The general law of rebellion in Bangladesh

by Farooque Chowdhury

Only with lies and conspiracy, an integral part of bourgeois politics, instead of bravery and courage, it was possible for Clive, the conspirator from Great Britain, to overwhelm the Battle of Plassey, actually, ‘a brief artillery duel’ as Boris Kagarlitsky writes in From Empires to Imperialism, the state and the rise of bourgeois civilisation (tr Renfrey Clarke, Routledge, 2014) on June 23, 1957. Following the course, Clive, writes Macaulay in his Essays on Lord Clive, ‘subdued an empire larger and more populous than Great Britain.’ The colonial captains began to make a number of politically motivated claims. Baangaalees were made the first and foremost victim of the claims that were proved by subsequent developments as lies.
‘[I]t was from Bengal,’ writes Alfred Comyn Lyall, ‘not from Madras or Bombay, that the English power first struck inland into the heart of the country and discovered the right road to supremacy in India: To advance into Bengal was to penetrate India by its soft and unprotected side. From Cape Comorin northward along the east coast there is not a single harbour for large ships; nor are the river estuaries accessible to them. (History of India, From the Close of the Seventeenth Century to the Present Time, vol 8, ed AV Williams Jackson, 1907)
Lyall, a British civil servant, historian and poet, makes ‘wise’ observations on the people of Bengal while describing the land from military point of view: ‘[A]t the head of the Bay of Bengal [there is] a low-lying deltaic region, pierced by navigable channels which discharge through several mouths the waters of great rivers issuing from the interior…. On this section, and upon no other of the Indian seaboard, the rivers are wide waterways offering fair harbourage and the means of penetrating many miles inland; while around and beyond stretches the rich alluvial plain of Bengal, inhabited by a very industrious and unwarlike [emphasis added] people, who produce much and can live on very little.’ (ibid) The people in this land are, the ‘brave’ lords claimed, ‘unwarlike’.
Imperial observation on the people of Bengal continues with the same tone. ‘For Macaulay, the ultimate justification for the behaviour of Clive and Hastings — and thus for the British imperialisation of India — is quite simple: Indians, because of the baseness of their own social character and moral standards, deserved and needed to be imperialised. This need was especially great for the Bengalis, whose territories the East India Company first came to dominate. By their racial nature, Macaulay believes, the Bengalis are a people who almost begged to be conquered and ruled; their weakness created a power vacuum into which the bold East India Company adventurers rushed.’ (Patrick Brantlinger, Darkness, British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, Cornell University Press, 1990)
Macaulay, a faithful mind to imperial interest, says: ‘Whatever the Bengalee does he does languidly… singularly pertinacious in the war of chicane, he seldom enlists as a soldier. We doubt whether there be a hundred genuine Bengalees in the whole army of the East India Company. There never, perhaps, existed a people so thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke.’ (‘Lord Clive (January 1840)’ in Macaulay’s Essay on Lord Clive, ed William Henry Hudson, George G Harrap & Company, London, 1910)
Macaulay is obedient to his imperial duty: Condemn the conquered land and its people. So he writes: ‘The physical organization of the Bengalee is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breed. Courage, independence, veracity are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable. His mind bears a singular to his body. It is weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance’ (Macaulay, ‘Warren Hastings’ in Macaulay’s Essay on Warren Hastings, ed Margaret J Frick, The Macmillan Company, London, 1900; also quoted in Sir John Strachey, India, Its Administration and Progress, ref: Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishmen’ and The ‘Effeminate Bengali’ in the late nineteenth century, Manchester University Press, 1995)
In History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, Orme made another ‘accurate’ observation about the people of this land: All natives are of ‘effeminacy of character’, but that the Bengalis were ‘still of weaker frame and more enervated character’. (Orme, cited in John Rosselli, ‘The Self-Image of Effeteness: Physical Education and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Bengal’, Past and Present, 86, February 1980; ref: Mrinalini Sinha, op cit)
Bishop Heber conveys similar evaluation. In the 1820s, the Bishop noted that Bengalis were regarded as ‘the greatest cowards in India’. He added: The ‘term Bengali [was] used to express anything which was roughish and cowardly’. (Heber, quoted in Ketaki Kushari Dyson, A Various Universe: A Study of the Journals and Memoirs of the British Men and Women in the Indian Subcontinent, 1765-1856, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1978, ref: Mrinalini Sinha, op. cit.)
