By Taj Hashmi 3 November 2019
Gowher Rizvi, the author of the article, “The Killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – Perspectives on Recent Bangladesh History”
This is a review of an academic article by Ali Gowher (aka Gowher Rizvi), who is the current International Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. The article analyses the politics and governance of Bangladesh during the 1972-1975 period and raises few issues regarding Bangladesh’s transition from a democratic polity to one-party rule under Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and later his assassination in a coup on August 15, 1975. Assertions and analyses by Rizvi, a very important person in the current government, do warrant a revisit and hence this Review.
Indeed, had Mujib’s Soviet-style one-party dictatorship (the BAKSAL regime) survived a decade or so, what is Bangladesh today in terms of a government which many regard as unelected, brutal and a corrupt and intrinsically a one-party dictatorship since 2014 under Mujib’s daughter Hasina could be a déjà vu moment for the country with all the tenets of BAKSAL and its tyrannical governance norms in full operation! Thus, it is little wonder that Gowher Rizvi, a passionate admirer of Mujib’s one-party dictatorship is serving the Hasina regime with such ease and glee. This is the backdrop that makes the task of revisiting and reviewing Rizvi’s 1976 article so relevant as this reflects the mindset of the author and his level of understanding of Bangladesh’s social and political dynamics especially by someone who is a key advisor of the current Prime Minister!
For most of the East Bengalis in March 1971, establishing the popular will of the people or democracy was the main rationale behind their demand for independent Bangladesh. And that had General Yahya Khan respected democracy by transferring power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the majority party Awami League, there would have been no Bangladesh, not in 1971. However, Bangladesh has enjoyed very little democracy since its emergence, even under elected civilian governments. When Mujib returned to liberated Bangladesh in January 1972 from a Pakistani prison, the war-ravaged country was in very bad shape. His administration had a Herculean task to rebuild the country. Even bare survival and sustenance of the people were very difficult. As Gowher Rizvi correctly depicts in his article: “[While] there was no gold reserve in the State Bank: the country embarked upon its independent career with only 12-pound sterling in the vaults of the Reserve Bank”; and the problems of acute food shortage, damaged/destroyed industries, roads, railways, seaports, and the overall infrastructure of the country posed existential threats to the newly independent country [p.18]. Mujib had the aura of unchallenged power, authority, influence, and legitimacy, however, the country under him was under patriarchy, not democracy, and from late 1974 to August 1975 – from his declaration of the State of Emergency to his violent overthrow – the country was a one-party dictatorship. One may thus agree with Rizvi that, “Even without these problems Bangladesh would have been in difficulty”, but in view of Sheikh Mujib’s track record as an administrator and his fast declining popularity in 1972, it is difficult to agree with Rizvi’s assessment of Mujib that: “His [Mujib’s] selfless sacrifice in giving the Bengalis an identity had endeared him to the people and a deep bond united the leader with the people: a bond which remained unbroken up to his death, although he lacked any sophisticated knowledge of running a modern government”[p.18].
Notwithstanding, it is, however, difficult to concur with Rizvi’s view that since Mujib preferred “populist traditions” of Bangladesh politics to the “elitist” ones, and he thus “provided the bridge” between the two traditions, through introduction of one-party dictatorship and became the sole arbiter of the nation’s fate; and after 1971 the duality of that role as the “bridge” between the two political traditions said to have “introduced a conflict and tension in his character hitherto not experienced”! “Mujib was carried away by his own appeal and mass adulation. He became a prisoner of his own slogans…. He failed to realise, however, that the war, independence, and ensuing destruction had changed the picture. Nor could he see that his impoverished country would have to depend on its own resources,” Rizvi surmises. He also calls Mujib’s retaliatory measure – the demonetisation of 100-taka notes – against smugglers and black marketeers “crude and unorthodox”, hence ineffective. [p.19]. Again, as propounded by Rizvi, it is difficult to accommodate his two diametrically opposite views that while Mujib, who said to have lacked sophisticated knowledge of running a modern government, “displayed a rare political acumen” by convincing his colleagues [or more likely, coercing them into submission!] to amend the Constitution and introduce a presidential form of government in the country. Then again, Rizvi has rightly assessed Mujib’s role as the new dictator: “For his own part he was content to centralize all powers in his hands and attempted to rule the country like a medieval despot”; and Mujib glorified his dictatorial step in assuming absolute power as the President as the “Second Revolution”, which he thought was a departure from what Mujib called “Free-Style Democracy”! But then Rizvi resorts to the deification of Mujib, who believed “remained incorruptible” and were taken advantage of by his “lesser colleagues”, mostly who had “jumped on the Awami League bandwagon” after Mujib’s electoral victory in 1970 and apparently, these are the guys that resorted to corruption; and that Mujib’s only fault being “he did not do anything to rectify it”! This is interesting. One the one hand Rizvi commends Mujib for rare political acumen and justifies somewhat his assumption of absolute power and on the other, he merely makes a passing remark that Mujib, a very powerful man with tremendous political acumen failed to “rectify the situation”. This is puzzling if not academic fraud.
