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THE Awami League’s ability to reconfigure itself as history demands has sustained the party over the years. It has had all types of reincarnations possible and moved from the right to the left and returned to the middle once more, its natural space. This flexibility is missing in its opponents which is more rooted in ideology or narrative history, making them a fixed-in-position entity. But because of its flexibility, the Awami League has remained as the constant in the political world. Seventy years after the debut, it remains the major party in politics. Why and will it last on and on?
What gives the Awami League this flexibility is its ability to occupy the centre space and then use that space to expand the middle and allow other forces to step in as junior partners with more rigid views. It makes the Awami League stronger and larger while the smaller parties find some space which a major party can only occupy.
Interestingly, such political forces, from the ideological to the opportunist, have always thought themselves to be strong enough to align with the party and later try to control it and, by extension, the politics. But interestingly, the AL centre space never seems to have been captured by the fringe/marginal forces, big or small. At some point of time, the party centre also comes in clash with such forces and in the end, the Awami League/centre prevails and the rest have had to say good-bye. It is a political phenomenon that has occurred repeatedly. Will it continue to happen?
Was Awami League itself the biggest ever break-away faction?
THE Awami League itself was part of a party that was a platform, the Indian Muslim League, a conglomerate which held all shades of politics and forces together by a stream that was contesting the dominant Indian ruling class under the pre-1947 colonial rule. So, the question is: was the Bengal Muslim League part of the All India Muslim League or an alliance partner?
Looking at the Bengal Muslim League and its construction, one sees both additions and deletions through its history. The most significant one was the departure of Fazlul Haque to later form his own party, Krishak Praja Party, in 1936 and later leave the governing alliance as well. But although very successful for a decade, 1936–1946, it collapsed after the 1946 elections which was swept by the Bengal Muslim League under Suhrawardy-Abul Hashem leadership. To an extent, the KPP was radicalised by its pro-peasant demands which caused problems in forming the government in 1937 and its departure as well. Leaving the mainstream meant that it never recovered politically, not even after 1947.
There were many factions within the Bengal Muslim League, whether leftists or rightists. Like the Congress (as it was before 1947) it was also a platform that became obvious when infighting grew. All kinds of territorial, regional and other groups existed which did not have the same understanding of the All-India Muslim League. Its main alliance partner was the Bengal Muslim League, which, in effect, delivered the votes that led to Pakistan. But the Bengali Muslim League and the All Indian Muslim League clashed over almost every issue.
By 1947, the limits of the relationship between both were stretched beyond recovery and by 1949, the Bengal part of the Muslim League split up and formed the Awami Muslim League. And it was the most successful part of the erstwhile Muslim League because it was mainstream in Bengal unlike the other Mulsim Leagues in East Pakistan that were wiped out after the 1954 United Front elections. They were not mainstream while the Awami Muslim League was.
The AL split in 1957 and the left
BUT the Awami League also split up in 1957 with Maulana Bhashani, a key founder, leaving with his leftist followers. But almost immediately afterwards, the martial law was imposed by General Ayub Khan in 1958 and a new phase of history began.
By this time, the Awami League under the Suhrawardy leadership was facing the brunt of the Pakistani repression and increasingly the party was becoming radicalised. This faction was under Sirajul Alam Khan and his ‘Nucleus’, which was a cluster of leftist activists who had been planning independence from the early 1960s.
Sheikh Mujib was also planning independence as were many others, including smaller leftist groups and parties. Yet few matured to capture the mainstream as they had hoped which stayed with the Awami League. When Sheikh Mujib, already the most vivid face within the Awami League, was planning an independent country, he went to the Communist Party of Bangladesh in 1962 to discuss the issue. But they refused to ally with Mujib on this. It was the largest Communist Party in Bangladesh and loyal to Moscow that was not keen on such a move.
By then, the left was splitting up into pro-Moscow and pro-Peking factions and none were politically significant. In the end, they never became a major force and took a second-row seat in the historical arena.
Subsequently, Bhashani even became an ally of Ayub Khan because of the pro-Beijing Left pressure to whom he was close. He redeemed himself only after he had accepted/joined the mainstream. Bhashani had a much better grip on history and developed a clandestine understanding with Sheikh Mujib as evidence from various sources indicate.
Bhashani at Sheikh Mujib’s request joined and led the anti-Agartala movement. He became the face of street movement after almost a decade of political semi-wilderness from the mainstream. But the left never recovered and remained in the margin till they faded away. They have existed as a political force over a significant period of time only when close to the Awami League.
But even before, the centre right had also left the Awami League in opposition to the Six Points and formed the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) led by Advocate Abdus Salam but faded away. Salam Khan was an eminent lawyer who defended Sheikh Mujib in the Agartala conspiracy trial.
