Bangladesh’s independence and question of national liberation again

by Azfar Hussain

00001Those who wax lyrical about and shed tears over oppression and injustice in the country and the world — while at the same time remaining silent about the questions of capital, empire, state, and class — may appear to be sympathetic to the oppressed, but they actually side with the oppressor and the unjust in the final instance.
— Maulana Bhasani (translation mine)
Despite the message of love apparent in non-violence, it never comes to fruition. In fact, specifically in a capitalist social system, it is not at all possible. On the other hand, revolution appears with its appeal and strength in human society; and whatever message it might carry forward, it will bring about the eradication of exploitation and prejudice directly. Thus there’s no room for deception in revolution, one which aims at the total destruction of the system itself — by any means necessary.
— Maulana Bhasani (translation mine)

Did the morning breeze ever come?  Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light.  Come, we must search for that promised Dawn.
— Faiz Ahmed Faiz (tr Aga Shahid Ali)

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2016. Four decades and a half have passed by since the emergence of Bangladesh as a distinct nation-state in the world. Yet the soil of Bangladesh continues to remain drenched with blood. Flagrantly. Enormously. Even increasingly. The blood of our common, ‘ordinary’ people. The blood of women and children. The blood of workers and peasants. The blood of our ethnic and linguistic and religious minorities. The great Latin American poet Pablo Neruda’s lines — by no means alien to our land and to our poets — readily come to mind now:

And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!
Indeed, a people’s history of Bangladesh has already been written in blood, if not really recorded in the words of those who otherwise claim to be ‘historians’ in the professional or disciplinary sense of the term. And we know that there are those historians in the world — ones who celebrate themselves in the form of celebrating their ‘heroes’ described as ‘extraordinary’ individuals. But there are also other — and othered — historians in the world — peasants and workers and, by extension, the oppressed — ones who themselves make history and keep it alive by telling and re-telling their own stories, while sharing them with one another. Given the very politics of writing history — history here being more than a matter of ‘time past’ — the questions stubbornly remain for us: What’s the significance of ‘independence’ in today’s Bangladesh? And whither the emancipation of the people?
Let us approach here the question of making history itself. To put it bluntly: not some individuals, not even some leaders — deemed otherwise ‘extraordinary’ in the tradition of blind hero-worshipping that remains prevalent in our country with a vengeance—but the people themselves are the makers of history. One does not have to be a flaming Maoist in order to see the validity of this lucid assertion of Mao himself: ‘The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history.’ Indeed, the real protagonists of our history — the history of Bangladesh — are the ‘ordinary’ people themselves, not just a few individuals, no matter how religiously those individuals are deified and worshipped by our mainstream political parties and their ideological chamchas.
But when a few individuals come to occupy or even usurp the centre of history at the expense of the people themselves, history becomes nothing but ‘his-story.’ And under numerous circumstances in Bangladesh, the tradition of writing history has rather obstinately moved in the direction of becoming his-stories, the stories of men and their might and their muscles. In fact, writing his-stories is like flexing men’s muscles. But where are the women then? They are relegated to the world of shadows and silences. Recall the moments in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night?

Duke: And what’s her history?
Viola: A blank, my lord.

00002A blank? The struggle for freedom is, among other things, a struggle against blanks assigned to the other by his-story. And the struggle for freedom is, among other things, a struggle against forgetting, to rehearse Milan Kundera on a different register.
And to struggle against forgetting is to historicise, and to historicise is to remember. Let us then recall certain crucial historical moments of our struggle for independence. It is true that the common, ordinary men and women of our land contributed the most to our struggle for the creation of Pakistan in 1947, fighting against British colonialism on the one hand and against its class allies (the zamindars, for instance) on the other. But it did not take long at all for the people to grow disillusioned and dissatisfied with the so-called independence of Pakistan, for it decisively inaugurated another phase of colonialism — tied as it was to the determining logic of the uneven development of capitalism itself — in our history. The British colonial rulers had surely left us, but colonialism and its structures and its values did not. I think the post-independence mood of the masses at that point — ie, even as early as 1947 — was perfectly captured in the following poem written by the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one who — like our Nazrul Islam and the Chilean Pablo Neruda — was truly a ‘poet of the people’:

These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light —
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harboured
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it.
We had no doubt that night’s vagrant wave would stray towards the shore,
that the heart rocked with sorrow would at last reach its port.

