The Nature of the Political System at Independence

Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign state on 16 December 1971 after a bloodbath. The Awami League leaders, who led the independence movement, came to power. They had always favoured parliamentary democracy with real power vested in cabinet, collectively responsible to the legislature. A parliamentary form of government was introduced in Bangladesh according to the Provisional Constitution Order of 1972, and the political elite became the supreme policy makers. The 1972 constitution, which was passed by the Constituent Assembly on 4 November 1972, essentially continued the process. The major aspect of the 1972 constitution is the supremacy of the Jatiya Sangsad, comprising the directly elected representatives of the people, and a cabinet directly responsible to the Sangsad for its actions and policies.

The Awami League, which had massive popular support, became the ruling party. Although it was mainly a middle-class and urban-centred party, it had well-organised student and labour fronts, and within a short period a number of groups oriented to the Awami League, such as the Jatiya Krishak League (National Peasants League) and the Jatiya Jubo League (National Youth League), were organised. These groups canvassed and mobilised support for the party and supplied policy and program inputs (Ahamed 1980:148-156).

An important trend under the Awami League regime was the gradual strengthening of political infrastructure at the administrative level. The senior advisers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were all political leaders. Those who accompanied him on tours both within and outside the country were mostly from the Awami League and party-affiliated interest groups. In the government, the party tried to consolidate its position. The office of the prime minister became the most powerful one in the government. In addition to having head offices and ministries for which the prime minister had specific responsibility, the prime minister’s secretariat comprised offices of the principal secretary, political secretary, economic secretary and ‘invigilation director’. The overall coordination of government activities at the administrative level was left to the principal secretary. To cap it all, the prime minister was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the president of the Awami League, a great charismatic leader, the symbol of Bengali nationalism – a formidable ‘Bangabandhu’ (Friend of Bengal). Many observers felt that real power would remain concentrated in the hands of the political elite for a long time to come in Bangladesh.

The Awami League, despite its political approach and the use of party channels of control and direction, failed to handle the problems of increasing economic crisis, social and political instability, and deteriorating security and order in the country. As its failure became manifest, the regime began to turn to the bureaucrats. The bureaucrats who seemed to have lost their position of influence and power between 1972 and 1974 came to the forefront in the early months of 1975 and emerged as the ruling elite after August.

During the first few years after independence, the Awami League regime performed fairly well. It was able to avert a major economic crisis, mainly with the help of massive relief operations carried out by the United Nations Relief Operations in Bangladesh and other international agencies. Compared to the anarchic conditions of 1971 and early 1972, the law and order situation improved considerably. Indian troops were withdrawn by March 1972. The constitution was passed by the Constituent Assembly within nine months of independence, and general elections were held after only six months, according to the provisions of the new constitution. The Planning Commission brought out the First Five Year Plan within a year and a half. In all these matters the legend and charisma of Sheikh Mujib played a vital role (Ahamed 1980:149).

From January 1974, however, the economic situation in the country became critical. This was due partly to global inflation in 1972, and partly to the inefficiency and corruption of the leaders of the ruling party. Though 86 per cent of industries and 87 per cent of foreign trade were nationalised, distribution was conducted by private traders who were issued permits and licences. A substantial number of these permits and licences were issued to Awami League workers, who, in turn, sold them to traders, and consequently became the owners of large sums of ‘unearned income’. Most of the administrators of the nationalised industries were recruited from amongst party leaders and workers who had very little knowledge of management or administration. Production, as a result, declined to an unusually low level. While production declined, the smuggling of jute and food grains to India reached alarming proportions, thus draining agricultural products out of the country. In the process, the economy was virtually in a state of collapse, and the situation was aggravated by the worst floods in Bangladesh history in July and August 1974. During the floods the price of consumer goods rose rapidly, and by September 1974 the rise was about 600 per cent over the 1969-70 price level. Sheikh Mujib declared that there was a ‘near famine condition’ in the country (Ahamed 1980:151-52).

The economic crisis in Bangladesh was compounded by political problems. Class conflicts, which had for so long been subjugated by the demand for regional autonomy, emerged as the crucial problem. The real threat to political and social stability in Bangladesh during the Awami League regime came from the radical forces. They attempted to bring about a ‘second revolution’ through armed struggle. There were several radical revolutionary parties in Bangladesh; most of these had been working as underground organisations during the Ayub era (1958-1969). Some surfaced after independence.

