Bangabandhu’s politics in 1950s’ Pakistan

As an activist of the Muslim League, his unswerving loyalty to Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, and last prime minister of an undivided Bengal, was well pronounced

The legacy of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is a long tale of a politician whose nationalistic instincts were to have him play a pivotal role in the history of the Bengali nation, the half of it which had in August 1947 aligned itself with the creation of Pakistan on the basis of the so-called two-nation theory propounded by the All-India Muslim League in the seven years prior to the partition of India. There is in any retelling of the Mujib story a good dose of irony linked to the evolution and growth of his politics between the late 1940s and early 1970s. As an activist of the Muslim League, his unswerving loyalty to Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Muslim League politician and last prime minister of an undivided Bengal, was well pronounced. 

In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s identification with issues related to East Bengal were becoming increasingly pronounced as was his rise in politics at the national level in Pakistan. As the Pakistan constituent assembly, of which he had become a member in 1955, prepared to lump the four provinces of the western part of the country into what would become known as One Unit, Mujib made his views emphatically patent. One Unit was a shrewd move by the entrenched ruling classes in Karachi to bring about parity between the two wings of Pakistan, a step calculated to deprive East Bengal of its majority status in the population demographics of the country and bring it at par with the western half of the country. One Unit would, in 1955, redefine the two wings of the country, separated as they were by a thousand miles of Indian territory, as East Pakistan and West Pakistan.

Signs of disquiet about the move were in the air before the One Unit scheme was given formal shape. On 25 August 1955, a month before One Unit became a reality, Mujib made his concerns known about the scheme at a session of the central legislature in Karachi. Addressing the Speaker of the constituent assembly, he served the warning:

Sir, you will see that they want to place the words ‘East Pakistan’ instead of ‘East Bengal.’ We have demanded so many times that you should use (East) Bengal instead of (East) Pakistan. The word ‘Bengal’ has a history, has a tradition of its own. You can change it only after the people have been consulted. If you want to change it, then we have to go back to Bengal and ask them whether they accept it.

So far as the question of One Unit is concerned, it can come in the constitution. Why do you want it to be taken up just now? What about the state language, Bengali? What about joint electorate? What about autonomy? The people of East Bengal will be prepared to consider One Unit with all these things. So I appeal to my friends on that side to allow the people to give their verdict in any way, in the form of referendum or in the form of (a) plebiscite.

Mujib’s words fell on deaf ears. Besides, he was hamstrung in his dissent about the upcoming One Unit scheme by his own party, the Awami Muslim League, playing a soft role in the situation. It was a time when Mujib was rapidly becoming known as a radical element, the only one, in the party. Despite the adoption of the One Unit plan and the renaming of the two regions of Pakistan, Mujib remained insistent in his reference to his province as East Bengal, a position that would underscore his political moves till the final days of united Pakistan in 1971. 

As 1955 gave way to 1956, efforts went underway to formulate a constitution for Pakistan. Nine years had elapsed since the creation of Pakistan, with the country’s political classes unable to agree on proper constitutional arrangements for a state that had in the meantime developed fissiparous tendencies in relations between East Bengal and western Pakistan. 

On 29 February 1956, the draft constitution was placed before the constituent assembly. The Awami League abstained from voting for the bill. Indeed, the thirteen Awami League lawmakers in the assembly, along with eleven others, walked out of the assembly. The opposition of these legislators was focused on quite a few issues, notably the inability of the assembly to bring into the adoption of parity under the proposed constitution specific details on implementing parity in the national economy, the civil and military services. The point was being made --- that a mouthing of parity without reassuring Bengalis of their proper niche in national affairs was an exercise in futility. 

An additional reservation of the boycotting lawmakers was their perception that the constitution accorded vast powers to the President despite the form of government being parliamentary. Besides, the issue of a joint electorate, as opposed to a communally segmented electorate, raised by Mujib in the assembly, had been ignored. Most importantly, the question of provincial autonomy had not been answered, though his mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy would claim that the constitution had ensured ninety-eight per cent in terms of autonomy for East Bengal. It was no such thing and the future Bangabandhu knew it.

The passage of the constitution in 1956 was followed by certain permutations and combinations in Pakistan’s politics. At the centre, the Awami League’s Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy formed a coalition cabinet and took charge as Prime Minister, an office in which he was to last just a year. Suhrawardy’s rise to the top followed a series of governmental changes in Karachi, with prime ministers operating through a revolving door of entry and exit in quick fashion. Suhrawardy was to be no exception to the norm.

In Dhaka, a coalition government headed by a non-Awami Leaguer fell in light of its failure to tackle the grave food crisis in East Bengal on 30 August. A few days later, on 4 September, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman defied Section 144, which had been imposed by the authorities to prevent any protests related to the crisis, and led a procession on Dhaka roads to demand a solution to the food crisis. The day was not without its share of violence. In the police action which took place in Chawk Bazar, an area in the old part of the city, three people were killed.

Interestingly, a mere two days later, the Awami League, led by Ataur Rahman Khan, formed a new government in East Bengal. Mujib was inducted as one of the ministers, with responsibility for a wide range of portfolios, notably industries, commerce, labour, anti-corruption, agriculture and social welfare.

In terms of the history of the Awami League, the year 1957 would be remarkable for the changes it caused in and around the party. Moulana Bhashani, who had been president of the party since its formation in the late 1940s, called a conference in Kagmari, Tangail, in early February of the year to announce the emergence of his new party, the National Awami Party (NAP). Bhashani’s decision to part ways with the Awami League was influenced by his opposition to the pro-western foreign policy of the government led at the centre by Suhrawardy. 

Bhashani had made known his disagreement over Pakistan’s aligning itself with the West, particularly the United States, through joining the two anti-communist regional blocs, the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). Joining Bhashani in his new party were leftist elements from the Awami League as well as from outside. 

Mujib, for natural reasons of his alignment with Suhrawardy, remained a big factor in the Awami League. In March and April of the year, exercising his ministerial prerogative, he piloted through the provincial assembly three bills, the Small Industries Corporation Bill, the Anti-Corruption Bill and the Film Development Corporation Bill. A particular move in the provincial assembly, one which had Mujib’s political stamp on it, was the unanimous adoption of a resolution by lawmakers calling for full regional autonomy for East Bengal through having the province exercise authority in all subjects except foreign affairs, currency and defence. It was one more sign of the Bengali nationalistic politics Mujib would pursue in the times ahead.

On 30 May, Mujib tendered his resignation from the provincial government. The reason was fundamentally a party decision, which was that Mujib needed to expend efforts in organising the Awami League in his party capacity throughout the province.

Between mid-June and mid-July 1957, Mujib toured the People’s Republic of China as the leader of a Pakistani parliamentary delegation. Among the highlights of this extensive tour of China was his meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing. The visit, coming in the aftermath of the Bhashani move to remove himself from the Awami League and a desire by the Suhrawardy government in Karachi to broaden its foreign policy perspectives, was to be a first step, as proved by events, in Pakistan and China developing closer links in the early 1960s. 

By then, of course, neither Suhrawardy nor Mujib would be in the centre of things, the country having gone under military rule and the opposition fighting a rear-guard action to restore civilian rule in the country.