Friends, our blood shaped its own mysterious roads.
When hands tugged at our sleeves, enticing us to stay,
and from wondrous chambers Sirens cried out
with their beguiling arms, with their bare bodies,
our eyes remained fixed on that beckoning Dawn,
forever vivid in her muslins of transparent light.
Our blood was young — what could hold us back?

Now listen to the terrible rampant lie:
Light has forever been severed from the Dark;
our feet, it is heard, are now one with their goal.
See our leaders polish their manner clean of our suffering:
Indeed, we must confess only to bliss;
we must surrender any utterance for the Beloved — all yearning is outlawed.

But the heart, the eye, the yet deeper heart —
Still ablaze for the Beloved, their turmoil shines.
In the lantern by the road the flame is stalled for news:
Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light. Come, we must search for that promised Dawn.

2

I THINK the above poem by Faiz — one who had commendably and courageously lent support to our national liberation movement at more levels than one — cannot be glibly and gruffly dismissed as a foreign one. I think this poem can be read again and again in Bangladesh even today. For it continues to resonate profoundly with our contemporary conjuncture, at which, indeed, ‘that dawn for which, ravished with freedom, we had set out in sheer longing’ has hitherto stubbornly remained a moment of false hope. Indeed, it is a conjuncture at which ‘our leaders polish their manner clean of suffering,’ and a conjuncture at which ‘night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.’
Speaking of Faiz’s ‘Night’, we would do well here to look at the very current scenario obtaining in the country. No more than a microcosm of the larger structures of unequal production relations and unequal power-relations that continue to characterise our contemporary conjuncture, this scenario is tellingly marked by brutal and almost uninterrupted infanticide; massive cases of rape (every 21 minutes a woman or a child gets raped in our country); inordinate plundering of our reserve, accompanied by the mind-bogglingly large-scale plundering of our banks over time; the profit-driven and anti-people attempts to destroy our natural resources and our land, including the Sunderbans; as well as numerous murders and increasingly dramatic but frightening disappearances of the ordinary people in the country, not to mention the general living and working conditions of women, workers and peasants, the poor, the ethnically and religiously marginalised, and so on.
00003The list provided above is far from exhaustive. But it is symptomatic enough, I reckon. And the list offers no mere isolated events or abstractions; rather they are all historically, systemically, and politically produced since 1972. Indeed, one might symbolically yet realistically say that the dark, infernal, violent night of March 25 has not yet come to an end, as the very history of class-gender-communal-national oppression and injustice — a history within which the wretched of the land continue to live and struggle — has by no means come to an end, to make an understatement. But why is this night — the night of March 25 — so long, even freaking endless?
The above question is not just a symbolic or poetic one. It’s obviously a life-and-death question for the struggling and toiling masses in our country today. And it is a historical, political, and theoretical question all at once. Before we address this question, let us recall yet another constellation of historical moments of our people’s struggles for independence and emancipation to make sense of the long, endless night in question.
After 1947, of course, there is an entire temporal horizon stretching from 1948 to 1952 that consequentially bespeaks the struggle of the common, ordinary people — male and female students as well as workers and peasants — to establish their right to language and, by extension, their right to self-determination not only in the linguistic or cultural sphere but also in the economic sphere, profoundly interconnected as these two spheres are. I’m speaking here of our language movement of 1952, a movement that neither started nor ended in 1952 as such.
Contrary to certain standard accounts of our language movement of 1952, I tend to characterise this very movement as an overdetermined site in which both the anti-colonial struggle and class struggle intersected, eventually assuming a national character, while thus sowing the seeds of our national liberation movement of 1971. What it all means — to put it simply — is that while the people in general fought against Pakistan’s linguistic colonialism in particular and ‘internal colonialism’ — to use Lenin’s term, re-mobilised later by Frantz Fanon — in general, the workers and peasants in the then East Pakistan, obviously constituting the majority of the people in the eastern wing, also fought against the Pakistani ruling class for their own linguistic and economic rights, and, by extension, for their emancipation from economic exploitation and oppression in particular.
