Maulana Bhashani, who was born 141 years ago on December 12 yesterday, was the most important leader of that Pakistan which was located in two corners of the Indian Subcontinent – meaning East Pakistan and West Pakistan. His politics was an expression of people’s rights, especially peasants and workers. He kept his practical life and practical politics in harmony until his dying breath. His thought, struggle and personal life ran upon very much the same path: a simple life and the struggle for the rights of simple oppressed classes. Maulana Bhashani fought against British imperialism and also against the military dictatorships established under the patronage of American imperialism in Pakistan. His speeches and movements used to shake the palaces of the rulers. This short essay on the occasion of the end of Maulana Bhashani’s 140th birth anniversary year and the 50th anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh later this week hopes to introduce his personality and politics to a new generation in Pakistan. The Pakistan of today is very much in search of political leaders who make the bitterness of the lives of the working classes in the country their subject. He was as much of a grand progressive political leader as he was a true Muslim. He never relied on religion to awaken the fortunes of his politics. Leaders like Maulana Bhashani very much laid the foundation of democratic politics in Pakistan: some of the effects of his efforts are still a part of our political culture. It is impossible to know Pakistani politics without studying him. This essay hopes to enlighten the generations of today and tomorrow on what sort of worthy people kept the flag of people’s democracy and the rights of the subordinate classes flying high in our country.
Bhashani was an all-round man: he was such a political leader who never spent a period of comfort and rest during his struggle; and his political struggle carried on from the age of 14 to when he was 91. Bhashani was absolutely not just a politician. Instead, he was a practical politician who had a dream, a proper vision. The goal of the struggle of his life was not at all to achieve power for himself or his party. He kept working for a social revolution rather than to win elections, and in politics he chose the paths upon which very few politicians dare to walk. Bengalis are indeed extremely fortunate that they got leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose, Chittaranjan Das, A.K. Fazlul Haq, Charu Mazumdar and Sheikh Mujib. If it is said that Maulana Bhashani was ahead of them all, it would be no exaggeration. The Maulana was neither the hero of an epic tale nor of a tragic drama.
The early conditions of Maulana Bhashani were very difficult and hard. He was born in a poor home of East Bengal. His parents passed away when he was a mere 9 years old. At that time, he neither had any property nor any support or patron, but he built his life himself and at the age of just 14 he became a member of an underground armed group which was fighting British imperialism.
Until the last days of his life, the Maulana believed that wherever possible, every power should be used to uproot the present political system. Very quickly he became a much-loved leader, based on his God-gifted abilities.
In the Pakistan period post-1947, the Maulana had become a global personality. He toured a lot of countries of the world and made personal contacts with many eminent socialist leaders. But all his life he lived in the very hut where he had been born. He did not have any artificiality at all. To be sure: he was the leader of the common people, but he had never wished that people prefer poverty. He wished for people to be free from servitude and make their own decisions, and that their deprivations should end. His ideas did not change all his life and his 77-year political struggle remained subordinate to these very ideas. These same ideas and ideologies had made many of his friends into his enemies. Maulana Bhashani was the founder of the Awami Muslim League and it was at his behest and convincing that this party was named the Awami League. Then this party made a front against the government of the provincial Muslim League. The Maulana worked together with Suhrawardy and Fazlul Haq in this front and was successful. Suhrawardy and Fazlul Haq came into government but the Maulana did not accept any office and remained with the people.
The year 1969 was the Maulana’s year and he came to the front as a very popular leader. Conditions would have been very different and revolution would actually have happened had the left-wingers not gone underground after abandoning him
Once, the Maulana went to participate in a peace conference in Europe at the invitation of the important socialist leaders of Europe. The Governor of East Pakistan Iskander Mirza, declaring him a traitor to state and nation, announced that as soon as he would disembark at Dhaka Airport, he would be shot. But when the latter arrived in Dhaka, Ayub Khan had already forced Iskander Mirza out of the country by removing him. Governmental excesses upon him never ceased. One attack came from Suhrawardy, when the Maulana began a series of criticisms on him for his tendency of tilting towards the United States and due to his working against self-determination for East Pakistan. So, Suhrawardy laid a net of conspiracies to force him out of the Awami League, the party which the Maulana had established with a great deal of hard work. When the Maulana laid the foundation of the National Awami Party (NAP) together with the left-wing leaders of East and West Pakistan, Suhrawardy deemed this party as Nehru’s party and called the Maulana an Indian agent in the Daily Ittefaq, which was a spokesman for the Maulana’s Awami League and which had been issued by the Maulana. This label was put on Suhrawardy by the Pakistani government earlier – and so the perversity of fate had set in. Behold the irony of nature in that when the Maulana was forced out of the Awami League, then Sheikh Mujib, too, united with Suhrawardy. Then a time came that Sheikh Mujib talked about the autonomy of East Pakistan and he raised the cry of socialism in the election of 1970 and announced the promulgation of socialism in his manifesto. The Maulana had been thrown out of the Awami League for these very reasons and the day came when Sheikh Mujib was forced to do politics on these same principles! The Maulana had not changed at all, but his opponents had changed, and the party, too, had changed its principles.
