tackle corruption.
If you wonder whether the politics of 1972–1975 had failed, we must remember that Bangladesh had come into being not through negotiations – unlike India and Pakistan, established through roundtable discussions between the British, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. The people of Bangladesh had been plunged into a war they had not foreseen, which resulted in devastation. The economy was in ruins, 3 million people had been killed and 200,000 women had been raped. The country needed to be rebuilt.
At this point, were Mujib’s constitutional politics, his adherence to democracy, not sufficient? They were but then there was also the presence of extreme elements, of all sizes. Extreme left-wing communists and pro-Chinese communists refused to accept Bangladesh’s independence. Then there were defeated collaborators, such as the extreme leftist Abdul Haque, an influential Communist Party element. Despite being a Bengali, despite living in Bangladesh, despite Mujib being prime minister of this country, he wrote a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiker Ali Bhutto asking for arms and financial help to remove what he called ‘the illegal government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’. According to Stanley Wolpert’s ‘Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan,’ Bhutto discussed this in his Cabinet and said: ‘He is a good man, we should help him.’
It is also questionable to what extent the bureaucrats running the administration, many of them returnees from Pakistan, had accepted the ideology of the country – and whether they were well versed with the principles of the war.
Mujib had said at the beginning in 1972: ‘I cannot give you anything in three years, you have to give me at least three years’ time.’ When those three years had elapsed, he felt he needed more. And then he went to the people with BakSAL. BaKSAL was not a whimsical move on its part. As he kept saying, achieving independence is easy; keeping it is very difficult.
What kind of initiative was BaKSAL? If you were to parse it, was it a nationalistic scheme, a social welfare scheme and a pure Communist scheme?
It was a socially democratic scheme – not socialist in the way we understand the term. It was social democracy, and the focus was on economic development.
BaKSAL intended to roll out decentralisation. What are your thoughts on this?
Mujib realised that, as Bangladesh was a unitary state, it would not be wise to divide it into provinces, like Pakistan and India, where different states have a different language, heritage and tradition. Nevertheless, he felt that the country needed a decentralised administrative structure.
It initiated a focus on 61 districts, and 61 governors were appointed and training. These governors were already appointed by Mujib. The 1st of September 1975 was earmarked to train the new governors. But then 15 August came and everything stopped.
You have a journalistic background. BaKSAL entailed the consolidation of the media. Was it a scheme to curb dissent?
At that point in time, some sections of the media were critical of Mujib’s government, and they were also very provocative. For example, newspapers like Holiday and ‘Haq Katha’ were spreading propaganda; on some occasions they were right but on others they were wrong. The problem was that they were having a negative effect on the country at a fragile time, and creating a lot of discontent towards the government.
When BaKSAL came in, the government approved four newspapers, two Bengali and two English. It would be simplistic to suggest that this was a measure to curb dissent. No, I would say it was a measure to bring about discipline in journalism. But then, it was not supposed to be a permanent factor – just like BaKSAL was not going to be a permanent factor.
I was a student at that time. People of my generation, even we were perturbed by the news at the time, at the provocative things the newspapers wrote right after independence. It was once said that there were 65 million collaborators (with Pakistan during 1971 war)! The idea was that the 10 million people who had gone to India, they were the patriots. And we who stayed, were we the collaborators?
What challenges faced Mujib in constituting BaKSAL?
Mujib faced challenges convincing the many politicians from different political groups. He was able to convince political groups, such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh and the National Awmai Party, popularly known as CPB and NAP. Veteran politicians like Ataur Rahman Khan joined him. Mujib also made it possible for the civil service and the military to be a part of the effort. He wanted a unified structure, a national front. Unlike Communist Russia and China, he did not ban these other leftist parties. Concerning the rightists, the government had already banned four political parties after liberation: the Muslim League, Pakistan Democratic Party, Jamaat–e–Islami and Nizam-e–Islam.
You have said it was different but in reality, we were in a Cold War situation in a world with different blocs. Was BaKSAL really not an attempt to bring in a Chinese- or Soviet-style revolution in South Asia?
Not to South Asia. But BaKSAL was definitely perceived to be close to the Soviet system and the Soviets were apparently very encouraging. The model had nothing to do with China. BaKSAL was a revolution but there was no intention to export it outside the borders. The focus was simply on Bangladesh.
So, let’s talk about 1973 to 1975. Macro-economic trends were not good. However, around 1974 data showed that some economic indicators were actually improving. GDP was increasing, as was the food supply and production. If the essential economic conditions were improving, why was BaKSAL needed? Was it more political? Wasn’t the declaration a dog-whistle to flip the colonial administrative system?
That was one component, to flip the colonial system. But I would say that BaKSAL was an attempt to do what the government had not able to achieve as a result of certain factors. For example, Mujib in his initial promise had told the country that he needed three years. At the end of these three years he had realised the enormity of the situation, beset with problems within the Awami League government and outside.
He needed more time. He needed new measures and new steps that would actually lead to implementation of his ideas. He was radically changing the political structure of the country.
Can you talk little bit about the judiciary reform under BaKSAL?
This was not properly thought-through but the point was made that the judiciary would be independent. Nothing would affect the independence of the judiciary. Within BaKSAL, the judiciary could act independently. Mujib would be the president and the system itself would be presidential. Parliament was there but would not play the same role as before. It’s up for argument whether the judiciary would actually have been independent – I think it would!
I want to talk a little bit about justice. In the post-war setting, there were a lot of war crimes for which justice needed to be sought. Over the years, nothing has happened; we are still trying to reconcile ourselves with our past. Would Bangladesh be more reconciled if the second revolution reforms had gone through?
The question of war crimes was dealt with seriously. In the three years prior to BaKSAL, a good number of war criminals had gone to the judiciary and been let off. I think BaKSAL would have put a stop to such lapses.
Where did Mujib go wrong with his second revolution?
I would say, as a citizen, more discussion, more consultation, should have gone into it.
Was it little hasty?
It was a little hasty, and some would say rather sudden. If debate, thoughts, ideas had been exchanged between the government and other sectors of the society – for example scholars, public intellectuals and of course political elements within Awami League – it would have been a little more convincing. Besides, Mujib knew very well that his government was under assault. Some more time could have helped immensely.
Would you say we would have had far better leaders today if BaKSAL had been implemented?
By now, there would have been a growth in the leadership from the time of BaKSAL’s initiation.
The leadership would have been more holistic if BaKSAL had gone through. What else would have happened if BaKSAL had been implemented successfully?
The economy would be more stable. The fact that we were an independent people, and Bengali nationalism, would have been reinforced.
The reform’s name itself has agrarian connotations. Mujib wanted to form cooperatives; this was the core feature of BaKSAL. There is no doubt that he understood the Bengali farmers very well, and lot of BaKSAL was aimed at the agrarian economy. Did Mujib not see a structural economic change towards manufacturing?
If you look at the name, Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League, you will understand that the policy was two-pronged. Mujib believed in maintaining and developing a traditional system of agriculture and at the same time was aware that industrialisation was necessary. The entire system aimed to develop these two sectors. He was not sacrificing one for the other. If you look at the structural side of BaKSAL, there was a peasant segment and a worker segment, and both are very clearly defined. In an agrarian country, you cannot have policies aimed solely at industry.