The movement that was started by a group of Bangladeshi youth at the Shahbag intersection in Dhaka on February 5, 2013, has grown tremendously. Initially there was just one podium in Shahbag. Now the youth all over the country have erected “Gonojagoran Manchas” (people’s awakening podiums) in almost every sub-district of the country. The youth, led by internet savvy bloggers, have been joined by millions of ordinary people. The movement has been praised by noted intellectuals. It has also been supported by the government, even when the youth did not allow leaders of the governing political party to speak from their “Gonojagoran Manchas.” The youth movement has now turned into a people’s movement, and it has been coined as ‘Spirit of 1971’ by a section of the Bangladeshi intelligentsia/media.
In this article, I would like to analyze the spirits of 1971 and 2013, see how they compare, and what we could learn from them. The subjects are very broad, and my discussions would necessarily be brief on each topic. I would also try to avoid worshiping or vilifying any personality. Obviously, simple statements of facts can and should portray personalities in adorable or abominable lights.
Part I: The Spirit of 1971
First let us look at a very brief version of the facts in history.
There was a central parliamentary election in Pakistan in 1970, overseen by a military government headed by a Pathan, General Yahya Khan. The total number of seats in that parliament was 300. Following were the results of that election in terms of the number of seats won: Awami League 160, Pakistan People’s Party 81, Independents 16, and Distributed among Eight Other Parties: 45. All the seats won by Awami League were from the then East Pakistan, and all the seats won by Pakistan People’s Party were from the then West Pakistan.
With an absolute majority in the parliament, Awami League was legally entitled to form the government. Since it was one country with one central parliament, Awami League had the total legal right to form the central government of Pakistan, irrespective of from what parts of the country the seats were won. However, the military dictators from the western wing did not want to hand over power to the Bangalee-dominated Awami League, headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The most popular leader of the western wing, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also made the illegal demand of not yielding power to Awami League.
Thus, there was discontent in the eastern wing of Pakistan. Awami League and the people of the eastern wing demanded power to be handed over to the people’s representatives. They demonstrated on the city streets, and heeded a call by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to maintain a non-cooperation movement against the military dictators. The military dictators, instead of handing over power to the legitimate people’s representatives, tried to suppress the popular movement by force. That did not work, and the movement against the dictators grew bigger day by day.
The military regime murdered demonstrators somewhat spasmodically up until the evening of March 25, 1971. However, they started a full-fledged genocide in East Bengal, which was officially called East Pakistan from 1955 to 1971, in the middle of the night of March 25, 1971.
Their aim was to suppress the Bangalee people through murder, rape, torture and arson. In order to do that they disarmed, disbanded and murdered armed Bangalee personnel in the East Bengal Regiment of the military, in the paramilitary East Pakistan Rifles, and in the police force, to stave off possible armed rebellions. Then they went into city neighborhoods, university dormitories, and professors’ quarters to murder unarmed civilians. That left no question about the fact that the rulers from the western wing of Pakistan had no respect for the life and dignity of the Bangalees.
After that what choice did the Bangalees have? They had no choice but to organize an armed struggle for the freedom of the land, which is today’s Bangladesh. Over the next nine months, the Pakistani military murdered an estimated 3,000,000 people, raped an estimated 200,000 women and girls, sent an estimated 10,000,000 people to seek shelter in India, and burned and looted countless number of homes.
The freedom fighters of Bangladesh had their love for their motherland, and their brave conviction to defend the life and dignity of their people. But they were no military match to the Pakistani armed forces and their local collaborators. Thus, most of Bangladesh remained under the Pakistani military occupation until December 1971, when India recognized Bangladesh and came to the aid of the new country, resulting into the surrender of the Pakistani military to the Indian military, represented by Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora, on December 16, 1971.
What brought the Bangalees to the point of the election of 1970?
To be very brief, the ruling class of Pakistan was mostly from the western wing. The eastern wing was highly discriminated against, in terms of the rightful place of the language of the majority population, in terms of national developmental work, in terms of political power distribution, and in terms of employments with the central government. Thus, the election manifesto of the Awami League was based upon their Six Point Demand that was originally declared by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman before a convention of opposition political parties in Lahore on February 5, 1966. The points of the Six Point Demand were as follows:
Point 1: Pakistan shall be a Federal State. There shall be a parliamentary government formed by a legislature elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.
Point 2: The federating units or the provinces shall deal with all affairs except foreign relations and defence.
Point 3: There shall be two separate but easily convertible currencies for the two wings of Pakistan. Or, alternatively, there may by a single currency with the proviso that the Federal Bank shall take adequate measures to stop the siphoning of money from East Pakistan to West Pakistan.
Point 4: The federating units or provinces shall reserve the right to levy taxes. The central government, of course, shall have some share of the tax proceeds.
Point 5: Separate accounts shall be maintained for the foreign exchange earnings of the two wings. The foreign exchange earned from foreign trade shall be under the control of the respective wings. The federating units shall be independent in conducting trades with foreign countries.
Point 6: The federating provinces shall be able to raise Para-militia or Para-military forces for their own defences.
Thus, Awami League’s popularity in pre-independence Bangladesh was based upon the demands of fair treatments for the eastern wing of Pakistan within the integrity of that country. The political spirit of the demands for fairness within the framework of Pakistan also ended up in bringing the nightmare of 1971 onto the mass population of Bangladesh.
What was the people’s spirit in Bangladesh after March 25, 1971? It was just getting rid of the occupying brutes of Pakistan from their land. Was there any plan for what would be the nature of the new country?
In the formal declaration of the independence of Bangladesh by the interim Mujibnagar Government on April 10, 1971, the leaders of Bangladesh aspired “to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice.”
The terms Equality, Human Dignity and Social Justice, can be interpreted as Democracy, Secularism and Socialism (not respectively). However, Bangalee nationalism was not an objective of the first Bangladesh government, nor was it in the Six Point Demand.
Thus, three of the four pillars of the 1972 constitution of Bangladesh, Democracy, Secularism and Socialism can be asserted to have originated from the formal declaration of the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.
(To be continued in Part II)
About the Writer: Sukhamaya Bain is a US citizen who was born in a place that is a part of today’s Bangladesh. He earned a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry in 1987, and currently works for the US federal government, evaluating chemistry. While being a scientist by profession, he believes that societal justice is vital for the well-being of mankind. Thus, he occasionally writes on sociopolitical issues.