When the Agartala Conspiracy Case against Mujib was being heard in the Ayub era and the dominant speculation was that Mujib despite his popularity would ascend the gallows, it was very much the Maulana who led the protests against the government and Mujib was released as a result of this. But immediately after being released, the latter had said that the Maulana should retire now, since he had become old. So much so that even his own party was divided as well: two groups arose within it; one pro-Soviet and the other pro-China. The pro-China group elected him as their leader while the second group became his opponents. But here a few people of the pro-China group came so far ahead in furthering their politics in the name of ‘Naxal rebellion’ that they began to criticise the Maulana and describe even him as a CIA agent! The very title which the pro-Moscow tendency had wanted to give him, his own side had given it to him.
The year 1969 was the Maulana’s year and he came to the front as a very popular leader. Conditions would have been very different and revolution would actually have happened had the left-wingers not gone underground after abandoning the Maulana. It was the need of the times that they worked with the Maulana but they deemed it suitable to disconnect with the people and the prospects of the socialist left got spoiled. The Maulana was left alone, but he did not worry at all and remained in touch with the people. Many left-wingers had felt their mistake, but now it was too late. Maulana Bhashani was a nationalist leader. His nationalism was for every individual of the nation rather than for just one class. When he was in Assam, he had seriously protested against the policies of the Assam government against the Bengalis. He wished for the two nations Ahoms and Bengalis to live together and work there. The Maulana had more faith in linguistic nationalism than religious nationalism. He was sure about the Lahore Resolution that Bengal and Assam would be made one unit. In his view, this was directly possible in economic and geographic terms. Needless to say, his understanding of Pakistan was different from that of the Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. As for Jinnah, he had said in the First Constituent Assembly that Pakistan would be a secular and democratic country, but this had not happened. Jinnah confronted communism using the support of religion and preferring Urdu over Bengali declared the former as the national language, although Bengali was the language of 56 percent of the country’s population. Maulana Bhashani fully led the All Party Committee which had been established for the protection of the Bengali language and he ensured that Bengali was accepted as a national language.
He dearly loved the culture of Bengal. According to those who lived close to him, the Maulana would hum the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore after the morning prayer
On the basis of his Bengali nationalism, the Maulana had predicted in a people’s gathering in 1955 that if the excesses of the West Pakistanis with the people of East Pakistan continued, then the people of the Eastern wing will say goodbye to the West. He said the same thing in 1956 and 1957. In 1970, the Maulana had said this without resort to any metaphors: that separation is the only solution to the problems of East Bengal. In that era, when Sheikh Mujib was fighting for autonomy and the Maulana’s friends were busy in the struggle for a class war, the Maulana was saying plainly that only total independence is the solution to national problems. The class question following this independence will be solved in a better way, he believed. Had the uprising for Bangladesh been fought under the leadership of the Maulana, the circumstances and consequences would have been very different. Many times the Maulana was jailed by his greatest enemy, the government machinery. During his stay in Assam, he was jailed three times and when he arrived in East Pakistan, even then his enemies kept pursuing him. In 1949 when he was supporting a hunger strike, he was kept in jail for thirteen months. In jail he met many communist leaders and he exchanged views with them on many matters. Time and again, events proved that the Maulana was a firm socialist and enemy of the capitalists.
During Ayub’s Martial Law, he was kept under house-arrest for four years. In 1971, the military regime had prepared a plan to do away with him. Mujib was in jail in those days and the Maulana was the biggest enemy of the government. The army reached his village. He had already become aware – doubtless on the basis of his God-gifted abilities – that a plan for his murder was being made. He left from there before the arrival of the army. The width of the Ganges was three miles far from there. He set out in a state of helplessness and took two of his friends on the way; took a boat upon reaching the ghat and came to Assam. Meanwhile in Assam, the Indian government was keeping a stern eye on his movement because they feared lest the Maulana begin talking about an independent territory comprising Assam and Bengal, which was his old demand. But the Maulana did not bother the Indian government at all, and did not protest upon even the excesses of the Indians. He did press conferences while staying there and told the world about the excesses of the Pakistani state and wrote letters to world leaders. He had tried to convince the Chinese leaders especially in that they should support the war of independence of Bangladesh and when the government-in-exile asked for his leadership he welcomed it and accepted the position of the chief of the advisory committee. This committee included the leaders of the Awami League. He had made the Indians believe at every level that the Bengalis are fighting for their birthright meaning independence, though after independence the conditions in Bangladesh did not remain the same as they should have been. The Maulana protested upon this, so he was put under house arrest in his village.
