Moulana Bhashani’s Anti-Imperialist & Anti-Expansionist Politics

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    By Siraz Uddin Sathi      11 December 2021

    Recently Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani’s 45th death anniversary was observed in different parts of the world, highlighting the urgent need of a leader like Bhashani who gave voice to the voiceless downtrodden people and the wretcheds of the earth. The event also coincided with the 58th anniversary of Bhashani’s historic China visit.

    Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani was a legendary leader. During his long political life, he was known as the leader of Afro-Asia and Latin America’s toiling masses. His political life was colourful and full of glorious events. He was an anti-imperialist and anti-expansionist.

    Although he worked relentlessly for a peaceful world, he was not a pacifist. He did not hesitate to resort to violence as a means to establish peace, earning the epithet, “Red Moulana”. Now in his death, the world searches for the “citizen of the world”, Moulana Bhashani – a humanist, an environmentalist, and a universalist.

    Abdul Hamid Khan becomes anti-imperialist, anti-expansionist Bhashani

    To understand Bhashani’s anti-imperialist and anti-expansionist role, we need to understand his struggle over many decades, in three phases of his life. Also, we must consider the timeline of the history.

    • Firstly, born in the 1880s and growing up in British India to fight against the colonial Rule and feudal allies of the colonial power.
    • Secondly, his role in Pakistan over 1948-1971 in the democratic and provincial autonomy movement.
    • Finally, his role in Bangladesh till his death for a just, prosperous and inclusive society and for protecting economic and political sovereignty

    In all these three phases, emancipation of the down-trodden remained a constant feature of Bhashani’s politics.

    Abdul Hamid Khan was born after 48 years of Titumir’s heroic rebellion and 23 years after the Sepoy Revolt against the British Rulers in colonial India. The first one was a peasant rebellion. More or less 50 peasant rebellions took place in Bengal by that time. But the condition of peasantry did not changed; rather coercion and exploitation continued. The land-lord or Zamindary system, known as “permanent settlement” introduced by the East India Company, created a class of loyal agents to serve imperialist interests.

    Having born and grown up in such a backdrop he could understand the nature of relationship between the landlords and the British Ruler. He realised how they serve each other’s interest. So, his induction to peasant movement was a natural process.

    His understanding grew deeper during his study in Deoband, which was a centre of anti-imperialist thought. That inspired him to work with the armed juvenile group, fighting for freeing the motherland. However, he quitted the clandestine armed movement when he understood that it was not the right way.

    He then engaged himself in the long-drawn struggle for the emancipation of peasant and for social justice. That was the battle against landlords, the agents of imperialist British rulers. That was, in other words, a fight against the ruler, and against British imperialism. Unlike the clandestine armed group, leaving people behind, Bhashani’s peasant movement was taking the oppressed people with him in the struggle for their emancipation.

    The first such organised confrontation took place in Santosh, Tangail, against the landlord Moharaja. The Colonial Government came forward to protect the Moharaja. They extradited Bhashani  from the district of Mymensing. So, he went to the other side of the river Jamuna, to Sirajganj. There also, he stood up for the peasant’s cause, against landlord’s coercion and oppression. And he was expelled again from the district of Pabna. Then Bhashani moved to the North. The same thing happened wherever he moved – organising the oppressed against the oppressor.  Thus, in 1926 the Governor of Bengal passed an order of expulsion from the province. Then he moved to Assam.

    In Assam, he raised his voice against injustice, and oppression. He advanced the movement against the notorious “line system” – an apartheid system against Bengali Muslim settlers in Assam. Again, it was a struggle against feudal lords and the British ruler. He became a saviour of the oppressed. He earned trust and affection of the oppressed became their leader; they fondly called him Moulana Bhashani, after “Bhashan Char”, a place where he organised political resistance against injustice, exploitation and oppression; the title “Moulana” for their utmost respect for him and “Bhashani” to permanently attach him with the struggle of the people of Bhshan char for justice.

    Thus, the journey of his life that started at a remote village in Sirajganj proceeded progressively to turn him into a mass leader – a leader dedicated for the oppressed people against exploitation, and against the colonial rule – taking these two as devil twins.

