Badruddin Umar is one of Bangladesh’s best known intellectuals. As a commentator and author on the internal social and economic dynamics of Bangladesh, his views have been ideologically consistent over several decades and commanded attention even from those who may disagree with him. His work on the language movement in East Pakistan has received critical acclaim.
The present volume covers the crucial period from 1958, when Pakistan came under the military rule of Ayub Khan to the emergence of Bangladesh in December 1971. Umar goes over the economic policies of the Ayub administration and their effects on the people of both wings, the political developments leading to the fall of Ayub, the manipulations of Bhutto with a compliant Yahya leading to the army crackdown in East Pakistan and the subsequent Indian intervention and the emergence of Bangladesh.
Writing about Ayub’s land reforms, Umar details how the basic objective was not the welfare of the relatively disadvantaged sections of society but the creation of support for Ayub’s concept of Basic Democracy by creating new classes in favour of the military regime. In West Pakistan the effort was for cutting down to size the powerful landlords and establishing the primacy of the new business barons colluding with the military and the bureaucracy. The objective situation in East Pakistan was different as the Permanent Settlement had been already undone and the zamindars, mostly Hindus, were no longer a factor. Ayub’s policies helped sustain petty landlords and money lenders to the detriment of the peasant. Similarly, the labour and industrial policies were directed against the interests of the industrial worker. Umar goes on to detail the stirrings of industrial unrest and student movements and points out, “There was very little organized trade union work of the Awami League and other parties. Most of the important trade unions were dominated by the Communist party through organizations and persons associated with them”.
As is known, East Pakistan had left undefended during the 1965 Indo-Pak war which did not go unnoticed. Umar comments that the war was a calculated attempt to “divert the attention of the people away from their domestic problems and struggles and arouse a kind of ‘nationalist’ frenzy”. Umar concludes that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman realized the distress of East Pakistanis at the neglect of security during the war. This, together with increasing economic disparity between the two wings of Pakistan strengthened the Awami League’s demand for regional autonomy, as was to be shortly formulated in the 6-point programme.
The 6-point programme of the Awami League is historically the beginning of the end of Pakistan as it essentially asserted that the eastern wing should get its rightful dues, a demand that Islamabad was unlikely to seriously and sincerely consider or concede. It is not surprising that in keeping with his ideological convictions, Umar contemptuously rubbishes the 6-points as it “contained practically nothing that concerned the working people-the peasants, the workers” etc. One may wonder if, in the name of the common people, he is not, in deference to ideological purity, distancing himself from the will of the people itself.
Subsequent chapters travel the well known events of the late sixties in Pakistan: the Agartala conspiracy case against Mujib which never had any substance, the fall of Ayub Khan (though this had more to do with the upsurge in West Pakistan than in the East), Yahya Khan’s elections which were fair but whose results were too unappetizing to be acceptable in the west. Umar documents the consistently duplicitous role of Bhutto and the vacillations of an ineffective Yahya before the army crackdown. And one must wonder what turn the events may have taken if Mujib had not been so committed to constitutional means till the end.
It is a measure of Badruddin Umar’s honesty that he acknowledges in the Preface that his opinion of many of the protagonists in the book is low, but tried, he says, to be objective. His own academic/intellectual orientation, while possibly permitting occasional insights, does not always reflect the mood of the very masses for whom he would like to speak, and who fought valiantly against the Pakistani army—even if it was in the framework of bourgeois politics, as Umar would see it. Maulana Bhashani was a towering personality of the times, but his role is less than adequately dealt with. While the book may claim to stand on its own, it deals only perfunctorily with the rise of Bengali nationalism—the title of the book. Bengali nationalism must by definition relate to linguistic/cultural identity. This is a subject with which Umar is well acquainted, but the great deal of space devoted to peasants, workers and left-wing movements (undoubtedly meriting attention in their own right) has left little space for Bengali nationalism. As a result, the book is more about East Pakistani separatism than the emergence of Bengali nationalism. Prejudice does, of course, seriously affect his dealing with Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Without entering into any value judgements, the fact is that for a period very large sections of people in East Pakistan followed him implicitly. Umar does not quite explain how a man of such limited qualities, as he believes Mujib to have been, found such spontaneous support. The involvement of India in the emergence of Bangladesh is a fact of history, as indeed are attempts to implicate India in developments in East Pakistan by the Pakistan establishment in the 60s. It is therefore surprising that references to American thinking on East Pakistan at different stages find so much prominence. Wider references to how different segments in India looked on East Pakistan would have been useful.
The Emergence of Bangladesh is a useful addition to the literature of a fraught period which saw the failure of a South Asian state. Even if some of the judgements may be in question, many facts which have been brought out would be of lasting interest.
Deb Mukharji, a former diplomat, has served as India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh.