ADDRESS TO THE 2ND MAULANA BHASHANI INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION (New York, November 9, 2013)
Dear Comrades, dear Friends,
Militant greetings from afar.
First, I wish to sincerely congratulate you, the organisers, on the holding of this 2nd International Convention to commemorate Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani’s great life-work. I regret I am in no position to attend as I am tied up with research work in India. However, I have no doubt that the deliberations of this Convention will be fruitful, and that your Convention can crucially contribute towards highlighting Bhashani’s life-work towards Bangladesh’s younger generations. I also wish to congratulate you on bringing out the first English language anthology of writings on Bhashani which uniquely depicts Bhashani’s experience of social struggles and his staunch commitment to the cause of building a secular Bangladesh towards the international audience.
Let me now comment briefly on Bangladesh’s current socio-economic crisis. Though leading politicians boast over the country’s high growth rate, there is overwhelming evidence showing that the existing neoliberal model of economic development cannot be sustained. First, the country’s poor face an onslaught of primitive accumulation which cruelly deprives them of access to natural resources for their survival. Thus, newspaper reports weekly, sometimes daily, refer to river grabbing which industrialists, real estate owners and other members of the bourgeoisie engage in. Alongside this, poor people also lose out when wetlands are appropriated and transformed into enclosures. Again, sections of the rural rich continue to grab khasland, – plots which landless people are legally and morally entitled to. All these take-overs constitute forms of accumulation which Karl Marx in the last part of his Capital (Volume I) referred to as ‘primitive’. But whereas in the case of Great Britain, the historical enclosure movement emanating in wool farming and capitalist agriculture took its shape over four centuries, – in the case of Bangladesh and other countries of the Global South the appropriation of people’s commons is occurring at a far more frightening speed.
Secondly, whereas in the case of Great Britain the process of primitive accumulation pinpointed by Marx largely preceded the 18th century Industrial Revolution, – the people of Bangladesh and other Asian countries are facing a double onslaught, of primitive and ‘regular’ capitalist exploitation at the very same time. I am here referring of course to the country’s readymade garments’ sector which recently has been shaken by two catastrophes, i.e. the Tazreen factory fire of November last year, then the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in April of this year. In the wake of the latter disaster, much attention has legitimately focused on the failure of the building’s owner and of the owners of garment factories located inside, to timely evacuate the building after cracks in its walls had been spotted. The example of Rana Plaza, however, further brings out the fact that members of the elite engage in both forms of accumulation mentioned. Land grabbing by Sohel Rana had preceded the building’s construction, and Rana Plaza readymade garment workers were subjected to the same ruthless wage-slavery as women and men elsewhere in the sector. In consequence of the worldwide uproar over the massive number of victims from the Rana Plaza collapse, Western retail traders have been obliged to take partial responsibility for improvements in factory safety. Yet provision of compensation to victims’ families reportedly has been very defective, workers’ rights to organize themselves continue to be trampled upon, and the ruthless appropriation of surplus value by Western retail traders continues unabated.
The above facts might seem to draw us away from the story about Maulana Bhashani’s great life work. Yet I believe they perfectly help to bring out the meaning of Bhashani’s efforts for today’s generations. Bangladesh’s current government and politicians connected to the ruling coalition have since 2010 sought to largely structure public debate around the outstanding issue of 1971 war crimes. Undoubtedly, the issue of war crimes is a just issue, and justice must be done to those who during the country’s historic liberation war were victimized by the genocidal Pakistani army and its auxiliary forces, the Razakkars and death squads. Undoubtedly, also, there is a need to support those voices arguing that the principle of secularism must be fully restored in Bangladesh’s Constitution. These causes are just causes, and in line with the views and policies which Maulana Bhashani espoused in his life-time. For did not Maulana Bhashani subsequent to the country’s independence himself argue that the party which had closely collaborated with the Pakistani army, the Jamaat-e-Islami, could not be allowed to participate in the country’s politics? And wasn’t it Maulana Bhashani who personally led the struggle to secularize East Bengal’s politics in the 1950s, when he suggested that the designation ‘Muslim’ be dropped from the name of the party he presided, the then Muslim Awami League?
