FEBRUARY is a special month for the Bangladeshis. This is the month we remember our language martyrs and renew our national spirit. This is well known.
February also witnessed two other hugely significant events — the Kagmari conference of the Moulana Bhashani-led Awami League and the declaration of a programme to establish a ‘Swadhin Janaganatantrik Purba Bangla’ (Independent People’s Democratic Republic of East Bengal). Unfortunately, these historic events are not as well known, especially among the younger generation. Therefore, we need to revisit them.
THE historic Kagmari conference was held in February 6–8, 1957. From here Moulana Bhashani boldly declared for the first time the aspiration of independence with his famous ‘Assalamualaikum’. It was a clear reminder to the Pakistani ruling class that East Bengal did not become part of Pakistan to be exploited.
The Kagmari conference was a continuation of our national struggle that began with the language movement. It reiterated our determined commitment to secular cultural heritage, emancipation of the general mass and solidarity with the oppressed around the world seeking to free them from the yoke of colonialism. In short, it projected our collective vision for an exploitation free, democratic country with opportunities to prosper regardless of one’s religion, colour or ethnicity. (Interested readers can find rich discussions on the historic significance of the Kagmari conference in Kagmari Sammelan Smarakgrantha, edited by Mohsin Shashtrapani.)
Swadhin Janaganatantrik Purba Bangla
A COMPLETE blueprint for the realisation of the Kagmari vision was declared on 22 February, 1970. A group of courageous young political and student leaders led by Kazi Zafar Ahmed openly declared from a mammoth public meeting at the historic Paltan Maidan their programme to establish an independent exploitation-free, egalitarian and democratic Bangladesh — a ‘Swadhin Janaganatantrik Purba Bangla’ (Independent People’s Democratic Republic of East Bengal).
This momentous event is much less remembered; perhaps because it threatens the vested interest. Unfortunately, it is also forgotten by those who once dared to challenge the ruling class. Therefore, the event requires a brief recount to highlight its significance.
The public meeting was organised by the East Pakistan Students Union, popularly known as Chhatra Union (Menon group), and presided over by Mostafa Jamal Haider. The resolution was read out by Atiqur Rahman Salu, the organising secretary.
The programme, although openly declared from a public meeting in 1970, was drafted a year earlier in April 1969 in the wake of the historic 11-point movement and Moulana Bhashani led people’s uprising of 1969 which brought down the oppressive Ayub regime and freed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with those accused of the Agartala conspiracy against Pakistan. The leaders who spoke at the meeting were variously sentenced by a military court of General Yahya Khan who succeeded General Ayub Khan through a coup following the 1969 mass uprising. Kazi Zafar Ahmed and Rashed Khan Menon received seven years of rigorous imprisonment and confiscation of their properties; Mostafa Jamal Haider and Mahbubullah were given one year jail sentence. Abdullah al-Noman and Kazi Siraj also received one year jail sentence for organising meetings in Chittagong in support of the programme. While Mahbubullah and Noman landed in jail, others managed to evade the authorities and became fugitive to continue to organise the people and lead the movement.
These revolutionary young leaders — Haider Akbar Khan Rano, Rashed Khan Menon, Abdul Mannan Bhuyan, Abduallah al-Noman, Bulbul Khan Mahbub, Mostafa Jamal Haider, Mahbubullah, Haider Anwar Khan Juno, Atiqur Rahman Salu — around Kazi Zafar Ahmed were visionaries. They called on the people of Bangladesh, especially the working class labourers and peasants and students, to prepare for an armed struggle well in advance of the Liberation War. They developed their programme when the majority of politicians were preparing for elections under the Pakistani military regime of General Yahya Khan to form a new Pakistan national assembly and the left forces, inspired by Charu Majumder, were engaged in a programme of the so-called ‘class war’ to annihilate class enemies such as jotdars, zamindars, farias and mahajans (landlords, middle-men and money lenders).
The programme of a ‘Swadhin Janaganatantrik Purba Bangla’ was unique in the sense that it synthesised the national question of freeing from Pakistan with the economic emancipation of common people, especially the toiling masses (peasants and workers). It involved struggle against local collaborators (feudal lords, and elites) and international backers (in particular, imperialist US and multinational corporations) of the Pakistani ruling class.
It was also unique in the sense that no other political parties had a manifesto as detailed and as pro-people as this. The programme had detailed outlines for developing pro-people industries, agriculture, small businesses, state-owned enterprises, public administration, education and culture. It also had measures to ensure religious freedom and rights of women and ethnic minorities. The programme envisaged an independent, non-aligned and pro-people state run on the principle of democratic centralism where each level of government — central, district, thana, village — would be conducted by truly elected representatives.
Thus, the progressive forces led by Kazi Zafar Ahmed and his courageous comrades were not accidental or opportunist participants in the liberation war. They joined the war of liberation fully prepared to fulfil the Kagmari vision with a clear programme of action to establish a janaganatantrik Bangladesh for the majority of the people who are workers and peasants — the toiling masses; money and power of the few wealthy elites will have no place in a janaganatantra. (A full copy of the programme is available in Bangladeshesher Swadhinata Juddha: Dalilpatra, Vol 2, pp 447–461, reproduced in Muktijudde Bamdhara by Mridul Guha, pp 168–184)
EVEN though we have won political independence from Pakistan, the struggle to establish a people’s democratic republic remains unfinished. Inequality has risen alarmingly as unscrupulous business people, dishonest politicians and the lumpen bourgeois class collude to plunder the state that is increasingly unable to protect the vulnerable and provide quality pro-people public services, especially in areas of education, healthcare, housing and transport.
People’s democratic rights are trampled as the politicians bicker only to grab power as a way to enrich themselves. The environment and natural resources are ransacked in the name of development where the interest of multinational corporations dominates national interest. A pro-elite discriminatory education system is entrenching not only inter-generational inequity, but also failing to produce wholesome individuals and national leaders.
Yet, the left-progressive force has virtually dismembered itself through internal conflicts and opportunism. Sadly, the nation cannot expect anything from them. The challenge is compounded by global and regional geopolitical realities, and the immediate threat of expansionism.
Therefore, as we renew the spirit of the language movement in the month of February, we must also call for the fulfilment of the vision of the Kagmari Conference and rekindle the flame of a ‘Swadhin Janaganatantrik Purba Bangla’.
Anis Chowdhury is adjunct professor of the University of Western Sydney and the University of New South Wales (Australia); he held senior United Nations positions during 2008–2015 in New York and Bangkok. He was senior vice president of Biplobi Chattra Union (Revolutionary Student Union) during 1977–78.
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