Masters, the colonial and neo-colonial robbers, made the ‘scientific’ observations. For centuries, the people of this land were depicted as ‘unwarlike people’, ‘a people who almost begged to be conquered and ruled’, ‘seldom enlists as a soldier’, ‘thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke’, ‘physical organisation… is feeble even to effeminacy’, ‘his limbs delicate’, ‘he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breed’, ‘weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance’, ‘the greatest cowards in India’, ‘cowardly’. A list with similar observations on the Bengal people is long with more ‘scientific’ observations.
So the ‘wise’ masters found the formula for ruling the people of this land: ‘As Clive wrote later to the Company, describing the state of affairs that he found on his return in 1765, “In a country where money is plenty, where fear is the principle of government, and where your arms are ever victorious…”’
All rulers in this land followed the formula: ‘Fear is the principle of government’ as ‘arms are ever victorious’ here, the land of ‘cowards’.
A history was formed: Consistently depicted as coward, born to be ruled, ever-loyal, hungry for yoke, etc the Bangladesh people heroically stood up to bravely break the shackle of slavery, and courageously challenged a state as they defied the ideology the state imposed on them. They also defied the state. The people took up arms, organised their armed struggle, waged a war for getting liberated. It was in 1971. The people composed a history.
The world imperialism opposed the people’s War for Liberation, and the opposition was of geopolitical significance. The masters stood as fools with their observations on the Bangladesh people. Imperialism failed to dictate the course of the war the ‘unwarlike’ Bangladesh people waged for their liberation.
How was the history made by the ‘effeminate Bengali’ people? Is it possible? Were the imperialist scholars wrong? There were other peoples/nations/nationalities in the state of Pakistan — Baloch, Pathan, Sindhi — not considered ‘coward’, ‘unwarlike’ by the masters. Those peoples were also experiencing suppression by the same state, and were trying to organise their political movements on issues of language, autonomy, etc. So, the questions, and similar questions emerge as one looks back to the bright days of 1971, the days the War for Liberation was waged by the Bangladesh people, ‘the greatest coward’ (!?) in this subcontinent.
As the general law of rebellion (GLR), people do not allow fear to be the principle of government and do not allow rulers’ arms to be ever victorious. Rulers may inflict fear, as the GLR tells, temporarily, depending on historical and the prevailing socio-economic-political conditions, among a part of people. Similarly, according to the GLR, rulers’ arms can turn victorious temporarily, and the length of the rulers’ victory depends on the historical and the prevailing socio-economic-political conditions.
A change was going on in mass-psyche in pre-independence Bangladesh as classes in antagonistic positions were in constant conflict with their interests that had political manifestations. An ideological — political, cultural, etc — shift was active among the people. Ideas, feudal and capitalist, colonial and neo-colonial, and even imperial, and ideas, progressive, radical, with seeds and dreams for a complete change in production relations were in constant contradiction. It was a long struggle spanning years.
Political struggle within legislative chamber of the Pakistan state was carried on. The issues for the political struggle included electorate and universal franchise, governor general’s and governors’ powers, amalgamation of western wing provinces into one, state language, food problem, parity between the eastern and western wings of the state, preventive detention, abolition of zamindari system without compensation, budget, capital city, fundamental rights, salary of governors, equality between all citizens irrespective of belief, etc, imposition of martial law, central government’s power limiting within the areas of currency, defence and foreign affairs, rights to expression and rights of press.
The struggle was also carried on outside the legislative house. A significant part of that struggle was extra-constitutional that made historic turning points although sometimes those appeared ‘faded away’ to some wise scholars. A part of press was voicing the people.
‘“Law,” from slave patrols and courts to statutes and appellate decisions, was a tool of empire.’ (91 NC L REV 1817, The Nat Turner Trials, Alfred L Brophy; Brophy cites Morton J Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780–1860, 1977, Christopher Tomlins, Freedom Bound: Law, Labour, and Civic Identity in Colonising English America, 1580–1865, 2010, and others). Referring other studies Brophy also identifies law as ‘a vehicle of control’. The Bangladesh people experienced Pakistan law as the tool of the state and as a hostile existence that gradually got exposed.
‘“Law” functioned to bring order’ (ibid., Brophy cites Daniel Lord, ‘On the Extra-Professional Influence of the Pulpit and the Bar: An Oration Delivered at New Haven, Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society’, of Yale College, July 30, 1851, in Daniel Lord, On the Extra-Professional Influence, SS Chatterton, New York, 1851). The Bangladesh people perceived the laws of the Pakistan state as a brazen bull as those were used against them.
