Moulana Bhashani’s historical and contemporary significance

Dr. Peter Custers

This writer called on Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani twice at the latter’s home in Tangail, to pay his respect to Bangladesh’s great statesman. The first occasion was in September of 1973. At that time this writer had just started his work in Bangladesh as journalist. On advice of his Leftist friends he went to Santosh in Tangail where Bhashani’s Krishok Samity then was to hold a peasant conference. The following paragraphs are recounted in first person.
   Moulana Bhashani’s role as the foremost peasant leader was undisputed; he had led the masses and the peasantry of East Bengal to join the uprising against Pakistan’s dictator Ayub Khan, in 1968-1969. At that time Sheikh Mujib was in jail in connection with Agartala Conspiracy case.
   In the journalistic interview which I was able to obtain from Bhashani in between his peasant conference engagements, the Moulana explained to me some of the complexities of Bengali politics, notably the prevalence of a conspiracy syndrome. A photograph of this interview appeared in the Dutch weekly The Nieuwe Linie (October, 1973).
   Very recently, in November last, the second occasion for a visit to Tangail came when I was invited to attend the shadow Climate Tribunal staged in Dhaka on November 8, 2010 as an international observer. I feel very grateful to Bhashani’s biographer, Syed Abul Maksud, for having been kind enough to take me along with his family to Bhashani’s ‘mazar’ (tomb).
   I deeply regret that it has taken more than 34 years since Bhashahi’s death before I could make my pilgrimage and pay my respect thus to Bhashani’s accomplishments.
   Bhashani and independence
   However, following the research which I have meanwhile been able to carry out and on the basis of the work done by Bangladeshi scholars and activists, I have become thoroughly convinced that Bhashani played a decisive role in paving the way for the formation of Bangladesh as an independent political state. Moreover, his example has great significance for the contemporary world debate on Islam.
   Bhashani’s life spans no less than three different epochs in the history of East Bengal and Bangladesh. These are the late colonial period, when resistance against British rule was on the rise in the Indian subcontinent; the relatively brief period when East Bengal formed a part of the state of Pakistan; and the post-independence period, i.e. the period after the formation of Bangladesh as an independent state. Bhashani was born in 1885, in Dhangora, Sirajganj District——in the very year when the Indian National Congress came into being. He died in 1976 in Dhaka Medical College.
   The political achievements which he obtained in the course of these three distinct periods are so large, that it is impossible to sum them up in one single essay. The length of his life as a social activist and politician itself spans at least 67 years, i.e. from 1909 when he got briefly involved with underground politics, until the holding of the Farakka Long March in 1976. I will list some of the peak-years in his political life, years when the successes of his personal political leadership stood out with especially great force:
   1946: Victory of the Muslim League under Bhashani’s leadership in Assam Elections.
   The saga of Bhashani’s rise as a popular leader in the colonial province of Assam alone suffices to establish his credentials. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bhashani had been an organiser of and speaker at peasant conferences held at different places in Bengal to highlight the demands of the ‘proja’ or tenants exploited under the feudal system of land relations.
   When the British colonial authorities expelled him, the firebrand Moulana moved to Char Bhashan in Assam, where he built his hut amidst Bengali migrant peasants. Here, he resumed his agitation for peasants’ rights. Although Bengali migrants formed almost half the population of Assam, their movements and cultivation rights were severely restricted under the ‘Line Protha System’ which the British rulers had enforced. Bhashani’s success in building a movement in defence of marginalised peasants both forced the colonial authorities to make concessions, and facilitated his rise as Leftwing leader in the Assam Muslim League. In 1937, Bhashani was elected provincial President of the Muslim League in Assam. Nine years later, in 1946, the Muslim League swept the Assam elections, gaining all but three of the seats in the Provincial Assembly.
   These results, I understand, can almost entirely be ascribed to the popularity which Moulana Bhashani had personally built among Muslim and Hindu migrant peasants.
   The Kagmari meet
   The Historic Kagmari Conference was held in 1957 in Santosh under Bhashani’s lead which reconfirmed the demand for Bengali national self-determination. The next main chapter in Bhashani’s political life covers the period when he popularised the demand for Bengali self-determination.
