What January 25 means in our history
It was January 25 a few days ago.
So why would the day be important? Not many of us remember, and those of us who do, conveniently pretend not to remember. It is as if the day has been airbrushed out of history, Bangladesh’s history. Travel back in time, give your memory a jog, think of history.
You might stumble on the truth of why January 25 is part of our history. On this day in 1975, a significant amendment to the country’s constitution was brought about on the watch of the government led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The fourth amendment to the constitution, adopted by the Jatiyo Sangsad, went for a sweeping change in the nation’s political system.
The country chose a new political path through seeing a presidential form of government adopted by the legislature. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in office since January 12, 1972, as prime minister, took over as president with all the executive authority the office was now vested with.
The adoption of the fourth amendment to the constitution was in essence a journey into new political terrain for the nation. In all the decades which have gone by since January 25, 1975, and the weeks after that, much criticism has been made of the constitutional changes effected in that rather dramatic phase of our history.
A focal point of the criticism has been the view that with the formation of the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) a month after the adoption of the fourth amendment and the changeover to a presidential form of government, Bangladesh simply went for a single party, undemocratic system of governance.
Of course, Bangabandhu did not see it that way. In his analysis of the objective political conditions of the time, he referred to the political changes of early 1975 as a second revolution.
All constitutionally formalized and acknowledged political parties, including the Awami League, were incorporated within what clearly was a larger structure that was in essence a national front.
In Bangabandhu’s opinion, the move had become necessary owing to the anarchy that prevailed in the country through the activities of extremists of both the leftist and rightist brands as also the debilitating consequences of corruption eating away at the vitals of the nation.
In light of national history, the story of Baksal occupies some very large space on the political landscape of the country. And especially in this year of a celebration of the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation, it becomes important to revisit the fourth amendment and Baksal in order to attempt an understanding, political as well as academic, of the reasons behind Bangabandhu’s decision to reinvent the political system.
The unfortunate, indeed mystifying, reality is that in all these deliberations on Bangabandhu’s political principles and philosophy, no efforts have been made, perhaps deliberately, to conduct research into Baksal. Detractors of the AL have consistently spotted in Baksal a negation of democracy. In response, the leading lights of the AL have maintained a careful, considered silence. There has always been a broad measure of embarrassment where serious reflections, where healthy debate on Baksal should have been.
There are the many misconceptions which need to be removed around the Baksal question. Yes, there is the truth that only four newspapers formed the media establishment after January 25, 1975. Yes, all political parties were subsumed into a single organization once the Baksal concept took shape and form.
But the task for historians and politicians today, and especially for historians, is to observe Baksal at this distance of time and explain what was right or wrong about it to the nation in the interest of an overall comprehension of our heritage.
The issue is not of one’s supporting Baksal or being dismissive of it. Practitioners of history owe it to themselves to delve into the issue, beyond the powerful presidency it caused to be born in a year which remains etched in the memory for a number of reasons.
Let us face it: Bangabandhu was not assassinated because he brought Baksal into the system. Those who have sought to find a link between his political moves of early 1975 and his assassination months later have been wrong to do so. A fundamental truth for us is that the conspiracy to undermine Bangabandhu, to remove his government and in the end have him murdered in a violent coup, was already taking shape in 1974.
The pro-Chinese communist Abdul Haq had written to Pakistan’s ZA Bhutto in October 1974 for financial assistance to overthrow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government. Khondokar Moshtaq and his co-conspirators were already at work. Overtures had been made to General Ziaur Rahman, in November 1974 and again in March 1975, on his probable participation in the unconstitutional move of overthrowing a legitimately established government.
Baksal, therefore, was no reason for the tragedy of August 1975. What requires to be done, despite the absence of debate on it, despite the reluctance of the AL leadership to speak up for the administrative and economic features of the system, is for public intellectuals and historians to speak and write on it.
A particularly significant feature of the system was the patent move towards a decentralization of administration through a restructuring of the country into sixty one districts, each headed by a governor. The record shows that of the 61 governors appointed on July 16, 1975, 33 were members of parliament, 13 were civil servants, one a military officer and 14 were individuals reputed for their roles in society. These and similar realities ought to be studied from a purely historical perspective, which essentially is a scholarly perspective.
There is a need as well to examine the formulation of economic policy as envisaged in Baksal. Between January 25, 1975 and August 15, 1975, how did the economic trends play out? Statistics are important. Overall, as we go into the many dimensions of Bangabandhu as a political leader and statesman, it becomes critical for us to go into a dispassionate examination of the ideas through which he meant to transform the nature of politics.
The time is here and now for an open conversation on Baksal without feeling diffident about it. Informed analyses are always marvellous affairs, for they add richness to an understanding of history. The long silence on Baksal should lift.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.