How do you feel on your 80th birthday?
It is good to be alive. If one is active in this living, that is even better. I have worked for the people throughout my life and tried to stay by them in good times and bad. There are ups and downs in life. Despite that, I have not been deprived of mingling with the people.
On your 80th birthday, how would you assess yourself? Have you been a success or have you failed?
Some important events have taken place in our time, for which life seems successful. The liberation war is the greatest event of our lives. I have worked as an organiser in that liberation war.
The target of the movement and struggle we launched from student life, from the education movement in 1962 to the mass upsurge of 1969, was to create democratic values, spirit and the desire for independence. We have been able to do that. When Bangabandhu took charge after Bangladesh emerged, we started with high hopes. But that didn't materialise. It is not like that we were sitting hopelessly. We spoke out even in front of a personality like Bangabandhu. We protested the 2nd and 4th amendments of the constitution. He asked us to join BKSAL, but we didn't agree. Afterwards, we launched movements for one and half decades against Ziaur Rahman and Ershad.
We were active in the beginning of the movement against Ershad and that ended through a mass movement. We launched a movement against BNP and Jamaat. Our stand was -- no more BNP-Jamaat. When the grenade attack took place in 2004, we formed the 14-party alliance. We were successful.
There are disappointments too. The dreams with which we started our journey have been broken into pieces. We achieved victory, but that victory has been snatched away. We dreamt to build a democratic and non-communal state, but instead communalism has spread.
How successful have you been in the movement you started ahead of independence to establish democratic values and socialism?
The struggle for national freedom has been successful through independence. But the classless society we wanted to establish has not been successful. The Soviet Union fell. We could not motivate the next generation with those principles and ideology. The trend of capitalism had intensified.
Did you merge with that trend afterwards?
No, we didn't merge. Still we talked about establishing rights of the peasants and workers. The movement and struggle are ongoing for the common people and we want to remain involved with that.
Back to the present, many think the crisis of the election commission started with the election of 2018. After the election, you openly said in a public rally that people could not cast their votes.
Before addressing the public rally, I stated the same thing in parliament, in a somewhat softer tone. I think this scenario must change otherwise people will have no confidence or trust in the election. The people of Bangladesh see the election as a festival, as their right. It is an offence to deprive them of that right.
Then why did you accept it?
It is not a matter of acceptance. Politics doesn't run on the same lines. From our vantage point, we cannot isolate ouselves from the people.
The ruling quarters said the election will be held as per the constitution, the opposition said the election has to be held under a neutral government. How will the election be held?
I think the BNP will join the election. Their threat is not real. What will they do boycotting the election? They don't have that strength to oust the government and form a caretaker government. The people don't have that trust or belief in them.
So is there no possibility to hold a fair election?
Although unfortunate, it is true that the military and civil bureaucrats control elections in our country. It happened during the rule of BNP. It is happening during the current government. This happened during the period of Zia and Ershad. I will say, rather the people played the main role during the period of Bangabandhu. Now the establishment controls everything. This establishment comprises the business quarters and the military and civil bureaucracy. It is a difficult task to bring elections from them to the people.
So politics is no longer in the hands of politicians?
Politicians are becoming irrelevant gradually. This is the same for the politicians of the ruling party.
You formed the 14-party alliance to establish democratic and non-communal Bangladesh. But that democracy was not seen in the last two elections. So why are you in alliance?
We have been able to go ahead with the consideration upon which we formed the 14-party alliance. Democracy is not a one-sided matter. Democracy can become effective with the participation of all parties. When BNP-Jamaat defied all principles of democracy, then there was bound to be a counter reaction. I also say we don't approve of what is going on. For example, we don't approve the Digital Security Act. It is also necessary to stop hatred and abhorrence that are being spread in social media. But we don't see the application of law to stop this. Problems surface if bias is shown in the application of law or it is applied against the opposition.
We have kept in mind that when the Special Powers Act was formulated in 1974, then the government said this act would be used against smuggling and miscreants. Later, all parties demanded cancellation of the Special Powers Act. But none scraped it after taking over power. I will say, there is a trend in the establishment. If you can't change that, there will be no use.