    Advances anti-colonial nationalist movement

    Bhashani tried to link his struggle for toiling masses with national politics. In 1917, Bhashani was inducted into active politics and joined the Nationalist party led by Desbandhu Chittaranjan Das as an activist.  He joined the Indian National Congress in 1919, which was created by the direct inspiration of British Bureaucrat Allan Octavian. However, Bhashani soon realised that it was not carrying the politics what he dreamed for. Later he joined the Muslim League, became president of Assam Committee and he pursued his style of politics there.

    Moulana Bhashani participated at the Lahore Conference in 1940, where the famous resolution was passed for `independent Muslim majority states’, which was later changed into a single state by Jinnah. In 1947, when Pakistan was created having two wings separated by a distance of over a thousand mile, Bhashani was in Assam and still continuing his efforts for realising his dream of an independent state with undivided Bengal and Assam in it. He was arrested for this endeavour under the security act and jailed by the Indian Government. He came to East Pakistan after he was released from the jail.

    Sows the seed of an independent Bangladesh

    What was the situation of political leadership at that time in East Pakistan? The ruling Muslim League was in the pockets of Khawjas, Nawabs and Zamindars – the landed elites. The progressive Muslim leaders Abul Hasim, Suhrawardy and many others just migrated from Kolkata. And Bhashani came from Assam.

    In the newly created Pakistan, Bhashani severed his relationship with the Muslim League, and formed a new party, the Awami Muslim League in order to stand for the democratic rule and pro-people policies. Since then, he continued to play a key role in each and every political movement in East Pakistan. It was he who first developed the democratic movement in Pakistan. It was he who imbued the idea of secularism in Pakistani politics. It was he who proposed to change the name of the Awami Muslim League to Awami (people) League in 1955 to signal that his party is not for Muslims only, but for the people of all faiths, thus, introducing secular politics and creating political space for all.

    Bhashani saw that the East was dominated by the West and a discriminatory policy was followed. He also saw that Pakistan was going to align with the US imperialist force, when Pakistan was moving towards the Military Pacts CENTO and SEATO under the US umbrella. The main purpose of such pacts was to resist socialism and to form an anti-communist block. He was opposing such US patronage. In 1954, in the Jukta (United) Front’s 21 points election manifesto, he included the issues of non-aligned foreign policy and provincial autonomy. But later on, he was shocked when his ally Suhrawardy, on becoming Prime Minister, said, “98% autonomy has already been achieved” and he was favouring military ties with the US, breaching the election pledge. It caused rift in the party and ultimately he had to launch a new party named National Awami Party- NAP.

    Enigma: Deeply religious, shelters communists

    The communist politics was banned in the country at that time.  Programmes of “Socialism” or “Communism” were underground affairs. In such circumstances, the left progressive politics found in Bhashani an invaluable ally. This was a timeline in the world history when many nations emerged as socialist countries and the dream for socialism was high everywhere. Moulana was not a communist, but he believed that Islam’s goal of establishing social and economic justice is similar to that of Socialism. In fact, he was a practical socialist.

    Moreover, Bhashani firmly believed that the struggle for socialism is also the struggle against imperialism, because they are vested interests in the settings. To him, it was equally true for Pakistan as well as for Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world. He said, “The ultimate fight of the masses should be directed against the US imperialism.”  He always said, “I am against imperialism, Feudalism and Capitalism.”  His basic three understanding was –

    • American Imperialism is the main enemy of people’s freedom
    • There is a similarity between Socialism and Islam in the areas of social and economic justice, and
    • Social revolution is a must for the liberation of the poor.

    More than a politician

    To me, Moulana Bhasani was more than a politician. His prophetic saintliness and nobility, and love for the poor made him a fatherly character in Pakistani politics. It was he who said in 1957, “East Pakistan will say good-bye if discriminatory policy is not changed.” At the historic Kagmari Conference, he told novelist Tarashankar that “East Bengal would be independent within 12 years.” Nobody even imagined or even dared to dream about independence at that time.

    Moulana Bhashani’s farsightedness brought the Socialist China closer to Pakistan. He had a very cordial relation with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Prime Minister Zhou EnLai. He could convince President Ayub khan, an autocrat and US ally to develop ties with China. This shows his flexibility and realism in politics – he could work with an autocrat whom he did not like if it is in the interest of the country. Thus, he played a pivotal role just in pursuance of his anti-imperialist fight, for which he continued to use many global platforms, including the Stockholm World Peace Conference, the Tokyo World Religious Peace Conference, the Afro-Asian American People’s Solidarity Conference in Havana. He was indeed, a consistent anti-imperialist fighter.

