Bangabandhu, the Pioneer of Socialist Democracy

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Published on July 12, 2022
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Aleem Haider:

The history of the Bengali nation is the history of being exploited and repressed by colonial invasion. Whatever the regimes came, the poor and common people had nothing to expect. Much of the resources were looted and smuggled to other regions and only a few gained. The common people of the Bengali nation continued to be oppressed and exploited for hundreds of years until the arrival of their leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Born in a remote village of Tungipara, he became the savior of the Bengali nation ensuring justice, political and economic freedom of his people through a new form of socialist democracy, for which he will always be remembered.

In a bid to enjoying freedom from colonial rule, we joined with Pakistan following the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 based on religion. But our illusion was soon broken when we found that the West Pakistanis, staying thousands of miles away from us, turned our Golden Bengal into a crematorium within two decades, using religion as a shield. The Bengal region, which was always abundant in crops and food, faced famine within one and half a decades after the formation of Pakistan. Due to the food shortage caused by the overall exploitation by the West Pakistanis, Bengal had to import food in 1964. Moreover, all the wealth of the country remained in the hands of a few families in entire Pakistan.

These elite capitalists are historically known as the ‘Baish Poribar (22 families)’. They grabbed 90 per cent of the state wealth in their hands and left the remaining 10 per cent for the whole population. Bangabandhu, who was actively involved in the movement for creating Pakistan, realised the manipulations of the West Pakistanis within few days and began concentrating on improving the lifestyle of the common people. The young leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman started planning to reform the country’s economic system. Since then, the concept of socialism got connected with the philosophy of the Bangladesh state. And it was not included suddenly in the Constitution as a key principle of independent Bangladesh, but due to the historical background.

Many believe that socialism means a state without religion and isolated state mechanism like China and Russia. But it is a wrong concept of socialism. A group of defeated force in the Liberation War and a capitalist class spread propaganda against the idea among the people. That is why there is very little discussion on this topic.

The people of Bengali dreamed of the socialist system in an independent democratic country that Bangabandhu worked for. Based on the people’s aspirations, Awami League won the first-ever general election of Pakistan in 1970. For the same reason, Jukto Front got victory too in the 1954 provincial election. For their economic freedom, the peasants and the working-class cast their votes for the ‘boat’ symbol of the Awami League to elect Jukto Front, instead of affluent landlords. Even after independence, people chose Awami League unanimously in the 1973 general election. People never rejected Bangabandhu’s boat symbol because he, throughout his political life, tried to reduce the sufferings and miseries of the exploited and the poor, and build a discrimination-free and equitable social system. People kept their trust in Bangabandhu as he always wanted to improve the lives of farmers, workers and the common people. They did not fear to battle against the modern armed Pakistani junta on Bangabandhu’s call for independence.

The founder of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dedicated his whole life to fulfil the promises towards his people – both before and after independence. He set the four principles of the state in the Constitution as nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism. But this socialism is not the same as that of other countries. Bangabandhu’s philosophy regarding this socialism was the introduction of a socialistic economic system in a democratic mechanism to improve the lives of 90 per cent of people who are exploited. It is a unique economic plan that was the brainchild of Bangabandhu, aiming to establish an equal and humanitarian social system.

Socialism of Bangladesh is the democracy of the exploited

Regarding socialism, Bangabandhu on 4 November 1972, told the Constituent Assembly, “The main idea of my socialism is an exploitation-free society. We do not want to hire socialism from other countries. Different countries adopted socialism in different ways. China has not adopted the way Russia did….Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria approached different socialism based on their circumstances and national contexts. Go to the Middle East – Iraq goes one way, but Egypt another. Socialism is not possible by hiring it from overseas. Those who have, cannot establish socialism. Socialism is not possible with studying lines, commas and semi-colons, rather it requires step by step forward in line with the country’s environment, status and mentality of the people, their customs, financial status and attitudes.”

Following his release from Pakistan jail after independence, Bangabandhu clearly outlined what the nature of the new state would be. At a press conference on 14 January after his homecoming, Bangabandhu said: “My ultimate goal is to establish an exploitation-free country, meaning socialistic economy.” In the process of establishing socialism, he said: “We believe in the democratic process. Also, the contexts of different countries are different from each other. So, Bangladesh has to adopt its process based on its own context.”

Later, Bangabandhu used to discuss ‘Bangladesh-style Socialism’ in detail at every public rally, parliamentary sessions and meetings. Bangabandhu termed the socialistic economic system within democratic government structure as ‘democracy of the exploited’.

Speaking at the first anniversary of the independence on 25 March 1972, the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said: “My government has belief in social revolution internally. The old social system must be changed not with unreal theories. The old social structure has to be reformed with practical experiences and needs of the country.”

On 9 May 1972, Bangabandhu said at an event in Rajshahi: “People of Bengal cannot live without socialism, that is why I initiated socialism. No one can be the owner of land above 100 bighas. The surplus land will be distributed among the landless people.”

