November 17 marks the death anniversary of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. Azfar Hussain pays tribute to a revolutionary who remains an inspiration in the struggle against all form and forces of oppression and exploitation.
What have I to fear? I would welcome being hanged for my people.
— Maulana Bhashani
Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.
— Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
The party should be the direct expression of the masses. The party is not an administration responsible for transmitting government orders; it is the energetic spokesman and the incorruptible defender of the masses.
— Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
HE COULD chew his betel-leaf with relish, reddening his lips; and he could go on and on talking about the history of the Indian subcontinent, attesting to a sure grasp of all the dates and details; and he could keep driving away flies with his soiled gamchha, while seated in his rural courtyard; and he could keep looking at the river Brahmaputra-the river he had known so well-all at once. And he could even sing some Tagore tunes right after saying his fazar prayers. And in his speeches and his dialogues, he could rub his words together in such a way that they could catch fire. And, indeed, he could talk-with equal ease-to those hard-nosed pragmatists and dewy-eyed dreamers and wild-haired leftists he encountered, among numerous other folks.
And he himself actively exemplified what Frantz Fanon-the Caribbean theorist-activist of anti-colonial national liberation movements-asserts in favour of the wretched of the earth: ‘Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you really want them to understand.‘
And he was with the people, always.
And thus he was with fisherfolk and rickshaw-wallas and jute-producers and sugar-producers and industrial workers and farm labourers and poor peasants and the urban poor and shopkeepers and primary-school teachers and other segments of the ‘wretched of the earth.‘ And he could attract all of them, while even mobilising them in many instances. And about him Shamsur Rahman has a poem, one that speaks not only of his spotless white punjabi-his favourite dress along with his lungi and his tupi-but also of the ways in which his speeches could attract artists and poets and journalists and shopkeepers and workers and students and intellectuals and social workers and cameramen and office clerks and even intelligence agents, to use the poet‘s own catalogue provided in the poem. Indeed, the poem in question offers us a superb combination-rather a constellation-of images to describe him: his healing appearance resembling that of the post-deluge Noah; his face mirroring the depth of his concern and his commitment; his catkin beard fluttering in the north wind; and finally his struggle-driven and expressive hands flashing out repeatedly like quivering spears.
And his spears or hands smelled of his own land and his own labour. And he characteristically accentuated the need for rootednesss-one‘s integral rootedness in one‘s own land-going to the extent of even asserting that to know is to be rooted; that to be rooted is to know. And, as he indicated and even exemplified, knowledge, after all, is love made visible. And, for him, knowledge itself is political as well: what you know and what you do not know are never politically innocent, never ideologically neutral.
And one event-among numerous others-underlines his premium decisively placed on the political and ideological question of rootedness itself. It was early 1955. He visited London. There a Bengali student came to meet him. Accessible and approachable as he was, he himself eagerly moved forward to have a conversation with the student. But at one point he asked the student, ‘So do you know what the prices of rice and daal are in your country now?‘ The student probably did not expect such a question. Indeed, the question itself immediately tells us where he was coming from.
And the student stammered out only an incomplete answer: while he knew the approximate price of rice, he could not tell the price of daal. And the one who threw the question did not hesitate to point out to the student right away that the knowledge of the West minus that of one‘s own land and people might turn out to be not-all-that-useful in the final instance. In short, in his conversation, he called attention to the issue of rootedness-something that comes from, among other things, an intimate knowledge of one‘s own land, own people, own culture, and own language. And his own knowledge of his land and people and culture and language was simply phenomenal.
But who is he?
He is our Bhashani-Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani-one who is popularly known as the Mozloom Jananeta (the leader of the oppressed). Because of his certain Maoist accents falling on the peasant question as an urgent and even revolutionary one for a meaningful social transformation, he is also known as the Red Maulana. And without question Bhashani was a popular political leader, one who led not only a long life but also an inordinately eventful, chequered, and at least occasionally dramatic, yet unmistakably simple, life-a life that of course continues to serve as a paradigmatic illustration of how commitment, conviction, and courage came to be organically orchestrated, or how knowledge and action came to be dialectically united, in the very service of the people‘s struggle for justice, freedom, and a revolutionary social transformation.