In 1937, Bhashani had been elected for the first time as a member of the provincial assembly of Assam. Then in 1949 he was successful in attaining the seat of the provincial assembly of East Bengal. He always spoke for the poor in the assembly and supported them at every level. When he saw that the assembly had a majority of people who only make empty promises and make fancy speeches, he resigned from the membership of the assembly. Afterwards he never participated in any election and began working for the rights of the poor with full devotion and with a lot of hard work created the alliance which defeated the Muslim League. The Awami League would never be able to do this had the Maulana not been in the field with his progressive comrades. Similarly when Fatima Jinnah fought the presidential election against President Ayub, Bhashani stood with the party or opposition which was supporting Fatima Jinnah; despite the damaging insinuations cast upon the Maulana’s position in this particular event in the autobiographies of both Sherbaz Khan Mazari, one of Pakistan’s most seasoned politicians and Habib Jalib, the people’s poet par excellence. Though in 1970 his party, the NAP had boycotted the election. There were two reasons for this, one that he wanted that the question of hunger be solved first. He had raised this slogan in order to reach the hearts of the poor people. Secondly, that he wanted that East Pakistan become totally separate as an independent country. That is why he boycotted the election, though his boycott had greatly disappointed the left-wing parties and minority groups of West Pakistan, because they considered the Maulana as their messiah and a sympathetic leader.
Maulana Bhashani had not attained traditional educational, though he had spent two years in Darul Uloom Deoband in northern India. There he met teachers who hated the British. He learnt a lot while staying there. The Maulana kept increasing his knowledge and farsightedness by working hard and meeting together with people his entire life. The Maulana was a born leader. He had bravery, farsightedness and the ability to captivate. The Maulana was a powerful speaker but he was not one to merely rouse emotions in fact awakened the ability to think and understand within people with his talk. He did not make hollow speech and nor did he have hollowness in his person. Even the left-wing leaders of West Pakistan totally trusted him. This was the very reason that in the last meeting of NAP which was held in Dhaka, those people wept a lot, because they had come to know that now the Maulana is separating from them. The Maulana kept fighting for the rights of the poor and working classes all his life. Whatever he did for the people of East Bengal, nobody else would do this. The Maulana organised the rickshaw-pullers and fishermen, gave them political consciousness. When the Communist Party began the reorganization of the workers in East Bengal they found nobody better than the Maulana in this connection and they asked for his help and leadership. In those days there was a restriction on the Maulana’s movement. So he could not help them as he desired; though he led them wherever possible.
Here was a leader who truly relied on the power of the people. He would go among the people with great hard work and exertion, give lectures, organise strikes and publish pamphlets, etc. The Maulana issued two newspapers, Ittefaq and Haq Katha. He would now and then call press conferences. He dearly loved the culture of Bengal. According to those who lived close to him, the Maulana would hum the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore after the morning prayer. When he was in Assam, he organised a conference of writers and journalists. Similarly he had inaugurated a powerful cultural conference for the well-being of villagers on the pattern of the Awami League Kagmari Conference. According to a former Chief Minister of Assam the Maulana was good enough for three Pakistanis all by himself and this thing is very much correct. The Maulana was the most dangerous enemy of those who sucked the ordinary people’s blood. It had been written about the Maulana in the Western press that he was the prophet of violence and disorder. This is incorrect, the Maulana was a prophet of revolution. He believed that revolution very much comes through the lower classes. The people can change their fate not through the vote, but very much by rebellion. He was sure that this was bound to happen and revolution will happen. This was the very reason that politicians considered him their enemy and various sorts of accusations would be placed on him. Regarding political conversation and dialogue, the Maulana was of the opinion that all this is nothing except political tricks and they are deceptions for fooling the people. A few months before his death, he was intending for a long march against the excesses committed by the Indian rulers towards Bangladesh because he was certain that India would not understand the talk of these rulers until the people will not be behind them.
Maulana Bhashani was an ideal leader. He is and he will remain a symbol of war against oppression and exploitation. He was not just the leader of the Bengali working-classes in fact he was the leader of the workers of the whole world, alas the Bengali people and the rest of the world have very little information about the Maulana, despite the fact that he was born in the same month and passed away in the same year as his ideological mentor and contemporary, Mao Zedong. This essay is a modest – but I hope necessary – endeavour. To know about the Maulana and his era is an important need of the time, though the ruling class will never want this. This is the task of those who believe in his politics.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2021. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at email@example.com