Bangabandhu worked relentlessly for the economic freedom of the people for more than three years after the country’s Liberation War. He nationalised the banks, insurances, jute mills, cotton mills, sugar mills, inland and coastal shipyards, Bangladesh Biman and some other sectors. The big industries which were in the control of few persons were nationalised to give ownership to the seven crore Bengali people. He also took initiatives to launch a cooperative system in 65,000 villages where the ownership of the land will not be changed but unemployed farmers and workers will work on the fields and the government will subsidise fertilisers, pesticides and seeds etc. With an increased amount of production, the crops will be divided into three portions – one for the landowner, the second one for the labour and the rest for the state. Thus, the agricultural outputs were planned to increase three times with modernisation and ensure food supply for all. It was basically an outline for improving the fates of the working-class who are the majority.

Before materialising the plan, Bangabandhu was brutally assassinated by a group of barbaric killers, who later shattered the country’s Constitution into pieces. The plan Bangabandhu took to remove the tears from the eyes of the country’s poor, ended. Though ‘socialism’ remained on paper, the overall philosophy was lost. The fate of the majority of exploited people fell into darkness with the aggression of military junta, extremists and occupational capitalists.

Though the country was born with the dream for freedom of the exploited from any sort of discrimination, there rose a class craving for power due to the conspiracies from extreme leftists and anti-liberation forces. These hindered the initiatives taken by Bangabandhu for the economic liberty of the people. Fed up with the existing democratic system, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 25 January 1975, said in the parliament: “We want democracy for the exploited. This democracy is not for those who looted public money at night, the influential wealthy people and who supply money to the foreigners for buying votes, rather it is the democracy of the exploited.” This democracy of the exploited is socialism in the Bangladesh context and is regarded as one of the four pillars of the Constitution.

To reach the goal, Bangabandhu simultaneously asked the farmers and labours to increase the production, and government staff to change their attitudes towards people. He also called upon them to get rid of the British and Pakistani colonial mentality.

Socialistic system and Bangabandhu

From his early political life, Bangabandhu struggled against the exploitation and repression of the people. He lost his studentship from Dhaka University for waging protest for the rights of the fourth-class staff of the university. He followed his previous leaders and was on the side of the creation of Pakistan before the partition. But he realised that Pakistanis too trapped the Bengali nation with the chains of slavery. He wrote in his memoirs that the illusions of the Muslims had already gone away. Socialism was in the heart of the Bengali people to be rid of exploitation, repression and communalism.

The time the Bengali nation started its movement for rights and justice was very crucial as there was a rise of communism across the world. China got its independence in 1949 and Pakistan in 1947. But China changed its economic and social status within a short time by the socialistic system. On the other hand, the people of East Bengal suffered from famine and poverty due to Pakistani exploitation. Bangabandhu was inspired by China while visiting the country in a Peace Council meeting in 1956. He wrote details of his experience in his ‘Amar Dekha Naya Chin’. While travelling by plane and train, he was amazed to see the lush beauty of China – it seemed like somewhere in Bangladesh to him. Like Bangladesh, they were also exploited by the English and the Japanese. But Bangabandhu was surprised to know the way they changed their fate in terms of state philosophy, pro-labour policy and evolution of industries within few years since their independence.

China with the Communist Party in power had its criticism. But seeing the mega development projects, Bangabandhu wrote: “The opium addicted nation has woken up from sleep suddenly. Nobody takes opium now, nobody feels dozy. They are now full of optimism, not frustration. The country has been independent, everything is for the country’s people.”

Though China’s pro-labour policy fascinated Bangabandhu, he did not want the same socialism in Bangladesh. He clarified: “I am not a communist. I believe in socialism and do not believe in the capitalist economy.”

This trip gave him food for thought to reform the social system. Bangabandhu’s political career was pro-people from the very beginning. He saw the acceptance and popularity of his early political colleagues and veteran politicians Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq among the farmers. Later, while accelerating anti-Pakistani politics, demands related to farmers and workers were mostly highlighted in the 11-point charter. The urge for an exploitation-free society always complied with the rise of nationalism through the language movement. All student organisations, including Chhatra League formed by Bangabandhu himself, voiced against the capitalistic attitude, called for the cancellation of foreign money and nationalisation of big industries. In continuation of these demands, Jukto Front also pledged to abolish the Zamindari system and nationalise the jute mills.

The 11-point charter in 1960 also demanded the nationalisation of banks, insurances and jute mills. The Awami League campaign and programmes also called for establishing socialism in 1969 to ensure economic justice for all.

Awami League included socialism in the 1970 election manifesto. Ahead of the election, there was a biennial conference of the party in June. From the council, it was announced: “The equality among the people will be established by abolishing monopoly, capitalism, feudalism, zamindari, jotdari, mahajani system and introducing socialist economy within democratic structures.” The announcement from the council also read: “A socialistic economic system will be introduced in democratic structure to ensure equality among people.” Following this announcement, Awami League launched its election campaign. From then, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman stressed the need for bringing the ownership of the country’s wealth to the country’s people at every election rally. The principle of founding an exploitation and discrimination-free state and equity-based social system is regarded as socialism in the Bangladesh context.

Changing the fate of 90 per cent of the country’s population through a socialistic economy within the democratic system was completely a unique economic idea by Bangabandhu. The aim was to build a society with equality and humanity. By socialism, Bangabandhu meant a welfare democratic state with discrimination-free lives for all, and he worked for it relentlessly throughout his life. People kept their trust in him and voted Awami League again and again. They did not hesitate to resist the armed attacks of Pakistani forces responding to Bangabandhu’s call for freedom upon his declaration of independence.

Writer: Poet and member of the National Poetry Council

Courtesy: Prothom Alo (English)