Today, 23 June, is a special day not just for the Awami League, but in the history of Bangladesh as well. It was on this day in 1949 that 300 political leaders and workers gathered on the first floor for Dhaka's Rose Garden, KM Das Lane, and East Pakistan Awami Muslim League was born.
It was the agitating youth within the Muslim League who were the pioneers of this party. Their objective was to free the then politics from the grasp of the power-hungry Muslim League leaders and establish a Muslim League of the ‘awam’ of the people. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani was the founding president of the party.
It was Bhasani who named the party Awami League. The first 40-member working committee included Ataur Rahman Khan, Sakhawat Hossain, Ali Ahmed Khan, Ali Amjad Khan and Abdus Salam Khan (vice presidents), Shamsul Huq (general secretary), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (joint secretary), Khandkar Mushtaque Ahmed and AKM Rafiqul Hossain (assistant secretaries) and Yaar Mohammed Khan (treasurer).
Sheikh Mujib was in jail at the time. The Awami League’s first office was on the ground floor of Yaar Mohammed Khan’s three-storey house on Karkunbari Lane.
Many of the present generation do not know the name of the Awami League’s founder. The party is 67 years old today, stepping into its 68th year. Birthday greetings to the innumerable leaders and workers of Awami League.
Congress, Muslim League, Communist Party and Krishak Proja Party are even older parties. In 1972, the Bangladesh Congress came to an end when its leader Monoranjan Dhar and his party members joined the Awami League. The Muslim League fragmented again and again till nothing was left. The Communist Party too has divided up into several factions.
Krishak Proja Party was a large party of undivided India. However, after the death of Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq, the party never got back onto its feet. Whatever little was left to the party was diminished due to it collaboration with the Pakistani forces in 1971.
Many parties which were born after the Awami League, are hardly in existence today. These include Gonotantri Party. National Awami Party and Jatiya League. But the Awami League has forged ahead in all power and glory.
During the last seven decades, certain characteristics of the Awami League have emerged to prominence. Several prominent leaders assembled in the Awami League, unlike any other political party.
At the helm were Maulana Bhasani, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This combination of leaders gave the Awami League its unique character.
Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is now the leader of the party. The more the party advances ahead, the more important its leader becomes. In fact, the leader overtakes the party into becoming an institution.
In December 1954, Pakistan Awami League president Suhrawardy went against party decision and joined Mohammed Ali Bogra’s cabinet. After becoming a minister, he responded to a journalist’s question, saying, “What is Awami League? I am Awami League.” The journalist went on to ask, “Doesn’t this go against Awami League’s manifesto?” He replied, “I am the Awami League manifesto.” And that is how it was indeed. The bigger the party got, the more powerful the leader became. The leader didn’t follow the party, the party followed the leader’s dictates.
A question often arises in discussions, as to how there can be democracy in the country when democracy isn’t practiced within the party itself. The general idea of democracy within a party is that delegates of all levels will elect members of the executive committee during the council session. But in reality this does not happen.
The question of voting didn’t even arise when the Awami League formed a committee on 23 June 1949. Maulana Bhasani was unanimously given the responsibility of forming the committee. There was no dissension or debate and this method of forming a committee is followed down to today.
The young Sheikh Mujib became the Awami League’s acting general secretary in 1952 and during the 1953 council session, he became the party’s full-fledged general secretary. Since then he took to expanding the party at the grassroots. The Awami League committees were formed at the union level too. No other party was spread so extensively, not even at present.
Sheikh Mujib was the Awami League’s general secretary for 13 years, from 1953 till 1966. This remains a record. In this country, political parties revolve around the party president. But for as long as he remained general secretary, it was Mujib who virtually ran the party.
There are two noteworthy factors here - the general secretary’s sense of responsibility and his personality. No other general secretary had such a combination of the two as did Mujib. Now the post of general secretary is just a ceremonial position.
Sheikh Mujib felt that if the party formed the government, then the government would run at the party’s behest. The Awami League’s constitution maintained that a minister would have to give up his/her party position. That is why in 1957 Sheikh Mujib resigned as minister for the provincial government.
In 1972 Sheikh Mujib became the prime minister of Bangladesh. In April 1972 he was unanimously made the party’s president again. He did not touch the constitution. No cabinet member was kept in any party post. At the council of January 1974, Bangabandhu relinquished the post of party president. Abul Hasnat Mohammed Kamaruzzaman was elected the new president. Sheikh Mujib was such a towering personality that the government and the party revolved around him.
In 1996 when the Awami League formed the government once again, this provision of the constitution was no longer followed. The party head and the head of the government was one and the same. As the government is more powerful than the party, the party gradually became government-oriented, an organisation of the government. This was not good for the health of the party.
Maulana Bhasani was the Awami League president for the first seven years of the party. Next Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish became party president and remained in office for nine years. Sheikh Mujib was the party’s president for eight years, from 1966 to 1974.
In 1974 when the one-party BKSAL system was ushered in, he was its chairman for six months. He was killed in a military coup in August 1975. Sheikh Hasina became party president in 1981 and has remained in this office for an unbroken stretch of 36 years. This is an unbroken record in the region.
One one hand this continuity in leadership lent the party stability, but on the other hand it has rendered the party dependent on one individual. She may remain party president for many more years to come. In this country there is no precedence of retiring from politics.
Whtheen the Awami League took over the country’s rule in 1972, there was no opposition in parliament. Four decades on, the situation has been repeated. There are a few faux opposition members here and there in parliament, while the BNP has fallen to one side, having lost the political gamble. It is in a poor shape.
The Awami League’s rival now is the Awami League itself. This was visible in the recent union parishad elections when the party was rife with inner conflict. The party’s solidarity at the grassroots has cracked. Only the powerful leadership at the centre has eclipsed these conflicts at the grassroots. If the party does not remain in power, the consequences of this conflict could be fatal.
Skirmishes within the Awami League are nothing new. Bangabandhu had been the leader of Bangladesh at its ascension. During the liberation war, in his absence the government-in-exile was overrun with inner conflict. Other leaders expressed no confidence in Tajuddin Ahmed, the prime minister of that government.
After 1975, the Awami League fell into dire straits again and again due to internal fracas. The stage was set for a ‘messiah’ to salvage the party. It was then that Sheikh Hasina was made party president. The lack of cohesion and intellectual exercise within the party had the leaders and workers frantically in search of a savior. The Awami League still has not been able to emerge from this feudal culture.
The 1972 constitution was a great achievement of the Awami League. It later underwent several amendments. The country and the society underwent radical changes. Global circumstances have changed too.
It is hard to face the challenges of change, but imperative too. Unfortunately, the Awami League looks to the past. It still talks of returning to the 1972 constitution. The noveau Awami Leaguers incessantly chant Bangabandhu’s praise. Rabindranath Tagore had aptly described this propensity to blindly give a god-like status to any great leader that emerges and stubbornly adhere to his dictates, despite the changes in time and circumstance.
We need to move forward and Bangabandhu will be our inspiration. But we have moved far ahead the days of Bangabandhu and the sooner we realise this, the better.
An immensely powerful government is in power at the moment. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina ranks among the most powerful rulers of the world. There are few examples of a strong government and a strong leader in the domestic perspective. But this is not an eternal arrangement.
The Awami League hasn’t had to take this exam for quite some time now. But in view of the future, the Awami League needs to tidy its house. The strength of the party will be determined when the government is changed. Does the Awami League not see any possibility of a change in the government in the offing?
Mohiuddin Ahmed is a writer and researcher and he can be reached email@example.com