Then we come across a hitherto unheard appraisal of Bangladesh politics during the Mujib era. Rizvi tells us that those who had lost the elections in 1970 and 1973 remained the disruptive elements as the “extraparliamentary opposition” attacking the Mujib government for corruption, and rising prices, and allegedly also resorted to political assassinations as if “extraparliamentary opposition” which means civic opposition, a norm in a democracy is something bad though politically motivated killings were. Rizvi, however, has failed to mention in his article that Mujib’s brutal paramilitary force, the Rakkhi Bahini and police alleged to have killed more than 30,000 opposition activists during 1972 and 1975. Interestingly, then Rizvi tells us in his article that the Awami League became increasingly unpopular, and the 1974 Famine was the last straw for Mujib and his administration as he later discovered in Washington and London that the West had been very unhappy with his regime and wanted him to “put his own house in order” and that Western contempt for his administration led to Mujib’s declaration of the State of Emergency on 28 December 1974, and eventually, to the formation of BAKSAL [the acronym stands for Bangladesh Peasants’ and Workers’ Awami League, in Bengali,], Soviet-style one-party dictatorship in 1975 [pp.19-20]! Rizvi, however, does not mention in his article several extra-democratic and “extra-parliamentary” actions of Mujib government – that the 1973 polls were rigged in favour of Mujib’s Awami League party, and that the Regime resorted to horrendous mass arrests and killing of thousands of opposition activists by law-enforcers and party activists.
Rizvi seems to have endorsed Mujib’s “land reform”, the project of collectivization of agriculture à la Soviet Union, proposed in March 1975. This would initiate agricultural cooperatives turning the landowners and landless peasants into co-owners of the land. Rizvi glorifies the communistic collectivization of land in Bangladesh as an antidote to the “Muhammadan law of succession”. And, he simultaneously blames the non-existent “landed gentry” in Bangladesh in the 1970s for inequities in rural Bangladesh! He singles out the village “sardars” (the category of people never existed in the Bangladesh countryside) – he possibly means jotedars, talukdars, and other categories of rich peasants and petty-landlords in the country – as members of the “rural elite” as sworn enemies of the Mujib regime. His appraisal of the village community in Bangladesh reflects his unfamiliarity with the social and economic configuration of rural Bangladesh. He has not analysed why Mujib – who had never been known for any communist sympathy before – started toying with the idea of turning Bangladesh into a proto-Soviet socialist republic and his regime became too friendly to the USSR, Cuba, and countries in the Soviet bloc to the discomfiture of the West. Some other sweeping comments have also raised the credibility of Rizvi’s article, for example, his assertions that: a) “Both the right and left in Bangladesh wanted Sheikh Mujib to stay in power for fear that if he went others would annihilate them”; b) Mujib’s assassination was an “isolated act” and “six majors” four of whom were dismissed earlier from the service killed him, and that the Army was not linked with the disgruntled group of killers, but it could not do anything as the killers had artillery and armoured corps under their control; c) Moshtaque (Mujib’s successor) was discredited among the people; d) Tens of thousands of people mourned Mujib’s death after Khaled Musharraf’s short-lived counter-coup (3rd-6th November 1975); and e) soon, the Rakkhi Bahini and the bulk of the Army was going to overthrow the Zia regime [pp.20-21].