    1969 mass uprising and the final push towards independence

    As Pakistan’s colonial attitude towards East continued, he launched a movement in his unique style. He was a champion in introducing the “gherao (occupy) movement” and “village hat (market) hartal (shutdown)”, and thus, he spread the anti-Ayub movement from cities to villages. In 1968, he threatened the rulers saying, “If demands were denied East might secede in order to become independent.” Thus, he played a key role in the mass upsurge in 1969, which dethroned the iron-man Ayub Khan and saved Sheikh Mujib from the Agartala Conspiracy trial. It was he who declared, “People will seize the cantonment and bring out Mujib”.

    It was Bhashani who guided the nation over the years towards independence. In the month of volatile March, 1971, when the AL – the party that had a landslide electoral victory, made possible by Bhashani’s decision to boycott the election – was trying to make settlement, he was constantly advising Sheikh Mujib, not to betray. Thereafter, what happened, we all know; it was what he indicated in 1957; what he said to Tarasankar and what he said in huge public meetings throughout 1968 to 1971 at a stretch.

    Constructive opposition in Bangladesh

    In the newly born Bangladesh, he started his opposition politics by providing fatherly advice to the government – what to do and what not to do. In his first public meeting on 2 April, 1972, at the historic Paltan Maidan, he said, “Our independence is not meant to be merely geographical. The independence, earned through the blood and sacrifices of people, has to be translated into the liberation of the toiling masses.”

    Just after that he addressed the first opposition conference at Shibpur, Narsingdi, where his followers played a heroic role in the Liberation War.   He said, “I am at the age of 90 now. I am not as young as you are, but I am with you in your struggle for socialism, exploitation free society. In order to achieve our goal we have to strengthen the solidarity of peasants and workers.” From that conference he announced the holding of a “Peasants-Workers Solidarity Conference” at Tongi. Moulana Bhashani thought that such solidarity would lead them to their ultimate emancipation.

    He was shocked on seeing the hegemonic attitude of India, the country which immensely helped us in our liberation war. He expected friendship, not any sort of subservience or dominance. So, he protested against it and said, “We have broken the chain of Pindi not to be chained of Delhi.”

    In 1976, just a few month before his death, Bhshani organised and led a long march towards the “Farakka Dam” which is causing devastating environmental impacts in the downstream Bangladesh.

    He also carried out a mass movement against rampant corruption, plundering, misrule, political killings, food crisis which frustrated the goal of independence.

    No to every form of injustice and exploitation

    In conclusion, I would like to mention, Moulana Bhasani was such a leader who said-

    • No to the British Colonial Rule
    • No to the Pakistani undemocratic rule of discrimination and deprivation
    • No to the Imperialistic and expansionist hegemony
    • No to his own party policies
    • No to the politics of opportunism

    Thus, Bhashani left behind an enduring example of leadership, living a commoner’s lifestyle altogether, staying in a village hut, leaving no wealth for his family.

    Under a Banyan tree the left forces fails dismally

    In conclusion, I also want to say, Moulana Bhasani was like a big banyan tree that always sheltered all – the nationalists, the leftists. The left politics flourished under his umbrella during their tough time in Pakistan and Bangladesh. He allowed them to launch their programmes on his springboard. He gave all his resources in his personality, popularity, mass base, organisation at the disposal of the communist followers. But they not only failed, but also ironically behaved with him sometime in a hostile manner. They missed every opportunity, and engaged in bitter infightings of worst nature. Then they tried to pass the blame on the Moulana. This is the tragedy of Bhashani, and also the tragedy of the left forces.

    When I compare Bhashani with the Sun Yat Sen’s role in China, I see he played almost the same role in our history. The difference is, the Chinese Communists under the leadership of Mao could utilise Sun Yat Sen’s contribution in order to achieve ultimate emancipation, but here in Bangladesh, no one could do that.

    [The paper is first of a series of papers, presented at the November-December 2021 Webinars to the commemoration of 58th Anniversary of Moulana Bhashani’s historic China visit. These Webinars have been organised by the Moulana Bhashani Parishad (MBP), Australia. The MBP Australia is a non-profit organisation whose objective is to inspire the younger generations, particularly in Bangladesh, to the progressive, humanist, environmentalist, and universalist political ideology of the Moulana, by way of research, publications, seminars and workshops. – Professor Anisuzzaman Chowdhury, Convenor, MBP Australia]