This is a review of an academic article by Ali Gowher (aka Gowher Rizvi), who is the International affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. I strongly believe Rizvi’s partisan vies and unsubstantiated assertions have marred the quality of the academic exercise. Had Mujib’s Soviet-style one-party dictatorship (the BAKSAL regime) survived a decade or so, what is Bangladesh today in terms of having an unelected, brutal and corrupt one-party dictatorship under Mujib’s daughter Hasina since 2014 could be a déjà vu moment for the country because we all would have revisited BAKSAL tyranny under Hasina! No wonder, Gowher Rizvi, who was a passionate admirer of Mujib’s one-party dictatorship, is serving the Hasina regime with no remorse or guilt. Hence the importance of this review of Rizvi’s old but not irrelevant article, today!
For the overwhelming majority of East Bengalis in March 1971, establishing the popular will of the people or democracy was the main rationale behind their demand for independent Bangladesh. And that had General Yahya Khan respected democracy by transferring power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the majority party Awami League, there would have been no Bangladesh, definitely not in 1971. However, Bangladesh has enjoyed very little democracy since its emergence, even under elected civilian governments. When Mujib returned to liberated Bangladesh in January 1972 from a Pakistani prison, the war-ravaged country was in a very bad shape. His administration had a Herculean task to rebuild the country. Even bare survival and sustenance of bulk of the population were very difficult. As Gowher Rizvi writes in 1976: “[While] there was no gold reserve in the State Bank: the country embarked upon its independent career with only 12-pound sterling in the vaults of the Reserve Bank”; and the problems of acute food shortage, damaged/destroyed industries, roads, railways, seaports, and the overall infrastructure of the country posed existential threats to the newly independent country [p.18]. Mujib had the aura of unchallenged power, authority, influence, and legitimacy, however, the country under him was under patriarchy, not democracy, and from late 1974 to August 1975 – from his declaration of the State of Emergency to his violent overthrow – the country was a one-party dictatorship. One may agree with Rizvi, “Even without these problems Bangladesh would have been in difficulty”, but in view of Sheikh Mujib’s track record as an administrator and his fast declining popularity in 1972, it is difficult to agree with Rizvi’s assessment of Mujib that: “His [Mujib’s] selfless sacrifice in giving the Bengalis an identity had endeared him to the people and a deep bond united the leader with the people: a bond which remained unbroken up to his death, although he lacked any sophisticated knowledge of running a modern government”[p.18].
It is, however, difficult to concur with the view that since Mujib preferred “populist traditions” of Bangladesh politics to the “elitist” ones, and as he “provided the bridge” between the two traditions, he introduced one-party dictatorship and became the sole arbiter of the nation’s fate; and after 1971 the duality of that role as the “bridge” between the two political traditions said to have “introduced a conflict and tension in his character hitherto not experienced”! “Mujib was carried away by his own appeal and mass adulation. He became a prisoner of his own slogans…. He failed to realise, however, that the war, independence, and ensuing destruction had changed the picture. Nor could he see that his impoverished country would have to depend on its own resources,” Rizvi surmises [p.19].
Again, it is difficult to accommodate two diametrically opposite views that while Mujib, who said to have lacked sophisticated knowledge of running a modern government, “displayed a rare political acumen” by convincing his colleagues [or coercing them into submission, one wonders!] to amend the Constitution to introduce presidential form of government in the country. Then again, Rizvi has rightly assessed Mujib’s role as the new dictator: “For his own part he was content to centralize all powers in his hands and attempted to rule the country like a medieval despot”; and Mujib glorified his assuming absolute power as the President as the “Second Revolution”, which he thought was a departure from what he called “Free-Style Democracy”! And, then he resorts to the blame game! In his deification of Mujib, who Rizvi thinks “remained incorruptible” and were taken advantage of by his “lesser colleagues”, mostly who had “jumped on the Awami League bandwagon” after Mujib’s electoral victory in 1970, resorted to corruption; and Mujib’s only fault being “he did not do anything to rectify it”! Then we come across a hitherto unheard appraisal of Bangladesh politics during the Mujib era. Rizvi tells us that those who had lost the elections in 1970 and 1973 remained the disruptive elements as the “extraparliamentary opposition” attacking the Mujib government for corruption, and rising prices, and allegedly also resorted to political assassinations. Mujib’s brutal para military force, the Rakkhi Bahini and police are said to have killed more than 30,000 opposition activists during 1972 and 1975. Interestingly, then Rizvi tells us the Awami League became increasingly unpopular, and the 1974 Famine was the last straw for Mujib and his administration as he later discovered in Washington and London that the West had been very annoyed with his regime and wanted him to “put his own house in order”. And, Western contempt for his administration led to his declaration of the State of Emergency on 28 December 1974, and eventually, to the Soviet-style one-party dictatorship in 1975 [pp.19-20]! He does not mention the 1973 polls were rigged in favour of Mujib’s Awami League party, and the Regime’s resorting to mass arrests and killing of thousands of opposition activists by law-enforcers and party activists.
