The Kagmari Split

A proxy cold war that hurt Left?

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 22:29, Dec 15,2019


The Kagmari conference of 1957 of the Awami League is one of the most significant political events in our history in the long walk to 1971. At this conference, the party split into two with one wing, right, led by the then prime minister Suhrawardy and the left wing led by Maulana Bhashani; the party chief Sheikh Mujibur Rahman supported his mentor Suhrawardy. The conflict was on many issues between the two wings of the party and the international scene. It was also a contest between two individuals and their ideas.

Suhrawardy claimed that the provincial autonomy of East Pakistan had been largely met, parity had been achieved and the state had been stable with strong ties with the West. Bhasahani claimed that none of the above had been achieved. People were suffering and the West had ‘betrayed’ the interest of the impoverished world. At least in this aspect, the conflict at Kagmari was a cold war proxy fight.

It was also a fight at other levels, including personal. Both leaders represented two different streams of history, with Suhrawardy holding aloft the urban elite cause while Bhashani stood for the largely impoverished masses. One stood for Pakistan while the other was a very conditional supporter of Pakistan, if at all, like Sheikh Mujib. While Bhashani was the party chief, Suhrawardy was the prime minister. The two were representatives of two historical forces. In the end, as history shows, none survived political history as the cold war died, Pakistan died and so did the Left.

It was not a futile fight though, because the conflict cleared the way for the party Awami League to emerge with its capacity to mass-mobilise East Pakistan which Jinnah had tried to criminalise as ‘provincialism’.

The ‘provincial’ middle class leadership of Bengal saw in the maturing situation the opportunity to use the power they knew lay in the silent hands of the majority, the peasantry. Peasantry is the greatest historical force to which all must turn to make new states or break old ones. In 1971, neither Pakistan nor the Left had the peasantry on their side.


Road to Kagmari

PEASANTRY remains the greatest force in Bengal history as a change-maker but not as a power ruler. The peasantry’s power comes from its livelihood pattern and social behaviour as an integrated reality. It is culture that is organic and continuous and it is linked to socio-economic survival. Its social and political construction is also based on livelihood. That is why it is rarely, if ever, ideological.

Constructing value structures out of the theology framework of faith or political theory does not work for the peasants. They are always free in objective setting but always not free to act to gain power as the peasantry is by definition not organised as a single political construct.

The Left tries to organise the peasantry along what it thinks are political lines based on their political theoretical frames. These are basically constructed by the middle class from which the Left springs. The Left defines for itself what is the peasant reality along what it thinks are facts of history. It is, therefore, based more on what the middle class thinks of the peasantry rather than what peasant thinks of itself.


Pakistan: Left and new internationalism

THE Bengal experience was no different. The difference was that unlike Europe, which was free of colonial rule, Left politics sprouted and grew in a colonial era of the British rule. And the socio-economic class source of the ideas of modernism in Bengal lay in a fundamentally colonial collaborationist space.

The best thoughts of Bengal were spoken by those whose pockets and soul were chained to colonialism and post-colonial continuity. The best minds learnt obeisance to western ideologies even before any anti-western movements began in Bengal through peasant resistance. It is true that they believed that they were heralding a new cluster of freedom and resistance but even in the early 20th century, Bolshevism was itself an ‘international’ idea linked to a socialist centre which in the end became a para-imperial network of parties and ideas.

The result was inevitably the rise of the margin as well in international socialist movements. The same centrally orchestrated international broke up in 1961 when doubts were raised concerning the general line of the international communist movement. It led to the birth of global enmity between the Russian and the Chinese camps. The impact of this was naturally felt in Bangladesh and it led to two proxy camps as well in the local socialist world.

Discussions with many Leftists point to the influence of the socialist centres on the margins in Bengal after 1947. For a while, the East Pakistan Communist Party was a sort of a branch of the Indian Communist Party. Later, it was not possible to maintain contact and control the communist parties of both wings of Pakistan; so, there was no real Pakistan Communist Party but communist parties of the two wings. This was, in fact, very practical as the two Pakistans were really two states functionally from the birth in 1947.

Pakistan’s anxiety was intense about the two forces it never trusted — provincialists and Leftists — both sworn enemies of the central Pakistan. It was the era of peak cold war politics soon after the Second World War and Pakistan intelligence was obviously nervous. The Leftists were being tracked and the documents of the post-1958 martial law of Ayub Khan shows how embedded was this practice.