True, certain specific contradictions and antagonisms between capital and labour also shaped the dimension and direction of the language movement. I argue that if we are inattentive to the dialectics of class and colonialism enacted by our language movement, we are bound to lose sight of its emancipatory character and content, whose massive intensification and radicalisation we witnessed subsequently in the armed national liberation movement of 1971 — a remarkable, unprecedented event in the history of South Asia and the world at large — an event which was emancipatory in aspirations in more senses than one (points to which I will return later).
But between 1952 and 1971, there was also another chain — rather a conspicuous constellation — of historical events, which, in each instance, exemplified — to varying degrees — our people’s struggles against Pakistan’s neo-colonial rule and regime as well as its unevenly developed but inordinately exploitative capital. Surely the eastern wing of Pakistan became the ‘periphery of the periphery’ under global capitalism, to use the Egyptian political economist Samir Amin’s words.
Owing to space constraints, I cannot traverse here the entire range of historical events in question, but I would do well to underline certain crucial markers quickly: the democratic activism of the masses during the 1954 elections of the ‘Jukta Front’; the education movement of 1962; the movement to establish autonomy in 1966, and, of course, the remarkable mass movement of 1969 against Pakistan’s dictatorship that reached an unprecedented height at that point. And, then, there were the 1970 national elections during which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman finally emerged as the unparalleled leader of the masses in East Pakistan, the many earlier contributions of the left to the opening up of the spaces for national liberation notwithstanding.
History shifted gears when the Pakistani military junta annulled the results of the 1970 elections, and Sheikh Mujib delivered his historic, scintillating 7th March speech in 1971, saying, ‘The struggle this time is the struggle for emancipation, the struggle this time is the struggle for independence,’ although the history of the people’s struggle for real democracy — their struggle for both emancipation and independence — is surely longer than this particular historical conjuncture. The Pakistani military junta then launched what was called ‘Operation Searchlight’ against the people of the then East Pakistan on March 25, 1971. Sheikh Mujib was arrested; the common, ordinary people began to be massacred. Indeed, before and following the declaration of the independence of Bangladesh on March 26, 1971, the genocide in Bangladesh began with full force.
While Sheikh Mujib had been in jail and the majority of the middle-class leaders played their respective roles from outside the country, it is primarily the common, ordinarily people themselves — including countless women — who remained exemplarily untrammelled by all odds and obstacles, who sacrificed their lives, and who fought with courage and commitment and conviction on their own blood-drenched, death-devastated land: their land became their bodies and their bodies became their land.
Indeed, the antagonistic, conjunctural, material, and ideological contradictions sharpened with a vengeance: between the Pakistani military ruling class on the one hand and the people of Bangladesh, the majority of whom were of course workers and peasants, on the other; between militarised dictatorship and emancipatory democracy; between (neo)colonialism and decolonisation; and, broadly speaking, between exploitation and emancipation.
In fact, it will be no exaggeration to maintain that even the people’s revolutionary aspirations were embodied in the national liberation movement of 1971, informed and guided as they were by three fundamental revolutionary principles — equality, justice, and dignity.
So Bangladesh came into being as a result of the genocide and gendercidal atrocities perpetrated on its people by the Pakistani ruling class and its coercive apparatuses and their local collaborators, while Bangladesh also came into being as a result of the peoples’ — workers’ and peasants’ — protracted struggles, including their nine-month bloody armed war, against not only a particular segment of the Pakistani populace as such, but also, and more importantly, against the kind of Pakistani state — and culture — that was undemocratic, capitalist, colonialist, feudalist, militaristic, bureaucratic, and patriarchal all at once.
One should not forget history here. It will thus prove useful to recall that US imperialism — by-now a decisively globalised system of exploitation and domination that cannot reproduce itself without waging limitless war — also vehemently opposed the liberation movement of Bangladesh not only diplomatically but also militarily. Thus, our national liberation movement also had an anti-imperial character right from the getgo.
But — after long 45 years — the questions continue to confront us stubbornly: How far have we dispensed with the kind of Pakistani state and culture the people had fought against? Whither democracy? Whither the emancipation of the people — peasants and workers and women and minorities as well as other marginalised communities and constituencies in Bangladesh?