   Earlier, soon after the Partition, Bhashani moved back to East Benga where discontent surfaced over the refusal of Pakistan government to grant Bangla the status of national language. Moulana Bhashani distinguished himself sharply from other prominent political leaders by throwing his full weight behind the student community that spearheaded the language movement in 1952. It was right for the students to break the prohibition on rallies and demonstrations, Section 144. Bhashani personally took the lead in taking the movement forward.
   As President of the Awami Muslim League, he helped form the United Front that defeated the Muslim League in the 1954 parliamentary elections. Moreover, Bhashani did not stop agitating once his party had scored this electoral victory. Instead, he took the agitation for Bengali self-determination to the remotest corners of East Bengal. When his party colleagues, who had become ministers in the new central government, appeared to retract their pledges over regional autonomy, Bhashani staged the historic Kagmari Cultural Conference —- a true milestone in the history of Bangladesh. Here Bhashani spoke prophetic words, arguing that if Pakistan government did not give in to their demand, the people of East Bengal would say ‘Pakistan Walaikum Salam’
   Uprising against Ayub
   The period from 1957 onwards is the period when Moulana Bhashani at his advanced age, as senior and prominent preacher-politician created huge opportunities for the Left forces in East Bengal. First, he differentiated his own politics from the politics of representatives of the rising bourgeoisie, by creating the National Awami Party (NAP).
   Contrary to the Awami League, the programmatic orientation of NAP was unreservedly: “to oppose American and Western imperialism”, and “in favour of class liberation of the Bengali working class and the peasantry”. The re-emergence of Left politics, which had been greatly weakened by the 1947 Partition, was an essential precondition for the launching of the 1969 uprising against Ayub Khan’s dictatorship.
   The insurrection started in West Pakistan in 1968, and only by the year’s end spread to East Bengal. Surely, students under the banner of the Chhattro Sangram Parishad steered the uprising through its second phase (January-February, 1969). Moulana was the one leader who contributed the largest to bringing the industrial workers and peasants, into the arena of struggle, and personally shaped the tactics of the uprising. In the world press, Bhashani was described as the ‘Red Moulana’ for the role he played in promoting the uprising’s enormous success.
   The last chapter in Moulana Bhashani’s life cannot be characterised as the happiest in his life. In 1969/1970 Bhashani reached the very peak of his success as peasant leader and organizer, when he staged three hugely successful Red Cap Conferences, gatherings of peasants with red caps and sticks in which literally hundreds of thousands of his followers participated. Political prisoner Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was freed from jail.
   House arrest in India
   When placed under house arrest in India in 1971, he saw himself restricted in policymaking towards the country’s War of Liberation. Again, the government which came to power in 1971/1972 did not grant him the recognition which – as history shows – he was entitled to. Nevertheless, until the very end of his eventful political life Bhashani remained a great moral force.
   As democratic values rapidly eroded and the first government turned repressive, Moulana Bhashani openly warned against the danger of despotism. He unswervingly maintained solidarity with revolutionary leaders who got arrested and threatened being tortured by the state’s security forces. And in 1976, even as his health was very frail, he crowned his life with yet another grand success.
   Against India’s refusal to respect Bangladesh’s rights over the water of the Ganges River he called for the Farakka Long March. Staged shortly before his death, the March engendered a huge mass response.
   Religious tolerance
   Bhashani was not merely a politician, but a preacher-theologian as well. He was a deeply pious leader who was personally committed to the religion of Islam. Before emerging as peasant leader, the young Abdul Hamid Khan had been trained by his mentor Bagdadi, and had been educated at the renowned Islamic university of Deoband, founded by 19th century Sufi saints. Bhashani was a mystical practitioner. In the course of his life, he gathered a huge number of religious followers. Just like many of the Sufi saints who preceded him, Bhashani’s followers included both Muslims and Hindus. And although at each and every point in his life he reminded his followers of his commitment to his social ideals, Bhashani’s work cannot be appreciated fully, unless we take account of his role as preacher-theologian.
   I will refer briefly to Bhashani’s Islamic philosophy, the philosophy of Rabubiyat, to which he was initiated by Allama Azad Sobhani, in 1946. Here it is important to stress that Bhashani radically differentiated himself from all those Moulanas and Mullahs who in the later colonial period sought to communalise Bengali politics.
