Politics is really about power; political power can be for the sake of power as also for the liberation of the people. Politics of liberation seeks to liberate all the classes in a state, including those who wield power. Quite naturally, there is a contradiction between the two. Indeed, power politics hinders politics of liberation, and, as and when the necessity arises, prevents liberation from happening. Those who are powerful want to ensure the continuation of the socio-political system on which they thrive. Liberation, on the other hand, finds it impossible to occur unless the system is overthrown. Any compromise between the two is, therefore, an impossibility.
That even a struggle for independence from foreign domination can prove to be anti-liberation has been borne out by the history of the mainstream anti-colonial political movement in British India. The movement for driving away the British was, on the whole, continuous; yet it ended not in liberation of the people but only in transfer of power, preceded and followed by communal violence, bloodshed, migration and uprooting of people on an unprecedented scale. It is because of anti-liberation power politics that the subcontinent had to be partitioned. Exceptions apart, most leaders were pro-independence and not pro-liberation. In terms of human misery the putative independence of 1947 was a tragedy; next, perhaps, only to what had happened in 1757.
We in East Bengal did not take long to come to the realization that we have been betrayed. The promise held out was one of an independent homeland free from exploitation of three known enemies ? the British, the landlords and the moneylenders. That independence would not augur us well was felt by us almost as soon the new state came into being. It occurred only a few months after the achievement of independence when the founding president of the state announced in Dhaka, of all places, that Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language. The people of East Bengal were apprehensive that instead of being liberated they would be turned into second-class citizens. And they revolted.
The state-language uprising was a beginning as well as a continuation. It was the beginning of a movement for real independence and a continuation of the one for liberation. That liberation means much more than political independence and that it cannot be achieved without a social revolution became clearer as the struggle for liberation advanced. Those who had become rulers of Pakistan had wanted political independence by which they meant transfer of power to them, and they had gained that. The people’s desire, on the other hand, was for liberation which could not be achieved without a total transformation of the social system, putting an end to all forms of exploitation and guaranteeing equality of rights and opportunities to all citizens. The rulers and the ruled stood against each other.
The struggle for liberation is a continuous process. It has been there during the British period; but it failed to be the main stream owing to the repression of the rulers and the antagonism of the national movement for independence. However, most of the major uprisings in East Bengal were spearheaded by the leftists, whose ultimate dream was of a social revolution.
The contradiction between those who wanted power for themselves and those who worked for empowerment of the people was beyond resolution. The distance between the two had manifested itself in the State Language Movement, the first of the many mass movements we had in the days of Pakistani repression. When the government imposed an order forbidding public gathering and procession, the mainstream political parties thought it would be imprudent to violate it, lest the disturbances likely to be caused by the violation should provide the government with an excuse for withholding the provincial election which had been overdue. But the youth, mostly students, defied the government as well as the political leaders, took to the street, and created a new history. The government arranged an election, expecting to create a division in the popular movement. Initially they failed because the political leaders formed a united front; but ultimately the governmental purpose was secured when the united front broke up on the predictable question of sharing of power. That made it easy for the military bureaucracy to usurp state power. The tactics of diverting the potentials of a revolutionary uprising into the blind alley of an election had been successfully put into practice by the British rulers in 1945. The Pakistani bureaucracy seemed to have taken the cue. But the movement for liberation continued. It brought down the regime of Ayub Khan. Yahya Khan, who took over from Ayub Khan, tried the same tactics of holding an election, hoping to divide the people of East Bengal. Having failed to do so, the disgruntled junta perpetrated one of the worst genocides in history on the Bengalis who had given through the election a verdict for independence. That is why and how the liberation war of 1971 began. Unlike the uprisings in the past it was a full-scale war, and as it gained in strength the collective dream that emerged from it went beyond the goal of independence, embodying the expectation of liberation. That we called this war one of liberation and not of independence was not without significance. The independence we were given in 1947 had taught us a lesson, and we were not prepared to have the disappointment repeated. When the Pakistani occupation army surrendered we looked forward to having a social revolution. But that was not to be. True, what happened at the end of 1971 was different from the occurrence of August 1947 in as much as power was not transferred by the rulers to a collaborating class, it was wrested from the Pakistanis through a war by a provisional government set up by the elected representatives of the people. And the state was new in many respects. It was founded on the rejection of the two-nation theory on which the Pakistani state was based and on its consequent replacement by secular Bengali nationalism. The basic principles of the state, as written in the new constitution, included secularism, democracy and socialism. But disturbingly the state machinery remained as bureaucratic as before. The organs and agencies, the laws and conventions were not changed. More importantly, the ideology of capitalist economic development ruled over all areas of the state and society as it did in the past. The rulers had changed; they were not foreigners, they belonged to soil; but having gained the power to rule they became as oppressive as those they had replaced. The euphoria began to dissipate, and feelings of frustration among the people were greater than they were after 1947, because the people had made enormous sacrifices for what they had hoped would liberate them.