1971 and the streams within AL
IT WAS 1971 which showed that the Awami League had several streams and it was united but not monolithic. The major streams were led by (a) Tajuddin Ahmed, (b) Sheikh Moni, (c) Khandakar Mushtaque and (d) Sirajul Alam Khan. Each had their own constituency and each had a separate niche within the war machine. Tajuddin represented the older moderate left of the CPI/CPB variety and was supported by Indira Gandhi’s inner sanctum.
Sheikh Moni represented the family stream and proximity to Sheikh Mujib. Khandakar Mushtaque was tilted towards the United States and supported by the US lobby within the Indian bureaucracy, too. Sirajul Alam Khan had his leftists in the crowd. Interestingly, Moni and Sirajul Alam Khan who were each other’s foe joined hands against their common rival for control over Tajuddin to form the Mujib Bahini. It was sponsored by Indira to ensure direct control of a part of the movement.
After 1971, Mushtaque had a slump but recovered and later began to conspire. Sirajul Alam Khan left to form Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal and lasted as a political force till 1975 after which they literally and figuratively became history.
Mushtaque led the 1975 coup and later formed the Democratic League which, after a few years, disappeared and he is mired in ignominy in history.
Sheikh Moni died in 1975 with Sheikh Mujib, a casualty of him being a kin. Tajuddin was left out by Sheikh Mujib over disagreements and his adherents also became a minor steam. His dependence on bureaucrats rather than political activists worked well in 1971 but did not allow him any clout in the post-1971 space. In the end, the sub-streams all dried up.
After 1975, even the Awami League split up with a BKSAL Awami League led by an Abdur Razzaque but it never managed to find its feet and ultimately returned back to the main Awami League.
The epicentric middle party?
THIS primarily means that the Awami League is supported and pushed by the middle of society, the link that remains the connector between various fringes and groups. It is not an ideology-based construct but a social impulse-based organisation. In a way, it is a mediating organisation as well. It brings social forces together and keeps them under its wings although they may be in conflict. Often such organisations align themselves with the Awami League but once they depart from it, they fade away. It is an epicentric construct and not a party in a conventional sense. That is why it draws very opposite and different forces to it as well.
But that also means that the best days of the Awami League are those when it behaves like a collective, and not a mono-identity, party. Its fluidity is its strength because it operates in a society which is fluid and flexible and informal. It reflects that spirit but when it is more monolithic, then the Awami League runs into difficulties.
So, its history has a fair share of internal transitions as well. In 1949, it broke away from the Muslim League and became the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League and after 1955, simply the Awami League, once separate electorate was gone. Its historic moment was the 1954 United Front government which shows its capacity to act as a platform. It faced great strain in 1957 when the left broke away but, as a moderate middle, triumphed over them. But at the same time, it gave birth to its own left in the form of the Nucleus. When they broke away, the Awami League survived but Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal did not.
However, the most negative experience of the Awami League was to be incarnate as BKSAL or one-party rule with a crypto socialist exclusive position. This phase did not last long and ended with the horrific killings of 1975.
After a period of wilderness, it revived with the pre-1975 position of the moderate middle that saw over time a collection of parties from the left as well in an alliance. Its relationship with India and attempt to balance it with China is an instance of trying not to belong to any camp.
The problem lies with its management of many more social segments now than what the Awami League had ever faced before 1975. The Awami League has recognised that change particularly in rural areas and its hand-holding with Hefazat is a sign of that to which the rural middle is close. It is not ideological but functional.
New challenges to the middle?
BUT as an alliance-based political organisation, its urban social base has shrunk. It is closer to the wealthy class and the rise of the rich as political players has meant the decline of the middle and the poor in its decision-making layer. The urban middle, the Awami League’s traditional supporters, feel left out and it is one group that the Awami League has paid the least attention to. It is true they hold least power now but without them, the party may swing to the extreme. It is the mediating segment which keeps the many forces closer. A critical success element, the middle class may be deeply weakened if class representation and interest are missing from the Awami League.
It is here that the Awami League faces its greatest challenge. It survives and flourishes as a multi-class and multi-interest group outfit. The Awami League is as much a platform as it is the name of a party. How well is the Awami League holding on to that?
Sheikh Mujib’s success lay in mobilising everyone and 1971 is a testimony to that. That challenge of bringing everyone home today is a far bigger one and economic disparity shows that this project has not done so well for all. This may be the price of growth-based economy but it carries political risks as well.
One hopes that this alliance-building capacity of the Awami League will increase which has dipped it seems, hopefully temporarily, but the secret of Sheikh Muib’s success was in gathering everyone, a political description of the social joint family. It is that space that works best for the Awami League and it must find its way there. Sheikh Mujib did and Sheikh Hasina now has to get more support from the middle class. That is a long-term objective.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.