Since the article reflects the author’s pro-Mujib sympathies, unsurprisingly, there is nothing here about the public celebration by Bangladeshis at home and abroad of the brutal killing of Mujib, his family members, and associates – albeit a very cynical one – in August 1975. No mention of the spontaneous celebrations at the successful counter-coup by pro-Zia soldiers on 7th November 1975 against pro-Mujib Khaled Musharraf coup on 3rd November by the Bangladeshis right across the board either! Rizvi, on the one hand, classifies Mujib-killing as an “isolated act”, and on the other, he mentions urban and elites’ contempt for Mujib and his administration. What is even more surprising that while the Hasina Regime, which Rizvi serves loyally, blames General Ziaur Rahman as a co-conspirator of Mujib-killing, in his article he categorically mentions that this was an “isolated act” and that Army, in general, did not support the coup and to everyone’s dismay, he has refrained from opening his mouth of his “isolated act theory”, i.e. meaning that only a handful of disgruntled soldiers killed Mujib, none of the top brasses in the Army had no prior knowledge nor any part in it! Rizvi believes “the public were too stunned to react” against the handful of rebel soldiers, and “it was embarrassing for the Army high command to assume responsibility for an act which did not have their sanction” [p.21]. However, Rizvi’s arguments why the people did not react and the Army remained passive simply fall flat. We know while less than 20 people from Mujib’s ancestral village attended his funeral prayer, millions of Bangladeshis spontaneously reacted against the killing of Zia in May 1981, and millions attended his funeral. So, contrary to Mujib’s complacency (and Rizvi’s assumption) Mujib virtually lost his popularity in less than two years of the Liberation. So much so, that the day after his killing, one of the four Bangladeshi newspapers (that survived his draconian act which had closed down all newspapers except four) made a headline: “The country has breathed a sigh of relief” [Ittefaq (Bengali daily), 16th August 1975]. Last but not least, Abdul Malek Ukil, a senior BAKSAL leader and the Speaker of the Parliament told journalists at Heathrow Airport that in Mujib’s death, the country had been relieved of its Pharaoh. And, so far as the Army’s high command’s “embarrassment” is concerned, firstly, had Mujib killing been an “isolated”/unpopular incident, the Army would have resisted the handful of rebels. Secondly, with no evident support and participation of the infantry in the August Coup, the few hundred rebel soldiers under a handful of junior officers from the armoured corps and artillery would have remained sitting ducks in the event of any retaliation by the Army. So, what Rizvi tries to defend here is not defendable.
In sum, some of Rizvi’s observations in his 1976 article go against the main theme of his partisan view that “Even Mujib had not been killed, chances of his reforms being implemented were remote”, which imply Mujib was anything but a visionary! Rizvi also points out that Mujib was shy of launching a grassroots revolution and contemplated bringing about reforms from the top, and that he never thought of the option of self-reliance for development of Bangladesh, unlike what Zia emphasized and implemented later quite successfully. It would not be exaggerative to state that whatever self-reliance, and self-sufficiency in food production Bangladesh has achieved in the last three decades would not have been possible under Mujib’s Soviet-style one-party dictatorship. On the other hand, it would have pushed Bangladesh into utter chaos and impoverishment.
Interestingly, while it is common knowledge that the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) under late Moni Singh had its tentacles everywhere in Mujib administration influenced Mujib to the creation of a Soviet-style dictatorship and adoption of the policy of collectivization of agriculture in the country, Rizvi has not mentioned CPB anywhere in his glorification of BAKSAL in his article! He has also left some burning issues unmentioned in his piece, such as the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship – which was biased in favour of India and was tantamount to violation of Bangladesh’s sovereignty – or the marginalization of Tajuddin Ahmed and General Osmani by Mujib, who had immense contribution to the Liberation War, either and the most puzzling of all and something that should disturb the current regime, especially, its leadership that the 1975 coup that led to the killing of the “Father of the Nation” was an “isolated act” executed by “six majors” and that no senior army officers nor many Awami League leaders were responsible for the gruesome Mujib-killing!
* Ali Gowher (aka Gowher Rizvi), “The Killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: Perspectives on Recent Bangladesh History”, New Zealand International Review, September/October 1976
Taj Hashmi is an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Austin Peay State University, Tennessee, US