Vol. 4 Num 173 Mon. November 17, 2003  

Bhasani special
The epitome of an honest leader

Following the famous Indian revolt of 1857, in the tumultuous political arena of South Asia many notable politicians emerged. One of them was Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, born in 1885. In his political career he was involved in anti-British movements, in 1954 helped in the win of East Bengal's United Front, in 1957 said the famous "Assalamu Alikum" (in this case meaning goodbye) to the West Pakistani military rulers. He was the man behind the 1969 mass uprising. After independence he led a long march against India's Farakka dam. After a long colorful political career Bhasani died on November 17, 1976.

Unlike most political leaders of the subcontinent, in his political career Bhasani did not seek to head the government. Nor was he interested in power as an expression of some kind of personal empire or for personal aggrandisement. He sought the kind of power a legislator would possess. He was given the title, "Janotar Chabuk" meaning Whip of the Masses. In this role, as a political leader he had two over-lapping set of followers -- those who responded to him as a pir and those who responded to his political positions. Unlike traditional leaders, Bhasani showed humility and felt sorry before his death that many of those leaders he had helped to be elected to bring change betrayed him and he was not able to fulfil his promises. This is different from those who claim their success in being able to leave their names in history.

Research on his leadership in Assam, Pakistan and Bangladesh periods shows that governments, populist leaders, religious and other rightist leaders detested him. In 1957, he was attacked by the followers of the rightist branch of the Awami League. In 1970, he was even physically attacked by Jamaat-e-Islami supporters in West Pakistan. However, people in general responded particularly to him. What is clear is that rububiyah as a universal philosophy allowed him to work with people of various orientations but in the end, only the leftist followers and his sufi followers were his core supporters. Despite his association with the Communists, he consistently showed his belief in Islam.

The analysis of Bhasani's leadership shows that scholars failed to understand his vision. They used faulty analogies. Faulty analogy is often accompanied by a "poor understanding of the history" and of "the context." They essentially assume Bhasani worked with the Communists therefore he was a Communist; that he dressed like a Muslim fundamentalist so he was a "fanatically religious person"; he opposed Indian policies, and most "fundamentalists" oppose Indian policies therefore he was "a religious fundamentalist." The comparison does nothing to prove the point. The arguments sound logical and reasonable but they lack factual evidence.

Given his experience of Bengal as a society comprised of both Hindus and Muslims and his adoption of a universalistic policy, he demonstrated himself to be a progressive leader who tried to "rationalise" his version of Islam meant a society characterised by "Islamic living" with a lofty aim to establish a secular democratic society.

Bhasani was a political leader as well as a sufi spiritual leader. Sufis are seen as godly people and in Bengali society they are trusted as honest in disposition. As a sufi leader he continued to practice with his followers the devotional exercises in his Darbar Hall. He lived in rural Bengal among peasants, and honestly fought for their rights. This type of leadership led his people to trust him as one of them and people responded to his appeal. In addition, Islam served Bhasani's politics as a means of mobilisation (communicating ideas through the use of religious idiom, utilizing religious institutions, such as the sufi orders, as a way of supporting and spreading political activity) and as a source for personal models or techniques (e.g. using the model of the companion of the Prophet or the pir to learn not only about what one's goals should be, but also how to bring them about and how to exercise leadership).

As a vision mainly rooted in sufi tradition, Bhasani's religious and philosophical ideas ask for the self-sacrifice and the destruction of the ego. He offered help whether or not the person in need desired it. He saw providing help to others as a way of helping himself to achieve grace or a place in heaven. For this he sacrificed comfort for himself and his family. He considered it as his "religious duty" his performing of hukkul Allah and hukkul Ibad, indeed a lofty question about the meaning of existence. He found "the mind of God" in his rububiyah philosophy, seeing in "the order and consistency of the world of nature the result of active mind."

Bhasani's long life and service to his people stands as a testimony to the human willingness to sacrifice comfort, security and power in order to help less fortunate people. This is the religious character of Bhasani's political leadership. This is his originality.

In response to South Asian Islam's internal decay and external domination Bhasani used Islamic symbols politically, as many others have done and are doing in modern times. But his religio-political vision was markedly different from both -- emphasizing pluralism, democracy and tolerance. The one thing he might have had in common with the Muslim religious leaders of today is his "anti-imperialist" tone. Bhasani's kind of political Islam, it seems, is hardly to be found today. Its possibilities have been submerged -- perhaps under influence of the perceived or actual threat of the West. By a narrower vision that emphasises the reconstruction of conservative social values as a bulwark against outsiders, rather than local reform and liberation.

In pursuance of this picture, every indication shows that not enough attention has been devoted nationally in Bangladesh, regionally in South Asia or internationally, to the understanding of the real Bhasani. In the absence of an accurate account of his life, much ingenuity had been deciphered by clever politicians or less-serious scholars towards discrediting the contribution of Bhasani. Previous works have been either apologetic or superficial and do not go into depth of the matter.

Bhasani, after his death is regarded as a politician and a Muslim saint. But most of all what he represents is an epitome of an honest leader, existing among dishonest partisan leaders. He indeed remains powerful, even after his death and this compelling reasons require that he be understood.

Dr Abid Salimullah Bahar used to teach Sociology at the University of Chittagong, and now teaches at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. He did his PhD research on Maulana Bhasani from Canada.

Moulana Bhasani addressing public meeting at Paltan, 1969