ALTHOUGH one cannot accurately ascertain the date of his birth, according to at least a couple of his biographers, Maulana Bhashani was born on December 12 in 1885 in a village called Dhangara in the present-day district of Sirajganj. He was born in a relatively poor peasant family. In fact, his father Haji Sharafat Ali Khan was a small rural shop-keeper. He died at the age of only thirty-six or thirty-seven in 1889, when Bhashani-then nicknamed Chyaga Mia-was about four or five. Then, a vicious epidemic in 1894 caused the unfortunate deaths of his mother Maziran Bibi, his grandmother, his two brothers, and his sister. In other words, Chyaga Mia did not become merely an orphan but also lost almost everyone when he was roughly ten.
Thus, at a very early age, he came to know closely what deaths-and disasters and famines that he experienced directly-could do and undo. Thus, struggle for him always became nothing short of a life-and-death question, indeed characterising his entire life-personal and political. But he lived. And he lived long. He died at the age of about ninety-one on November 17, 1976 in Bangladesh. But when he lived, he lived fully, while living always in the thick of his people‘s struggle.
And, of course, when he was a child, he always struggled against death. As a child, sometimes he worked as a porter, carrying people‘s luggage and other loads weighing probably heavier than the child himself; and sometimes he worked as a paddy-cutting labourer in the field; and sometimes he assisted fishermen in the river; while sometimes he worked for some market-shops. For him, every moment was a moment of simply resisting the dissolution of the borders between life and death. Physical survival itself was literally the toughest and even only challenge to Chyaga-the-child-labourer. And, of course, he knew what it meant to be hungry and homeless under indifferent, sometimes even hostile, skies.
And it is not for nothing that Chyaga Mia remained throughout his life firmly committed to the cause of poor, hungry, homeless, and rootless children, while always saying no to a system ‘that neither feeds its children nor loves them,‘ to borrow Eduardo Galeano‘s words from another context.
I should provide a quick parenthetical note here: Chyaga Mia only later came to be known as Bhashani, because of his deep, intimate link to a place called Bhashanchar in Assam, a place where he lived and organised poor peasants and earned tremendous popularity, in addition to performing many other tasks. This is reminiscent of how the Argentine Ernesto Guevara came to be called, lovingly indeed, just ‘Che‘ in Cuba, which, of course, was not his place of birth.
But all odds and obstacles notwithstanding-or despite the threats of hunger and even death-Bhashani somehow managed to have his elementary education at a small madrassah in Sirajganj; while, later in 1907, Pir Nasiruddin Baghdadi, a local saint, sent Bhashani to Deoband in North India for further Islamic studies. There he stayed till 1909, and met a number of prominent alems-Islamic scholars-particularly including Muhammad Qasim Nanatoyi and Maulana Mahmudul Hassan.
And those scholars all variously contributed to an anti-imperial ideological formation of Bhashani at a time when British colonial rule had not only reached a particular point of intensity and impact but also invited remarkable indigenous oppositions and resistances, some of which one already witnessed in the famous Sepoy Uprising of 1857. Of course, later, the division of Bengal in 1905 began to elicit and even provoke all sorts of responses and reactions from both Hindus and Muslims in India-reactions and responses that Bhashani not only experienced first-hand, but they also shaped, inflected, informed and even inspired his anti-colonial stance at a relatively early stage.
But it was the year 1917-that crucial, exciting, and even globally heady year of the Russian Revolution-that fully inaugurated Bhashani‘s political life in India at a historical conjuncture when he came into contact with none other than Deshbandhu Chitta Ranjan Das himself (1870-1925), the most oppositional and uncompromising anti-colonial figure of his time in India, one whose charged political speech delivered in Mymensingh exercised a profound impact on the young Bhashani.
And, also, it was in the year 1917 that Bhashani became a member of the Indian National Congress. Then, in 1923, he enthusiastically joined the Swarajya Dal of Deshbandhu Chitta Ranjan Das who might be reckoned as one of the major ideological mentors of Maulana Bhashani. But, given Bhashani‘s characteristic rootedness in the struggle of indigenous peasants, he primarily worked with them, while his immediate radicalism was exemplified in the ways in which he got to the root causes of their problems-imperialism and its by-product, the Zamindari system-against which Bhashani was always vocal and active. Thus, because of his fiercely antagonistic confrontation with the Moharaja of Santosh, Bhashani was expelled from Mymensingh on the ground that he allegedly disturbed peace and order in the area in question. In fact, in 1926, Bhashani was declared persona non grata in his own land, Bengal.
Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to maintain that Bhashani is one of the most outstanding and committed peasant leaders the Indian subcontinent has hitherto produced. For instance, he organised the largest peasant rally ever held in Bengal during British colonial rule. The rally was organised at Kawa Maidan in the district of Sirajganj in December, 1931. And the peasant rally decisively targeted the Zamindari system-a system predicated on a political-economic and even an ideological transaction and exchange between feudalism and imperialism-while advocating the need for its total abolition. And, then, moving on to Assam, Bhashani engineered a famous peasant movement to amend the Line System so as to allow Bengali peasants to settle in the area. But, as usual, Bhashani was fiercely threatened; he even faced official punishment, including frequent imprisonments. But prison could never silence Bhashani‘s voice and stop his action, but rather animated and energised him. And it was in 1937 that Mohammad Ali Jinnah invited him to join the Muslim League. In the same year Bhashani was elected a member of the Assam Provincial Constituent Assembly.
It is true that Bhashani fought with zeal and gusto for the establishment of Pakistan in the 1940s, but his vision of Pakistan-which was fundamentally tied to a total emancipation of the peasantry and the working class in Bengal and Assam at least-was of course different from those of many of his middle-class contemporaries and counterparts, who also variously fought against British colonialism. Indeed, it was Bhashani‘s deeply orchestrated class politics-an issue I will take up later for further discussion-that distinguished him from most of his seniors and contemporaries including Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi, certainly Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and even AK Fazlul Haq, for instance.
To say the least, most of those political leaders and activists were, in the final instance, alienated from the masses-from the peasantry, for example. As some subaltern historiographers have already pointed out, Gandhi could never sustain his interest in the cause of the peasantry, while Jinnah-of course, stubbornly elitist and even West-bound as he was-was light-years away from the peasantry. Indeed, both of them ended up representing the interests of the national ruling classes. Even AK Fazlul Haq, who went to the extent of naming his own party ‘Krishaak-Praja Party’ and who later led ‘Krishaak-Sramik Party,’ and who, thus, zeroed in on the interests and issues of the peasants and working-class, finally gravitated towards the bourgeois politics of electoral votes, at least marginalising, and even dropping in some instances, the agendas of the peasantry and the working class.
But Maulana Bhashani was organically tied to the struggle of those classes, never moving even an inch away from them. Thus, borrowing from the Italian Marxist-Leninist activist Antonio Gramsci, I feel inclined to call Bhashani an organically grown revolutionary, whose politics, practices, and discourses were all rooted in the four material sites of anti-imperial and anti-feudal struggles-the land, labour, language, and body of peasants and workers.
And in the very class interest of peasants and workers themselves, Maulana Bhashani played his role in a number of significant ways from 1947 to 1976. Given his long and exceedingly eventful life, it is impossible here to provide an account of the entire range of his political activities and moves. In other words, I can only be selective here, merely scratching certain events that I find simultaneously crucial, illustrative, and even symptomatic. For instance, he was elected a member of the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly from Tangail in 1947. But fiercely uncompromising as he was, he resigned from the assembly after a few months in 1948. Then Bhashani moved on to found the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League in June 1949, becoming its first president. At this point Bhashani unmistakably foregrounded the agendas of the peasantry and the working class at the centre of his political and activist preoccupations and pursuits.
And, indeed, no less significant was the role of Bhashani in the historic Language Movement of 1952-one that can be reckoned as a historically formed marker of what one might call an emancipatory consciousness of the right-to-self-determination and a marker of a consciousness of national liberation itself. It is true that some critics of Bhashani have diminished the importance of his role in this movement. But history is stubborn. One then should not forget that it was none but Maulana Bhashani himself who for the first time spoke in Bengali at the Assam Management Committee meeting back in 1937, thereby establishing one’s right to speak in one’s language at that gathering. In any event, Bhashani formed ‘All Party Language Movement Committee’ in 1952. Later in the same year, he was arrested, and suffered a year-long imprisonment.
