I had the good fortune to read Matiur Rahman’s interview, published in the journal 'Torko'. The interview was taken by Sakhawat Tipu. Matiur Rahman is the chief editor of Prothom Alo and a very well-known individual whom I had the privilege of meeting once. In the interview, Matiur Rahman talked about a lot of things but what impressed me most, was the overwhelming details regarding communism in Bangladesh during the sixties and how he himself was actively involved in one of the most intense periods of Bangladesh history. Having seen directly the chain of events unfolding one after another to the ultimate decline of the communist ideology in Bangladesh, he explained a great deal about their struggles to maintain the ideology.
How it all began
Matiur Rahman’s relatives were already involved in left politics so naturally many of the books, journals and other material found way to his hands. As per his own words, he met the leader of Communist Party (CPB) Gaan Chakraborty at Malibagh when he was a first-year college student in December in 1961. Chakraborty asked him to join the party and he readily accepted. Thus his involvement with the party began. From then till 1969, he was involved in almost all of the rallies and protests the party held. The protests were intense in 1962, opposing Ayub Khan’s regime. The majority of the protesters from Communist Party were college and university students and they eventually contributed in overthrowing the Ayub regime because these protests inspired other political parties of East Pakistan. Ultimately, these came to be the landmark, the launching pad, for subsequent pre-liberation war protests in 1970 and 1971 and we can say the Communist Party played a major contribution for establishing this landmark. However, its contributions are not highlighted among the common public as should have been.
Matiur Rahman said the sixties was a renaissance for Bengal. Indeed, this was the time when East Pakistan was showing signs of independence in every sector, not just politics, but in arts, science, thinking, literature and more. As George Orwell said in his book '1984', it is important for the pattern of thinking to alter as a whole in order to comprehend the structure of freedom. East Pakistan was displaying this alteration and progressive propensity in thinking. Many significant poets and political figures of East Pakistan were vocal in declaring the significance of freedom of speech and the downfall of totalitarian states and prominent among them was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These two aspects are the core ideas of communism and even to this day, many are not aware of this.
Sheikh Mujib was the head of Awami League that time and this party had much collaboration with the Communist Party. In general, both of these parties came to agreement on most issues, except when it came to the 'Six Point' demand. In fact, there were divisions among the Communist Party itself regarding this issue. Eventually, this caused a division between the radical communist group and those who were Moscow idealists. The Moscow idealists were more in favour of Awami League’s principles about going slow and steady and not with strident rallies and protests at the outset. In fact, they were the first ones to come up with this idea and suggested it to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who – as it turns out – was more vocal about demonstrating strength and unity on field. Sheikh Mujib soon accepted the proposal of Moscow idealists on a more passive approach but the radical Peking idealists rebuffed it and believed in the former concept of moving forward with arms, as well as the importance of hard protests against the regime. This did not coincide with the principles of Moscow group, so eventually it caused a rift within. Although not officially announced, it became clear to many that it was only a matter of time for the communist rank and file to disintegrate.
Besides, many of the other well-known parties like NAP (National Awami Party), Students Union and others were already officially divided. Only Awami League still remained intact under the strong leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Fortunately, the fall was not quite as early as anticipated. On the contrary, the rise both of these factions of the Communist Party realised that dispute would not bode well at the time since unity was absolutely imperative for securing a decisive victory against Ayub regime. This eventually created a sense of reasoning for the two factions to once again merge into a team, especially the ones in the Students Union and Communist Party. When all looked lost, members of Students’ Union took the necessary initiative to make sure the party remained intact. Such measures included organising large meeting with the leaders of Chattra League (who were a very significant number that time) and this led to the establishment of ‘Chattra Sangram Parishad’ – which was a joint front of the students from all sides. In Matiur Rahman’s own words, the then leader of Communist Party Moscow group – Mohammad Farhad – was one of the pioneers in arranging these meetings between the groups. The discussions were primarily focused on how to improve and standardise the Six Point demand.
Eventually, the Six Point was developed into 'Eleven Points' which appeared to have a solution to all of the problems the people of East Bengal were facing at the time. The 'Six Point' was not adequate because that did not support the measurements for economic issues and foreign policies. But the Eleven Points did. When Sheikh Mujib was released from jail, he accepted the Eleven Point demand and promoted it. All of this was necessary a manoeuver for the upcoming election regarding the independence of East Pakistan. So one can say this was a major victory for the leftists too due to their endless efforts in making it happen. These inspired a widespread revolution in the other sectors of Bengal – as in, the cultural and literature revolutions as well as promoting rallies among journalists and intellectuals. Overall, this came to unite all factions of Bengal for a time. The unity was the vital point in securing the election victory for East Pakistan by a wide margin as well as the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with many other well-known personas from prison. Apart from that, the cultural and literature evolution added to the flourish of Bengal in a way that was never seen before. Which is why, this period, as quoted by Matiur Rahman himself, was the true ‘renaissance’ of what we know today as Bangladesh.