And yet Bhashani would canvas differently, he would not agree to narrowly polarize the country’s politics and limit things to a purely parliamentary contest. Sure, he would welcome and applaud students and youngsters for waging determined struggles to pre-empt any compromise with the party of war criminals. Sure, he would throw his whole weight behind bloggers, internet activists and other sections of Bangladesh’s younger generations seeking to defend the legacy of the liberation war. Sure, he would wholeheartedly join the protestors and campaign in support of the movement for effective adjudication of war criminals. Yes, he would definitely stand by Shahbagh. And he would take the struggle to the remotest corners of the countryside, so as to convince the less informed and most deprived sections of Bangladesh’s public. As the octogenarian politician who was ever ready to re-energize the country’s fledgling politics, he would take the struggle forward and bring it to a new, a higher stage. After all, that is exactly what he did subsequent to the successful conclusion of the 1952 language movement. He personally raised the banner of regional autonomy, of Bengali self-determination, and followed up the resounding success he scored in the 1954 elections with a province-wide campaign to clarify issues to the peasantry. For Maulana Bhashani was very skilled in combining electoral politics with non-compromising struggles waged from below.
Bhashani’s practice and essential message, though cloaked in the religious-cultural discourse of his time, can well be translated and understood in the terminology of modern Marxism. Italy’s workers’ movement of the early 20th century gave rise to a theoretician, Antonio Gramsci, whose ideas continue to hold great relevance for the world’s oppressed. Gramsci defended the idea of formation of a historic bloc, which he defined as a united front combining the strength of the masses of workers and peasants with the energies of people’s intellectuals. And this is precisely where Bhashani’s greatness lies, where Bhashani was more modern, more in tune with Gramsci’s Marxism than the then Left leaders of East Bengal. For twice Bhashani sought to build a historic bloc combining the energies of intellectual and labouring sections of East Bengal’s population. He sought to achieve this in the first half of the 1950s, when he started championing the cause of railway- and other urban workers, but also gave his blessings to striking primary school teachers and encouraged village intellectuals to join the region’s progressive politics. Then again, in the course of the 1960s, even as Ayub’s dictatorship was in full swing, he made intense efforts to build an effective historic bloc, encouraging poor and middle peasants to organize themselves under the banner of the Krishok Samity, and then allying himself with militant workers and with university students during the historic 1968/1969 uprising against Ayub’s military dictatorship.
Bangladesh in 2013 has witnessed a powerful countrywide upsurge of youngsters and students. The February uprising orchestrated from Dhaka’s Shahbagh intersection can be compared with the greatest student uprisings the Asian continent has seen in the past – such as the May 4th movement of 1919 in China, and the 1969/1970 quarter storm in the Philippines. The Shahbagh movement – there is no doubt – has greatly contributed to an awakening among the country’s younger generations regarding the massacres the Pakistani army and its fundamentalist henchmen committed in 1971. And while the movement was bound to subside in its given form, – there is all reason to believe that the energies of the country’s younger generations can be channelized towards further, and more radical social change. Towards this end, Bhashani’s example can and should be studied, his powerful message should be used towards regeneration of Bangladesh’s stagnant politics. For Bhashani’s greatness lies in the fact that he sought to build a broad united front, a historic bloc for radical social change. Bangladesh’s rural and urban poor are constantly being robbed of their wealth via ‘primitive’ and ‘regular’ accumulation engaged in by the country’s rich. It is high time the public discourse of the country’s politics moves beyond a simplistic discourse which narrowly focuses on secularism alone. Remember Bhashani’s greatness: he combined the cause of secularism with the need to implement a program of comprehensive social change.
Dr. Peter Custers, Bangladesh-Bandhu award-holder,,November 9, 2013 – January 27, 2014