The people were gaining political and organisational experience as they were organising and waging their economic and political struggles. Their social being determined their consciousness. This was also a part of the GLR. It was a period of transformation, transition also, in politics, and in mass-psyche.
But the ruling elites with its limited capacity for cooption considered their state as an absolute form of force ever victorious over the Bangladesh people.
However, class struggle was getting intensified, and the state was experiencing defiance by the people. A number of contradictions galvanised class alliances while a few isolated another part, the dominating part, and the dominant ideology was losing ground.
A few classes/segments were taking/gaining lead in the process. So, the questions need answers: What the classes/segments were those? How the task was being carried out? What was its political manifestation? What happened to the forces that claimed working for radical change? What were the factors and forces active in all the camps, behind success and failures? There was/were law(s) governing the changes in the pre-independence Bangladesh. What was/were that/those and how were those working?
Historical circumstances that led to the development need identification as for further development — change in class leadership and re-distribution of property — the question is alive: What is the order of ‘things’? The questions are alive as a people do not stall down, do not give up hope, do not cease struggle, a part of the General Law of Rebellion. ‘Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again… till their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic’, writes Mao. (‘Cast away illusions, prepare for struggle’, August 14, 1949) The way people fight, as Mao tells, is part of the GLR.
A class/segment takes leadership in war. So, the questions arise: Was it historically, and by class character possible for the class/segment that led the War for Liberation? What was the social and economic basis of the class/segment that led the war? How the class/segment won over the leadership, won over the working class, the peasantry, the mass of people as its allies?
The camp opposing the War for Liberation should also be searched. How the elites, orthodox and semi-orthodox, lost their grip on their subjects as the subjects were defying the elites? Losing grip over politics, and over subjects does not happen instantly or within a short period.
Geopolitical aspect of the war was significant. The time was going through the Cold War, imperialist wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and the non-aligned effort to take a stand against imperialist hegemony. The world imperialism was opposing the Bangladesh people’s war. The war was made a part of the Cold War by imperialism. So, the questions come: What was the type of the war? What role geopolitics played in the war? Or, how the war utilised geopolitics in its favour? Was it successful in its tact of utilising geopolitics?
Other questions requiring answers emerge as one looks back. Which issue should be considered first: the issue of national repression, repression on and deprivation of a people, or the issue of geopolitics?
Questions related to the people, and the classes that joined together in forming the people are there in the historic phase of Bangladesh. Class interests with historical capacity and possibilities interacting/contradicting in the prevailing reality governed the political attitude, alliances and actions of the people. Political forces representing the people, its parts, and political forces interacting with the people to uphold either the people’s interest or self-interest had to move within the respective class interests and class alliances. These aspects are part of the general law of rebellion.
The questions lead to look at pattern of politics classes/segments were carrying on in the pre-independence Bangladesh, and at interaction between the classes/segments that were getting generated from respective interests. There may appear anomalies in elite politics in the neo-colonial state of Pakistan. Or, the apparent anomalies in elite politics, it may come out, was the limitation imposed historically on the ruling elites, a combination of classes/segments, leading to their failure. The limitation coming from their class/segment condition led them to the failure to perceive, identify and handle the contradictions.
Rebellion: Rebellion is defined in many ways, from narrow to broader perspective.
Citing Professor Richard A Falk’s ‘Janus Tormented: The International Law of Internal War’ (in James N Rosenau, The International Aspects of Civil Strife, 1964) Anthony Cullen refers rebellion as ‘a situation… characterised as a short-lived, sporadic threat to the authority of a state.’ (‘Key developments affecting the scope of internal armed conflict in international humanitarian law’, Military Law Review, vol 183)
Heather A Wilson and Lothar Kotzsch add their explanations on the issue of rebellion. There are domestic violence, upheaval, armed activities by gangs organized by imperialism, and national liberation movements. International Law and the Use of Force by National Liberation Movements, (Oxford University Press, 1988) and Anthony Cullen’s The Concept of Non-International Armed Conflict in in International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge University Press, 2010) discuss the issues.
