History is what Bangladesh's people celebrate whenever the discussion is about the Awami League. Seventy-two years after it took birth as the Awami Muslim League, the party remains a formidable presence in national life.
It is one of those rare instances in South Asian history that the Awami League – and it dropped the term "Muslim" a few years into its emergence, the better to project itself as an organisation which aimed to be inclusive and bravely poised to be a secular organisation in an otherwise communal Pakistan – has not only survived through the changing landscapes of politics but has remained a pivotal force in shaping politics in our part of the world.
Of course, there are the arguments, quite natural again, of where the Awami League has faltered or the impediments it has come up against in its history. The first generation of Pakistan's ruling classes were convinced that the party was a threat not only to the Muslim League but to the state itself. That was the misleading notion dominant in Pakistan in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And then came the moment of disbelief when, as Pakistan's law minister, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a party stalwart, informed the country that the 1956 constitution had accorded 98% in terms of regional autonomy to East Bengal. The figures did not add up. And worse was to be when Suhrawardy's pro-western stance (read SEATO and the Baghdad Pact) led to Kagmari in 1957, with Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani moving away to form his own political organisation, the National Awami Party.
But what has remained a historical truth is that for all its problems, internal as also external, the Awami League has consistently remained a cohesive force. In the decade of Ayub Khan, all efforts were expended toward destroying the party. The Six Points enunciated by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in February 1966 simply emboldened the regime into going after the party in all its fury, first with Ayub's threat of an employment of the language of weapons against the votaries of the Six Points and then following it up through charging Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with engaging in secessionist conspiracy. The Ayub era, as were so many other subsequent periods in Bangladesh's history, was a time when the goal of the civil-military bureaucratic complex was clearly to reduce the Awami League into impotence.
Ayub's successor Yahya Khan thought he would do better, through proscribing the Awami League at a time when it should have, on the basis of its massive victory at Pakistan's first general election in 1970, assumed power in Islamabad. From the broad perspective of history, 1971 was the worst of times and, paradoxically, the best of times for the party. Bangabandhu's call for independence in March of the year, followed by a thoroughly well-executed genocide by the Pakistan army, contributed to a number of factors that would leave the geography of South Asia changed and its politics reconfigured. In the first place, for that very first time in history, a purely Bengali government led by Bengali nationalists emerged to spearhead the guerrilla struggle against the state of Pakistan. In the second, the eventual rise of Bangladesh was a palpable formalization of the truth that the Bengalis, having hitched their wagons to the Pakistan star in 1947, had reinvented themselves as a secular nation. The credit for the achievement was clearly the Awami League's.
The Awami League is to be celebrated for the transformation it brought about in Bengali life. Its Six Points alienated it from a section of its own leadership, personified by the likes of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, which veered off into a new direction to offer the country a brand of politics it thought would promote democracy in Pakistan. In the mid-1970s, following the assassinations of the Father of the Nation and the four leaders of the Mujibnagar government, the fear was that a decimated party could not survive, would bleed to death. But that was not to be. In the aftermath of the 1975 tragedy, even as the regimes of General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussein Muhammad Ershad sought to have the country awash with their reactionary politics, the Awami League refused to bite the dust. Dewan Farid Gazi and Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury kept it going. And then there was the formidable Zohra Tajuddin, whose lighting of the organisational lamp was a broad hint that the party, though bruised, was not to be airbrushed out of history. Sheikh Hasina's arrival in May 1981 from exile, to be handed the lamp, raised the very real possibility of a restoration of the Awami League as the moving spirit in national politics.
It has been the particular historic responsibility of the Awami League to restore the national ethos through its return to power in 1996 and then again in 2009. The repeal of the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, the trial of Bangabandhu's assassins, the trials of the 1971 collaborators of the Pakistan army --- all of these acts will remain testimony not only to the resilience of the party but also to its historic calling as the single national political organization which has never deviated from its programme of promoting the public weal. Many have been its leading politicians who, in its hard times, deserted it. Those men remain no more than footnotes in history. But it is the link with the grassroots, a legacy put in place by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that has been enduring for the party. The Awami League has always touched base with the masses.
So how does the Awami League conceive its future? There are the many gaps it needs to fill. Its history is a long tale of all the men and women who engineered its rise to power, both in opposition and in office. These are illustrious men – Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Moulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish, Shamsul Haq and others – whose contributions ought to be brought home to the younger generation in our times. The Awami League's understanding of history should be comprehensive – and inclusive of all those who steered it through rough waters in those early years. A selective approach to its history will undermine its glory.
And to that tale will be added the entire history of such principled politicians as Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, M Mansoor Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman who, enlightened by Bangabandhu, successfully waged the War of Liberation. In the Awami League pantheon of leaders, these men hold pride of place. That is the truth the party should disseminate in the length and breadth of the country. Formidable personalities, of whom Zohra Tajuddin is one, have energized the party in its darkest hours. They must be celebrated in full measure.
By any stretch of the meaning, the Awami League is what Bangabandhu, through his single-minded dedication to the national cause, gave form and substance to. More than seven decades after June 1949, his principles call for revival. Bangabandhu presided over the growth of new leadership around him, which leadership fulfilled his dreams of national liberation even as the Pakistani military junta sought to put him out of life in distant Mianwali. For the future, therefore, the party, under Sheikh Hasina, will require the rise of a leadership structure that can convince the nation that the future is safe in its hands. The Congress in India and the People's Party in Pakistan have enervated themselves through placing their destinies in the hands of political dynasties. The Awami League ought not to go down that road but continue to be an organization which offers a party worker at the village level the opportunity to rise to national leadership by dint of party loyalty and principled politics.
The Awami League has a unique opportunity today, given the economic progress it has presided over in the past many years, to transform itself into the natural party of government. It will need to restore to itself the character of a fully secular party and at the same time ensure that the detritus of the past and the malfeasance of the present --- the rise of communal forces, the militarization of politics in the Zia-Ershad-Khaleda years, the emergence of robber barons masquerading as free market exponents, medievalism intent on rolling back women's empowerment – is decisively swept away. Its new struggle will necessarily have to be one waged against corruption and for a democratic order underpinned by secularism which again will entail freedom of expression, a free media and a culture that is representative of all that is best in Bengali life. The Awami League does not need to reinvent itself, but it can give new meaning to this republic through initiating a process of professionalism and transparency in administration.
The rule of law, a properly independent Election Commission, an absolutely free Anti-Corruption Commission, a parliament where ideas rather than encomiums are encouraged, purposeful cabinet government, space that allows the common man to take his grievances to the doorsteps of power and have them responded to, a society where journalists are free to ask questions and probe injustice and are not prosecuted under manifestly unjust laws, a system of justice which through swiftness and brilliant efficacy will ensure the equality of all citizens before the law – these, and more, are what the nation expects from the Awami League in the times ahead.
When the Awami League shines, the glow comes into all our lives. When it falters, we grieve in collective manner – for the Awami League was born in hope, shaped our dreams and took us to the mountain-top in the jubilation of liberation. It can take the nation to newer horizons, through the selflessness of its leaders and workers, through the statesmanship of the men and women who are its leading voices today.