Two documents that this writer remembers concerned a major Tagore singer of that period who was a Communist Party contact with India and was suspected of being the fund-carrying bag man. He did travel to India via the Garo borders in secret but the intelligence tracked his every move on return. Almost all political activists were routinely under surveillance. As the 1950s approached, anxiety mounted. It is interesting that although the Left was not a big force, they had a high priority as ‘dangerous elements’. US support for Suhrawardy was based on his high commitment to the western lobby. Bhashani was, therefore, the villain of the piece.

Kagmari is often discussed when the Left split with the Right and the political coalition fell apart. The point is that, analysing events later and before, it does seem that the local Communist Party never took a major decision on such matters without consulting the Communist Party in Russia. This applied to the various ‘independence’ projects as well. At the 81st Communist Party International Congress (1955), two files were sent by East Pakistani Communist Party members, Md Toaha and Khoka Roy on the topic. However, none got any support. (Bangladesh 1971, Vol 4, pp 196–98, Interview of Comrade Asadder Ali)



BREAKING up with the Awami League was a monumental decision whose impact on politics was enormous. It basically ended Left politics in East Pakistan as a major stream and the influence on national politics declined. It would be very difficult to argue that the Left in general benefited from the Kagmari break-up, no matter how principled it was.

Although the Left left on principled background including ‘provincial autonomy’, the National Awami Party actually became the first all-Pakistan Leftist party. The result was concerns for all the working class of Pakistan and not East Pakistan focused. In a way, NAP was more concerned about Pakistan while the Awami League increasingly was limited to Bengal and ‘provincialism.’

Going by the records, Bhashani and Suhrawardy were leaders of two strong warring packs. Other than saying that the Leftists thought of forming a new stream, not much has been said but history shows that it never happened. It cannot be that they were blind to their own strength? Or were they? If so they perhaps met an inevitable fate. If not, was the Left a victim of the proxy cold war?


Collateral damage of cold war

SUHRAWARDY was clearly a pro-US loyalist but he was not exactly in full control of his party. Mujib was far more in charge and, of course, Bhashani had a greater following. And his followers were mostly Leftists. Although Suhrawardy was loyal to the United Sates, was his party so? So, anxiety must have been there in US minds about the Awami League, not to mention Pakistan.

But was Russia happy with a party where most of his followers were under a staunch pro-US leader? Russia had often made decisions on the national question of the state based on its own reading of the situation and, perhaps, its own interest.

But going by many events in which Russia vetoed local political strategies, why would Russia agree to split and lose its ‘supporters’ and their clout? Unless it read the matter entirely along international lines which is that its followers were strengthening a pro-western-led party, the Awami League, would their departure not weaken that large party? So was splitting the Awami League on the surface not good for the cold war interest of Russia?

The United States did not have confidence in Suhrawardy enough; so, it toppled him within a year or so after Kagmari and a totally pro-US military rule was imposed which worked almost as a branch of the US security. The commies were almost the main enemy and one of the first arrest orders after 1958 was made for Bhashani and the Left was sent scattering. Many measures were taken and all former Communist Party members had to be cleared by the local US embassy before being hired for GOP service.


Impact of pro-US martial law

ALMOST immediately, activists of East Pakistan began to plan for independence and whatever bit of Pakistan, if it ever existed, disappeared. Most significantly, Sheikh Mujib moved immediately and students joined the resistance. The middle class by 1962 had become a new militant force and Pakistan could not handle it.

By 1962, the Left had also split into Beijing and Moscow groups and the international monopoly of socialism was gone. Interestingly, the pro-Peking factions had always been pro-independence activists and the pro-Moscow factions had always been against it. This continued till the 1971 crackdown days.

Bhashani was marginalised and, except for a brief spell in 1968–69, was not in sight as a force. He was an individual who was greater than his parties after 1957. But he too listened to the counsel of the international socialism supporting Ayub Khan briefly as requested by China although it did not last long. What it does mean is that the Left movement had always been under the counsel and command of international centres.

The United States must have welcomed Kagmari and the Russians probably must have also counselled in separate ways. Bhashani began ignoring such words much later. However, it is a hazy world and it must be worth it to sift through Moscow archives to find out what the Russians were thinking and counselling in that fateful year when the Left declined beyond political recovery when it did not have to.


Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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