SEVENTY-FIVE years back on October 21, 1943 Netaji Subhash Bose declared the Azad Hind Sarkar or Free Indian Government at Singapore. It did not see an independent state as Bose dreamt but the Bose and the Indian National Army had a huge impact on the nationalist movement that led to Bangladesh. It was one of the inspirations that led to the United Bengal Movement, the first political move to establish an independent state of Bengal in 1947 which after its failure, continued to its logical destination that led to Bangladesh.
Subhash Bose was a role model who, by establishing the INA, had defied the Brits, fought them and even won a few victories. People welcomed the fact that he was fighting with the Japanese, the British crown’s main enemy in Asia as the political aspiration of the colonised. To be free was the main objective and the identity of the ally was unimportant. Ordinary people understood this even if the future ruling class parties such as the Congress and Muslim League did not.
By the mid-1940s as World War II came to an end, the INA collapsed, but it continued as an inspirational force. Bengal was burdened by the political control of North Indians and Delhi that marginalised Bengal and, perhaps inevitably, the image of the missing Netaji grew. Its force was felt in the United Bengal Movement of 1947.
United Bengal Movement
WHEN the Muslim League under Jinnah switched from Two-Pakistan to One-Pakistan in 1946, many young workers of the Bengal Muslim League became very resentful as Suhrawardy, the leader of the Bengal Muslim League, led the charge to amend the original draft of the Lahore Resolution from ‘states’ to ‘state’. However, the reward that he had hoped for lending his support did not materialise and he was left stranded between two streams of politics.
Meanwhile, Abul Hashem, the general secretary of the BML contacted the leaders of the Bengal Congress such as Sarat Bose, (uncle of Subhash Bose), Kiaran Shanker Roy and others and the move for tne UBM outside India and Pakistan began. In this effort, the young workers who supported Hashem and others were also deeply influenced by the ideas of Bose and many of his followers and admirers lent support.
But when the UBM failed, because of opposition from Nehru and Patel, central leaders of the Congress, members of the Bengal Muslim League took the next radical step and decided to set up an independent country in line of the UBM minus West Bengal. The man who led this move was one Moazzem Ahmed Chowdhury of Sylhet. He was the students’ wing leader of the BML and a close friend of Sheikh Mujib with whom he would guard the slums of the Muslim poor in Kolkata during the riots of 1946. As a member of the Indian Communist Party and its students wing, he had been deputed by the party to work with the BML. He rose quickly to the top and, as it happens, lost patience with the CP and became closer to the radical nationalist cause.
‘We met at the home of Justice Murshed of Kolkata High Court and formed a nucleus called the “Inner Group.” The person we had in mind as the leader of the future new state was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.’
The INA model
The Inner Group had four core members — Moazzem Ahmed Chowdhury (MAC), Naser Chowdhury and journalist Foyez Ahmed. MAC continuously peddled an ‘independent Bangladesh’ idea among political activists, particularly the Leftists of East Pakistan. I was informed of him by Asadder Ali of the CPB (ML) while interviewing him in 1989. MAC was being supported by the Indian intelligence and he was not at all embarrassed by this as he felt both had a common enemy — Pakistan.
‘We wanted to follow the INA/Subhash Bose model and set up a headquarters somewhere to which all activists would go and join and then attack and liberate East Pakistan. That didn’t happen.’ They spent the end of the ’50s decade in India but did not have much success. But the martial law of 1958 by Ayub Khan changed that spirit when suddenly many activists felt that it was ‘enough’ and the time to part had come. Most political parties set up secret ‘independence’ cells and MAC and his group became active again.
The man who could make a difference in politics became active too. Sheikh Mujib finally made his move soon after martial law though his mentor Suhrawardy remained a staunch Pakistani. Mujib met the CPB leaders who wrote to Moscow about a joint independence move but Russia turned an independence move down. Comrade Khoka Roy wrote in his autobiography that they were very surprised hearing Sheikh Mujib’s intentions as they thought he was a ‘conservative’ leader and under the tutelage of his guru. But that Mujib was his own man and could sense the direction of history better than all others was obvious.
Once turned down by the CPP, he turned towards MAC who in 1961 organised a visit to India via Sylhet. The visit went badly as Sheikh Mujib was interned pending clarification from Delhi. ‘He had gone there expecting to be treated like a head of state in waiting but was arrested. By the time he was let go, he wanted to return home.’ He walked back and never considered any move with India. MAC says, ‘He thought India was not serious about support.’
Sheikh Mujib also believed that the Inner Group was not taken seriously and this experience turned him off from all conspiratorial approaches of independence. Although many approached him later, he politely listened but never joined including the move by the group later tried at the Agartala conspiracy trial.
By 1962, the martial law was lifted and political agitation began. By 1966, Sheikh Mujib had become the supreme political leader of the nationalist movement, the national icon. By then politics had moved towards a radical path without conspiracies and Indian support. The 1970 elections became the most radical of all moves as it both legitimised the cause and mobilised the people. In 1971, the people’s war began.
The transition from the INA model to the AL model reflected the changed stage of political history as it moved beyond Bengal to become Bangladesh. But the spirit that ignited the struggle had several roots and one was in the efforts of Subhash Bose and his INA. Sheikh Mujib can claim that rightful inheritance and leadership of a long struggle that began in the ’40s and finally delivered in 1971.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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