   Contrary to the Muslim League politician Moulana Akram Khan, for instance, Bhashani never engaged in a communalist discourse, but instead consistently preached the maintenance of harmonious relations between adherents of the subcontinent’s two main religions, Hinduism and Islam. Though being a Muslim spiritual leader, Bhashani was frequently at loggerheads with overzealous Muslim preachers. Thus, he opposed the communalist orientation of other Muslim League leaders on the eve of Partition, in 1945-46. He fiercely disagreed with those Moulanas who in the 1950s upheld the policies of the Islamic state of Pakistan over the demand for self-determination of the people of East Bengal.
   Moreover, Bhashani personally played a glorious role in the secularisation of politics in East Bengal. This he did with great astuteness. Recognising the sensitivity of the issue of people’s faiths, he brought up the matter of the secularisation of party politics gradually, as people’s self-confidence, confidence over their Bengali identity and over their social rights, grew. Thus, when the Awami Muslim League was formed under his leadership, in 1949, the designation of ‘Muslim’ in the party name was evidently maintained. Yet in 1956 things changed. Already, the province-wide campaign for regional autonomy under Bhashani’s lead was gaining much strength.
   Under these circumstances, and after having held extensive consultations with party activists, Bhashani personally moved to drop the party’s exclusivist designation. Meanwhile, Moulana Bhashani on many occasions expressed himself squarely against the misuse of religion for political ends. In short, he stood for religious tolerance. The Moulana stood in the grand tradition of a tolerant and liberal form of Islam, the Islam as it was historically popularised by the Sufi saints in Bengal.
   Abandonment by Left
   Let us now pause to reflect on the opportunities that were lost at a very crucial moment in the history of the formation of Bangladesh. For this it is necessary to focus on the 1969 uprising against Pakistan’s dictator Ayub Khan, and on the role which the aged Bhashani personally played at the time. During this crucial period, the aged preacher-politician Moulana Bhashani openly committed to cooperate with the then revolutionary Left in East Bengal. Sharing Bhashani’s conviction the peasantry who formed the vast majority of the people, could and should be mobilised, the revolutionary leaders who styled themselves Maoists until 1969, worked together with Bhashani under the banner of the NAP’s Krishok Samity. Yet on the very eve of the liberation war, precisely when Bhashani scored dramatic successes in mobilising the peasantry, the pro-Chinese leaders abandoned him, in order to devote themselves to a sectarian and divisive path of armed struggle.
   At first, the decision of the then ‘Maoist’ leaders seemed almost inexplicable. Bhashani had personally launched the anti-Ayub uprising in East Bengal, at a rally held on December the 6th, 1969. Here, he gave his full support to striking rickshaw pullers, and boldly called for a general strike, hartal. He personally shaped the tactics of mass struggle, encouraging industrial workers and others to encircle, gherao, their bosses and put pressure on them. One historical moment that may be recalled was December the 28th, when Moulana Bhashani himself led a people’s procession.
   Bhashani rejected RTC
   Again, he unreservedly gave his backing to the Chhatra Sangram Parishad, the leading body of the student movement, when it took centre stage in mass mobilisation in January of 1969. And when bourgeois leaders subsequently opted in favour of participation in a Round Table Conference (RTC) with Pakistan’s discredited rulers, Bhashani rejected this tactic of compromise, and instead proceeded on the path of people’s mobilisation from below.
   Doubts over Bhashani’s revolutionary credentials hence could hardly be a reason for the abandonment by East Bengal’s pro-Chinese leaders. Nor could it have been impatience over the pace of peasant mobilisation. For here again, Bhashani indisputably showed results. Bengal had witnessed a great peasant uprising on the eve of the 1947 Partition.
   Until the end of 1968 Bhashani drew peasants into the anti-Ayub insurrection, with appeals, first, to take on price-issues, and then to launch actions against body warrants on peasants failing to pay taxes, and against the auctioning of agricultural implements. His efforts reached their peak with the holding of three Lal Tupi (‘Red Cap’) Conferences staged in late 1969 and early 1970, in which literally hundreds of thousands of peasants took part. These were revolutionary events, for by the time the first Lal Tupi Conference was staged in Shahpur of Pabna district, the new military ruler Yahya Khan, had imposed a state prohibition on holding public rallies.