Interestingly enough, the anti-Moscow communists or rather, the more radical ones in the party, remained neutral when the election day came around. So did the radical NAP group as well – the one led by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani (the Moscow idealists within NAP were being led by Muzzaffar). The pro-Moscow ones in both – NAP and CPB - were quite supportive of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s principles even afterwards. In fact, the seventies were the period in which the downfall of Communist Party appeared inevitable. The first of this was the partition of Chattra Sangram Parishad. Awami League single-handedly participated in the election. Even during the liberation war, these factions refused to come in terms with one another and it was only through pressure from the Indian government that they reluctantly worked together for a time. It’s interesting to investigate on why India wanted these people to cooperate with each other.
India then and now does not have a particular reputation for supporting leftist regimes but that time in the seventies, they were very reliant on the Soviet Union (USSR) in the international arena. Perhaps they did not want to get into USSR’s bad books considering that India itself was not the developed nation that we know today. Just like today the United States always meddled in other countries’ affairs for its diplomatic purposes and to spread capitalism, the USSR back then wanted the spread of communism globally. In several Asian countries, communism was rising and Bangladesh was one of them which came into USSR’s attention. And India, being dependent upon them as well as an ally, had the capability and resources to counter West Pakistan’s antics in Bengal. Moreover, India was the neighboring country to both of these conflicting nations. Perhaps that is why India tried so hard to help AL win the election in 1970.
But after that, the reluctant political groups of Bengal remained as before - divided and adhering to their own policies. The true political strength and unity did not come even though we attained the country that is rightfully ours. The election too was won by Awami League, not any of the left wing parties. It was neither a victory for NAP, nor for the communists. On the contrary, the Moscow idealists from both these parties sided and voted with Awami League while the Peking idealist group remained neutral by refusing to cast votes. Not that they had any choice either, seeing as they were already divided and Awami League was the only united party on front and people wanted liberation and separation from West Pakistan desperately. So in the end, it was a victory for Awami League after all the years of hard work done by communists, Students’ Union and Chattra Sangram Parishad in the past.
After the liberation war, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Bangladesh and established the Awami League government, these parties disintegrated further into much smaller factions with different leaders. The situation of the country was in shambles too, as to be expected after a war. Sheikh Mujib encountered a challenging task of running a country in crisis. The devastating famine in 1973 was one factor that people largely blamed on the AL government. This famine reached the entire country and millions of people died of starvation. People were angry, frustrated and allegations of corruption rose against the government for poor handling of the situation. What also didn’t help was Sheikh Mujib’s promoting of ‘Rakhi Bahini’ and granting many freedom fighters two-rank promotions, their seniors in turn becoming their juniors.
Meanwhile, CPB Moscow tried its best to remain an independent party. They praised and criticised the government accordingly. Unfortunately, CPB lost its identity of independence to the people long ago when they sided with Awami League in the election of 1970. So any criticism they made was not taken seriously by the people. Eventually, BAKSAL (the one-party system) was established by the government in January 1975. This is said to have turned the tide against the existing rule, but with freedom of speech and multi-party system disbanded, the CPB Moscow had no choice but to join Awami League while the 'Peking group' continued to disintegrate with the emergence of new leaders.
When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was finally assassinated on 15 August, democracy was nearly annihilated under the new military regime. A series of struggles to revive freedom of speech and multi-party system ensued through various coups and killings. Finally, when Ziaur Rahman took presidency in 1977, attempts were taken to restore peace and democracy within the country by allowing freedom of speech and press, restoring a multi-party system as well as taking necessary steps to enhance the country’s food production. The multi-party system allowed several other banned parties to regain ground, and this saw the revival of CPB in the late seventies. Unfortunately, though, CPB was never the same as before.
The eighties and beyond
CPB Moscow existed in the eighties and still does. However, it was no longer a major party, with other parties overtaking it. Ziaur Rahman permitted many Islamic parties, which were previously banned by the government, to function again. He introduced the ‘Indemnity Act’, in accordance with the multi-party system. Some of these parties to this day remain influential. The ideas and principles of communism gradually declined even though the party was still there and other small groups that remained to this day.
The ideas of communism originated in Soviet Union and later on, China. The other countries tried to adapt these principles but communism in Russia was destroyed in 1990 during the presidency of Mikhael Gorbhachev. USSR broke down into many smaller states like Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan among others. The US had a major part to play in that and it was considered a global victory for capitalism, not to mention Ronald Reagan’s victory as well. This greatly impacted the communist idealists in other parts of the world as is evident from the collapse of the left wing government in Poland. Likewise, Bangladesh too was no exception. The Communist Party here no longer held significance in political power play, and the morale of CPB-Moscow toll a further blow.
Communism has almost become a forbidden word in Western Europe. Capitalism and conservativeness is preferred in that part of the world, as can be seen in the influence Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have over many. Lack of unity and inability in seeing the long-term picture has caused communism to decline not only in Bengal but in the entire world.
* Chowdhury Taoheed Al-Rabbi is a student of Bangladesh University of Professionals