The Finished Revolution

Posted in Bengal, history, left, politics by jrahman on March 25, 2019

Traffic was uncharacteristically brisk that winter morning in Dhaka, and it took me less than an hour to get from Lalmatia to Savar.  We barely even stopped around Asad Gate, and only after we had crossed the junction that the historical significance of it occurred to me — fifty years ago that week, those red pillars in Mohammadpur got its current name.  That evening, I flicked through seemingly endless streams of Bangla channels to find not a single mention — no septuagenarian waxing nostalgic, no Tagore-quoting melodramatic fictionalisation, not even a perfunctory news item, nothing — about Asad’s bloodstained shirt.

By giving his life, Amanullah Asaduzzaman gave his name to a busy Dhaka junction.  Beyond that, however, the collective amnesia about the time of his life and death is such that one could easily be forgiven for mistaking him for some character in 1669 Mughal outpost of Jahangirabad, not the capital of East Pakistan that was not-just-figuritavely burning in revolutionary fire in the winter of 1968-69.

Fifty years ago, streets of Dhaka were ablaze, as were those of Lahore and Karachi, in what Tariq Ali calls the ‘unfashionable’ revolution.  It started with a scuffle between college students and army jawans in Punjab in the autumn of 1968, but by the end of the winter, it was Bengal that burnt down Ayub Khan’s Pakistan.  Fifty years ago today, for the first time in the history of Bengal that people power toppled a government.  The uprising was led by Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became Bangabandhu in the process.  Every major political party in independent Bangladesh has claimed to carry the mantle of at least one of these men.  And yet, nothing about the 1968-69 uprising is in Bangladeshi political consciousness.

Why is the 1969 popular uprising largely forgotten?

This amnesia is not, incidentally, a new phenomenon.  Judging from old magazines, 10th or 25th anniversaries of the uprising weren’t marked with much fanfare either.  Whereas the insidious ‘history wars’ is all about who was or wasn’t where saying or not saying what and when in 1971, neither side of Bangladeshi political divide wants to talk about 1969.

Tariq Ali assessed that the revolution was likely to fail because there was no vanguard party.  One can argue that the failure of the left in Bangladesh is essentially the failure of organisation.  But what was behind the factionalism of the left?  Ideological puritanism?  International schisms?  Our petty personality clashes?

But the left was only one player in the 1968-69 uprising — after all, no one ever addressed Sheikh Sahib as Comrade Mujib. Did identity politics overshadow any leftist ideology?

Even though the left was only a part of the anti-Ayub coalition, and heavily factionalised it might have been, but even so the left’s political clout in eastern Bengal was at its historical peak that winter.  Was there any opportunity for the left to surpass that in independent Bangladesh?  Could a united left alliance be the main opposition to the regimes of Mujib or Ziaur Rahman?  And what might have been different had there been a politically potent left?

All interesting questions, for another time.  For now, let’s note that contra Lawrence Lifschultz’s grossly misleading book, 20th century style left revolution is a finished project in Bangladesh.

That, however, doesn’t mean a 21st century left politics is doomed to fail.  What could a successful left politics look like in Bangladesh?


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