   Liberation War preparation
   Precisely then Bhashani had carefully prepared the grounds for the 1971 Liberation War, when through the holding of the Lal Tupi Conferences he had facilitated the building of rural peasant militia, his Left wing allies abandoned him. The separation between Bhashani and his pro-Chinese allies was to impact on the outcome of the liberation war, and on the future chances for building a socialist state in independent Bangladesh.
   In the wake of national independence, Bangladesh lacked a unified bloc of Left forces, capable of counterbalancing the strength of the party of the rising bourgeoisie. Moulana Bhashani was sidelined and politically incapacitated by his revolutionary followers. This had tragic implications for the shape of politics in post-liberation Bangladesh.
   This assessment of the failure by the revolutionary Left to understand Bhashani’s significance can be amplified. A full appreciation of Bhashani’s historical role needs to refer to the fact that he revived the largely tolerant tradition of Islam in Bengal. Bhashani was educated to be a preacher-theologian at the Islamic college of Deoband. While Deoband was explicitly a Sufi institution of learning, the type of Sufism taught here was scripture-based. Important also is the fact that Deoband’s founders sought to uphold the contributions of at least four different Sufi silsilas, including the silsila of the Naqshbandis, which was a relative late-comer amongst the different Sufi orders that preached Islam in the subcontinent. Above all, Deoband was and is renowned for the opposition of its theologians against British rule, against colonialism.
   Whereas his Deoband experience would not necessarily dispose Bhashani to stand in the tolerant tradition of the Sufi preachers of Bengal, Bhashani’s practice undoubtedly formed a continuation of this pre-colonial tradition.
   Take the example of the Kagmari Conference, held at Bhashani’s initiative in 1957. This Cultural Conference was a turning point in the history of East Bengal. It served to consolidate Bhashani’s public opinion-building in favour of Bengali national self-determination, and formed a grand occasion to highlight Bengal’s unique and open-minded culture. A gate had for instance been erected for Iran’s Sufi saint Rumi, and followers of Kushtia’s mystic composer-singer Lalan Shah were invited to perform. Subsequently, and in opposition to the policies of Pakistan’s military rulers, Bhashani was to also defend the broadcasting of music composed by Rabindranath Tagore. These steps can in no way be interpreted as the steps of a conservative Islamic preacher. They rather stand in the tradition of the Sufi order of the Chishtis, the silsila which played a leading role in spreading Islam in Bengal in the centuries before the coming of the British, a tradition that paid great respect to the Vaishnava, and other Indian musical traditions.
   Bhashani, further, was of course aware of the fact that many of the Sufi saints who spread Islam in Bengal had been venerated by both Muslims and Hindus. He expressed an awareness of the tomb worship, that some of our Left leaders until today do not. Although deeply spiritual, Bhashani was simply not interested in Islam’s spread at the expense of other religions. His life’s primary mission was a mission of social activism. Here again, he built on the tradition of the Sufi mystics, the spiritual leaders who in the 15th and 16th century led the peasantry of East Bengal in clearing the jungles, and building new fields for the cultivation of agricultural crops. In the practice of the peasant movement which he built in Assam, the famous movement against the ‘Line Protha’ system, he went well beyond the practice of his historical precursors.
   Then, how to position Bhashani’s advocacy of religious tolerance and secularism within the historical tradition of Islam? Here, we need to note the basic cleavage between two philosophical trends. On the one hand, there is the tradition of Ibn Arabi, the 12th century Spanish Islamic thinker whose philosophy is known by the name of Wahdat ul-Wujud, or Unity of Being. Ibn Arabi’s philosophy expressed a pluralistic ethos. Since God’s spirit pervades all living beings, all humans need to be respected, whatever their creed. Ibn’s Arabi’s Irani opponent, Simnani, put forward a contrary view, known as Wahdat us-Shuhud or Unity of Perception, which for long made little headway in Bengal. The Chishtis, the Shattaris and other Sufi orders that preached in Bengal on the whole were defenders of Ibn Arabi’s tolerant philosophy. It is risky to draw a straight line from the pre-colonial preaching practices of the Sufis, to the advocacy of religious tolerance in the late colonial period. Yet Bhashani’s ethos of religious tolerance appears to squarely stand within the line of Ibn Arabi’s philosophical tradition, the tradition of tolerance that for a whole historical period predominated in South Asian Islam.