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THE answers to the questions posed above are not far to seek; they immediately reside in the very political and political-economic culture that has evolved in our country since the birth of Bangladesh as a nation-state. To state the obvious: there was an immediate shift of state-power from one ruling class to another, while the war-devastated economy of the country got further devastated through an almost continuous process of the ruling-class plundering and looting of people’s resources.
True, Bangladesh is today fully integrated into the world capitalist system, but the logic of the uneven development of capitalism continues to be at work, given the ways in which our economy continues to remain more pillage-oriented than production-oriented as such. One can speak of a certain kind of conjunctural, neo-primitive accumulation in this instance (not to be conflated with the classical notion of ‘primitive accumulation’ sensu stricto).
True, historically speaking, the post-independence Bangladesh began its journey with a multi-party democratic political system. But it soon morphed into a one-party autocratic and dictatorial system at the expense of people’s basic democratic rights. Thus, the system that began to evolve exemplified in a variety of ways what the noted political theorist Eqbal Ahmad once aptly called ‘pathologies of power.’
Indeed, all the right-wing mainstream political parties in Bangladesh — inherently undemocratic as they are, as Nurul Kabir empirically and exemplarily demonstrates in his book Noirbachonik Shoirotontro o Gonotontrer Sangram (Electoral Autocracy and the Struggle for Democracy)—continue to attest to, and are rather concrete embodiments of, the pathologies of power in question that routinely perpetrate different forms and forces of violence — material, legal, disciplinary, even symbolic — on the people, on the oppressed, broadly speaking. In fact, the pathologies of power, in the Eqbalian sense, decisively characterise our mainstream political power today, to say the least.
As for our mainstream political culture in Bangladesh, I have been arguing for quite some time now that it can be characterised by certain distinct trends and modes that have evolved over the last 45 years now. Categorically speaking, they include: 1) the commercialisation/commodification of politics and the politicisation of commerce (mark the ways in which politics has been decisively turned into a field of naked investment, a field of buying and selling, for instance); 2) the militarisation of politics and the politicisation of the military; 3) the bureaucratisation of politics and the politicisation of bureaucracy; 4) the class-use of religion and the politicisation of religion itself; and 5) the politicisation of autocracy and the autocratisation of politics.
The above trends also point to a certain kind of what I wish to call politicide — the death of politics proper — while such trends also remain profoundly — even if differentially yet organically — tied to and informed by such structures of unequal production relations and power relations as capitalism, imperialism/colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Obviously, such trends have run counter and proven obstacles to any progressive, emancipatory politics worthy of the name in Bangladesh — to any meaningful democratic struggle for that matter.
Those trends have also run counter to the three principles of our national liberation — equality, justice, and dignity. In other words, our national liberation itself is an unfinished project. But, then, the fundamental obstacle to our national liberation remains the political culture of our national ruling class itself — one that operates in variously orchestrated close class-cahoots with transnational corporations and US/Indian imperialism on the one hand, and with such international financial institutions as the World Bank and the IMF, on the other, to say the least.
But neither hegemony nor dictatorial domination is absolute, as the Italian thinker and activist Antonio Gramsci would say. The history of Bangladesh since 1971 is also one of people’s resistances, movements, riots, and uprisings that have erupted from time to time — an area that surely calls for an extended treatment into which I cannot go now. But one can make the basic point easily: those movements and uprisings have time and again underlined the fact that the common, ordinary people — the true protagonists of our national liberation movement — are yet to achieve their economic, political, and cultural freedom in Bangladesh. Given the actual historical-material circumstances, indeed, there’s no alternative to totally rejecting our mainstream political culture and evolving a new, creative, democratic, and even revolutionary politics — based on the principles of equality, justice, and dignity — in the interest of the total emancipation of humanity in Bangladesh.
Let me now close this piece with a prose-poem that I have translated from Bangla:
And I haven’t forgotten the blood in the streets. And I haven’t forgotten the pregnant woman whose belly was pierced open by a bayonet dazzling like a tiger-skin. And I haven’t forgotten the schoolteacher shot in the head because he taught children how to write the word ‘freedom.’ And I haven’t forgotten the wrinkled palm of a peasant from Atrai. And I haven’t forgotten the dusky evening when a mill-worker and hunger returned home hand in hand and remained awake throughout the cold December night. And I haven’t forgotten the two-year-old baby sucking the dead mother’s breasts in the streets of Dhaka. And I haven’t forgotten.
And I haven’t forgotten those years that return and rush like the waves of the Padma. I haven’t forgotten 1757 and 1857 and 1905 and 1946 and 1947 and 1952 and 1966 and 1969 and 1971: every step against oppression was a step forward in our struggle, marking neither absolute defeat nor absolute victory.
And I haven’t forgotten the song of freedom alive in the hearts of millions in Bangladesh.
No, I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten that our struggle for emancipation is an unfinished but an urgent task.

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