What would be your role in that case, becoming a part of that trend or protesting against it?
I didn't become a part of that trend. We are saying that the democratic system has to be strengthened. The scope of freedom of expression has to be increased. If democracy is strengthened, the struggle against fundamentalism and communalism will be strengthened.
You formed an alliance under the leadership of Awami League to protect democracy. But how far has democracy been protected?
I won't say democracy is protected well, the trend of democracy was initiated. But BNP-Jamaat unleashed violence in the name of resisting the election in 2014, Jamaat resorted to vandalism to protect war criminals and later BNP in the name of movement carried out arson attacks. The country was protected from that situation. In the wake of action and reactions of incidents, if I only talk about ideology, I won't be able to solve problems.
The prime minister has said the parties which have representatives in the parliament can join the election-time government if they want. Are you becoming a minister again?
For maintaining the continuity of the constitution, I was in the election-time government in 2014. I don't know now why this proposal has been given or in what context. The prime minister said if you wish, but the cabinet doesn't depend on my wishes. This is entirely a matter of prime minister.
You said, you believe that the BNP will join the election. On what ground BNP will join elections under this government as the party had an experience in 2014 and 2018?
BNP didn't participate in the 2014 election. Rather they torched 400 primary schools in a bid to resist election. They failed to do so. Mirza Abbas, heavyweight candidate of BNP, contested against me in the election of 2018. But I didn't find him campaigning for the election. A BNP procession was attacked from a procession led by Chhatra League. No other incident took place. Except Shahjahanpur, I didn't notice any activities of Mirza Abbas anywhere. They said they would guard the polling stations, but they did not turn up. I will say, it was they just pretended to participate in the election.
BNP alleged that cases were filed against thousands of their leaders and activists.
All the parties have been victims while carrying out democratic movements. Were movements halted for that? How many cases have been filed against CPIM leaders in West Bengal?
You actively joined the liberation war, and were involved in democratic movements. Are there any remarkable incidents in your life?
In 1970, a group of us revolutionist youths demanded the establishment of a democratic independent East Bengal. That day, Moscow Time termed our group as pro-Peking separatists. Ittefaq wrote an editorial and demanded that steps be taken against us. I was sentenced by the military court. As I went into hiding, I didn't have to go to jail. I think that event changed my life.
In our country politics of public interest means to take a stand against the establishment. But you joined the cabinet of Awami League. You became a member of parliament with their assistance. Hasn't that tarnished your image?
I want to answer this question in the language of Communist Party leader Mujahidul Islam Selim. He said, "You are joining the cabinet, your image will be tainted."
I said I cannot bathe without wetting my hair. I will clear that tarnish blemish through my work and struggle. Other will judge how far I have been able to remove that blemish. I have tried to discharge my duties with honesty and sincerity. But one thing should be kept in mind, here the prime minister is all in all. She is above all. So I have been able to do some work, and been unable to do some. Not everything has been in keeping with my politics and ideology.
The casino scam that erupted in in 2019, was in your constituency. How much were you involved in this. There are speculations about this in the political arena.
I cleared the matter at that time. The prime minister herself said, what can we do, he is the MP of that area. I was not involved at all in it . The law enforcement agencies did not say anything to me. Those who were involved in the scam, even participated in the election campaigning. Among them were Ismail Hossain Samrat and Sayeed of Arambagh. At the directives of the party and the prime minister, they joined my election campaign. Samrat himself wanted to be a candidate.
What is the state of the 14-party alliance?
The alliance is in a dormant state. It may wake up ahead of the election. In that sense the alliance is not effective. We observe certain days. In a recent meeting of the alliance, a decision has been taken that religious-based new parties would not be included in the alliance.
Can independent journalism exist with the Digital Security Act in place?
The government has also admitted this law is being misused. I think not only should there be an amendment, this law has to be changed entirely. Those including BNP who are now opposing the law, will not scrap it if they go to power. This is the culture of our politics.
Thank you too
*This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print and online editions, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.