One of the early disappointments was the state’s failure to put the war criminals on trial. The Pakistani criminals escaped; their local collaborators were allowed to rehabilitate themselves ? socially, economically and politically. And it was not without significance that the state considered the leftist political forces who were working, rather unscientifically, for a social revolution to be greater enemies than those who had participated in the genocide.
That things were not moving in the direction of the liberation of the people was indicated, symptomatically, by the acts of illegal occupation, plunder, harassment and even killing that fake freedom fighters were permitted to commit.
The issuing of certificates to those who declared themselves to be freedom-fighters, ignoring the fact that barring a limited few, everyone in the country had taken part in the war in some way or other and made sacrifices, and the awarding of promotion to the government servants who claimed to have fought in the war were an anticipation of the wide-scale practice of bribery that was in the offing. Unhindered copying in public examinations began, with the guardians encouraging their wards in that indulgence. Among other things, it signified the coming of corruption and the lowering of the moral standard in all walks of life.
Controlled by the hegemonic ruling class, politics itself failed to take on a democratic character. Amendments to the newly-framed constitution continued to be made to suit the undemocratic purposes of the ruling class.
The Parliamentary system was abandoned, and a one-party system introduced, to be followed, not much later, by the discarding of the basic state principles of Bengali nationalism, secularism and socialism. A military dictator found it convenient to write into the constitution the incredible idea of a state religion. Coups and counter-coups occurred. Military rule prevailed for years together. Privatisation of public industries and property was encouraged. A few prospered depriving the rest. The dominating politics of power degenerated into trading. In a word, the spirit of liberation has been cornered, continually, and politics of power has become the order of the day.
Many of those who believed in the politics of liberation joined the politics of the ruling class, owing to frustration and lack of the courage of ideological conviction. Betrayed by the ruling class, people looked up vaguely to the leftists as they had done in the past. But the failure of the leftists was devastating. Historically, the leftists were the first to raise the demand for the liberation of Bangladesh, but they were unable to take on the leadership of the war. They were divided. Some of them were unclear about the socio-economic reality and moved fruitlessly toward extremism, some others preferred to align themselves politically with the liberal bourgeois section the ruling class. Then there were those who lost heart in the absence of role models. Many of the talented, left-leaning youth went abroad for higher education and did not return. The fact of the matter is that the left parties have not been able to perform what the public had expected of them.
The vacuum was filled in by a section of the Mujib Bahini who, disappointed in their expectation of remaining close to the centre of power, put up an anti-government stance, calling themselves the Jatya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) and declaring themselves as committed to scientific socialism. As is well-known, the Mujib Bahini was formed as a second line of defense against a possible leftist take-over. Naturally, the JSD could not go far and broke into fragments.
It is from the students that the pro-liberation forces have been substantially drawn. Since the independence of 1971 attempts have been made, systematically and continuously, to depoliticize the students. Elections to students’ unions are not being held; and in the absence of elected representatives those who manage to gain access to government power act as student-leaders, engaging themselves in extortion, violence and the like, with encouragement from the ruling class. What passes for student-politics has become hateful to many, and not without reason.
But the struggle for liberation is not a myth, nor has its spirit disappeared. Pro-liberation forces do exist and are active. Although many of those fought in 1971 are no longer with us, it is heartening to notice that a new generation has grown up who had not seen the war but are inclined to the idea of liberation. They are dissatisfied with capitalism and believe, even if vaguely, that the system must be changed. Institutional education has not been promoting the cause of liberation. On the contrary, the three contrary systems of education are widening the class division. Madrasha education has created a large body of unemployed and unemployable youth who are likely to fall easy prey to the political call of the fanatics and peddlers of political Islam. Even among the English-medium students there are some who, disillusioned with capitalism and unable to find a leftist outlet, tend to join the so-called Islamic terrorist outfit.
The February youth uprising, demanding proper punishment for the war criminals, bears testimony, if any be needed, to the fact that despite hindrances, discouragement and diversions, the politics of liberation continues to flow. The message of this youthful and impressive occurrence is clear. The new generation is anti-establishment in outlook; it does not trust the politics of the ruling class. It is prepared to make sacrifices if necessary, and is, at the same time, waiting for a call. The call has to come not from an individual but from a movement. That movement would not be new, it would be a furtherance of the people’s continuing struggle for liberation. And there is no reason to doubt that it is on the politics of liberation as distinguished from the politics of power that the future of Bangladesh really depends. Adjustment to the existing system would not do, reforms spoken of by Civil Society and the NGO’s would not be enough; a total transformation of the system leading to democratisation of the society and the state would be needed.
That has been our collective dream for ages, and the more we move towards its realization the greater would be reawakening from the slumber of alienation and slough of despair we seem to have fallen into.
The writer is an eminent Litterateur and Professor Emeritus, University of Dhaka.