Rizvi seems to have endorsed Mujib’s “land reform”, rather collectivization of agriculture à laSoviet Union, proposed in March 1975. This would initiate agricultural cooperatives turning the landowners and landless peasants into co-owners of the land. Rizvi glorifies the communistic collectivization of land in Bangladesh as an antidote to the “Muhammadan law of succession”. And, he simultaneously blames the non-existent “landed gentry” in Bangladesh in the 1970s! He singles out the village “sardars” (the category of people never existed in the countryside) – he possibly means jotedars, talukdars, and other categories of rich peasants and petty-landlords in the country – as members of the “rural elite” as sworn enemies of the Mujib regime. His appraisal of the village community in Bangladesh reflects his unfamiliarity with the subject. He has not analysed why Mujib – who had never been known for any communist sympathy before – all of a sudden started toying with the idea of turning Bangladesh into a proto-Soviet socialist republic and his regime became too friendly to the USSR, Cuba, and countries in the Soviet bloc to the discomfiture of the West. Some other sweeping comments have disfigured the piece. Such as a) “Both the right and left in Bangladesh wanted Sheikh Mujib to stay in power for fear that if he went the others would annihilate them”; b) Mujib’s assassination was an “isolated act”, as “six majors”, four dismissed killed him, and the Army was not linked with the disgruntled group of killers, but it could not do anything as the killers had artillery and armoured corps were with them; c) Moshtaque (Mujib’s successor) was discredited among the people; d) Tens of thousands of people mourned Mujib’s death after Khaled Musharraf’s short-lived coup (3rd-6th November 1975); and e) soon, the Rakkhi Bahini and the bulk of the Army was going to overthrow the Zia regime [pp.20-21].
Since the article reflects the author’s pro-Mujib sympathies, unsurprisingly, there is nothing here about public celebration by Bangladeshis at home and abroad of the brutal killing of Mujib, his family members, and associates – albeit a very cynical one – in August 1975. No mention of the spontaneous celebrations at the successful counter-coup by pro-Zia soldiers against pro-Mujib Khaled Musharraf by Bangladeshis across the board either! Rizvi, on the one hand classifies Mujib-killing aa an “isolated act”, and on the other, he mentions urban and elites’ contempt for Mujib and his administration. What is even more surprising that while the Hasina Regime, which Rizvi serves loyally, blames General Ziaur Rahman as a co-conspirator of Mujib-killing, he has never opened his mouth in support of his “isolated act theory”, i.e. while only a handful of disgruntled soldiers killed Mujib, none of the top brasses in the Army had any prior knowledge about it, let alone any involvement in the killing! … In sum, some of Rizvi’s observations here go against the main theme of his partisan views, such as “Even Mujib had not been killed, chances of his reforms being implemented were remote”, which imply Mujib was anything but a visionary! Rizvi also points out that Mujib was shy of launching a grassroots revolution and contemplated bringing about reforms from the top, and that he never thought of the option of self-reliance for development of Bangladesh, unlike what Zia emphasized later quite successfully. It would not be exaggerative to state that whatever self-reliance, and self-sufficiency in food production Bangladesh has achieved in the last three decades would not have been possible under Mujib’s Soviet-style one-party dictatorship.
Interestingly, since the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) under late Moni Singh had its tentacles everywhere in Mujib administration, so much so that it influenced the latter to the creation of a Soviet-style dictatorship and collectivization of agriculture in the country, Rizvi has not mentioned the CPB anywhere in his glorification of BAKSAL in this article! He has left some burning issues unmentioned in his piece, such as the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship – which was tantamount to the violation of Bangladesh’s sovereignty – or the marginalization of Tajuddin Ahmed and General Osmani by Mujib, who had immense contribution to the Liberation War, either! One wonders, he only holds “six majors”, not a large number of Awami League leaders, responsible for Mujib-killing!
- Ali Gowher (aka Gowher Rizvi), “The Killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: Perspectives on Recent Bangladesh History”, New Zealand International Review, September/October 1976
Taj Hashmi is an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Austin Peay State University, Tennessee, US