Indeed, Bhashani moved from party to party. He was in the Muslim League; then, he founded the Awami Muslim League; and then he turned it into the Awami League; and then he left it to found the National Awami Party, yet leaving it later. Such trajectories might give one the impression that he was restless and indecisive. But more important than his restlessness or indecisiveness-as Serajul Islam Choudhury has rightly pointed out-was his uncompromising stance. Choudhury maintains, ‘the issue at stake here is
this: he himself advanced in his political march while the parties in question could not keep pace with him,’ because those parties in question almost characteristically remained invested in the bourgeois politics of electoral votes and individual power-ascendancy, staying far away from the actual, material sites of the people’s struggles-the struggles, again, of the peasantry and the working class.
But Bhashani’s class politics was dialectically tied to the question of national liberation. Indeed, back in 1968, Bhashani led a mass upsurge against the Ayub regime, as a result of which Ayub Khan was compelled to hand over power to Yahya Khan. But, then, Bhashani stood up against Yahya Khan himself. Bhashani’s role in 1969 was simply remarkable. Even when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-to use, rather relatively mildly, the historian-theorist-activist Badruddin Umar’s otherwise-well-researched version-had resorted to some kind of strategic silence, Bhashani was out and out vocal against the military tyranny and internal colonialism imposed by the Pakistani ruling class. In fact, one can go further back in history to see Bhashani’s own uncompromising concern with regional autonomy as such, one that was expressed in the famous Kagmari conference of 1957-a conference that took place precisely because Bhashani was openly critical of the Awami League activists gravitating towards the politics of gaining personal power, while abandoning the party’s principle demands. It was at this conference that Bhashani foregrounded the demand for regional autonomy of East Bengal with full force. A historic move indeed! And it was a move in which the seeds of the National Liberation Movement of Bangladesh were sown. But where was Suhrawardy of the Awami League back in 1957? He even went to the extent of saying that the issue of Bengali self-determination had been solved 95 per cent. Solved? 95 per cent? Yes, that was Suhrawardy-Sheikh Mujib’s initial ideological mentor. But Bhashani made a prophetic pronouncement, saying something to this effect: if the province of the then East Pakistan was not granted full regional autonomy, the people of that province would ultimately embark on their own course of action and say ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ (good-bye) to Pakistan. Even the bourgeois Time magazine, while doing a report on Maulana Bhashani and thus calling him ‘a prophet of violence,’ could not hide the fact that Bhashani was courageous enough to have said: ‘what have I to fear?… I would welcome being hanged for my own people.’ Although somewhat orientalist in style and character, part of this report is worth quoting: ‘As much as any one man, Bhashani inspired the riots that last month forced President Ayub Khan to step down from the presidency. Now Bhashani is the most severe single threat to a fragile peace brought to the troubled and geographically divided land by the imposition of martial law. Under fear of harsh penalties, Pakistan’s other politicians, including Bhashani’s chief Bengali rival, moderate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, have kept silent. Not Bhashani, who continues to receive newsmen and followers at his bamboo-walled hut.’
Certainly, in terms of courage and conviction and principles, and in terms of emancipatory politics and praxis, Bhashani stood apart from the run-of-the-mill Awami League activists that included even H.S. Suhrawardy and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Indeed, Bhashani worked for the independence movement of Bangladesh with utmost dedication from December 1970; while during the war of liberation in 1971, Bhashani actively played his role as chair of the ‘All Party Consultative Committee’ of the Bangladesh Government in exile.
As Bangladesh emerged as a distinctive nation-state-achieving geographical-territorial independence-Bhashani did not cease to act at all, while he came to realise soon that power was just transferred from one ruling-class to another, reproducing an almost similar political culture that I would like to characterise by such interconnected trends and tendencies as: (1) the individualisation and bureaucratisation of politics, and the politicisation of the bureaucracy and that of what might be called ‘the-individual-for-itself’; (2) the politicisation of the military and the militarisation of politics; (3) the ‘communalisation’ of politics and the politicisation of religion; (4) the criminalisation of politics and the politicisation of criminals; and 3) the consequent alienation of the plundering national ruling classes from the class politics of the peasantry and the working class.