They argued that the Bangladesh Revolution of 1971 was an ‘unfinished one’. When the War of Independence was being transformed into a truly people’s liberation war and the radical forces were coming to the forefront, the ‘land-based bourgeois government of India’ in league with the ‘Soviet Social Imperialist Power’ interfered, and the Awami League leadership, which represented the exploiting classes in Bangladesh, came to power. Their strategy was to replace the puppet regime by force (Maniruzzaman 1976).

The revolutionary parties trained armed cadres to overthrow the Awami League regime through guerrilla warfare, and started sabotaging communication links and killing Awami League leaders and other ‘enemies’ of the revolution. The exact number of secret political killings during that period is not known. One government estimate put the figure at over 6000, including four Awami League MPs. Along with secret killings, there was a sharp rise in armed robberies from private houses, looting of banks and shops, and attacks on police stations (Ahamed 1980:157).

The regime’s initial response to the increasing violence consisted of threats, appeals and normal police action. In its attempts to combat radical political parties the Awami League relied mainly on party channels of control and direction, but this had limited success because the Awami League itself was plagued by factional strife. Soon after independence the Awami League’s student and labour fronts were divided over the question of whether to introduce ‘pure socialism’ or a mixed economy. Senior leaders also became involved in the controversy, and the effectiveness of the party suffered greatly.

The factional strife was exacerbated first by Mujib’s political approach to economic management, which led to the speedy growth of a new class of rich compradors, who were divorced from the forces of production. Further, Mujib’s pragmatic approach to socialistic principles practically immobilised the party. To overcome this ineffectiveness, the Awami League formed an alliance with such less-radical parties as the National Awami Party (M) and the Pro-Soviet Bangladesh Communist Party. This alliance too proved ineffective, and Bangladesh slowly but steadily turned into a praetorian polity (Nordlinger 1977:7-8, 75-76).

The revolutionary forces could have been confronted by ideological clarity at the political level and by governmental performance at the societal level. The Awami League regime, however, failed on both counts: the political ideology of Mujibism,[17] which was initiated to counteract the radical forces, was not intellectually refreshing; its performance, especially after the famine of 1974, fell below expectations. For survival, the regime had to resort to repressive measures; that, however, proved counterproductive. As a last resort, the government declared a state of emergency on 28 December 1974 and suspended the fundamental rights granted by the constitution for an indefinite period. The emergency provided for special powers of arrest, curtailed the powers of the judiciary, and muzzled the press. In January 1975, on the initiative of Sheikh Mujib and reportedly against the wishes of most of the members of the Jatiya Sangsad, the constitution was amended to provide for a presidential form of government. Sheikh Mujib was subsequently vested with executive powers and authorised to declare Bangladesh a one-party state. Later Sheikh Mujib closed all but four newspapers, two English language and two Bengali. He also founded the national party, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), patterned on Nyerere’s Ujama (African Socialism).

In fact, this final act not only considerably reduced the support base of Mujib in Bangladesh but removed much of the legitimacy of his rule. The banning of the communal parties such as the Muslim League, Nizam-i-Islam, and Jamat-i-Islam for their negative and anti-people role during the War of Independence alienated the rightist elements. The liberals favoured a Western-style parliamentary democracy; they were alienated when the Awami League regime adopted socialistic principles. When in the face of an acute economic crisis Mujib adopted a pragmatic approach, which considerably watered down his brand of socialism, the radical forces became antagonised. Even the young radicals of his own party left and formed a new party. The formation of BAKSAL was resented by both the liberals and radicals.

The precipitating factor for military intervention was, as suggested by several scholars, the personal grievances of the coup leaders, some of whom were dismissed by Mujib for performing duties ordered by him. The pre-dawn coup, which was staged on 15 August 1975 and eliminated most members of Mujib’s family, except his two daughters, was masterminded by three majors who had developed bitter personal enmity against him. They captured power and declared on national radio ‘the end of an era of tyranny’ (Ahamed 1990).

[17] Formulated by Sheikh Mujib’s nephew, Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni, Mujibism implied a variant of socialism with anti-imperialist but democratic overtones.