Rebellion, others consider, is ‘the act of resistance by one or more individuals to lawful authority acting within the limits of its power.’ (Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States, ed Lalor, John J, Maynard, Merrill, and Co, New York) And, rebels are ‘those who refuse to obey it.’ (ibid) It is claimed that ‘rebellion quickly becomes insurrection.’ (ibid)
However, it is agreed: ‘The distinction between them, consequently, exists especially at the beginning, but exact definitions are necessary in political language.’ (ibid)
Then, rebellion is defined as:
‘Rebellion is, at bottom or in principle, a refusal of obedience, which manifests itself either by violence and assault, or by passive resistance.’ (ibid)
The definition broadens as it’s told:
‘When peace officers act outside of their right, or exceed their power, resistance is not rebellion. This principle was written in the Roman law… it was even taught in French law’. (ibid)
It broadens further as it says: ‘These are the least serious cases of rebellion. They… constitute petty rebellion. Rebellion, in its greatest development, goes much farther than contesting the acts of a police officer; it calls in question the very government whose orders he executes; it raises against the government the same objections, of incompetency, or of exceeding its powers, which we have just supposed in the case of public officers.’ (ibid) Government is part of a state. The Bangladesh people questioned the Pakistan state, and rose against it as the state was incompetent, exceeded its powers, denied people’s rights, endangered people’s life, liberty and peace, threatened the way of life the people were aspiring for, and, even resorted to genocide to keep on its unlawful acts unimpeded. The rebellion thus turned just.
Rebellion may, as the definition tells, show itself ‘without violence, and be entirely passive. Thus, breaches of certain legal obligations are, in our opinion, acts of rebellion.’ (ibid) The Bangladesh people resorted to both — passive, non-violent, peaceful and, forceful — of the methods for resolving the contradictions the people were encountering. These form parts of the GLR in Bangladesh.
Rebellion is, Bouvier’s Law Dictionary says, ‘[t]he taking up arms traitorously against the government and in another, and perhaps a more correct sense, rebellion signifies the forcible opposition and resistance to the laws and process lawfully issued.’ (1856 edition)
To authority/government/state, revolting against their unfair economy and politics, against their tyranny, against their unjust acts and actions is traitorous while people consider rebellion as a just, rightful, essential act to redress grievances and unjust circumstance, to safeguard peace and prosperity. To the authority, etc all laws they impose and processes they initiate are lawful while people consider many laws, etc. unlawfully enacted as those lacked people’s consent. The contradiction between views carries elements of the general law of rebellion. The people in Bangladesh properly handled the contradiction as relevant political process created rationale and legitimacy for the act of their rebellion.
Power of all sorts energises the GLR. With destructive power, authority of all sorts strengthens logic behind the GLR as the authority loses legality and legitimacy to rule. ‘That whenever any Form of Government’, declares The Declaration of Independence of the US, ‘becomes destructive… it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….’ The people in Bangladesh perceived the state of Pakistan turned destructive and, at one stage, the state used carnage as a tool to subjugate.
The world imperialism, as recent documents and, Gary Bass’s The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (Knopf) show, was fully aware of the genocide. Archer Blood, the US consul-general in Dhaka, and his colleagues said in their telegram, known as the Blood Telegram, to Washington DC: ‘Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities…. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.’ Kenneth Keating, the US Ambassador to India, likewise called on the Nixon Administration to ‘promptly, publicly, and prominently deplore this brutality.’ (Pankaj Mishra, ‘Unholy Alliances, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Bangladesh Genocide’, The New Yorker, September 23, 2013) Bass writes in his book on the Bangladesh genocide: ‘In the dark annals of modern cruelty, it ranks as bloodier than Bosnia and by some accounts in the same rough league as Rwanda.’ Bangladesh experienced, as Harold H Saunders writes, a ‘horrible bloodshed’. (‘What Really Happened in Bangladesh, Washington, Islamabad, and the Genocide in East Pakistan’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014) There were imperialist collusion and complicity in the carnage, the least known genocide in the world. The simple and plain living Bangladesh people’s perception came from the reality of humiliation, exploitation, deprivation, disparity and repression, murder at mass level, and the reality of imperialism. The logic for rebellion found its ground even before a drop of blood was shed.
Thomas Paine asserts in Common Sense: ‘Arms as the last resource’ when ‘period of debate is closed’. Paine expects a new horizon as Common Sense declares: ‘By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new era for politics is struck — a new method of thinking hath arisen.’ The Bangladesh people found the period of debate closed by the Pakistan military junta in the late-March, 1971, and relevant issues were referred to arms. The period was imposed by the state of Pakistan with its treachery, betrayal, brutality, and arson and murder at mass scale, and the Bangladesh people by resorting to armed struggle heroically created a condition to make a forward march towards a new era for politics for a humane, peaceful, prosperous life, and for an equitable control over and distribution of resources. The new era for politics is long with treacherous turnings, costly compromises and backlashes; but, ultimately, it will be a people’s era for politics, a part of the War for Liberation. And, the rebellion will revolve to revolution.
Farooque Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance writer. Part of the article is partly based on an essay on rebellion by the author.

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