The struggle in Bangla Desh between the Bengali liberation forces and the armed might of West Pakistani capital represents both a continuation of the mass movement which erupted in 1968–69 and a qualitative break. In that sense we can say that the present course of events in East Bengal was not unpredictable. footnote1

The war in Bangla Desh is an event of the greatest international significance. Its immediate effects extend well beyond the present frontiers of conflict and in the long term it may well be seen as a decisive phase of the Indian revolution. Together with the uprising in Ceylon, it signals the approaching demise of traditional bourgeois politics in the entire subcontinent and puts armed struggle on the agenda for the not-too-distant future. The implications of this for the politico-military strategy of imperialism in Asia are evidently very serious ones. It is therefore vital for Marxists to study in detail the present stage of the struggle and the path towards the ultimate liberation of the Indian subcontinent.

There have been two distinguishing features of politics in Eastern Bengal since the beginning of 1971: on the one hand, the enthusiastic participation of the masses in every level of an escalating social and national struggle; and on the other the political bankruptcy of the petty bourgeois notabilities of the Awami League, whose whole tradition of compromise and manoeuvre rendered them completely incapable of providing leadership in a real independence movement. Even before the formal invasion took place on March 25th, 1971, this tradition had led to the loss of hundreds of Bengali lives at the hands of the oppressor Army of General Yahya Khan. These earlier demonstrations of its brute power should have convinced the Awami League politicians of what was likely to follow unless they prepared the Bengali people for a protracted struggle. This they refused to do despite the evident desire of the masses, expressed in thunderous slogans at Awami League meetings, for a total break with Pakistan. The rising tide of popular political consciousness was already clear in the enormous meetings which took place throughout the province both before and after the General Election of 1970. At every stage the masses assimilated the lessons of the past much more rapidly than their parliamentarist leaders and showed their willingness to fight the colonial state in East Bengal. At every stage they were again and again checked by the visceral constitutionalism of the Awami League leadership. This conflict between the mass movement and the petty bourgeois outlook of its official guides was all the more tragic in that the existing organizations of the revolutionary left were localized and thus not in a position to influence the course of the struggle decisively. However, as we shall see, this situation is now beginning to change in favour of the revolutionary movement.

The Awami League has been a party of reaction since birth. Its formative years were dominated by parliamentary manoeuvre and intrigue. Its main social roots have always been in the functionaries, teachers, petty traders and shopkeepers who proliferate in East Bengali society. Its founder, H. S. Suhrawardy, who for a short time succeeded in becoming Pakistan’s Prime Minister, distinguished himself in 1956 by supporting the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. He became one of the most articulate defenders of imperialist interests in Pakistan and American policy in Asia as a whole. footnote2 Left-wing parties and organizations in East Pakistan who opposed these policies were physically attacked by Awami League ‘volunteers’ and had their meetings broken up with monotonous regularity. Suhrawardy’s other notable achievement was to supervise the fusion of the provinces of Baluchistan, Sind and the North-West Frontier into a single territorial unit dominated completely by Punjab. In this way he showed his respect for the ‘autonomy’ of the West Pakistani provinces. After 1958, Suhrawardy played a dissident role during the early years of the Ayub dictatorship and was imprisoned for a short time as a result; but his opposition was always limited to the bourgeois constitutionalist framework. Suhrawardy’s undoubted talents—he was a proficient lawyer, an artful political manipulator and a glib conversationalist—placed him head and shoulders above the rest of the Awami League leadership. His ambitions, however, were far removed from Bengali independence: his aim was to make the Awami League an all-Pakistan electoral machine, capable of winning power as a ‘national’ party and thus catapulting H. S. Suhrawardy into the highest possible office. His untimely death in 1963 put an end to this dream. His successor, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, had won prominence as a party organizer and hatchet man rather than as an astute politician. The very idea of the Awami League disavowing the legacy of its dead leader was considered heresy of the worst sort under the new leadership. footnote3 It is essential to recall this early history in order to understand the recent attitudes of the League. It continued to play an oppositional role during the remaining years of the Ayub dictatorship. Ayub himself more than once considered the idea of reaching some compromise with its leaders and incorporating them in the Central government, but the gangster politicians from the East Pakistani underworld, on whom he had relied for so long to maintain ‘law and order’ in Bengal, constantly and successfully sabotaged this plan, as it would have meant the end of their own political careers. The Awami League was thus offered no choice but to continue as an oppositional force. It joined a multi-party alliance (Combined Opposition Parties) in 1964 to field a candidate against Ayub, but the elections were rigged by the Army and the Civil Service and the Field-Marshal was returned with a comfortable majority. In March 1965, the opposition tried to regroup and met in Lahore to hammer out a joint strategy. It was here that the Awami League, in the person of Mujibur, dropped a bombshell in the form of its famous Six-Point plan for regional autonomy. The West Pakistani leaders were so shocked that they accused the Ayub regime’s most Machiavellian civil servant, Altaf Gauhar, of having drafted them in order to split the anti-Ayub opposition. This marked the beginning of the gulf between Bengali nationalism and the West Pakistani oppositional parties. The abyss was to widen in the coming years. It was transcended for a time during the mass upsurge against Ayub in 1968–69, but the absence of a strong revolutionary party guided by Marxism-Leninism meant that it came to the forefront again as soon as the upsurge subsided.

There were two important reasons why the Awami League was able to win mass support and hegemonize the politics of East Bengal. The first was its success in grasping the importance of the national question. The second was the failure of the groups of the extreme left, which had followed an extremely opportunist course during the Ayub dictatorship because of the latter’s ‘friendship’ with China. Thus the Awami League could present itself as the only meaningful opposition force in the province. It constantly carried out propaganda in favour of its Six-Points; it called for free elections and it organized demonstrations against the Ayub dictatorship. Some of its leaders, including Mujibur Rehman were consequently arrested. The Maoist wing of the National Awami Party (nap) had meanwhile shown complete blankness towards the national problem. Instead of joining popular agitation and deepening it by explaining to the masses that national and democratic tasks can today only be solved within a socialist framework, and thus preparing them for a long struggle, they entrenched themselves in sectarian isolation. In other words, they failed to see that uneven historical development would oblige Bengali revolutionaries to work out a strategy for their struggle independent of West Pakistan. Moreover, they insisted that the Ayub regime had ‘certain anti-imperialist features’ and was therefore in some ways to be preferred to bourgeois democracy. In these conditions, the Awami League did not have much trouble in establishing itself as a powerful mass force. The stupidity of the Ayub regime in persecuting its leaders, manufacturing conspiracy cases against them and throwing them into gaol could only help this process. Thus when the anti-Ayub upsurge resulted in the fall of the dictator and his replacement by the Yahya junta in early 1969, it was hardly surprising that the Awami League reaped the benefits. Yet it still could not disavow its heritage. In the weeks before the army persuaded Ayub to retire, the Awami League eagerly participated in the ‘constitutional’ talks at the Round Table Conferences called by Ayub to reach a compromise. It had fuelled the mass movement and witnessed the anger of Bengali peasants and workers; even so it remained tied to its parliamentarist past.