But Maulana Bhashani never in his life sought personal power, never cared to hold a position in the mainstream establishment, while remaining consistently oppositional in his politics and organically rooted in the struggle of the masses themselves. One can see this Bhashani very clearly from 1971 to 1976. And, in 1976, Maulana Bhashani, when he was even 91, led the famous anti-Farakka long march towards the Bangladesh-India borders. Again, that was a paradigmatic illustration of an oppositional activist’s unflagging youthfulness mobilised in the service of the masses.
WHAT, then, is the significance of Maulana Bhashani today? I raise this question at a time when capitalism, imperialism, fundamentalism, and militarism have all been profoundly interconnected on a global level against the wretched of the earth, while in Bangladesh we keep witnessing a heavily crisis-ridden political culture characterised by the trends that I have identified above by way of dwelling on Bhashani’s own work. Now, in the light of our foregoing accounts, I intend to advance a few categorical propositions in an attempt to underline Maulana Bhashani’s political-cultural-ideological significance today.
First, Maulana Bhashani was an organic revolutionary remaining integrally rooted in the struggle of the masses-particularly the peasantry. Given his emphasis on mass-line organising as well as on the peasantry as the agent of change in history, some have detected at least traces of Maoist proclivities in Bhashani. And I feel tempted to place Bhashani in the tradition of such Third World revolutionaries as the Vietnamese freedom-fighter Ho Chi Minh, the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, and-to an extent-another African revolutionary, Kwame Nkrumah. Like them, Bhashani could see-theoretically and practically-a profound link between the emancipation of the peasantry in a third-world country and national liberation itself, while remaining aware of how the fruits of national liberation always run the risk of being appropriated or reaped by the opportunist middle class (something that Frantz Fanon theoretically anticipated in his The Wretched of the Earth). In other words, true national liberation for Bhashani came to mean a liberation of the masses by way of forging a site in which the class struggle might interact and even intersect with the national liberation struggle itself, something that we are yet to see in Bangladesh.
Second, obviously, Maulana Bhashani’s politics was consistently anti-imperial and anti-feudal. For him, national liberation itself cannot but involve struggles against both imperialism and the national ruling classes, operative as they are in differentially determined class-cahoots. Thus Bhashani-to provide just one instance-was fiercely opposed to British imperialism and the Zamindari system all at once, while, in another context, he was critical of Pakistan’s internal colonialism and the pro-US stances of the Awami League prior to the emergence of Bangladesh.
Third, Maulana Bhashani was of course not a Marxist in the traditional sense of the term. But as a socialist, Bhashani certainly longed for an exploitation-free system and society that are impossible under capitalism, for instance. And, as a socialist, he exemplarily internalised the values and messages of socialism such that he was able to turn them into active, material, and national-popular forces, without falling into the trap of a theory-fetishising intellectualism. It is probably here where Bhashani-almost à la Antonio Gramsci (true, Bhashani never read Gramsci, nor did he need to read him, given Bhashani’s own solid life-based understanding, insights, and farsightedness)-came to realise that culture is political and that politics is cultural. It is not for nothing that the Bhashani-convened Kagmari Council Session of the Awami League was followed by a three-day cultural conference which probably was the largest cultural gathering ever held in East Bengal. A commentator on Bhashani rightly puts it, ‘Bhashani personally appealed to the Conference to ensure that folk art be preserved.’ Syed Abul Maksud, a noted biographer of Bhashani, quotes him thus: ‘the onslaught of polished urban art should not lead to the demise of traditional village folk-art.’ Also, no less significantly for Bhashani, the cultural aspect of politics resided in the ways in which he could not only use and energise a language immediately accessible to the masses but could also turn that language into a vehicle of what he himself and the people called praner dabi.
Finally, Bhashani continues to remain our inspiration for our struggle against all forms and forces of domination and oppression. He died in 1976, but he is not dead. He remains alive in the hearts of millions struggling for emancipation and for a world free from exploitation.
Dr Azfar Hussain teaches in the Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies Department at Grand Valley State University, Michigan, and is vice-president of the Global Centre for Advanced Studies, New York, USA. The article was originally published in the Slate weekend magazine of New Age in its early years.