   Contemporary Significance
   So far I have only covered Bhashani’s historical significance. To those familiar with Bangladesh’s recent history it will be evident that Bhashani’s significance for the country he helped give birth to is a lasting one. Given the controversies over Bhashani’s role during the post-independence period, it is necessary to recall that Bhashani after 1971 continued championing religious tolerance and secularism.
   Thus, in a speech he gave in April 1972 in Shibpur, Bhashani argued that those who had collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971 should not be given voting rights under the country’s new Constitution. In the same month, Bhashani also expressed himself unequivocally in favour of a secular character for the new Constitution, stating that Bengalis and non-Bengalis, ‘independent of whatever religious views they hold’, should be granted equal rights under the laws of the land. Thus, all through until the end of his life, Bhashani was fiercely opposed to the fundamentalist trend within Islam. He consistently upheld the need for harmonious relations between Muslims and Hindus, which view he had championed ever since his days in Assam.
   It is against this background that I wish to state Bhashani’s contemporary significance. Both Europe and the United States these last years have witnessed the rise of a political trend known as the ‘Islam-bashers’. This trend has rapidly gained ground especially in the country where I live, i.e. the Netherlands. During the parliamentary elections held in June last, the extreme-rightwing party known as PVV (Party for ‘Freedom’) gained much ground by abusing the historical prejudices that exists in Dutch society against Islamic religion.
   The PVV argues that Islam is not a religion but an ideology, and that Islam does not stand for equality. While the party only in name defends the right to free speech, the PVV demands that the Quran be banned, which, in my view, is both contrary to the right to freedom of expression and also contrary to the principle of religious tolerance.
   The PVV and similar parties in other European countries thus are trying hard to undermine the foundations of parliamentary democracy. In order to divert the attention of the public away from the economic ills caused by neoliberal policymaking, these dangerous Rightwing extremists target Muslim migrant minorities, who now form a significance section of the Dutch and European population.
   The example of Bhashani perfectly helped expose the propaganda of Europe’s Rightwing extremists as utter nonsense. Completely contrary to what the PVV and its associates argue, his Islam is the Islam of social equality.
   In his philosophical essay on Rabubiyat, Bhashani fiercely defended his view that no natural wealth can he held by individuals, that all of Nature’s wealth only belongs to Allah, and that the fruits of social production should be equally distributed among society’s citizens. Again, whereas the Islam bashers are trying hard to accentuate divisions among different sections of the working class, making use of longstanding prejudices, Bhashani tried hard to bridge the divide between people of different faiths. Though being an Islamic preacher himself, he was never interested in the conversions by Hindu peasants to Islam. Bhashani’s secular and democratic credentials thus are beyond dispute. The example of his life’s struggles brings out well that there is no irreconcilable contradiction between Islam and parliamentary democracy, that Islam itself promotes powerful, tolerant traditions which in the case of Bangladesh have greatly contributed towards formation of the modern state.
   The Moulana combated religious intolerance. Under today’s world conditions, intolerance takes two equally nasty forms. On the one hand is the Middle East, and the rest the Muslim world and to a small extent the Western world, have seen the emergence of a current of fanaticism known as Muslim fundamentalism.
   ‘Islam bashers’
   On the other hand, both Europe and the United States, in particular, have been witnessing the rise of a political trend, which is best characterised as the trend of the ‘Islam bashers’. While in appearance these two trends of Muslim fundamentalism and Islam-bashing stand diametrically opposed to each other, both trends are in fact extreme rightwing trends. Both aim at diverting people’s attention away from the problems caused by today’s crisis, the financial-cum-ecological world crisis. It is against this background that we need to re-discuss and propagate the great life-work of Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. His life and message have enormous significance towards fighting the threats posed by Rightwing extremists, in the Western world and beyond.
   The writer is a researcher on Religious Tolerance and the History of Bangladesh based in Leiden, the Netherlands. His web address

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