It is time to recall the role played in Bangladesh's history by Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. He died forty-five years ago on a November day. Mercurial, unpredictable and given to flip flops through a career that was as dramatic as it was riotous, Bhashani remains embedded in the public memory. His spartan life, the simplicity which defined him are values we recall all these decades after his passing.
An inseparable part of Bangladesh's history, Bhashani's place in the public consciousness was assured when he took the lead in the mass movement to unseat Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan in early 1969. As students all over the country, together with the broad mass of citizens, took to the streets to demand a withdrawal of the Agartala conspiracy case and indeed a return to democracy, it fell to Bhashani to step in as a necessary catalytic force and carry the movement forward. It was on his watch that the Bengalis of East Pakistan substantiated the demand, at every point along the way, that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and all his co-accused in the case be freed, that the regime walk off the stage. It was again Bhashani who counseled the incarcerated Mujib (not yet Bangabandhu) not to fall for the temptation of joining, on parole, the round table conference Ayub Khan had called. Mujib, argued Bhashani, first would need to be free, without conditions. Sometime in the third week of February 1969, he warned the regime that he would lead a march to the Dhaka cantonment unless the Agartala case was withdrawn. On February 22, the regime capitulated. By the end of March, the regime was history.
In Moulana Bhashani pulsated a soul ever ready to speak up for the masses, those who lived on the fringes of society. In the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan's Bengalis formed the core of that group of have-nots, people who needed to have their identity firmly etched on the consciousness of the country as a whole. And Bhashani, since his foray into the realm of politics in the 1920s, had made it a point to embarrass the powerful and the arrogant with his clear determination to be a voice for the deprived and the disenfranchised. His activism in the movement for Pakistan was grounded on the belief that it would afford Bengali Muslims an opportunity to expand their horizons in a refreshing new ambience. When that dream began to sour, owing largely to the stupor and arrogance of the ruling Muslim League post-1947, he swiftly joined the bandwagon that would give shape to Pakistan's first political opposition, the Awami Muslim League. That was in June 1949 and Bhashani took charge as the first president of the party. A few years down the line, it was again Bhashani and his friends who decided that politics needed to be given a secular mooring. The solution was quickly and happily arrived at: the Awami Muslim League graduated to being the Awami League in 1955.
There was restlessness of an inspirational sort in Moulana Bhashani. He was never one to rest complacent; and his entire career in politics is proof of how consciously and purposefully he stayed clear of the entrapment of political power. It was always at the grassroots that he kept himself. When he thought that Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was pushing the Awami League into a clear pro-American camp in the later 1950s, he knew what he would do. At Kagmari in February 1957, he bade farewell to the Awami League and gathered his followers into a new organization he called the National Awami Party. At Kagmari he did something else: he warned the state of Pakistan that unless it began to fulfill the aspirations of all its people, it would find Bengalis waving it off with an assalam o alaikum. That was a brave act. And it was the very first hint of what could happen in the country if Pakistan did not sit up and take notice in good time. Obviously, such attitudes did not go down well with the ruling circles in Pakistan, a point made rudely clear by General Iskandar Mirza when he served the crude warning that Bhashani would be shot like a dog. With history being a matter of irony at some of its pivotal turning points, it was not surprising that Mirza went into oblivion and Bhashani lived on, to fight many more battles.
Yes, there was too an eccentric side to the Bhashani persona. He refused, along with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to be part of the round table conference in Rawalpindi in February-March 1969. In 1963, he proffered the advice that Ayub Khan should not be disturbed, probably on the basis of his leftist-oriented belief that the dictator was then busy forging links with China. In December 1970, only days before the general elections, he announced his party's withdrawal from the vote. More tellingly, he announced on the day the 'independence' of East Pakistan. His fondness for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was enduring, though he would remind Bengalis at nearly every public rally of his that Mujib had been one of the secretaries who had worked under him in the Awami League. Like so many others, he was vocal against the imposition of the Baksal system in January 1975. And yet that did not stop him from going out of his way to welcome Bangabandhu to Santosh in March of that year. His weekly newspaper Haq Katha, in the early 1970s, became a conduit for the expression of dissent. He spared no one.
And yet the Red Moulana, as he was often referred to, would not be averse to rekindling communal politics in secular Bangladesh through his invocation of a Muslim Bangla. He once told a public rally in 1974 that the country was facing a food crisis because the minister for food was a Hindu. It was an insult hurled at the eminently respectable Phani Bhushan Majumdar. And it did not do Bhashani any good. The contradictions in him persisted. He welcomed the bloody coup d'etat which felled Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975, unable to foresee the ramifications of the tragedy.
Moulana Bhashani remains a point of reference in Bangladesh's history because of his refusal to go along with the status quo, before as well as after 1971. His role in the War of Liberation remains admirable. He did not go to power, did not seek power and yet wielded power through his moral presence on the political stage. His kind, warts and all, have now gone the way of all flesh. And we are the poorer for their passing.
Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani died on November 17, 1976.